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Detroit mayor announces plan to help people pay water bills

Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

After weeks of criticism and international attention, Detroit is revamping the way it handles delinquent water accounts.

That plan includes waiving late payment penalties and turn-on fees, and beefing up staff and hours at customer service centers.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says there will also be more straightforward payment plans and financial assistance for low-income residents.

“For those who don't take advantage of this, the shut-offs are going to start again,” Duggan said. “You can't just take a bill and not act on it. We can help you if you step forward, but we can't help you if you don't step forward."

Starting next week, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will start processing applications from low-income customers for assistance.  A “10-30-50” payment plan will allow customers with delinquent accounts to pay 10 percent of their past-due balance, and pay the rest over 24 months. If a customer misses a payment, they will need to reapply for the program and put down 30 percent of their balance. A second missed payment would require a 50 percent payment.

Duggan says people who want to help can donate to an assistance fund that will be administered by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Customers already enrolled in DTE’s assistance plan will automatically qualify.

"We need donations. When somebody says water should be free, I don't know how to filter water and pipe it from the river to somebody's house at no cost,” Duggan said.

Duggan says part of the problem in the past has been that customers didn’t know when their water would actually be shut off, if at all. So when shut-offs resume August 25, the notifications will be more clear, and assistance information will be included. The department will also put a handbill on a home’s doorknob a week before a shut-off.

But activists who have protested the shut-offs say they're still not happy.

Representatives from the group Detroit Water Brigade met with Mayor Duggan this morning. Their top demand: a permanent moratorium on water shut-offs.

"And we were told flat-out that a permanent moratorium is not an option,” said Atpeace Makita. “So as an organization, we feel what else is there really to talk about, if you're not seeing the necessity of water for people."

Between 17,000 and 18,000 customers have had their water shut off since the city started cracking down on delinquent accounts.

Officials say 60 to 70 percent of those customers have since had their water turned back on. An unknown number of the homes that have been shut off are abandoned.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.