At this point, municipalities probably view it as tradition: Every year around this time, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department increases the wholesale prices of resources, and communities across metro Detroit have to raise rates on their constituents.
The reasons for the increase can almost be preordained: The utility’s infrastructure requires ever-costly improvements, and thousands of accounts are in arrears.
So it came as no surprise to News Hits last week when department heads presented to Detroit City Council a proposed rate hike that would cost Detroiters about $5 more per month. Like we said, it’s routine.
Detroit residents’ average monthly bill for water and sewage is about $65 per month, Sue McCormick, DWSD’s executive director, told councilmembers during a public hearing. That number would jump to $70.67 if City Council approves the rates — a roughly 8.7 percent jump — and would go into effect July 1.
Even if an increase is in order, the timing of the move, we’ll say, is rather unfortunate. For weeks, the department has been blasted for its revamped effort to cut water to thousands of residential accounts. As the Hits reported last week, members from a coalition of activist groups have demonstrated against the shutoffs outside of DWSD’s downtown office in what’s been called the “Freedom Friday” series.
DWSD says the reason is simple: There’s about $118 million in outstanding bills held by more than 150,000 customers. So, in March, the department said it would begin shutting off water to about 3,000 customers a week who were $150 overdue or two months late.
Darryl Latimer, deputy director of the department, touted the supposed success of the decision to councilmembers, saying, “It’s reaping great benefits with the department.”
For instance, Latimer says, in April, the department shut off water to 3,025 customers, and about 65 percent paid their debt. But even so, there are still thousands who couldn’t afford to have their service restored.
The following month, DWSD stepped up its game, cutting service to 4,531 accounts, but only had a 51 percent turn-on rate. Latimer says in the last year DWSD “may have collected $100,000” from the shut-off initiative, but in April it took in about $400,000.
But as critics of the initiative point out, if DWSD is sorely in need of revenue, the department should turn its attention toward some delinquent commercial accounts in the city: Between the VA Hospital, Joe Louis Arena, and Ford Field alone, there’s more than $335,000 in outstanding bills, according to published reports. It’s unclear if they’ve been paid off yet.
That sentiment was prevalent at the public hearing.
“Would you consider prioritizing collection of corporate accounts?” asked Sarah Coffey, a Highland Park resident and local activist. Department officials made no mention of delinquent corporate accounts during their presentation.
Later in the week, we followed up with the department about its process in deciding which accounts are actually shut off and how. In an email to the Hits, DWSD public affairs specialist Curtrise Garner said the department “has a system that identifies 60-day delinquent accounts.”
“At that time, a shut-off notice has been mailed and the customer has not attempted to make payment arrangements,” Garner says.
“Within a few days, more than 60 percent have their water turned back on. We are investigating what happens to other customers.”
If customers are concerned they might fall behind, Garner says they can enroll in a payment plan, which requires a 30 percent payment of the total bill, and then “keep up with the current bill and an additional amount to cover the delinquent charges.”
“A customer must maintain the payment agreement to avoid shutoff status,” she says.
Now, Garner says the commercial accounts with high past-due fees have been in discussion with the department. But it’s unclear what, if any, has been paid yet. Nevertheless, she says, DWSD plans to treat them “the same as our residential customers.”
“If the account is 60 days past due,” she says, “we will start shut-off proceedings.”
Councilman Scott Benson tells News Hits he expects to begin talking with DWSD about the corporate accounts, and what’s being done to address their outstanding fees in the coming weeks.
“There’s some what you’d consider are some very considerable outstanding bills,” he says.
Benson recently addressed residents’ disbelief over signage on DWSD contractor Homlich’s work trucks, which indicated it was a “Water Shut Off” crew. (Imagine what it’s like to look out your window and see a truck pull into your driveway with that decal.)
“From a human side of things,” Benson says, “I think we need to be more delicate.”
Benson says DWSD, rightly so, heeded the call, and told him it was working to have the signage changed.
But in spite of all that, Detroiters will likely now have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay the bill each month, so the councilman urges anyone who’s having an issue to call the DWSD to try finding a solution.
