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New Detroit water assistance program could become reality this week

Water faucet
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Lack of funds threaten to shut down a monitoring system for southeast Michigan's drinking water.

Detroit water department officials have a proposal meant to ensure everyone in the city can afford water.

The Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) would give qualifying low-income customers a fixed monthly payment.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Gary Brown says data show that’s a key part of any utility assistance plan.

“When you’re economically disadvantaged, you need a fixed amount of payment to make any monthly payment,” Brown said. “So we hope to do that with this program.”

The program would also freeze and cap the level of past debts delinquent customers have to pay off at $50 per month, Brown said. If customers make those payments, their arrearage would be reduced and then eliminated over time.

The program would be funded by setting aside a small percentage of the regional water system’s revenues for the WRAP, as well as contributions from local social service agencies.

The program would also offer plumbing audits and subsidize up to $1000 worth of repairs for those who qualify. DWSD would also aim to work with customers on a more individual basis, and connect them with other needed social services.

Brown says he’s “duty-bound” by the city charter to “go over the top to make sure that our citizens have safe drinking water, safe sanitary conditions, and an environmentally sound city.”

Critics of the city’s mass water shutoffs and previous efforts at assistance, which had focused on getting customers on payment plans under strict terms, praised Brown’s “change in tone,” and called elements of the plan promising.

But many still believe the city’s refusal to implement a true income-based affordability plan, and offer greater amnesty for accumulated debts (which average about $660 per delinquent customer), ensures that water will continue to be unaffordable for some Detroiters.

A parallel recommendation, developed by a water affordability task force, calls for an “increasing block” rate structure.

That would charge customers a minimal rate up to a certain level of water usage, meant to guarantee “universal access” to a baseline amount of water. Rates would jump up in blocks as consumption went up.

There’s a paradox to such tiered rate structures, though. Since it provides incentives for reduced consumption, it could lead to lower overall revenues for the water system — which officials say needs a certain level of revenue to cover fixed costs. That, in turn, could drive rates up further.

Officials still need more detailed data about consumption patterns to come up with a workable rate structure, said Eric Rothstein, a water consultant who helped design the WRAP.

The hope is that these measures will “not only provide relief, but enhance collections … that will allow us to sustain this program going forward,” Rothstein said.

The program needs the approval of the new, regional Great Lakes Water Authority, which could vote on it as soon as this week.

The GLWA, which emerged from Detroit’s bankruptcy case, took over as the main water and sewer service provider to southeast Michigan Jan. 1.

DWSD is now just another wholesale customer of the GLWA, though the city technically retains ownership of the whole system. CEO Sue McCormick told The Detroit News this weekthat customer communities could see another 4% base rate increase this year.

About 44,000 DWSD customers are on payment plans right now, Brown said.

He admitted that there are still serious deficiencies within DWSD, particularly when it comes to accurate billing and customer service — and the plan’s success depends on getting it right.

“If we don’t implement it, it doesn’t mean anything,” Brown said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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