DETROIT -- Livid over troubling systemic issues with their city's water billing system, about 50 residents of Highland Park, Mich., crowded into a city council meeting Tuesday night to voice their anger and concern. They're upset about being hit with hundreds and even thousands of dollars in cumulative water bills -- after receiving no notice for almost a year.
"I know they ripping us off because I paid $100 a month and they still sent me a $3,000 bill. I had a plumber check my house. I even had them check -- no leaks," Priscilla Harris, a 30-year resident, told The Huffington Post during the meeting. "I wasn't even there half the time, and they still sent me a $3,000 bill."
Just before Christmas, Highland Park's Water Department sent out a letter to residents with their bills notifying them about the city's Water Recalculation-Assessment Program (WRAP). The notice asks recipients to commit to pay one-quarter of their bill and work out a payment plan for the remaining balance. It states they have 30 days -- until Jan. 24 -- to either make payment arrangements or face "water shut-off proceedings."
Paul Lee, a lifelong Highland Park resident and a scholar known for his studies on Malcolm X, worries the policy could have tragic consequences.
"The problem is that most Highland Parkers are on some form of public assistance, and many of our seniors are on fixed incomes," he said during a phone call. "They can't afford to pay these bills, and since most Highland Park homes are old and have steam furnaces, if you cut off the water, we'll lose our heat. My fear is that if the situation isn't addressed and addressed soon, we could have people dying during the dead of winter."
Council President Christopher Woodard said that he understands residents' anger but the billing issues aren't new. He adds that the problem has been exacerbated by rate increases instituted by a former state emergency financial manager, as well as sewage costs coming from the surrounding city of Detroit, which is handling Highland Park's waste stream.
"It's been cropping up for a couple years. It's not something all of a sudden that's been happening," Woodard told HuffPost after Tuesday night's council meeting. "I think the citizens have the right to come in and comment. I think we tried to address them to the best of our ability and to try to quiet the storm, but the storm may not quiet down too soon."
Woodard believes the most important thing Highland Park can do right now is to shore up its billing system. But he said that falls under the mayor's authority and the council can only try to help him out.
Highland Park Assistant City Attorney Nikkiya Branch appeared at the meeting to provide more information about WRAP. She said that Michigan state law prohibits the city from completely forgiving water debts and that WRAP was an attempt to offer some relief to people.
"It's not non-negotiable," she said. "You can come and try to negotiate. Debt cannot be eliminated, but it can be worked out."
Branch added that the Jan. 24 deadline could be extended as well.
This pleased Mary Sorrell, a 30-year resident of Highland Park, who spoke with Branch during the meeting about working out a payment plan.
"I came in today to make arrangements on my bill, and they turned me down. The lady's helping me though," Sorrell said. "I feel fine about it because I know I owe the money. It's just that I want to make arrangements to pay it."
In another effort to address the problem, the council is in the process of reactivating an emergency water review board. The board will consider residents' cases before their delinquent water bills can be added to the tax rolls -- a situation that could end in people losing their homes.
Still, these steps may not be enough to quiet the storm of community sentiment surrounding the water billing issues. A group called the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition will be holding a community meeting at St. Luke AME Church on Thursday night, at which legal options, including seeking an injunction and filing a class-action lawsuit, will be explored.
Flickr Photo by jurvetson.
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20. Tucson, Ariz.
Population: 525,798 Credit rating: Aa2, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 6.52 (47th highest) Unemployment rate: 9.2% (tied-49th highest) Tucson’s housing market fared better than most of Arizona, which was hit particularly hard by the recession. For instance, while housing prices in Phoenix dropped by 44.2% between 2007 and 2011 and by 39.5% in Mesa, in Tucson they declined by just 24.8%. The median home value in 2011 was just $138,300, below other nearby cities such as Phoenix and Chandler. Tucson’s foreclosure rate of 2.62% is among the worst 20% of large cities. The city’s debt is rated by Moody’s at Aa2, with a negative outlook. One of the issues Moody’s notes with the city is uncertain sources of revenue. In order to improve on this, along with passing a budget of $1.3 billion in May, the city raised property taxes by an additional 10 cents to $1.26 per square foot, and also raised water rates by more than 8%. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMOsqjoN">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
19. Reno, Nev.
Population: 227,509 Credit rating: Aa3, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 4.88 (31st lowest) Unemployment rate: 13.0% (15th highest) Between 2007 and 2011, median home values in Reno declined more than 47% from $337,200 to just $178,200. But while Reno’s city government had to make drastic cuts at the height of the economic downturn, its finances are finally getting in order. The $295 million budget for 2012-2013, which was passed in May, was the first in five years that does not contain any layoffs, cuts in services or dips into the city’s financial reserves. According to The New York Times, Reno has had difficulty reinventing itself away from the casino industry it is dependant on, and remains a one-industry city. Meanwhile, the city’s gaming revenue continues to fall, dropping by 3.3% in November of 2012 from a year earlier. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMQ2EO00">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
