DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – Facing international criticism for mass water shutoffs aimed at resolving millions of dollars’ worth of unpaid bills, Detroit’s mayor announced Thursday the bankrupt city will offer affordable, consistent payment plans and financial assistance to many delinquent customers.
Mayor Mike Duggan made the announcement Thursday at City Hall. His office and Detroit water officials spent days redesigning how collections will be handled.
Duggan said the “city needs to be more mindful making sure water is affordable,” and added the plan should make it much easier for people to pay or seek help if they cannot.
“If you’re truly in need, we’re going to get you to the right place,” he said.
Detroit has shut off service to around 17,000 to 18,000 residential customers, approximately one of 10 of the roughly 170,000 total. About 60 percent to 70 percent have been restored and officials say restorations continue, though officials say at least 20 percent of residences cut off are abandoned.
The shutoffs have been imposed against commercial and residential customers 60 days behind or owing more than $150. Several groups appealed to the United Nations for support, and three U.N. experts responded the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water.
Duggan promised to streamline the payment process for customers facing shutoffs, including expanding hours of operations and more staff to help, and improve notification to delinquents.
The city also has created a nonprofit fund to accept donations for those in need. It already has a few hundred thousand dollars in it, said Duggan, who was given control of the water department by state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr as criticism of the shutoffs escalated.
Shutoffs have been halted until Aug. 25. That date remains in place but the city plans a Water Fair on Aug. 23 to give customers one final opportunity to take care of bills and get support.
Among the people who had their water shut off was Atpeace Makita, spokeswoman for Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer relief group that met with mayoral staffers before the announcement.
Makita told The Associated Press that the effort, while appreciated, didn’t go far enough. The group has called for a moratorium on shutoffs and income-based payment plans.
“The banks definitely and the city itself have a reason for wanting people to take responsibility for their bills, no doubt,” Makita said. “However, it’s almost like requiring blood from a turnip. People can’t give you what’s not there.”
Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit Branch, said the plan isn’t perfect but “reflects a major step in the right direction.” He called the situation a “national and international embarrassment.”
“… We wish that (the moratorium) would be longer. However, it is what is and we are saying we are supportive of this step,” he said.
Detroit’s water system serves about 700,000 city residents and 4 million people in southeastern Michigan, but the city-owned water system has about $6 billion in debt that’s covered by bill payments. As of July 1, more than $89 million was owed on nearly 92,000 past-due residential and commercial accounts, which are still subject to shut off.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is currently run by a board of commissioners, but the entity reported to previous mayors before Orr was appointed as emergency manager in August 2013, a job that tasked him with overseeing the city’s finances and most operations.
DWSD 10-point Plan
1. Waive Turn-On Fees and Late Payment Penalties.
During the moratorium, which ends August 25, DWSD will waive turn-on fees for customers whose water had been shut off, as well as all late payment penalties.
2. Cut red tape.
To simplify getting into a payment plan, customers only need to present a valid state ID. Once a payment is made, service will be restored within 48 hours.
3. Extend hours at DWSD Customer Care Centers.
The DWSD has expanded hours at all of its Customer Care Centers, from 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Monday – Friday (previously 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.) and 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on weekends (previously 9 a.m – Noon) to make sure customer service agents are available at all times. The DWSD has also added staff to reduce wait times.
4. Increase staffing at the DWSD Call Center and extend hours.
DWSD has also expanded hours at its Call Center to 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. daily (previously 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.) and 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on weekends (weekend hours for the Call Center are new). Starting August 18, the Call Center will have 50 percent more staff and new phone technology to better serve customers.
5. Cobo Water Fair August 23rd.
A Water Affordability Fair will be held at Cobo Center Saturday August 23 to give customers one last opportunity to connect with all of the DWSD and community resources available to them before the moratorium ends August 25th.
6. Improve notification for customers in danger of shut-off.
The DWSD is expanding its efforts to communicate with customers who are late on their payments or may be facing shut-off. Bills will more clearly explain their status and assistance information will be included with the bill. Workers also will hand-deliver notices to all homes in shut-off status one week before their scheduled shut-off to give them time to enter into a payment plan.
7. Implement an Affordable Payment Plan.
Any resident with a delinquent account can enter into a 24-month “10/30/50” payment plan by coming to their local DWSD Customer Care Center, showing a valid state ID and paying down only 10 percent of their past-due balance. (The previous down payment requirement was 30 percent of the past-due balance.) If a customer misses a payment, they can reapply for the program by putting down 30 percent of their past-due balance. A second missed payment will require a 50 percent down payment of their past-due amount. Any customer who misses a third payment will no longer be eligible for the payment plan.
8. Provide financial assistance for low-income Detroit customers.
Starting August 11th DWSD Customer Care Centers will begin processing applications for the Detroit Water Fund. By paying down only 10 percent of their past-due balance, eligible city residents will receive up to 25 percent assistance with their bill from the new Detroit Water Fund. DWSD has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, which will prequalify residents. To be eligible for Detroit Water Fund assistance, customers must be Detroit residents who:
· Have an outstanding balance between $300 and $1000; AND
· Maintain Average Water Usage for their household size; AND
· Are either enrolled in DTE’s Low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan (LSP); OR,
· Have income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level (for example, a family of 4 must have an annual income below $35,775).
This funding is available on a first come first served basis and is subject to availability.
9. Build Neighborhood Partnerships.
DWSD customers are not alone. We’ve established a support network to assist individuals who may not qualify for some of the DWSD assistance programs. Our partners include United Way 211, THAW, WAVE and Wayne Metro.
10. Provide a clear way to give.
Many people have offered to help Detroiters who are struggling to pay their water bills. There are several ways to donate to the Detroit Water Fund: online, by text message, by check or by phone. Details are available at http://www.DetroitWaterFund.org.
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