17K at risk as Detroit eyes May water shut-offs

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than 17,000 residential customers in the city are at risk of having their water shut off because of delinquent bills, city officials say.

The Water and Sewerage Department plans to begin visiting homes on May 1 with door hangers warning of shut-offs if those customers don’t take steps to resolve their outstanding water bills.

Gary Brown, director of the water department, said customers will have seven days to respond to the notice before crews can disconnect their water service.

Brown said he expects to shut off water at 2,000 of the homes at risk because 90 percent typically respond before it comes to that. Those shutoffs will happen between May and December. The water department provides three notices and a door hanger warning for households at risk of a shut-off, Brown said.

There are 17,461 households vulnerable to a water service interruption.

“The message we are trying to get out is come in and avoid the service interruption,” said Brown, who notes most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours.

Last April, there were 17,995 customers at risk of water shut-offs, a figure that dropped to 9,916 by May and 3,194 by July, according to the water department. In April 2016, 23,047 households were at risk.

Officials say the water department turned off 17,689 residential water accounts for delinquency in 2017 and about 28,000 in 2016.

Brown said the city offers payment plans for customers as well as the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy.

The fund has allocated $7.1 million since it launched in 2016, Brown said.

The water department began residential and commercial shut-offs in 2014 in an attempt to crack down on widespread delinquencies amid the city's financial crisis. The move prompted criticism from the United Nations, celebrities and others.

Meeko Williams, chief director of Hydrate Detroit — a nonprofit that provides water deliveries and help with water restoration for families in Detroit — said the city is not doing enough to help families who can’t afford their water bills. Williams said he wants to see the city adopt a water affordability plan so residents living in poverty can pay a fixed rate.

“We are not talking about we want free water,” Williams said. “The water department is using this campaign to demonize poor people. (Brown) is putting the public health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

Detroit resident Charlie Presley, 52, said some senior citizens or families on public assistance fall behind because the water bill is due before they receive their monthly checks. The sewage costs also make it hard for residents to afford their bills, Presley said.

“Maybe their process needs to be updated,” Presley said of the city’s options for customers at risk of water shut-offs. “They say they are (providing help), but evidently it’s still a problem. So it’s their fault.”

The WRAP program 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 is $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 WRAP has a partnership with Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which offers services such as financial management programs and sends plumbers to homes to check for leaks. Water leaks, Brown said, are a leading cause of high water bills.

There are currently about 12,000 customers on payments plans with the city and another 4,500 in the WRAP program, officials say.

The water department also has rolled out options in the last year to make payments easier for customers. There are now kiosks at the department headquarters downtown and at stores such as Rite Aid across the city that allow customers to pay their bills. Residents can also reserve a spot in line at the customer service care center by visiting a website.

“Every customer has a path not to see a disconnection if they ask for the help,” Brown said. “The real challenge I’m seeing is getting people to ask for help.”

The average outstanding bill for a customer subject to shut off is $663. However, most Detroit customers should see an average monthly bill of $75, Brown said.

Brown said he takes every route possible to prevent shut-offs because disconnecting and reconnecting a customer’s water service can be costly.

Last year, the department spent about $3 million on water shut-offs, he said.

“I’d rather them come in and get on a plan than spend money to have them shut off which isn’t helping them or me,” Brown said. “My crews could be doing something else.”

Twitter: @NicquelTerry

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