Detroit water aid program fully funded, director says

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The director of the city’s water department on Thursday disputed claims that an assistance fund for low-income Detroit water customers has run short on cash.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown said the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, got its annual allotment of $1.3 million for Detroiters at the start of the fiscal year on July 1 and another $1 million collected by the city water department is expected to bolster that pot.

“This program is fully funded, and they are taking appointments now,” Brown told The Detroit News. “There are going to be no delays.”

Brown’s comments come amid apparent confusion over availability of funds for Detroit customers seeking enrollment in WRAP, created as a component of the regional Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s historic bankruptcy.

Earlier Thursday, a representative for Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, the group administering WRAP in conjunction with water department, said it had stopped accepting new appointments Aug. 1 for Detroit customers. The agency believed all available dollars for Detroit residents would have been committed by Aug. 31, said Mia Cupp, a spokeswoman for Wayne Metro.

In a later email, Cupp confirmed enrollments are being accepted again.

Officials followed up with a Thursday afternoon news conference at the water department offices.

Louis Piszker, Wayne Metro’s CEO, told reporters the organization has 50 staff daily working on the program and stressed “we have continually enrolled needy individuals and families.”

The agency, he said, has been working to get through a list of 5,500 potential WRAP clients. They intend to get through the backlog by the end of the month.

“We had a tremendous amount of demand, and we were not ready for the demand. We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We are taking new applications and new enrollments currently. That started pretty much today.”

The $4.5 million fund is designed to serve low-income customers throughout the region who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — which equates to $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.

Wayne Metro is seeing 400 to 500 clients per week and has bookings through the end of the month, Cupp said. The agency had been telling those seeking new appointments to check back in October and was connecting them with DWSD to seek help through a separate assistance program offered by the city.

Later Thursday, Piszker said customers who were told to try back in October can call again now.

Under WRAP, about $1.2 million is committed each year for Detroit customers and the other dollars are distributed among other counties. Additionally, Wayne Metro had committed $1 million of its own to Detroit’s water assistance program and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund came to the table with $240,000, Cupp said.

On Wednesday, water department officials said 2,081 Detroit households are enrolled in WRAP, which was launched in March. Customers can be taken out of WRAP if they fail to make two payments.

Brown said Thursday “a very small percentage” have been removed from the program for payment failure. But they can seek help through the city’s assistance program.

Last month, officials said the program had a backlog of 2,500 to 3,000 customers waiting to enroll. A number of others had missed one or two payments that officials said resulted from confusion, forgetfulness and financial strain, among other things.

Brown had told Wayne Metro to process 500 enrollments a week. Wednesday, he said they’d been meeting the commitment.

The assistance program was launched nearly two years after the water department initiated a shut-off campaign for unpaid commercial and residential water accounts to crack down on widespread delinquencies amid the city’s financial crisis.

For Detroit, the average citywide arrears is $663 and average monthly payment is $75, Brown said.

In WRAP, the average Detroit customer can get $25 per month toward his or her total bill.

If payments are made on time for six months, half of that customer’s arrears — up to $350 — will be forgiven. If he or she continues to meet the payment schedule over another six months, the remaining arrearages — up to $350 — are credited.