Sheffield focuses on laws to secure jobs, affordable water for Detroiters

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield said Monday that she's "taking a stance" for the people of Detroit with a focus on laws to put more residents to work, make water affordable and ensure surveillance technology is transparent.

Sheffield laid out what lies ahead while touting her legislative effort a year after announcing plans for "The People's Bills," a set of ordinances aimed at addressing inequities in housing, jobs and other quality-of-life concerns.

City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield introduced a series of legislation she calls the "People's Bills"  last year that seek to shrink the socio-economic disparities in the city of Detroit.

Among her efforts so far, Sheffield co-sponsored an ordinance approved this summer that provides an early payment discount for parking fines for Detroit residents and worked to establish an initiative that makes it easier for residents to qualify for property tax exemptions and the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance. The housing law includes a dedicated fund to address the needs of low-income residents and shortfalls in home repair grant funding for seniors. The fund has secured $3.6 million in the current fiscal year and at least $2.5 million for 2020. 

"I am excited about the work that we collectively have been able to accomplish thus far," Sheffield said after a morning press conference. "I look forward to the fight that's ahead of us to continue to approve these bills."

Sheffield's legislation to regulate the use of surveillance technology in Detroit is being studied in a council subcommittee and could be voted on in the coming weeks. 

The policy follows months of controversy over the use of facial recognition software by Detroit police. The city's Board of Police Commissioners this month approved a policy for use of the technology that's been employed by the police department for a year-and-a-half.

The Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance, Sheffield said, is "not anti-surveillance," but it does lay out a transparent process to educate the community and allow for public input before new technology is acquired or used. 

Sheffield said the policy seeks to "ensure Detroiters are not subjected to undue infringement of their privacy or civil liberties."

Meantime, a draft is being finalized for a 51% Local Hiring Ordinance, which would apply to city funded construction projects, including road, water and sewer and demolition work over $500,000. Contractors who fail to comply would pay into the city's Workforce Training Fund. 

Sheffield noted Monday that the continued pursuit of a water affordability plan is the "most crucial" bill. 

Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and long-time advocate for water affordability, was among those who spoke alongside Sheffield on Monday.

Orduno said water affordability is part of a "larger package of problems that residents in the city are experiencing."

"She's trying to bring about new energy and attention on the issues, which are much-needed," Orduno said of Sheffield. 

It was five years ago, she said, when United Nations experts called on Detroit to end water shutoffs. The city averaged roughly 3,000 shutoffs per month in 2015, which city officials said were aimed at getting more residents into assistance plans and improving the inefficient billing system. 

Sheffield's office has collaborated with community groups on a proposed "Water For All Discount Program." The effort, she said, is based on research that says an affordability plan should have no more than 3% of a qualifying household's income going toward their water and sewerage bill. 

"The discount would be treated as bad debt," said Sheffield, adding the measure is being reviewed by a working group. The move would "effectively avoid legal challenges."

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, in a Monday statement, said it's "committed to addressing water access and affordability challenges."

"The trend nationally is toward income-based rate structures for low-income households, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established an internal team to work on revising the agency’s various guidance documents and policy statements on affordability, which may aid a legal defense to income-based programs," the statement said.

DWSD has been able to keep rate increases low since 2016 by improving collections and reducing the bad-debt expense.

An important part of the water affordability discussion is DWSD’s need to recover the cost of service to pay for full lead service line replacement as now required by the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule, costing an estimated $40 million annually in Detroit.

Other bills noted by Sheffield would change and create new Neighborhood Enterprise Zones, which provide tax breaks to residents in defined areas, and amendments to strengthen the city's Community Benefits Ordinance including a lower investment threshold to trigger the benefits and requiring more meetings between individual developers and impacted communities.