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Detroit not alone in shutting off water for unpaid bills

Posted by on Jul. 29, 2014 at 10:04 AM
  • 44 Replies

Detroit not alone in shutting off water for unpaid bills


Detroit has drawn fire from all over the world for shutting off water to customers delinquent on their bills, but the city isn't unique. Cities across the country do it also.

In Michigan, Hamtramck, Warren, Pontiac, Eastpointe, Romulus and other cities have shut off delinquent customers as a way to improve collections. Elsewhere, so have other big cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis.

"It's universal in the utility world that at some point, you have to shut off service as part of your larger commitment to the community," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit group with more than 50,000 members who work in the industry. "If you never shut the water off for anybody, those people who continue to pay have to shoulder the entire cost of a system that is servicing a lot of customers that aren't paying. That's not a sustainable business model."

Curtis said water officials know better than anyone how important water is to public health and quality of life. But they are obligated to maintain systems that can serve everyone.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department ramped up its shutoff efforts in March in an attempt to collect more than $90 million it is owed by Detroiters who are behind on their bills. But as the shutoffs accelerated, so did the criticism.

The United Nations decried the shutoffs. Welfare rights groups marched downtown to protest them. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who is presiding over court cases in Detroit's bankruptcy, criticized them as well and told water department officials to show what they were doing to help indigent Detroiters keep their service.

Last week, the department halted the shutoffs until Aug. 5 while it continues to alert poor customers to available assistance programs.

"All we're doing now is letting everyone catch their breath," said department spokesman Bill Johnson, who noted that the effort has led to record collections on delinquent bills. "We've said from the very beginning, anyone that comes to us with a demonstrated financial hardship, we won't turn them off, and if they are turned off, we'll turn them back on."

He acknowledged some people were caught off guard by the effort to improve collections.

"We take full responsibility for not having a rigorous enforcement policy in the past," Johnson said.

He said the program is designed to target people who have the means to pay but haven't. He estimates that 60% of the customers whose water is shut off pay their bills in full within a day or two.

That doesn't surprise Hamtramck emergency manager Cathy Square, who launched a similar effort there last summer. Hamtramck faced a $350,000 debt in its water fund and risked losing a sewer grant because it didn't have enough match money, Square said.

When the city shut off 150 accounts in July 2013, word spread quickly. In all, 390 delinquent customers came in to pay.

"They were lined up around the building to pay," Square said. "We really turned our situation around in Hamtramck."

The water fund now has a $2 million fund balance, money that can help win grants and fund repairs, Square said.

Warren ramped up its shutoff efforts in 2010 after years of adding unpaid water bills onto property tax bills, said water superintendent Tom Pawelkowski. The move reduced the unpaid bills from about $3 million annually to about $1 million, he said.

Every city has its own shutoff protocols. Some are written into ordinances; others are adopted as policies. Some start the process as quickly as 21 days after a bill is due. Others wait for 60 or 90 days. Some use outstanding balances such as $250 to trigger a shutoff.

In 2011, Pontiac hired a private company, United Water, to manage its system.

"We have a pretty standard policy across all our systems," said Madeline Power, spokeswoman for United Water, which manages 90 water systems in 21 states. "Customers have 21 days to pay their utilities. Unpaid past-due bills that exceed 90 days face shutoff."

About 3% of Pontiac's 19,500 accounts have faced shutoff for nonpayment since May 2013, she said.

Big cities across the country also use shutoffs when customers don't pay.

Baltimore has about 411,000 water accounts and ends up shutting off about 3,000 per year for nonpayment, spokesman Kurt Kocher said. Accounts face shutoffs when the outstanding balance exceeds $250, and the city offers payment plans to people who are behind.

"We shut off if a bill is delinquent," said Jim Sondermann, special assistant to the water commission in St. Louis. "It's an effective tool. People typically pay pretty quickly when they are shut off."

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/27/detroit-not-alone-in-shutting-off-water-for-unpaid-bills/13228207/

You make people leave CM. You drive them away. There is a meaness and coldness in you that pushes people away and makes them cancel their CM accounts. I know a few of them.

- Iga

by on Jul. 29, 2014 at 10:04 AM
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Replies (1-10):
VooDooB
by Platinum Member on Jul. 29, 2014 at 10:07 AM
2 moms liked this

This just sickens me. The government is going to allow cities to deny poor Americans WATER, yet we're going to provide not only water, but food, medical, shelter, and education to people who are in this country illegally.

