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Saginaw suspends water shutoffs - at least for now

Melissa Jeanty via Unsplash

Starting Tuesday, Saginaw city officials are “suspending” new water shutoffs, after drawing criticism for sending out 750 shutoff notices earlier this month.

About 236 households have been disconnected since June 15, and 95 still haven’t had their water restored, said John Stemple, the city’s Director of Neighborhood Services and Inspections. But now, he says, they won’t shut off any more homes for at least a week. 

“Beginning tomorrow, we have basically suspended the actual shut off,” Stemple said Monday. “However, we're going to use a process that we've used in the past, by putting door hangers on those customers that are getting close to shut off. And that notice will say basically, ‘We're going to come back after a certain number of days.’ And we're also going to provide contact information for the different [assistance] programs that the people can take advantage of. And hopefully that gives folks some more time to get squared away.”

Residents who receive a notice on their door will have between 7-10 days before being shut off, he said. And because assistance programs require residents to provide multiple pieces of documentation, Stemple says they can just show the city their application to “further delay the shutoff as well.”

The state’s water shutoff moratorium ended this spring. But some residents and city leaders say many are still struggling financially from the pandemic.

“This is a world-wide pandemic,” said Councilwoman Monique Lamar-Silvia in an emailed statement Monday. “People didn't know this was going to happen. They’ve been forced into impossible choices. They didn’t know if they were going to pay bills or eat. Now you turn their water off, and they have to pay that reconnect fee. I’m concerned about the snowball effect that this will have, not only on the people who had their water cut off, but also their families and their everyday living.”

Community activist Jeffrey Bulls organized a rally at city hall Monday to protest the shutoffs. With $52 millionin federal relief from the American Rescue Plan Act earmarked for the city, Bulls said, the reported $1 million in past due water bills isn’t enough reason to turn off peoples’ water.

“They can't specifically, as a municipality, they can't just say, ‘OK, we're going to transfer this here [to these unpaid bills.]’ But what they can do is set up a program themselves, that the citizens can then plug into, and they can wipe this clean. And even if...after that, you can say, ‘OK, we're going to have a zero tolerance policy [on unpaid water bills] after 2022...that would be something that we could talk about. But to actually kick people while they're down is very cruel, very cold and very tone deaf.”

The city has given the United Way of Saginaw County an initial $115,000 for financial assistance for people behind on their water bills, said UWSC president and CEO Audra Davis. But so far, only 66 people have actually applied for that assistance.

“To be honest, I thought we would spend $115,000 in a week, and we’d be going back to the city requesting more financial assistance,” Davis said Monday. “And to date, we’ve processed very minimal assistance. And that’s because there’s been very minimal applications. That’s surprising. It troubles me.”

The United Way sent direct mailers about the available assistance to 300-500 households with some of the largest balances. They’ve also been trying to publicize a federal program specifically for renters, called Covid Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) that can also help people with their utility bills.

“We've reached out to hundreds of households saying help is here, and please reach out,” Davis said. "And even more intriguing is the fact that the application is very, very simple.”

To qualify, residents must provide a copy of their water shut off notice, a state photo ID in the name of the homeowner, proof of income or unemployment, and a completed application. Residents can also call 2-1-1 for additional assistance. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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