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By Anna Clark
DETROIT — A FAMILY of five with no water for two weeks who were embarrassed to ask friends if they could bathe at their house. A woman excited about purchasing a home who learned she would be held responsible for the previous owner’s delinquent water bill: all $8,000 of it. A 90-year-old woman with bedsores and no water available to clean them.
These are the stories that keep Mia Cupp up at night.
Ms. Cupp is the director of development and communication for the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, a nonprofit contracted by the state of Michigan to work as a human-services agency for Detroit. In August 2013, with a $1 million allocation, Wayne Metro became the only program to assist residents with water bills. Ms. Cupp quickly learned that this was “by far the greatest need.”
In January alone, Wayne Metro received 10,000 calls for water assistance, many of them referred directly by the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage. It supported 904 water customers over 10 months before exhausting its funding in June. Ms. Cupp said Wayne Metro still gets hundreds of calls a day from residents. But it has no way to help them, and nowhere to refer them.
Detroit borders the Great Lakes system, containing 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. The lakes are the source of the city’s water supply, but a growing number of residents can’t turn on the tap. Over the past three months, the water department has conducted an aggressive shut-off campaign to get more than 90,000 customers to pay $90.3 million in past-due bills. Between March 25 and June 14, 12,500 Detroit customers had their water shut off.
The average monthly water bill in Detroit is $75 for a family of four —nearly twice the United States average — and the department is increasing rates this month by 8.7 percent. Over the past decade, sales have decreased by 20 to 30 percent, while the water department’s fixed costs and debt have remained high. Nonpayment of bills is also common. The increasing strain on the department’s resources is then passed on to customers.
But residents aren’t the only ones with delinquent accounts. Darryl Latimer, the department’s deputy director, told me that the State of Michigan holds its biggest bill: $5 million for water at state fairgrounds. (The state disputes the bill, arguing that it’s not responsible for the costs of infrastructure leaks.)
A local news investigation revealed that Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, owed $82,255 as of April. Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play, owed more than $55,000. City-owned golf courses owed more than $400,000. As of July 2, none had paid. Mr. Latimer said the Department of Water and Sewerage would post notice, giving these commercial customers 10 days to pay before cutting service. But he did not say when.
And in the meantime the city is going after any customers who are more than 60 days late and owe at least $150.
The department reports that 60 percent of its customers pay in full or begin a payment plan within 24 hours of a shut-off, and water service is reinstated. Mr. Latimer said that this proved that many could afford their bills, and simply weren’t paying them.
The city of Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy protection a year ago, certainly has not just the right but the obligation to demand payment of outstanding bills.
But cutting water to homes risks a public health crisis.
Instead, the water department should more aggressively target delinquent commercial customers who carry a large share of the unpaid bills. It should enact a comprehensive plan to fix leaking pipes; flooded streets are common here, and water customers — whether the state or ordinary residents — must pay for sewerage, not just running water, and often are billed erroneously for these leaks.
The department must also ensure that water is shut off to abandoned buildings, and eliminate errors in address transfers. Mr. Latimer explained that the department used addresses rather than names as the collectible agent on an account — a problematic practice in a city of 80,000 vacancies,rife with foreclosures.
Ms. Cupp said that the average bill for the residents Wayne Metro has helped was $1,600; she saw one as high as $10,000. The water department’s standard payment plan requires at least a 30 percent down payment. This is out of reach for many. To increase participation, the department should eliminate the down payment, as well as the $30 reconnection fee it charges.
The department went on the record with local news organizations last week, saying that it would introduce a financial-assistance program on July 1 in partnership with a nonprofit, the Heat and Warmth Fund, and would use more than $800,000 in funds collected through 50-cent donations on monthly bills.
This was good news, but the announcement was premature. On July 1, a representative for the nonprofit said the program might not be operational until August. Meanwhile, Ms. Cupp said Wayne Metro had asked the water department to stop giving out its number to needy customers until it could get additional funding.
Mr. Latimer said that mass shut-offs were the only way to find the shirkers: Those who can pay will do so quickly. But their neighbors are left to fill jugs of water at the homes of friends or at fire hydrants to meet basic needs. Even for a city that has grown accustomed to limited city services, like streetlights and police response times, this is a new low.
“I’ve seen water problems in poor countries and the third world,” said Maude Barlow, the board chairwoman of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. “But I’ve never seen this in the United States, never.”
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist and the editor of “A Detroit Anthology.”