Empty Detroit homes accrue millions in water bills
Sherman Foster makes no excuses. He'd let his water bill go for four months. It was approaching $200.
But the landscaper was shocked when city workers warned his service would be shut off in May. After all, water from the house next door ran for more than two years before it was turned off in the burned out, boarded building on Monica near Fenkell.
Its bill: $25,708.
"How in the world do you allow a bill to build like that? Then to go after me for less than $190?" asked Foster, 52, who paid his $188 bill and avoided a shutoff. "It's totally ludicrous the way Detroit runs its water system."
The empty house on Monica amid the tall weeds and rusty chain fence is one of of 11,600 tax-foreclosed homes with sky-high bills that went up for sale Wednesday at Wayne County's annual auction. The water bills at the homes total $21.5 million. That's an average of $1,600 apiece, while 112 of them have bills of $10,000 or more and 484 have bills of at least $5,000, county data show.
The records likely reflect a fraction of the truly big bills on abandoned homes. The Detroit News was only able to examine the records of homes eligible for the auction after three years of tax delinquencies. Officials at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department denied a Freedom of Information Act request for data on all residential delinquencies, citing privacy.
Water department officials admit they'll probably never collect the debts, which soon could become the problem of a regional authority announced Tuesday to oversee the department.
Foster, meanwhile, is among many questioning the water department's controversial campaign to shut service to delinquent customers. Relaunched this month amid international outcry, the effort has halted water to 19,500 residents this year after an unofficial policy of avoiding shutoffs allowed delinquencies to grow to $89 million.
DeMeeko Williams, a spokesman for one of the group's opposing the shut-offs, said there's no way water bills should be allowed to get so large on empty homes.
"Oh my God. It's horrible. That's all I have to say," said Williams of the Detroit Water Brigade. "The billing practices of the water department are just inept. It shouldn't take months and months to shut off water on abandoned properties."
The delinquencies are among several potential headaches facing an overhauled water department. In exchange for dropping objections to Detroit's bankruptcy, suburban officials agreed to create a regional agency — the Great Lakes Water Authority — that would oversee the department.
Under the agreement, Detroit would receive $50 million for 40 years for system improvements. The deal must be approved by Oct. 10.
Darryl Latimer, the water department's deputy director, said Detroit is already cracking down on uncollectible bills. Policy changes are in the works over the next few months to hold owners more accountable and track them down before debts climb so high, he said.
Latimer blamed the massive bills on abandonment and foreclosure. Residents leave or die. No one tells the water department. Pipes burst or they're broken by scrappers or squatters. Water runs for months before neighbors notice it has seeped outside and call the city, he said.
"If you're not aggressive with shutoffs, people will walk away from properties and they'll get vandalized," Latimer said.
Among thechanges: Sending bills to homeowners and tenants, rather than "occupants." Now, tenants can skip out on bills, leaving debts in abandoned homes. Attaching bills to individuals, rather than addresses, will allow debt collectors to track delinquents, Latimer said.
The switch is coming early next year. The department also is considering limiting the practice of attaching delinquencies to property tax bills that Latimer acknowledges is bringing in far less money than when implemented in 2006.
Tiny house has biggest bill
The biggest bill: $72,579 at a tiny ranch at 9250 Sussex on the northwest side.
The 876-square-foot house has one bathroom. The front door is unlocked and the exterior shows no sign of water leaks. County records show the vast majority of its bill, $68,000, was accrued last year.
That's three years after its owner died. Records identify her as Louise Burton, 64.
"It's just like she left it inside. All her clothes are still in the hangers in her bedroom," said next-door neighbor Emlie Hawkins. "All her people live down South. ... I have no idea how a bill could get that high."
The water bill was current when Burton died in 2009. A year later, it jumped to $150, then doubled in 2011. In 2012, the house rang up a $3,700 bill. Then, water ran around the clock for seven months before it was shut off in April 2013, said Latimer, who suspects a burst pipe.
Like other homes with spikes in usage, the house on Sussex got warning letters before crews turned off service. The letters went unanswered, Latimer said.
There's little chance the city can recoup the debt, he said. Bidders at the tax auction have to pay back taxes and water bills on properties. The small home — and others like it — likely will fall instead to an October auction when debts are waived and bidding starts at $500, Latimer said.
"If you're an (auction bidder) and you see a $68,000 bill, it's worth more than the home," Latimer said. "We are allowing these bills to linger too long."
"We're getting more aggressive in shutting off houses before they get to this point," he added.
The online-only auction that began Wednesday ends Sept. 17-24, depending on the property.
The size of such bills leads Williams and critics such as Ted Phillips to question the department. Williams and Phillips said they've assisted residents who are still receiving water bills after the service was cut off.
"There is a huge issue with legitimacy of these bills," said Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition. "When you challenge them, the city says, 'Well, that's what the meter says.' Well, maybe the meter isn't working."
Latimer said the meters are "100 percent accurate." Starting in 2007, the city began replacing old ones that ran slow and typically only tracked 70 percent of actual water usage, he said.
"The complaints are coming because our meters are more accurate now," Latimer said.
Since the shutoff crackdown began this spring, about 75 percent of those whose water was turned off — about 15,000 customers — have had it restored after setting up payment plans.
Complaints about bills have continued. On Thursday, attorneys for the ACLU and the NAACP who are fighting the shut-offs issued a statement alleging the department also has been passing on six years of uncollected sewage bills — totaling $115 million — to customers. Water and sewerage department officials did not respond late Thursday to requests for comment about the allegation.
Bills grow after debts erased
In home tax foreclosure sales, debts are erased, but those bills can often begin accruing again.
Three miles north on Hartwell near Schaefer, a 1,200-square-foot home with a missing front door has a water bill of $35,135.
Records indicate the home was bought for $1,500 in 2011 at the county auction, wiping out a $7,800 tax debt. The bill has grown again to $46,200, which includes water charges.
"I believe it," said neighbor Lavince Pruitt. "Last winter, someone stole the pipes and water ran out into the street, 2 inches thick. We called (the city) for months and months to do something about it. You couldn't even walk across the street because the ice was so bad."
Back on Monica, Foster said he hopes the burned out home with the $25,708 bill doesn't sell this month so he can bid on it in the October auction, tear it down and build a garage.
Longtime occupants left the home after a small fire about three years ago, said neighbor Jennifer Jackson. City officials first tried to shut off water in April 2011 but were unable to access the lines, Latimer said. They eventually did so in January 2012.
The home was probably salvageable once, Jackson said. Not anymore.
"Why didn't the city come out and take care of the situation years ago?" she asked. "That was a beautiful house. To let it go to waste like that, it's a shame."
Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.
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Neighboring house, water bill: