Detroit council prepares to ask Whitmer to declare health crisis over water shutoffs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City officials are drafting a measure to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a public health crisis in Detroit and stop water shutoffs for poverty-stricken residents.

The city council's legal staff, at the direction of President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, is preparing a resolution to urge the governor to take action, saying the controversial practice of terminating water service to thousands of Detroit residents "poses an imminent danger to public health."

Detroit City Council Pro Tem Mary Sheffield.

A separate measure will ask the city and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to institute a moratorium on shutoffs until there's agreement on a long-debated ordinance for water affordability.

Sheffield said affordability discussions have been ongoing for years without a resolution and "people are fed up now."

"All of the water rights advocates are demanding that we submit and pass a resolution urging the governor to declare a crisis," said Sheffield, adding the declaration of a state of emergency could trigger funding to help. 

"We have a governor that is willing, I believe, to address the issue," she said. "The timing is right."

The effort would mark the latest call for a public health declaration to aid the poor in Detroit after water rights advocates and a group of attorneys made similar pleas in recent years.  

The city gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies was implemented amid Detroit's financial crisis.

Last year, the city shut off water to 23,000 residential accounts. By the final day of the year, 12,500 had not been restored. Of those, 3,000 were turned back on in the first two weeks of 2020, and 5,400 others showed no signs of usage in 2019, according to water department figures provided Tuesday. 

Sheffield said she expects the council to vote on the resolutions within the next two weeks. 

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said late Tuesday that the governor's office does not want to speculate on a potential resolution from the city. If and when the governor's office receives it, it will be reviewed, she said. 

Meanwhile, the city's water department is taking steps toward expanding eligibility for its regional assistance program and double the pot of money for customers at risk of shutoff.

Detroit Water Department Director Gary Brown.

Detroit Water Department Director Gary Brown on Tuesday told The Detroit News that he's asking the council to approve a resolution that will allow the Great Lakes Water Authority, the Metro area's governing water provider, to vote on increasing the allocation for its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, "doubling the dollars available for those in need" in Detroit. 

Under a deal reached during Detroit's bankruptcy, the water authority is leasing the city's water and sewer system for $50 million per year. As part of the agreement, it also provides the assistance fund for struggling customers. 

The changes would increase the WRAP allocation for Detroit from about $2.4 million to $5 million annually. The program launched in March 2016 and has helped 16,000 people with their water bills, Brown said. 

Brown said he's also planning to ask the water authority board to broaden eligibility, by allowing those at 200% of the federal poverty level to take advantage of the assistance fund. The move, he said, would make a family of four earning up to $50,000 per year eligible for the water assistance program. 

"There is no Detroiter that should be seeing a service interruption if they ask for help," said Brown, who hopes to have the changes in place by July 1. "The hard part is getting people to come in and ask for the help before a service interruption."

The water department has 226,404 active residential accounts and close to 94% of its customer base has accounts in good standing as of Jan. 31, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for DWSD.

Currently, about 6% of the residential accounts are delinquent, but not all are at risk for service interruption. Water customers are considered delinquent if they are 60 days behind and owe $150. Customers are at risk of shutoff if unpaid balances reach $750, water officials have said. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks before the Detroit Economic Club at TCF Center in Detroit.

Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said advocates have spent 15 years working to get a water plan in Detroit based on a customer's ability to pay. 

Since taking office, Whitmer, a Democrat, has put a focus on environmental issues, including efforts to protect the Great Lakes and ensure Michigan's drinking water is safe.

"We're taking her up on her word of trying to figure out how we can ensure water is clean and affordable and address this in the emergency way it is," Orduno said. "We have to stop the trend right now and act responsibly and turn on water where it's been shut off."

Orduno added the need is acute amid a recent Hepatitis A outbreak in the region and nationwide worry over the spread of the new coronavirus. 

"You've got to be able to wash your hands and protect yourself from others who are ill," she said. 

Brown argues he's not seen enough data to support an emergency declaration from Whitmer and said the concept needs to be rethought. Sheffield, meanwhile, maintains there has been adequate independent research linking shutoffs with health issues and the situation truly is a crisis. 

"I'll wait until I see the resolution that gets approved to comment on the viability of it," Brown said. "But right now, we would like to go down the road of making sure assistance is available for every customer that needs it."

Detroit Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair.

In a Tuesday statement to The News, Denise Fair, Detroit's chief public health officer, said the city's health department "has found no association between service interruptions and an epidemic of any reportable communicable disease."

"We encourage any Detroiter at risk of service interruption to contact the water department immediately to get connected to programs that can assist," Fair said. 

A panel of health experts in 2017 called for a declaration of a public health emergency in Detroit and accused city health officials of ignoring a study that linked water shutoffs and water-related illnesses. The study's author, at the time, stressed more research was needed and took issue with the study being used for "political purposes."

Brown cautioned that actions should be weighed carefully. The water authority pays the city $50 million a year to lease its water assets and in the agreement has the power to take over finances and collection "if we're not bringing in the dollars necessary to support the system."

"We have to be very careful about talking about not having shutoffs," he said. "There's not a city in this country that I know of that does not use it as a tool."

Brown said over the last six years, the water department has reduced the number of shutoffs by about 80% and warned that if the council proposal does go through, it would create a hardship for the 94% of residential water customers that do pay bills on time.

Those customers, he contends, would see bills in the $300 to $400 range, up from the current average of $75 per month and water rates "would inevitably go up for everybody."

The potential increases, officials said, are based on prior cost impact estimates from the department and city leadership of eliminating service interruptions as a collection tool.

The ACLU filed a petition last summer on behalf of a group of attorneys asking the state Department of Health and Human Services to declare a health emergency and ban Detroit's service interruptions. 

The petition argued the shutoffs could lead to water-borne epidemics and harm the sick and young children. But the state found that while challenges faced by those shut off are significant, "they don't rise to the level of an imminent danger" under the public health code. 

The ACLU in November made its case to Whitmer directly, asking her to impose a moratorium on further shutoffs and lend her voice to the call for a water affordability plan, said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan.

They have not yet received a formal response, he said. 

"The buck stops with the governor," Fancher said. "If the city won't take care of it then state government needs to step in."

Fancher said there are thousands of households with residents who are diabetic or caring for infants and collecting rainwater or garbage cans full of snow to get water.

"Even though households without water is not as dramatic as a hurricane or tornado, the crisis is no less severe," he said. "People are being left without the necessities of life, suffering quietly in their house."