01/23/2013 05:55 pm ET

Highland Park Water Bills Anger Residents Hit With Huge Back Charges

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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