“If you’re having problems,” Benson says, “call the department.” Their number is 313-267-8000.
With regard to those rate increases, City Council was expected to consider them after this rag went to press. Check the online version of this story to see how things shook out.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
There was some news last week that brightened the gloomy faces of News Hits. The Detroit Public Lighting Authority announced it plans to install almost 15,000 more streetlights than previously estimated, as it expects to have $20 million more to work with from an upcoming bond sale.
The authority, approved by Detroit City Council in 2013 to overhaul the city’s dilapidated streetlights, said it would borrow $180 million to roll out a plan to restore neighborhood streetlights. The initiative has been a focal point in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration since he took office in January.
ODIS JONEs, chief executive of the authority, said in a statement that the bonds will allow work to “continue uninterrupted” over the duration of two-year plan.
“It also means 15,000 more lights for residents, bringing our total number of lights to 64,500 LEDS,” he said.
Although Detroit is currently tied up in bankruptcy court, the judge overseeing the case says the lighting authority’s revenues won’t be affected. So the Michigan Finance Authority will move ahead with issuing the bonds, and likely sell them by next month. The lighting authority says the bonds will be paid back solely through portions of a utility tax, an estimated $12.5 million annually.
Though it’s certainly positive news, the first thought on our mind was how the long-overdue lighting system overhaul would be affected by scrappers. Estimates previously suggested upward of 40 percent of the city’s copper-wired lights were busted. (The Michigan Department of Transportation also ran into trouble last year, losing millions on repairs to I-94 lights ripped out by scrappers.)
But Kelsey Hartung, spokesperson for the authority, said the agency doesn’t expect trouble: The lights are constructed using aluminum wiring, not copper.
“None at all,” she says.
In April, the city wrapped up the first phase of a pilot program on lights with overhead wiring. It’s expected to finish the second phase — underground wiring along major corridors like Woodward and Gratiot Avenues, as well as the pilot site — later this summer.
As for the specifics of the new plan, blocks longer than 700 feet will have two or more evenly spaced lights; those that are 300- to 700-feet-long will have one light in the middle of the block. Blocks shorter than 300 feet with a working light won’t be replaced, and will remain until they burn out.
The authority says it’s heading back to the pilot sites to revamp those streets to spec. Besides that, Hartung says, the only change to the plan because of the new funding is that more lights are coming.
“That’s the best thing,” she says.
ABOUT THAT COMMUTER RAIL LINE
Frequent readers of Metro Times might recall investigative reporter Ryan Felton’s deep dive into the history of Detroit’s struggle to implement an efficient public transit system earlier this year.
In what was one of the most depressing facts Felton highlighted, it seems lawmakers today haven’t learned anything. When the state Legislature passed the law establishing the RTA in 2012, lawmakers actually made it more difficult for the board to approve a rail line in the future — such as the proposed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter line. It was essentially a dictated bias. The agency only needed a supermajority — seven of nine votes — to approve, say, a tax to fund operations and upfront capital costs for the region’s highly publicized bus rapid transit plan.
But to construct or operate a rail line, like the Ann Arbor commuter route or the M-1 streetcar downtown, a unanimous vote is required. Considering M-1 Rail officials signaled their intention to transfer the streetcar to the RTA’s oversight after 10 years, it was quite the glaring discrepancy sent from Lansing.
Well, somebody in Lansing must be reading us, because lawmakers in the state House came to their senses last week. Amid the hullabaloo surrounding the state Senate’s inability to pass any sort of road funding package before heading to an unnecessary two-month vacation, the House passed a bill addressing that RTA bias, paving the way for an Ann Arbor-to-Detroit line.
House Bill 5168, which passed in an 82-26 vote, amends the RTA law to allow the authority to operate the M-1 streetcar, as well as the proposed commuter rail line, if a supermajority of board members approve, rather than a unanimous vote. State Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) offered the amendment.
“This rail project would bring a surge of new economic activity to Ann Arbor, Detroit and all the communities in between,” Zemke said in a statement. “I will continue to do everything I can to make this proposal a reality.”
The bill now heads to the state Senate for consideration.