City Council calls for ban on Detroit residential water shutoffs

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — City Council on Tuesday unanimously supported a resolution urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and city and county leaders to direct their representatives to ban residential shutoffs against low-income residents.

The resolution comes a day after Mayor Mike Duggan announced discounted water rates for residents whose water is shut off or who have pending cutoffs amid the coronavirus outbreak. One of the main preventive measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is frequent handwashing.

Detroit City Council Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield

But Detroit, which has received national attention for shutting off the water supplies of tens of thousands because of nonpayment of bills, needs a permanent solution, says President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield, who wrote the resolution calling for the moratorium until an income-based rate structure is passed.

"With the recent announcement, that’s a temporary fix," Sheffield told The Detroit News. "It doesn’t affect the systemic problem of shutoffs in Detroit. Once the coronavirus crisis dies down, then what? People who don’t have access to water in my opinion based on the research I've seen is still a threat for public health issues."

The resolution implores Whitmer, Duggan and the county executives of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne to direct their six representatives on the board of the Great Lakes Water Authority, the metro area's governing water provider, to place a moratorium on water shutoffs until a water affordability plan tying water rates to the income of residents living in poverty is passed "to avoid further human rights violations and the inevitability of severe adverse consequences on public health."

Similar measures to implement income-based rates, however, have faced issues with the Michigan constitution in the past. Sheffield says she wants the shutoffs in place until that can be resolved.

The council's resolution comes ahead of a Great Lakes Water Authority meeting on Wednesday when the board will discuss doubling allocation to the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, to $5 million. More than 12,000 Detroiters are enrolled in the program that provides annual rate assistance up to $300 per household and other benefits.

The recommendations to the authority also would increase the eligibility of WRAP to households making at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, up from the current 150%. The move would make a family of four earning up to $50,000 per year eligible for the water assistance program, Detroit Water Department Director Gary Brown previously said.

"We support Detroit’s efforts to support their $2.5 million increase that would be funded by Detroit residents," said Brian Baker, who represents Macomb County on the board and to whom County Executive Mark Hackel referred. "But as far as the GLWA, we believe water shutoffs is a local Detroit issue. That is up to them how they want to collect or charge their customers if they want to change how they do it."

In response to the coronavirus, Duggan said starting Wednesday eligible residents can sign up to pay $25 a month for water service for as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. The first month's payment of $25 will be covered by the state after a resident signs up.

(From left) Gary Brown, Director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Denise Fair, Chief Public Health Officer of the Detroit Health Department, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hold a press conference at the Detroit Water and Sewerage department, March 9, 2020.

Duggan, however, said he is opposed to a temporary halt in service shutoffs. In Chicago, water bill collections dropped by $20 million month-over-month after it banned cutoffs, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last week.

The relief plan announced Monday lets any Detroit Water and Sewerage Department "customer without service today have their water turned on or to cancel a planned shut off," John Roach, spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement.

Representatives for Whitmer and Oakland and Wayne counties did not immediately have comment.

Detroit gained national attention during its bankruptcy in 2014 for shutting off water to 33,000 homes for unpaid bills. 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 in February.

Sheffield added that with Councilwoman Racquel Castañeda-López she will submit an ordinance on Wednesday to prevent water shutoffs for pregnant women, senior citizens and households with children as well as during a public health crisis or epidemic such as the current coronavirus outbreak, Sheffield said.

The council's resolution is not as extreme as Sheffield had indicated in February when she said her office was drafting a measure to ask Whitmer to declare a public health crisis in Detroit because of the shutoffs.

Sheffield said she decided to take a different avenue to obtain the moratorium after an attorney for Whitmer last month said there is "insufficient data" to support a state-level moratorium on water shutoffs for the city's poor.

"The goal is to get to the end result to end the water shutoffs," Sheffield said. "We decided to scale it back, though we very much so still believe there is more than sufficient data to support it being a public health crisis."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble