Fewer Detroit water customers at risk of shutoffs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Brandon Thomas of Detroit gets assistance in paying his water bill during a customer assistance day at Eastern Market Shed 3 in Detroit.

Detroit — The city's water department is seeing a dramatic decline in the number of residential accounts being targeted for shutoff, water officials say.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department this month resumed its controversial campaign to turn off water for delinquent customers, and 5,600 residential customers are at risk.

But the water department contends about 56% of those who received warning of the impending shutoffs last month sought assistance right away — and the overall number is about one third of what it was this time last spring when the department reported about 17,000 faced shutoffs. The average residential arrearage is $750.

"Our goal is to eliminate the shutoffs and not have a need for them," said water department Director Gary Brown, noting that over the next six months, he hopes to reduce the department's reliance on shutoff contractors and manage the bulk of the city's water shutoffs in-house. 


In an interview with The Detroit News, Brown also noted a 94% collections rate, up from 77% in 2016. That's resulted in about $65 million in additional revenue, he said, to rebuild Detroit's aging mains and sewer lines, repair buildings and purchase new equipment. 

The department, he said, also intends in the coming months to hire about 50 Detroiters for the bulk of future shutoffs and ongoing infrastructure projects. 

"But more importantly, as it relates to affordability, it's $65 million we're not passing on to customers in bad debt in next year's rates," said Brown, adding only 6 percent of the department's 175,000 residential customers "are having issues" with paying their bills.

Sylvia Orduño, an activist with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said spring is a tense time for the city's most vulnerable as residential shutoffs resume. 

"We know that this is always going to be the worst time of the year for people who now have these accumulated bills," she said. "People start to get scared, and they are on the lookout for these trucks. They know what it means. It's just really devastating."

The shutoff campaign for delinquent accounts first began amid Detroit's financial crisis, and it's drawn criticism from activists and groups across the nation that have called for an affordability plan and moratorium. 

The number of water customers at risk may be lower than last year, Orduño said, but that's not because fewer people are falling behind. They've just fallen off the water department's grid after losing service, she contends.

"You are not a customer if your water is shutoff," she said. "If you're not eligible (for assistance) or can't come up with the monies they require, you are not going to get restored."

Detroit Water and Sewage Department Director Gary Brown talks about assistance programs and water service interruptions during a customer assistance day on Wednesday in Detroit.

DWSD says customers with past due balances get a bill notice and, if they cannot pay, are offered the chance to enroll in payment plans. This spring, the department is also mailing out postcards to residential customers who have overdue bills to detail the assistance offerings, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the department. 

"We take extraordinary and unusual steps for a water utility to outreach to customers which is why we are seeing improvement in the number of at-risk households," he said.

Last spring, there were 17,461 households vulnerable to a water service interruption. The year prior, the total was just under 18,000, and 23,047 were at risk in April 2016, according to past figures provided by the water department. 

DWSD turned off 17,689 residential water accounts over unpaid bills in 2017, and about 28,000 in 2016. 

For 2018, the water department released a four-month snapshot that recorded 11,372 shutoffs between May and September. The figures reflect only service interruptions for nonpayment.

Advocacy groups have long called for a moratorium on shutoffs in Detroit until a true affordability plan can be forged.

Brown has rejected that idea, saying it's "unfair for the working poor that are paying their bills every day to have to pay more because their neighbor, who can afford to pay, is not."

But Orduño said that sentiment is "insulting."

"It's mean, but it's also wrong to at the same time to say that everyone doesn't want to pay their bills," she 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.

Wayne County residents sit down with customer service representatives during a customer assistance day at Eastern Market Shed 3, in Detroit, April 10, 2019.

WRAP is designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150% 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 he's working on a proposal that would ask the water authority board to double the annual contribution to WRAP from $4.4 million to $8.8 million. Brown is hoping to present it to the full board within the next 30 days. 

"Make no mistake about it, it's not just Detroit having affordability issues. It's Hamtramck, Highland Park and Macomb County," he said. "It isn't charity, it's a good business decision to be able to provide assistance."

The water department has a partnership with Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency to administer the program. About $8.1 million has been committed since March 2016 to WRAP that the water department said has aided about 10,100 households.

Brandon Thomas got a water shutoff notice at his west side rental home on Tuesday. 

Thomas, 32, said he's been out of work for a few months and racked up an overdue balance of $1,400. On Wednesday, he turned up at a customer assistance event at Eastern Market put on by various agencies in partnership with DTE Energy Co.

"You shouldn't have to go through nothing like this," Thomas said Wednesday after consulting with water department customer service staff and waiting to see if he qualified for assistance. 

Later, he was able to get an appointment to be serviced through WRAP. 

"They already canceled the shutoff," Thomas said. "I feel great about it. I was smiling when I left."

Orduño, however, said that the program for many isn't sustainable, or doesn't help them avoid losing service. 

The program, she said, "doesn't work for people," and leaves them in a "constant cycle" of having their water turned on and off.