Mommabearbergh
by on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:07 AM

With no industries and several big buildings in different stages of decay what did the water company expect in detroit. This just seems like if there are no job in a city of corruption where do they expect people to get the money from. Just seems like hey lets make the situation worse. I do agree with a previous posers that  immigrants at least in my state will get more help then a citizen.

4evrinbluejeans
by KK on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:23 AM
9 moms liked this

I don't know why people are acting like this is somehow shocking.  Pay the bill for the service or don't receive the service.  It's not unique, and it certainly isn't new.  

4evrinbluejeans
by KK on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:28 AM

Statement from Mayor Mike Duggan

I welcome the emergency manager's order this morning giving me the responsibility for dealing with the Water Department issues. We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly. There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills - we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.

I've heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices.  We've got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements.

Last night, I met with DWSD leadership and we'll be developing plans together to fix these problems.

But it is important to remember that in the water system, each city is its own separate legal fund.  When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters. There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state, or from the feds. These unpaid water bills are Detroit's alone.

So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.

We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. 

4evrinbluejeans
by KK on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:31 AM
1 mom liked this

from your own article: 

"All we're doing now is letting everyone catch their breath," said department spokesman Bill Johnson, who noted that the effort has led to record collections on delinquent bills. "We've said from the very beginning, anyone that comes to us with a demonstrated financial hardship, we won't turn them off, and if they are turned off, we'll turn them back on."

He acknowledged some people were caught off guard by the effort to improve collections.

"We take full responsibility for not having a rigorous enforcement policy in the past," Johnson said.

He said the program is designed to target people who have the means to pay but haven't. He estimates that 60% of the customers whose water is shut off pay their bills in full within a day or two.


----

If most have the means to pay their bill and just didn't, shouldn't the city be doing more to obtain payment from these individuals?  

Mommabearbergh
by on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:32 AM

the payment arrangement is still a heaavy charge and some people are neglecting their bills and there are people with real hardships but this is Detroit we are talking about which to me is sort of in a league of their own because of the years of political and financial fuck ups that have doomed that city

Quoting 4evrinbluejeans:

Statement from Mayor Mike Duggan

I welcome the emergency manager's order this morning giving me the responsibility for dealing with the Water Department issues. We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly. There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills - we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.

I've heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices.  We've got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements.

Last night, I met with DWSD leadership and we'll be developing plans together to fix these problems.

But it is important to remember that in the water system, each city is its own separate legal fund.  When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters. There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state, or from the feds. These unpaid water bills are Detroit's alone.

So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.

We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. 


nurse1997
by Bronze Member on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:35 AM

Time for cities and people to get their crap together !

4evrinbluejeans
by KK on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:37 AM
3 moms liked this

I believe in personal responsibility and neglecting your responsibilities for months and then acting surprised when that neglect ends up with heavy consequences ultimately falls on the individual.  The city cannot print money and a $90 million shortfall in their revenue absolutely impacts the ability to provide services and work properly.  

Quoting Mommabearbergh:

the payment arrangement is still a heaavy charge and some people are neglecting their bills and there are people with real hardships but this is Detroit we are talking about which to me is sort of in a league of their own because of the years of political and financial fuck ups that have doomed that city

Quoting 4evrinbluejeans:

Statement from Mayor Mike Duggan

I welcome the emergency manager's order this morning giving me the responsibility for dealing with the Water Department issues. We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly. There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills - we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.

I've heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices.  We've got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements.

Last night, I met with DWSD leadership and we'll be developing plans together to fix these problems.

But it is important to remember that in the water system, each city is its own separate legal fund.  When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters. There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state, or from the feds. These unpaid water bills are Detroit's alone.

So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.

We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. 


Liastele
by Member on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:39 AM
6 moms liked this

Um, in every city don't they shut you off for non-payment? Electric, water, gas, cable, phones, etc. can all be shut off for non-payment. Landlords and banks can evict for non-payment on rent/mortgage. Cars can be repossessed if you don't pay your bill. You kinda have to pay for the things that you want.

Clean water to drink can be obtained for free from public buildings (library, public health, court, etc). No one is being denied water. They just have to go for a walk to get it since they won't pay to have it at home.

MelanieJK
by Silver Member on Jul. 29, 2014 at 11:47 AM

If there are no consequences some people would abuse the system and not prioritize wisely.      If they have a mechanism for proving hardship and assistance programs,    I think this is  jutified with sufficient notice.

I've only seen reports about it locally when a townhome or condo HOA isn't able to pay the utility bill because too many of the homeowners are behind on their HOA dues.      Everyone gets shutoff.      Apparently,   a lot of the owners just stop paying and in some cases abandon their homes altogether.

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