Report: Michigan law allows for income-based water rates

BECKER1999, FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
Becker1999, Flickr Creative Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified water-access issues for low-income families in Michigan, and a new report reveals that a hotly debated remedy is possible under state law.

In response to years of ever-increasing water rates and shutoffs, consumer advocates in Michigan have called for income-based water rates. Report co-author Oday Salim, a National Wildlife Federation staff attorney, said the concept repeatedly has been rejected, with claims that it would violate the Michigan Constitution.

"So, in spite of those amazing water-justice warriors' efforts," he said, "municipalities and others were still saying that state law is getting in the way. We think our report debunks that notion."

The report found that state law provides the opportunity for water utilities and other government service providers to offer flexible rate structures to help ensure that services are affordable for all.

Research shows that Michigan's communities of color and lower-income households are disproportionately affected by water shutoffs. As director of the water-justice advocacy group Flint Rising, Nayyirah Shariff contended that it's time to reject policies that punish people for being impoverished.

"Communities begin with people, and we need people in their homes to maintain neighborhoods and create vibrant communities," she said. "It's time we support our people and support our communities by making water affordable, for every person and every family in the state."

With access to water even more crucial for health and safety during the pandemic, Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney Jeremy Orr commended Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and local officials who have taken action to stop water shutoffs.

"Due to this crisis, we're seeing temporary moratoriums on shutoffs, late fees are being suspended, and low-income water-assistance programs are being expanded," he said. "And that's great. But at the end of the day, these are still just assistance measures, they're Band-aids. And water utilities should be looking at taking it a step further, and address the issue of affordability at its core."

The research also noted that income-based water rates would be in line with actions taken by municipalities in Michigan for other city services.

The report is online at nwf.org.

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