Water shutoffs can resume in Michigan, but communities in no rush

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — This is no joke: Starting Thursday, communities in Michigan can resume water shutoffs for non-payment. 

But will they during a pandemic? Not in several of Michigan's largest communities.

In Detroit, Michigan's largest city, the moratorium goes on. Weeks before state lawmakers created the three-month moratorium, Detroit announced one of its own through 2022, with intentions that shutoffs will never resume. 

“My goal now is to stop water shutoffs to low-income Detroiters once and for all,” Mayor Mike Duggan said at the time. “We have secured the funding necessary to continue this effort through 2022 and we are building a coalition to make this permanent.”

December:Detroit extends water shutoff moratorium through 2022

The Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner's Office provides water and sewer service to about 70,000 homes and businesses in 14 communities. The moratorium in Michigans' second most populous county will continue.

"For at least the foreseeable future, we're not going to have any shutoffs as we figure out a new way of doing this," said Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.

The office is working on an affordability effort for customers in Pontiac and Royal Oak Township, which have high poverty rates, Nash said.

Water systems don't typically have information on customers' individual finances, Nash said. It's when payments start to be missed that the office will reach out.

"We intervene when people first have an issue with the payment," Nash said.

Unpaid water bills turn into liens on people's homes, he said. Small leaks, left unfixed, can result in high water bills and overuse of the drain system.

"We would rather send out a plumber than have the problem just go on," Nash said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority provides water to 112 communities serving 3.8 million people in the greater Detroit area and beyond, according to its website. A spokeswoman for the provider said each community will make its own water shutoff decisions. 

One of those communities is Flint, where the shutoff moratorium will continue for residential customers.

“Understanding that the pandemic numbers are still high, we will not leave people defenseless,” Mayor Sheldon Neeley said in a statement to The News. Flint's lead contamination water crisis was the subject of a $641 million settlement.

The city said it would step up enforcement and shutoff efforts against "habitually delinquent commercial water customers."

Still, the city urges people to pay their water bills if able.

"Even during a water moratorium, all residents remain responsible for and financially liable for all fees incurred on their water bills," the city said in its statement.

Dearborn, Wayne County's largest suburb, has a longstanding policy against shutting off water to occupied homes, said spokeswoman Mary Laundroche. It didn't shut off water service before the moratorium and won't now, not if the home has residents.

"We do not turn water off," Laundroche said. "We want to make Dearborn safe for all people who live here. Nothing is going to change for us."

Livonia also doesn't shut off water for non-payment. Shutoffs only happen in the event someone tries to deny the city access to meters.

"We will continue to work with residents and our water and sewer board to provide flexible payment plans for outstanding bills on a case-by-case basis as the city did throughout the pandemic, knowing the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to affect our community," said Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan.

That means Wayne County's three largest communities do not shut off water for non-payment.

Macomb County's most populous city, Warren, hasn't made a decision yet, said Mayor Jim Fouts.

"I'm always reluctant to cut off people's water, especially when we're still in a pandemic," Fouts said. 

The mayor noted the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic.

"COVID-19 has kept people out of work, and people who are working are having their hours cut," Fouts said.

Lansing, Michigan's capital city, will not immediately resume shutoffs.

Instead, the city's publicly owned utility that provides water to Lansing and surrounding communities will voluntarily extend the shutoff moratorium "until at least July," the Lansing Board of Water & Light announced Wednesday.

The Michigan Legislature is on a two-week break. Any additional moratorium would have to be a new effort by lawmakers.

A week before the moratorium expired, State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, introduced a bill that would create a moratorium through June 30. It was referred to the Committee on Environmental Quality. Since the Republican-led Legislature let the moratorium expire, the fate of Chang's bill is uncertain. 

In a statement to The News, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said: “It appears that the Legislature doesn't have any intentions of extending the previous law in place. Additionally, the Legislature has not fully appropriated rental assistance dollars to include funding for utility assistance for families renting a residence."

Last week, Whitmer vetoed nearly $652 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for business tax relief, Michigan's unemployment fund and private schools. The Legislature wants to condition those funds on a rollback of the state health department's emergency powers.

Last week:Whitmer vetoes $652M in federal COVID relief a second time

Whitmer said the state's water utility assistance program has helped 70,000-plus households relieve debt from water bills and that her administration is pursuing $65 million in aid for rental assistance and another $70 million to $80 million for utility relief for renters "experiencing financial hardship."

In Washington, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, are pushing for a national moratorium on water shutoffs "at least through the end of the COVID-19 global health pandemic."

The two wrote a letter to President Joe Biden requesting his administration "to take any and all actions within your power to institute a national water shut-off moratorium."