By Joe Guillen
After a year of documented meager water usage at her east-side Detroit home, 60-year-old Rosemary Malone's water bill skyrocketed in January to $373, nearly six times the amount of an average monthly water bill in the city.
The retired Detroit police sergeant's water bills have continued to reflect unusually high water usage. Malone, who lives alone while coping with congestive heart failure, said she repeatedly contacted the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to dispute the charges with no satisfactory results.
Malone now owes more than $1,000 and was issued a shutoff notice, placing her among thousands of Detroiters facing a possible loss of water service as the DWSD carries out what water officials are calling the most aggressive service shutoff campaign in the department's history. The collections would help prevent further rate hikes, officials said.
"All I can say is it's frustrating," Malone said. "I don't owe that bill. There's no one to use that type of water here at my home." Water department spokesman Bill Johnson said Malone's account was audited, and her bills are accurate. He said her billing dispute is unlike the situations many delinquent customers face as they struggle to pay what they owe. Malone said she will continue fighting her charges.
The DWSD's shutoff strategy is designed to prompt delinquent customers in Detroit to pay their bills. As of April, the department collected 79% of billed amounts in the city of Detroit.
That compares to 86% for all customers in the water system. Evidence the department has collected since the shut-offs began in March suggest the tactics are working.
More than 17,000 accounts were on a payment plan as of June 4 compared to fewer than 12,000 on a plan in February, before the campaign began.
"To the extent possible, we will try to direct customers with affordability challenges to assistance programs, where they may be able to acquire help in paying their bills," DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner said in a statement. "But it needs to be made clear that we owe it to our paying customers to be both aggressive and relentless in collecting on delinquent accounts. There are no sacred cows, and no business or individual is sacrosanct from this collection process."
On July 1, the department is planning to relaunch its dormant financial assistance program with the help of the Heat and Warmth Fund, also known as THAW. The program is funded by 50-cent donations from paying water customers. More than $800,000 is available.
THAW will help determine how much customers who qualify for assistance must pay. DWSD officials stressed that all customers will have to pay something toward their bill.
Water service to 7,556 Detroit customers was cut off in April and May, according to the department. Now, the department officials said enough shutoff crews are in place to halt service to 3,000 delinquent accounts per week.
The overall effort to collect on more than 90,000 active accounts owing $90.3 million past due has drawn criticism from activists and a coalition of welfare rights groups. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, called the shutoffs inhumane and "economically short-sighted."
The department's shutoff campaign is targeting customers -- residential and commercial -- who are more than 60 days late on their bills and who owe at least $150.
The average monthly bill for water and sewer service in Detroit is $65, according to the department. An 8.7% increase effective next month is expected to increase bills by $5 a month. The rate hike was partially blamed on delinquent bills.
City Councilman Gabe Leland, who supported the rate increase, said the financial assistance program's availability next month -- about three months after the shutoffs began -- reveals how the DWSD sets its priorities.
"It seems like right now the department is taking no prisoners," Leland said, adding that people should pay their bills. "To shut people off, that's one thing. Let's do it with some more preparation."
A coalition of welfare rights organizations -- including the Detroit People's Water Board -- appealed to the United Nations to have service restored to customers and to prevent more shutoffs. The coalition stated in an eight-page report issued June 18 that it had heard directly from people impacted by the shutoffs, who claimed they were given no warning.
The department issued a news release Tuesday saying "significant misinformation" has circulated about the shutoffs. Of customers who received shutoff notices, 60% paid their accounts in full within 24 hours and had their service restored immediately. Forty percent of the remaining customers had their service restored within 48 hours, according to the department.
But Malone and other customers insist the shutoff strategy is flawed.
Joe Link II, 55, said his water was shut off in May even though he was on a payment plan to catch up on his bills. Link said he was five days late on his payment plan, but was under the impression he had another five days to pay it off before his service would be shut off.
"It's just a big money grab," said Link, who lives on Detroit's far west side. "I'm still within your rules, but you're still shutting my water off."
Link said his service was turned back on as soon as he settled his bill at the DWSD's customer service center on Grand River Avenue. He said many others were at the center complaining they were being shut off while on a payment plan.
Theresa Redden, commercial operations specialist for the DWSD, said customers have 10 days to pay after receiving an initial shutoff notice. That 10-day window does not restart if a month goes by and the customer receives another bill with another delinquency notice. "We're not a social service agency," said Johnson, of the water department. "At the same time, we're not insensitive to the needs of those who can't pay. We have less concern about those who refuse to pay."
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