DETROIT (WWJ) – Starting next month, low-income water customers in the tri-county area can get new assistance in paying their past due bills in what officials say is a “game changer” for the region.

The Water Residential Assistance Program, which launches March 1, will provide qualifying customers at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold, with help in paying current and past-due water bills.

The program is offered in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties and will be administered through the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency in Detroit.

Under the program, eligible Detroit Water and Sewerage Department customers will receive a $25 monthly bill credit with any arrearages frozen for 12 months. Customers who successfully make their monthly payments for one year will receive an additional credit of up to $700 applied toward their arrears.

In addition, qualifying residents with water usage exceeding 20 percent of the average household water consumption in the city will be eligible for a free home water conservation audit. Based on the audit, customers may receive up to an additional $1,000 for minor household plumbing repairs.

Participants may continue in the program for up to 24 months but must reapply annually.

The terms of the program, which were recently approved by the six-member Great Lakes Water Authority board, will provide Detroit residents with approximately $1.5 million of the $4.5 million allocated for 126 municipalities in seven southeast Michigan counties.

“This is a game-changer for the region,” Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said in a statement. “It is a very robust, comprehensive program that addresses all the issues I’ve seen in the past that caused people to fall out of a plan.”

Approximately 44,000 of Detroit’s 175,000 residential water accounts are on a payment plan, up from 9,000 a year ago. Residents on the plan are not subject to shutoff.

To apply for the Water Residential Assistance Program, call 313-386-WRAP (9727) or visit www.waynemetro.org/wrap.