18. Sacramento, Calif.
Population: 472,169 Credit rating: Aa2, under review for downgrade Violent crime per 1,000 people: 7.11 (38th highest) Unemployment rate: 14.1% (tied- 9th highest) Home values in Sacramento fell 41.4% between 2007 and 2011, which is nearly four times more than the national rate. With the decline in home values came a decline in jobs. The city’s unemployment rate in 2011 was 14.1%, which was the ninth-highest of the largest cities. The city’s finances, however, may begin to improve. After city voters approved a half-percent sales tax increase in November, the City Council considered reversing budget cuts in areas such as the police department, fire department and park maintenance that have taken place in the last several years. There has been significant turnover in City Hall recently, with five of the eight seats changing in the last two years. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMQnoBkq">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
17. Chicago, Ill.
Population: 2,707,123 Credit rating: Aa3, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: n/a Unemployment rate: 11.3% (21st highest) Chicago, the third-largest city in the U.S., suffers like most large cities from higher than average crime and poverty rates. This is likely exacerbated by low graduation rates from Chicago’s Public Schools, which, while improving, still stand at just over 60%. The city’s government received much attention in September when teachers from the district, which is under the control of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, went on strike over compensation and a teacher evaluation system. The two parties were finally able to compromise, but not until students missed a week and a half of school. In November, the City Council passed a $6.5 billion budget that included hundreds of job cuts through layoffs or attrition, reduced library hours, and the closing of half of the city’s mental health facilities. The city is still running a nearly $300 million deficit, although this is down significantly from prior years due to previous cuts. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMRmmJgo">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
16. St. Louis, Mo.
Population: 318,069 Credit rating: Aa3, stable outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 18.57 (2nd highest) Unemployment rate: 11.7% (19th highest) The city of St. Louis struggles with high poverty and crime. Twenty-seven percent of residents lived in poverty in the last 12 months, with more than 13% of households earning less than $10,000 a year — both figures significantly higher than the national rates. St. Louis also ranked among the most violent crime-ridden cities in America. Residents in November voted to reinstate local police control, taking power away from a state board. Supporters argued this would increase police efficiency and accountability, ultimately leading to safer streets. Opponents argued that this measure could weaken the ability of a civilian review board to monitor officer conduct. City residents also voted to cut the number of aldermen from 28 to 14. Advocates of the measure argued this will make the board more efficient, while opponents claimed it will just add thousands of people to an already overtaxed aldermans’ constituency. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMSRKXVL">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
15. Santa Ana, Calif.
Population: 329,405 Credit rating: Baa1 Violent crime per 1,000 people: 4.00 (21st lowest) Unemployment rate: 13.7% (tied-11th highest) Santa Ana’s unemployment rate of 13.7% in 2011 was significantly higher than the 8.9% unemployment rate across the country. Less than 55% of Santa Ana’s residents aged 25 and over had a high school diploma, and under 10% of all residents had at least a bachelor’s degree, making Santa Ana the least educated among the 100 most populous cities. Santa Ana is one of the few cities to not have an investment grade credit rating on its bonds by Moody’s. Moody’s noted that while the city has had two years of surpluses in its budget, it has little in emergency reserves. The agency also points out that the high unemployment played a role in a weaker rating. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMVXhGKZ">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
14. Toledo, Ohio
Population: 286,033 Credit rating: A2, stable outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 9.98 (23rd highest) Unemployment rate: 10.4% (tied- 33rd highest) Toledo is a low-income city. More than 30% of the population lived below the poverty line in the past 12 months, the 10th-highest percentage of all cities. The median household income was $31,090 in 2011, the eighth-lowest among major U.S. cities. Home values in the Toledo area plummeted by nearly 20% between 2007 and 2011 to reach a median of under $82,000. Although Toledo’s credit rating of A2 from Moody’s is still considered investment grade, it is far from pristine. Moody’s noted that while its finances are improving, the city continues to suffer from high unemployment and a declining population. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMWSUA7d">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
13. Birmingham, Ala.
Population: 211,458 Credit rating: Aa2, no outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 14.83 (5th highest) Unemployment rate: 10.9% (25th highest) Birmingham is the largest city in Jefferson County, which was responsible for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history when it filed for Chapter 9 protection in late 2011. Although the city of Birmingham keeps its finances independent of the county, city residents are affected by the county’s poor management nonetheless. According to The Wall Street Journal, the city, which is the county seat, has had difficulty convincing businesses to locate there. A 2012 study by the Tax Foundation showed the part of Birmingham located within Jefferson County had the highest sales tax rate of any major U.S. city at 10% – another factor which likely has had a negative impact on business growth in the area. This high sales tax rate is also especially troubling in a city with a 32% poverty rate — more than double the national rate of 15.9% — since sales taxes disproportionately impact the poor. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMXFZjtx">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
