The city of Detroit is preparing to start shutting off service to residents who are behind on their water bills. About half of the city’s residential customers, 140,000 homes, are more than two months in arrears.
As soon as the weather is warm enough, officials with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department say they’ll send shutoff crews to 3,000 homes a week.
But lots of businesses are in the red, too, as is the school system, and the city itself, which is in bankruptcy. Together, those players owe more than $50 million.
Darryl Latimer, the water department's deputy director and the person leading the collection efforts, says settling up with the city government is a work in progress.
“You have some departments that are behind, some departments that are disputing some changes,” he said. “And in some cases, it’s not clear-cut who’s responsible for what facilities.”
Latimer is negotiating. He is also trying to be patient as staff for a new mayor get their bearings. “We were close with the schools,” he said. The city's school system has back bills of $3.3 million. “However, we were able to work out an agreement, and they’re on schedule with their payment arrangement.”
Then there are businesses. More than a third of the city’s commercial customers are at least 60 days behind, for a total of $22 million.
“Yeah, that’s kind of high,” Latimer said, “but a lot of those are in dispute.”
Some business owners say they are being overcharged on a new stormwater-drainage fee the city imposed last year. They are withholding payment on just those fees while making payments on other charges.
That leaves residents. Latimer said he doesn’t want to shut off the water for half of the city’s households, and he doesn't expect to.
He thinks some people who can pay just haven’t gotten around to it yet. “The water bill is not seen as very important,” he said. “It ranks behind your gas, electric, and even your cable bill here. Until we start to step up enforcement.”
He said that since news came out that shutoffs were in the works, foot traffic had increased at the department’s payment centers.
Word of the shutoffs prompted Yvette English to seek help with her bill. Her total: $3,000. She said the debt crept up on her.
“I wasn’t paying it all the time," she said, "but every time I could pay a little something on it, I did.”
Twenty dollars here and there didn’t make much of a dent. The bill is $85 a month. English has minimal income -- she cuts hair out of her house. She has three teen-age kids. She was in trouble with the electric utility and the gas company, too.
“I just keep trying to make arrangements with them,” she said. “I’ve tried making a lot of payment plans with them, and some arrangements, I couldn’t keep.”
The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency is helping her get caught up with the water bill.
The agency expects to have $1.5 million to help residents avoid water shutoffs. But there are more than 140,000 households at risk, with debts of more than $70 million.
Katy Kibbey, the agency’s program director for Detroit, paused when asked about that disparity.
“I don’t know if I even have words,” she said. “It is stunning. I think of families, I think of children. Water is a basic right. People can’t live without water."