Democratic lawmakers and Detroit city officials holding signs promoting water affordability
Democratic lawmakers and Detroit city officials joined community advocates at the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency to announce a package of bills that seek to make water more affordable across Michigan during a press conference Oct. 2, 2023. (Nushrat Rahman)

Democratic lawmakers, Detroit city officials and community advocates on Monday announced a package of bills they say will make water more affordable for households across Michigan.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The wide-ranging legislation includes an income-based water affordability fund that water utilities could tap to lower water bills for low-income customers, a new $2 monthly fee for water customers across the state to pay for that fund and ramped up notifications for customers before water is disconnected.  A Macomb County official pushed back against the proposal, saying counties should be able to opt out of the $2 fee for water customers.

Supporters said the bills would address the issue of unaffordable water that persists across Michigan — in suburbs, cities and rural communities. Since 1980, the average cost of water service in the state — drinking water, sewage and storm water costs — increased 188% when adjusted for inflation, according to researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and consulting firm Safe Water Engineering. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 317,000 Michiganders were behind on their water bills.

“Access to clean, affordable water is important for our public health. Every human being needs access to water and it should not matter how much money you have whether you have water coming out of your tap,” state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who is among the lawmakers sponsoring the bills, said at a Monday news conference.

Local and state officials, water advocates and nonprofit service providers met to come up with a plan to address water affordability. Here is what the proposed legislation includes:

  • An affordability program, within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), would limit water bills so they don’t exceed income-based thresholds. For instance, households with incomes up to 135% of the federal poverty level (or $33,561 for a family of three) would have bills capped at 2% of the average household income in that service area. For those up to 200% of the poverty level (or $49,720 for a three-person household), bills would not exceed 3%. Water providers would need to opt into the state-run program or operate their own affordability programs for customers to see their bills capped. The program would reimburse water providers for the difference between the lower bills and the cost of water. Enrolled customers would also be eligible to have at least $1,500 in past due bills wiped away for two years each. Families would also be able to get up to $2,500 in plumbing repairs.
  • A bill seeks to ramp up shut off water protections, by notifying customers at least four times through mail, door knocking, phone calls and text messages. It’s for those with health conditions and those attempting to enroll in payment plans or who make minimum payments.
  • Another bill would allow tenants to request their water bill in their own name.

Funding, according to another proposed bill, would come from a monthly $2 per water meter fee that would go into the new statewide water affordability fund. The coalition estimates this could bring in at least $65 to $70 million, Chang said. The bill, she said, is modeled after the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP), which received bipartisan support and was signed into law by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said last week that every ratepayer should not have to pay into the affordability fund and that counties should have the option to opt out.

“If Michigan lawmakers insist on passing this legislation, it should have an opt-out option for counties because I feel Macomb County would exercise that option,” Miller said in a news release.

She said there’s already an existing program for households that need help called the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), which provides bill assistance for low income customers.

“WRAP is a wonderful program that provides real financial help to those who need assistance paying for their water/sewer bills, and I have encouraged Macomb County residents who need this assistance to apply,” Miller said. “Macomb County has demonstrated their compassion and commitment to assisting those who need this help. However, imposing a mandatory fee of $2 on every water meter, from southeast Michigan to the Keweenaw peninsula and all points in between, is wrong.”

Meanwhile, Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), said the legislation could help water providers. 

“This $65 to $70 million that will be raised will certainly help low-income customers pay their bills, but it goes directly into the utilities’ coffer, so that we can hire more people, we can buy material, we can do the engineering and design of a more resilient system,” said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).

Sylvia Orduño, with the People’s Water Board Coalition, said advocates have been working on water affordability for at least two decades.

“Over the years, it’s been a struggle for residents in the state of Michigan to be able to afford their water, sewage and storm water bills and it hasn’t been an easy conversation to have with electeds and with utilities who disagreed with the claims the residents were saying that they could not afford to pay their bills and they needed ways in which they could be more affordable,” Orduño said. “We’ve met with thousands of residents across the state over these past couple of decades to learn more about their stories, but then also to better learn what is it that utilities are struggling with themselves in order to be able to provide better ways that their residents can afford their bills.”

Louis Piszker, CEO Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro), said that need for water bill assistance is still high despite help that is available through Detroit’s Lifeline Plan affordability plan. He said Wayne Metro enrolled 26,000 Detroiters into Lifeline in less than a year, which reduces bills for eligible customers. He urged lawmakers to support the passage of the bill package.

“We continue to get 1,500 calls a month for water affordability. We need to answer the call. We need to be able to serve the people that are on the other end of that line. We’re not going to be able to answer the call if there’s not a sustainable funding source,” Piszker said.

Jim Nash, Oakland County’s water resources commissioner, said water affordability isn’t just an urban issue.

“We’re leaving people behind in the rural areas, in cities everywhere. And (if) we’re not doing something about that, it’s only going to get worse,” Nash said.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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