Detroit hikes water rates, but installs streetlights
Detroit news roundup.
Published: June 17, 2014
At this point, municipalities probably view it as tradition: Every year around this time, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department increases the wholesale prices of resources, and communities across metro Detroit have to raise rates on their constituents.
The reasons for the increase can almost be preordained: The utility’s infrastructure requires ever-costly improvements, and thousands of accounts are in arrears.
So it came as no surprise to News Hits last week when department heads presented to Detroit City Council a proposed rate hike that would cost Detroiters about $5 more per month. Like we said, it’s routine.
Detroit residents’ average monthly bill for water and sewage is about $65 per month, Sue McCormick, DWSD’s executive director, told councilmembers during a public hearing. That number would jump to $70.67 if City Council approves the rates — a roughly 8.7 percent jump — and would go into effect July 1.
Even if an increase is in order, the timing of the move, we’ll say, is rather unfortunate. For weeks, the department has been blasted for its revamped effort to cut water to thousands of residential accounts. As the Hits reported last week, members from a coalition of activist groups have demonstrated against the shutoffs outside of DWSD’s downtown office in what’s been called the “Freedom Friday” series.
DWSD says the reason is simple: There’s about $118 million in outstanding bills held by more than 150,000 customers. So, in March, the department said it would begin shutting off water to about 3,000 customers a week who were $150 overdue or two months late.
Darryl Latimer, deputy director of the department, touted the supposed success of the decision to councilmembers, saying, “It’s reaping great benefits with the department.”
For instance, Latimer says, in April, the department shut off water to 3,025 customers, and about 65 percent paid their debt. But even so, there are still thousands who couldn’t afford to have their service restored.
The following month, DWSD stepped up its game, cutting service to 4,531 accounts, but only had a 51 percent turn-on rate. Latimer says in the last year DWSD “may have collected $100,000” from the shut-off initiative, but in April it took in about $400,000.
But as critics of the initiative point out, if DWSD is sorely in need of revenue, the department should turn its attention toward some delinquent commercial accounts in the city: Between the VA Hospital, Joe Louis Arena, and Ford Field alone, there’s more than $335,000 in outstanding bills, according to published reports. It’s unclear if they’ve been paid off yet.
That sentiment was prevalent at the public hearing.
“Would you consider prioritizing collection of corporate accounts?” asked Sarah Coffey, a Highland Park resident and local activist. Department officials made no mention of delinquent corporate accounts during their presentation.
Later in the week, we followed up with the department about its process in deciding which accounts are actually shut off and how. In an email to the Hits, DWSD public affairs specialist Curtrise Garner said the department “has a system that identifies 60-day delinquent accounts.”
“At that time, a shut-off notice has been mailed and the customer has not attempted to make payment arrangements,” Garner says.
“Within a few days, more than 60 percent have their water turned back on. We are investigating what happens to other customers.”
If customers are concerned they might fall behind, Garner says they can enroll in a payment plan, which requires a 30 percent payment of the total bill, and then “keep up with the current bill and an additional amount to cover the delinquent charges.”
“A customer must maintain the payment agreement to avoid shutoff status,” she says.
Now, Garner says the commercial accounts with high past-due fees have been in discussion with the department. But it’s unclear what, if any, has been paid yet. Nevertheless, she says, DWSD plans to treat them “the same as our residential customers.”
“If the account is 60 days past due,” she says, “we will start shut-off proceedings.”
Councilman Scott Benson tells News Hits he expects to begin talking with DWSD about the corporate accounts, and what’s being done to address their outstanding fees in the coming weeks.
“There’s some what you’d consider are some very considerable outstanding bills,” he says.
Benson recently addressed residents’ disbelief over signage on DWSD contractor Homlich’s work trucks, which indicated it was a “Water Shut Off” crew. (Imagine what it’s like to look out your window and see a truck pull into your driveway with that decal.)
“From a human side of things,” Benson says, “I think we need to be more delicate.”
Benson says DWSD, rightly so, heeded the call, and told him it was working to have the signage changed.
> Email News Hits