Here's How Detroit Is Trying To Make Sure Massive Water Shutoffs Don't Happen Again

03/20/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2015
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Detroit will not shut off water to residents this season until officials review ideas to improve assistance for people who can’t pay their bills. It's a shift in direction for the water department, which was accused of violating human rights last year for shutting off service to thousands of low-income residents.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which delays shutoffs during the coldest months, is now moving to enact them for delinquent customers. But until the evaluation of the assistance program is completed, residential shutoffs -- currently a risk for more than 25,000 people -- will not be pursued, DWSD and Great Lakes Water Authority spokesman Bill Nowling told The Huffington Post. The department is currently shutting water off for commercial customers only, a seeming 180-degree turn from the department’s priorities last year.

“We want to come up with a plan that keeps customers current, not one that tells them their water is going to be shut off,” Nowling told The Huffington Post. “We need to make it easier for people to pay and easier to get assistance.”

In 2014, three United Nations experts who visited Detroit concluded the city was violating residents’ human right to drinking water. Local groups protested the more than 33,000 shutoffs that occured and started a service to match residents who need help with water bills to individual donors. The Detroit Water Brigade provided bottled water and no-questions-asked donations so residents could get on payment plans.

DWSD's current assistance program provides payment plans, and a $2 million fund was set up last year to pay a portion of the outstanding bills for qualifying residents. Fewer people have taken advantage of the program than the city believes need it, with 25,000 customers enrolled in payment plans. There are 1,800 customers receiving assistance from the fund, and over 1,500 more that still processing.

Nowling said the department is considering ways to make the program more effective, like holding information sessions in community venues and potentially offering fixed rates for low-income customers.

Part of the reason reforms are necessary is that the department hadn’t looked critically at how it operates in a long time; it wasn’t until last summer that DWSD was required to deliver warnings to properties facing shutoffs. Shutting off water was the standard method the department used to compel residents to pay up, but it's not necessarily the best tool to collect revenue.

Nowling said officials have looked to other utilities' practices for guidance. They learned from Detroit power utility DTE Energy that a more considerate approach could actually be more profitable; 80 percent of customers are likely to pay their bills if they get on payment plans, they found, while only 50 percent will do the same if service is shut off.

DTE sends payment plan applications to customers who are at risk of delinquency, Nowling said, while the water department waits for customers to come to them.

“They’re more proactive about getting someone into that pipeline for help, and that’s the goal here,” he said. It's yet another shift from the department's previous attitude, highlighted in a DWSD spokeswoman’s comment to the Associated Press in June that put the onus on struggling customers to be "proactive."

Last year's shutoffs occurred at a much higher rate than usual as the city went through bankruptcy proceedings and tried to squeeze revenue from every possible source. Previously, Nowling said, the water department had not done a good job of collecting. “To suddenly turn that on its ear and say, ‘Now were going to have zero tolerance for delinquency,’ I think everyone realized that wasn’t the best plan.”

Residential shutoffs will still occur once the assistance program review is completed, Nowling said. There is no set timeline for when that will happen, but DWSD is preparing to start posting hundreds of shutoff notices daily as early as mid-April, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Detroit Water Brigade spokesman Justin Wedes commended the city for halting shutoffs and trying to expand its programs to help low-income residents. But he told HuffPost that payment assistance is a “stopgap measure if affordability isn’t resolved.” The city raised water rates last year and is slated to do so again.

“I think that this crisis has really given metro Detroiters and Americans pause to think about the crisis of poverty,” Wedes said. “The notion that in order to have water -- or to have a home, or light, or gas or heat -- you must have a job is quite backwards, because you need all those things to work in the first place.

“In order to have a functioning working city we must first have a functioning, working water system,” he added.

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