Editorial: Water's not free, but help exists for Detroiters

The Detroit News

Water shutoffs in Detroit are once again making headlines, and some City Council members want Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to get involved. Instead, city officials should do a better job educating residents about how to access existing help with their water bills. 

It is also the responsibility of Detroit residents to be proactive in securing assistance before it’s too late. 

The city of Detroit appears to have plenty of safeguards in place for homeowners and renters. But the city is not operating a charity — nor is the Great Lakes Water Authority, the regional water system that is paid for by communities throughout southeast Michigan.

Those who don’t pay their bills — and ignore assistance programs — will eventually face water shutoffs. If Detroit residents demand “free” water, that will drive up the costs for everyone else on the regional system — plenty of whom are struggling themselves to make ends meet. GLWA serves Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, among others. 

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield last week asked the council’s legal staff to draft a measure requesting Whitmer declare a public health crisis over the shutoffs. The governor has said she’ll review a resolution once it’s sent to her. 

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

Mary Sheffield, Detroit City Council Pro Tem, addresses the crowd.

Another measure seeks an end to all shutoffs until the city considers an ordinance on water affordability. 

The Detroit News reported that last year the city shut off water to 23,000 residences, but had restored more than 10,000 by the end of the year. The city continues to whittle down those numbers, and says 5,400 of the homes showed no usage in 2019. 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown is taking a different approach. This week, he says he will ask City Council and the GLWA board to approve an amendment to the lease agreement between the city and GLWA to expand the authority’s Water Residential Assistance Program, known as WRAP. Brown wants to double the amount it offers Detroit, to $5 million annually from $2.4 million, in addition to making more low-income residents eligible for assistance. 

The GLWA board of directors allocated $5 million for the program overall in 2020 — a number that represents 0.5% of the authority’s revenue. So if Detroit were to get $5 million, the authority would have to boost WRAP’s funding to 1% of revenue in fiscal year 2021, Brown says. 

In July, the water authority approved an additional $1.2 million in WRAP funding to Detroit, as well as Flint, for “conservation and direct assistance.” Brown says nearly 17,000 Detroit households have benefited from WRAP since 2016. Detroit and Flint residents make up 71% of the enrollments. 

Brown, who sits on the GLWA board, has said no Detroiter “should be seeing a service interruption if they ask for help.” 

The biggest challenge seems to be reaching Detroiters and letting them know there are resources available if they can’t pay their bills. 

Rather than call on Whitmer, City Council should work on informing residents about how to prevent water shutoffs in the first place.