Detroit's water tug-of-war

With the city of Detroit poised to shut off water to as many as 25,000 residential customers beginning this week, the philosophical divide remains wide between advocates who want an income-based affordability plan and officials who steadfastly insist an assistance plan that provides some relief is the only feasible solution.

Here's the difference: Assistance programs such as the one being employed in Detroit use a pot of money — in this case, primarily charitable contributions — to help as many people as the fund allows try and pay for their water. An affordability plan would set a water rate based on a person's ability to pay, and wouldn't exceed a certain percentage of their income.

In the first, only some in need get help, and even that help is often not enough to keep the water flowing. With the latter, no matter what your income, water is priced in a way that keeps it affordable.

There have been two debates occurring around this issue — one in the public square, the other behind closed doors by members of a work group advising the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a newly formed entity that will assume control of water delivery to communities throughout southeast Michigan. The GLWA is supposed to have its plan in place by June 14, when a court-imposed deadline requires an agreement specifying the terms of a lease between the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the new authority be established.

Meanwhile, the Detroit City Council earlier last month created a group to study the possibility of implementing an income-based affordability plan. Gary Brown, the city's chief operating officer, said his department would be happy to engage in that discussion.

"We're willing to have the discussion about an affordability program, but what we will have in the near future is an assistance program," Brown said. "That's what we've had in the past."

Within minutes of Brown's comment to the council, however, Darryl Latimer, the water department's deputy director, told this reporter that state law prohibits any kind of assistance plan that charges some customers less than the actual cost of service.

That same argument was made again last week during a bizarre meeting of the DWSD's board of governors, which considered adding another $1 million to the $5.6 million contract with Homrich Inc., a demolition company conducting residential shutoffs for the city.

There was no discussion regarding the job Homrich has been doing or why the additional $1 million was needed. Instead, after a string of public comments urging board members to delay the shutoffs and to take a serious look at creating an income-based affordability plan, DWSD attorney William Wolfson told the board he's in possession of two legal opinions stating that an affordability plan isn't allowed under current state law.

As shouts of "stop the shutoffs" erupted, three people were forcibly removed from the room and briefly detained, but not charged, by police after the board voted unanimously to increase the Homrich contract and allow shutoffs to proceed at full speed.

As people were being dragged out, the board continued with its discussions as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Among those offering his insights was Michael Einheuser, a Detroit attorney appointed to the board by Mayor Mike Duggan in April.

"When you talk about the necessities of life, certainly water is a right, food is a right, clean air is a right. All of those things are rights, but they don't come free," said Einheuser. "I've heard a great deal about affordability. As I've found on affordability, a water bill all by itself in a household budget isn't affordable or unaffordable. The question is … can they afford what they need with regard to running a household?"

After praising the work being done by activists, Einheuser explained why he doesn't support their calls for an affordability plan: "I think the question is a question of taking the most advantage of the social services that are available. I think it is somewhat inaccurate to just focus on just one household bill to say that bill is unaffordable."

What seems lost on Einheuser — other than the fact that that there isn't a utility that charges a service fee for providing clean air — is that more than 70,000 residential customers in Detroit aren't able to keep current on monthly bills for water and that he and his fellow members could implement a policy that makes it affordable.

Meanwhile, the fledgling GLWA is also trying to come up with a plan of its own. A work group was put in place to make recommendations to the GLWA board on how it should allocate an estimated $4.5 million a year to help low-income residents.

It is important to point out that $4.5 million is for the entire region, not just Detroit.

Advocates insist the $4.5 million isn't nearly enough to address the problem in just Detroit, let alone the entire region. However, no study has been conducted to determine how badly customers in the region can't afford to pay their current bills.

But what is clear, local activists say, is that current assistance plans are failing miserably.

According to the most recent numbers reported by the DWSD, 30,766 residential customers are currently on payment plans. About 18,000 of those have not been able to keep current on their payments, making them vulnerable yet again to service termination, according to a report by Michigan Public Radio.

That means that nearly 60 percent of the people on payment plans still can't afford water. (Note: About 6,000 people have signed up for payment plans since the ACLU reported that, at the end of February, the failure rate of people placed on payment plans was very close to 100 percent. For the most part, customers who've signed up since then haven't had time to fall 60 days behind on payments.)

Despite the widespread failure of assistance plans, advocates for a GLWA affordability plan were completely shut down. When a majority of the advisory group voted to present an assistance plan to the board for consideration, representatives from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Sierra Club, and the Detroit People's Platform were told that absolutely no information regarding the possibility of an affordability program would be passed along to the board.

They also weren't allowed to present information documenting the broad failure of current assistance programs.

According to confidential minutes from a May 13 meeting of the group, consultant Eric Rothstein, who is guiding the process, "noted that he purposely omitted reference to the performance of past assistance programs and detailed references to prior writings on affordability because the goal is to look forward."

As a result, those three advocacy groups are no longer participating in the process.

Among the documents they wanted to include was a statement noting that, contrary to the claims by Latimer, Wolfson, and others, the question regarding the legality of an affordability plan is far from settled.

"In reviewing Michigan statutes ... our legal team finds that the MWRO Water Affordability Plan is not illegal," the groups said in a joint statement.

Given that unresolved conflict, state Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) announced last week — at a gathering of more than 330 people from across the United States and a number of foreign countries who'd come to Detroit to discuss crises surrounding water and home foreclosures — that she is working on legislation that would address a number of water-shutoff issues, including a "water bill of rights" similar to one passed in California, and another bill that would explicitly authorize the type of income-based affordability plan advocates are calling for.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or [email protected].

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