After more than three years, the City of Detroit is expected to resume water shutoffs next week for customers who owe more than $5,000 and are not enrolled in a payment plan.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) said service interruptions will start with those who owe the most and who live in areas where middle and high income earners live, based on U.S. Census data.
Seven hundred households in those census tracts with at least $5,000 in unpaid bills are at risk of shutoffs if they don’t pay off their balance or enter into a payment plan. Detroiters enrolled in the Lifeline Plan, an income and usage-based water affordability program, are exempt from next week’s shutoffs but could face an interruption in the future if they have not paid their reduced bills.
“When we don’t receive the amount of money that we budgeted for the year through collections, it becomes bad debt that gets passed on to rates in next year’s budget, so it exacerbates the increase in rates for the next year and that hurts everybody,” DWSD Director Gary Brown told the Free Press on Wednesday.
A pandemic-era moratorium on water shut-offs for some customers in Detroit lifted at the end of 2022. Residential customers accumulated $60 million in overdue bills, according to DWSD. That includes the nearly three-year moratorium and this year. The collection rate is about 89%, slightly below pre-pandemic levels, Brown said.
The water department identified customers who have more than $5,000 — and as much as $10,000 — in debt, and in neighborhoods, where, according to the U.S. census, middle and high income earners live. According to federal standards, that translates to people at or above 300% of the poverty level, or a three-person household earning $74,580.
Peter J. Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School, said using water shutoffs as a bill collection tool is problematic because people can’t live without water.
“If somebody’s not paying their water bill, to me that’s an indication of other forms of economic distress,” he said.
Resuming shutoffs is troubling, he said, even for higher income earners.
“You’re looking at huge swaths of land and you’re looking at averages and that doesn’t tell you anything about individual needs, so you can’t conclude from those sort of broad statements really what the economic status is of any one of these households,” Hammer said.
DWSD knocked on doors in early August letting those customers know that if they don’t reach out to the department they could be subject to a water shutoff in the next 10 days. The goal was to encourage customers to get onto a payment plan, Brown said. More than half of those who received this outreach paid their bills, got into a payment plan or applied for other help, he said.
Brown said the department has not determined which day next week it will begin shutoffs.
“The real key is, they have to contact us and tell us that they need help and then we can apply the dollars that we have in hand that will eventually get into the utility coffer and reduce the bad debt,” Brown said.
Customers enrolled in DWSD’s Lifeline Plan — which offers residents fixed monthly rates from $18 to $56 based on a household’s income and water use — are not currently at risk of service interruption, even if they are behind. Twenty-two thousand households, or an estimated 60,000 people, have enrolled so far and 87% are receiving an $18 bill, Brown said. That’s about the population of Dearborn Heights or Taylor.
“Eventually, after we’ve gotten through all of the high delinquencies and the high income earners and if you’re completely ignoring your responsibility to pay the $18 and you won’t contact us, then as a last resort, we’ll have to resort to a service interruption,” Brown said.
Since the Lifeline Plan began in August, the water department spent $28 million on the program and expects a slice of funding for water affordability from the state budget, according to DWSD. Brown said he does not “anticipate any shortages in funding in the near future,” but the program needs $14 million going into next year.
“Whatever your income is, we have a plan for you,” Brown said. “We can help work with you to create a payment plan that will get you back on track but you can’t ignore the bill.”
Hammer expressed concern about the Lifeline Plan running out of money, and shut offs becoming more prevalent.
“We’re making steps forward in the Lifeline program but I think we’re still far away from where we want to be,” he said.
How to get help
- The 10/30/50 program allows customers to make a down payment and pay off delinquent balances in installments. It is not income-based. For more information, call 313-267-8000 or go to bit.ly/DWSDWaterPaymentPlan.
- For more information about the Lifeline Plan, eligible residents can contact the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency call 313-386-9727 or go to www.waynemetro.org/dwsdlifeline.
Detroit Documenters, a program run by Outlier Media to train and pay Detroiters to attend local public meetings, contributed to this report.