Detroiters rush in payments to beat water shutoffs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — William Gray forked over $400 to the city’s water department on Tuesday, an outstanding balance he said had him facing shutoff.

The 61-year-old was one of dozens lined up at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s west side customer service center on Grand River, hoping to make good on past-due water bills or join an assistance plan.

The department on Tuesday officially began cutting off service to customers who haven’t paid their water bills. By late Tuesday, more than 500 residential accounts had been turned off, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a DWSD spokesman.

Gray said his home was tagged with a shutoff notice on Saturday. His mother, who formerly lived in his home, once had an outstanding balance of more than $1,500 and he’d been on a payment plan for more than a year to bring it down. The last couple of months, he said, he fell behind.

“Now, I’ve paid it off,” said Gray, a retiree who is disabled and on a fixed-income. “I surrendered in other words. Let’s call it a surrender because that’s what it was.”

DWSD officials have estimated about 20,000 of its customers have defaulted on payments and are subject to shutoff. But with the volume of payments — and average of four every minute over the past two days — the department expects the number will change.

Peckinpaugh said the department was receiving about 260 phone calls per hour on Tuesday and more than 750 customers visited its three service centers to pay bills in-full or get into assistance programs.

Flisa Neavins visited the west side center twice since Friday to try to get into a payment plan for her unpaid balance and avoid shutoff.

The long-time renter has proof she resides in her home on Evergreen but hasn’t yet been able to coordinate with her out-of-state landlord to get the bill listed under her name, a new requirement to get into an assistance plan.

She paid $400 Tuesday toward her more than $1,000 balance but said she still could have her water cut off.

“They will take your money, but won’t let you sit down and make arrangements,” said Neavins, 50. “That’s not right.”

The policy went into effect on April 4 and requires new account holders to provide government-issued identification, proof of ownership or a valid lease, and asks landlords to register their properties with the city’s building department, among other things.

The new policy only affects new customers and existing customers starting service at a new address; also, individuals seeking to join a payment plan because they must get their names on the bills to ensure they are a responsible party.

Peckinpaugh said most of the department’s customers are not affected by the new rules but the department is working with those who are.

About 155,000 of DWSD’s 175,000 residential account holders are current on bills or in payment plans. The average monthly bill is about $75.

Shutoffs were initially scheduled to begin on Monday, but the water department’s director, Gary Brown, pushed the process back a day.

Earlier this year, the department went after commercial accounts, collecting more than $1.7 million in past due payments.

DWSD expects that several hundred shutoffs will be taking place each day. The process is not block-by-block or hand picked by the department. Rather, it’s selected by DWSD’s billing system based on days past due and amounts, Peckinpaugh said.

Officials have said the department isn’t targeting customers who owe less than a $150 and are only a couple of months behind.

“Typically, it will go for the most days and the highest amounts first,” he said.

Peckinpaugh added as soon as bills are paid at a DWSD service center, residents are pulled from the shutoff list. If individuals are shutoff Tuesday, they can come in and pay and have service restored within 24 hours, he said.

The water department began residential and commercial shutoffs in 2014 in an attempt to crackdown on widespread delinquencies amid the city’s financial crisis. The move prompted criticism from the United Nations, celebrities and others. The city administration later rolled out an assistance program to help low-income residents.

There are a variety of assistance programs for low-income residents right now, including the Detroit Water Fund, an effort rolled out by the Duggan administration last summer after the city and water department faced national criticism over widespread residential shut-offs.

Customers who are having trouble paying their water bills are being asked to contact DWSD to enroll in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan.

Under the WRAP Fund, customers who are at 150 percent of the poverty level or below can get up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage.

The program is being administered by the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which has doubled its staff to offer 500 Detroit residents one-on-one appointments each week. That’s up from about 200 to 250 appointments, Peckinpaugh said.

Separately, in the “10/30/50” plan, customers pay a minimum of 10 percent of their past due amount, with the remaining amount to be paid over 12 to 24 months.

About 30,000 of the department’s residential and commercial customers are on payment plans.

James Ware, 46, was formerly on a plan to pay his water bill. He said the process wasn’t hard to follow, he just “didn’t stick to it.” He paid $900 on Tuesday to get current and keep his water on.

“I just went in and paid the bill,” he said. “The system was OK. Once you get in, everything just starts rolling.”

DWSD service centers

Eastside Customer Care Center: 13303 E. McNichols; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, closed Saturday

Downtown Customer Care Center - Water Board Building: 735 Randolph; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Westside Customer Care Center: 15600 Grand River; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, closed Saturday