12. Riverside, Calif.
Population: 310,654 Credit rating: Baa1 Violent crime per 1,000 people: 4.26 (24th lowest) Unemployment rate: 13.7% (11th highest) Riverside is struggling to rebound from the economic downturn, which sent home values in the city plunging more than 46% from 2007 to 2011. Nearly 4% of homes were in foreclosure in 2011, while the unemployment rate that year was 13.7%. Both figures were among the highest in the country for large cities. Riverside’s bonds were downgraded by Moody’s last month from A1 to Baa1, making them below investment grade. Among the reasons that the agency gave for its decision were the city’s high unemployment and foreclosure rates. Some good news for city residents, Riverside’s violent crime rate is lower than nearly three quarters of major U.S. cities. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMYJpVTG">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
11. Las Vegas, Nev.
Population: 589,340 Credit rating: Aa2, stable outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 7.41 (36th highest) Unemployment rate: 14.2% (8th highest) Las Vegas, along with the rest of the state of Nevada, was absolutely devastated by the housing crisis. Home values declined by more than 50% between 2007 and 2011, the fourth-largest decline among all large cities. A large majority of Las Vegas homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. The city had an unemployment rate of 14.2% in 2011, one of the highest rates in the country. The city government approved a relatively unchanged budget for 2013 compared to 2012, with no layoffs or pay cuts for employees. This is an improvement from previous years when it made severe cuts to city services. However, the city has major debt expenses to pay off, especially after spending $185 million on a new city hall and $13.5 million on a new parking garage. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMZE6FSk">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
10. Orlando, Fla.
Population: 243,209 Credit rating: Aa1, stable outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 10.73 (17th highest) Unemployment rate: 10.2% (tied- 38th highest) Like the state of Florida as a whole, Orlando took a significant hit during the housing crisis. Median home values between 2007 and 2011 declined by nearly 40%. Violent crime has also plagued the Orlando area. In 2011, there were nearly 11 violent crimes for every 1,000 people, which placed Orlando among the top fifth of the 100 largest cities. In 2013, the city will have to borrow $29.5 million from its reserves in order to balance the $354.2 million budget. Despite the shortfall, the budget deal did not raise property taxes and city employees will get a 3% raise. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMdW3Lw4">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
9. Cleveland, Ohio
Population: 393,804 Credit rating: A1, stable outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 13.66 (9th highest) Unemployment rate: 10.3% (37th highest) Cleveland has been widely affected by the struggles America’s manufacturing sector faced during the preceding decade. Total employment in the city’s manufacturing sector fell consistently between 2002 and 2010. Despite the slight improvement in manufacturing, the city’s residents have struggled in recent years. Cleveland’s median household income in 2011 was just $25,371 — barely half the national median of $50,502. Also that year, the city had a poverty rate of 34.3%, more than double the U.S. rate. Violent crime also remained an issue, with 13.66 violent crimes per 1,000 residents — significantly higher than the national rate of just 3.86. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISSLGQ97">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
8. Newark, N.J.
Population: 277,545 Credit rating: A3, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 11.66 (14th highest) Unemployment rate: 15.2% (6th highest) While Mayor Cory Booker’s political stature is rising, the city of Newark continues to struggle. Nearly 32% of residents found themselves impoverished within the last 12 months, the seventh-highest percentage of the 100 largest cities. The City Council finally approved a budget in October, after running 10 months without one. The budget curtailed spending, which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie required as a condition for $10 million in state aid to close the city’s budget hole. In addition, a 3.7% increase in property taxes was levied against homeowners in Newark, bringing the average total tax bill to $6,020 for 2013.The city also had one of the highest violent crime rates and the sixth-highest unemployment rate of any large U.S. city. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISTBbHLZ">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
7. Fresno, Calif.
Population: 501,365 Credit rating: Baa2, under review for downgrade Violent crime per 1,000 people: 5.82 (42nd lowest) Unemployment rate: 15.6% (tied- 4th highest) Like many California cities, Fresno’s economy has been slow to recover from the Great Recession. In 2011, the city’s unemployment rate was higher than almost every other cities, at 15.6%. The city’s median home value declined considerably during the recession and was nearly 39% lower in 2011 than in it was in 2007. The weak economy also forced the city to make substantial cuts. Between 2009 and early 2012 Fresno eliminated more than $100 million in expenses to address budget shortfalls. In October, Moody’s announced that Fresno’s ratings were under review for a downgrade from its already abysmal Baa2 rating, with the main justification for this poor rating coming from the sizeable budget gap the city recently had to close. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISUkPFu5">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>
