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Detroit water dept: Our mistake was being "naive" about furor

Supporters of the Michigan Green Party visit the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.
Michigan Green Party

"Saying you work for the (Detroit Water and Sewerage) department these days is a bit like professing you molest children," wrote reporter Peter Rugh in his recent Vice article, "Who bled Detroit dry?"

OK, that's a tad much. 

But there's certainly a besieged feeling in the city's water department building these days.

For instance, getting into last week's Board of Water Commissioner's meeting, as a reporter, involved three security officers and approval from multiple public relations staff.

Waiting around, it was hard not to think: If this department is worried about bad press, well, the horse is out of the barn.  

Immediately after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was granted more power over the city's water system yesterday, he acknowledged the resentment and anger directed toward the department. 

"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," Duggan said in a statement Tuesday. 

"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."

So how are those payments going?

DWSD spokesman Greg Eno walked us through some initial updates last week. 

In first 48 hours of the moratorium, 900 Detroiters sign up for payment plan 

Eno says at the beginning of March, about 11,000 Detroit water accounts were on payment plans. 

Then the shut-offs really ramped up. 

And 90 days later, 17,500 people had signed up for payment plans. 

"If we were guilty of anything, it was being a little naive in how this was going to be received by the activists..."

"Which is good," says Eno.

"It's telling us that people came to us, reached out, expressed a need, and everybody who's on a payment plan, their water is on."

When the department pressed pause on the shut-offs last Monday, it took only two days for an additional 901 people to sign up for payment plans.

Still, about 8,000 accounts are in shut-off status – at least on paper.

The department is sending contractors around to thousands of those account holders to see if they've rigged a way to keep the water on illegally.  

Meanwhile, Eno says they're doing their best to let people know help is available. 

"I think some people are afraid to approach us," says Eno. "I think they’re overwhelmed by their balances. The average delinquent account for residents is about $530. I think they’re saying, 'Oh, I don’t know what I can do, I don't know if the water department can help me,'" he says. 

Couldn't all of this have been avoided if the department had done this before turning off the water? 

Until the massive water shut-off campaign began in March, Detroiters had no evidence to suggest that being behind on their bills would mean losing their water.

"We had been derelict, frankly, in our responsibilities to collect delinquencies," says Eno. 

So, couldn't all of this pain been avoided if the department had simply let people know that the shut-offs were really coming this time? So that these payment plans and financial assistance could have been arranged before thousands of families, children, and sick people lost their water? 

At first, Eno demurs, saying that's "Monday morning quarterbacking."

"If we made a mistake, it was in underestimating the furor that was going to arise from us collecting delinquent bills."

Then: "Well, it's a legitimate question, except, if we made a mistake, it was in underestimating the furor that was going to arise from us collecting delinquent bills."

That was the mistake? Underestimating the furor?

"If we knew there was going to be this furor about collecting – that's the thing, this is a collection effort, it's not a shut-off effort, that's the other thing that's been misrepresented."

A collection effort done by shutting off thousands and thousands of water accounts. 

"If that's what it took to get people's attention, then that's what we were going to ... that's what we did," says Eno. 

"I don't think it's a mistake to make whatever efforts we have to make to whittle down an $89 million dollar delinquency. I don't believe that we made a policy mistake. I think ... if we were guilty of anything, it was being a little naive in how this was going to be received by the activists, the people protesting, the coalitions of neighborhood groups – who went to the United Nations by the way, dragged the United Nations into this, the United Nations didn't get into this proactively, they were brought into this by these groups."

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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