About 9,000 in Detroit at-risk for water shut-offs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the last few weeks, Detroit has cut the nearly 18,000 residential water customers vulnerable to shut-offs in half, the head of the city’s water department said.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown on Tuesday provided the update to Detroit’s City Council during a lengthy discussion on city water issues involving activists and city pastors at the start of its formal session.

“Within the last three weeks, we went from 18,000 eligible for shut-off to 9,000 because people got into payment plans to avoid being shut off,” Brown said.

The water department began disconnecting some accounts last month for customers who had received a final 10-day notice. At the time, 17,995 households were at risk of having their water turned off. But residents who contacted the department prior to their scheduled shut-offs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan were able to avoid it.

Tuesday, Brown said fewer than 10,000 residential accounts remain eligible for cutoff. The most recent water department data this month shows about 9,915 are still at-risk. Most, he expects, will get into payment plans and maintain their service.

“As long as you come in and ask for assistance, you won’t get shut-off,” he said Tuesday. “We are in the business of expanding our customer base, not cutting people off. We want every single customer to having a path to having water.”

Brown on Tuesday could not cite specifics on the number of accounts that have turned off. Last month, he told council about 400 were disconnected over about a week after the program to cutoff delinquent accounts resumed this spring. But 90 percent of those, he said, had been restored within 24 hours.

In March 2015, Detroit launched its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as part of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy.

The program was created nearly two years after the water department initiated a controversial shut-off campaign for widespread unpaid commercial and residential water accounts amid its financial crisis.

WRAP is designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties 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.

Brown said close to 6,000 Detroit households are enrolled in the program and the retention rate is 90 percent. Water officials on Tuesday said the department in recent weeks is boosting the number of eligible enrollees from 20 per day to 40.

Overall, the number of delinquent accounts is down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to water department figures. In April 2014, 40,000 were eligible for shut-off.

Even so, District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said she’s concerned for the customers “truly in need” who are trying to get into the water assistance program but “can’t afford to make those down payments.”

Brown contends the program is among the most comprehensive and generous in the country for a utility, but he agreed more should be done.

“Every single day, we are trying to find additional ways in which to lower the price of water so it is affordable to every customer,” he said.

Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents District 6, noted Tuesday that council is working on drafting legislation that would prevent shut offs in households with vulnerable populations, including expectant mothers, children under 18, seniors and those with a disabilities. The proposal is under review by the city’s law department, she said.