6. Modesto, Calif.
Population: 202,761 Credit rating: not rated Violent crime per 1,000 people: 6.94 (39th highest) Unemployment rate: 14.6% (7th highest) The national downturn in home values between 2007 and 2011 was especially difficult for Modesto, where home values fell by more than half during that time. In 2011, more than 4.4% of all homes were in foreclosure, and the city’s unemployment rate was close to 15% — up from a 13.7% average in 2009. Also in 2011, the Modesto metro area’s GMP fell by 1.7%, the largest decrease among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. Not all is bad for the city – Modesto’s violent crime rate, while not the best, is not terrible either. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISV7IV6z">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
5. Hialeah, Fla.
Population: 229,967 Credit rating: not rated Violent crime per 1,000 people: 3.78 (18th lowest) Unemployment rate: 14.1% (tied- 9th highest) Home prices between 2007 and 2011 fell by 44% in Hialeah, the 10th-highest decline of all 100 largest cities. The median household income of $27,208 in 2011 was the third-lowest of all major cities, after declining by 44% during the recession. Of workers residing in Hialeah, 15.5% worked in the generally low-paying retail trade, the highest percentage of all of the 100 largest cities. As a result of industry composition, nearly 40% of city residents are without health insurance, higher than any other large city in the U.S. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISeYVjqa">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
4. Detroit, Mich.
Population: 706,640 Credit rating: Caa1, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 21.37 (the highest) Unemployment rate: 19.9% (2nd highest) Detroit was hit hard during the recession, with the near-collapse of the automobile industry and a further slowdown of the already embattled housing market. The median home value between 2007 and 2011 tumbled by 43.5%, or more than four times the rate of decline across the country. The lack of income coming into the city’s coffers in the last few years has led to significant financial difficulty for Detroit. Moody’s currently rates city’s bonds as Caa1, which is considered junk status and the worst-rating Moody’s gave to any major city. Mayor Dave Bing signed a budget that aims to cut $250 million in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, with total spending of $1.12 billion. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISfLt1Dk">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
3. Stockton, Calif.
Population: 296,367 Credit rating: Caa3, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 14.08 (8th highest) Unemployment rate: 20.2% (the highest) Last year, Stockton was unable to fund its pension liabilities and make debt service payments. As a result, it became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. The city had been especially hurt by the recession. Its unemployment rate for 2011 was above 20%, while more than 5% of homes were in foreclosure — both among the highest rates for any large city. Just before the bankruptcy filing, Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating to account for the likelihood of a default. Moody’s noted, “The Caa3 rating level assumes losses to bondholders will be greater than 20%. The negative outlook reflects the high likelihood that losses could exceed our estimates.” Not only have the city’s creditors been affected, but so have city employees and retirees. According to NPR, the city may cut health benefits to reduce its $417 million in unfunded liabilities. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISg4FQkL">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
2. Miami, Fla.
Population: 408,760 Credit rating: A2, negative outlook Violent crime per 1,000 people: 11.98 (12th highest) Unemployment rate: 12.4% (17th highest) Between 2007 and 2011, the median home value in Miami fell by 43.5%. Additionally, the city had one of the nation’s lowest median household incomes, at under $29,000, while 31% of residents lived below the poverty line — nearly twice the U.S. rate of 15.9%. Despite the difficult economic conditions Miamians faced, the city joined with Miami-Dade County to pay for almost 80% of the more-than $600 million cost of building a new baseball stadium for the Miami Marlins. The deal has caused significant uproar. While taxpayers pay extremely high costs to service the stadium debt, the team has traded many of its top players. In 2011, the SEC launched an investigation into the agreement. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2ISgfeOxP">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
1. San Bernardino, Calif.
Population: 213,008 Credit rating: not rated Violent crime per 1,000 people: 8.76 (27th highest) Unemployment rate: 17.6% (3rd highest) Few cities were hurt by the housing crisis to the same extent as San Bernardino, where the median home value declined by 57.6% between 2007 and 2011, more than any other large city in the U.S. By the end of 2011, almost 4.4% of homes in San Bernardino were in foreclosure, among the highest rates for all large cities. That year, the unemployment rate reached 17.6%, or nearly double the U.S. rate and almost 10 percentage points higher than city’s annual rate in 2007. In August, declining home values and rising employee retirement costs forced the city to file for bankruptcy. But the city’s filing is being challenged by its largest creditor, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which is demanding payments. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/01/15/the-best-and-worst-run-cities-in-america/#ixzz2IMNtOb2m">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>