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HP residents want answers on water bills

Sam Billington

Sam Billington

Mayor in D.C., misses meeting

By T. Kelly and Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

HIGHLAND PARK — Angry citizens facing water bills in the thousands of dollars packed the Highland Park Council meeting, Jan. 22, only to discover the person responsible for their grief, Mayor DeAndre Windom, was still in Washington, D.C. for the Inaugural events.

Residents received water bills days before Christmas for the first time in over a year — many have yet to receive a bill — and the amounts of the bills ranged from the high hundreds to thousands of dollars reflecting a year’s usage.

Citizens wanted to know how to make payment arrangements for the bills, why it took a year for the city to get the bills out, was there a rate increase and were the bills actual or estimated.

Although council members voted approval of the new Water Recalculation Assessment Program (WRAP), they could not answer citizens’ questions, noting they too were in the dark, uninformed and questioning the city’s water billing process, while also concerned about the city’s switch to Detroit water service.

“The mayor can’t run from this,” said Councilmember Rodney Patrick. “The mayor has to explain to folks what’s going on. …We haven’t received any documentation on any questions we have. There have been no answers. I’m disappointed at that.”

Council repeatedly told residents they did not know if there had been a rate change applied to the cumulative bills or with the switch to Detroit’s system, nor under what authority the city made the switch.

Any contracts have to be approved by Council and that had not happened.

Council President Chris Woodard and Council Pro Tem Norma Lewis challenged Windom’s authority in allowing Highland Park to switch to using Detroit water.

“The mayor cannot make contracts on his own,” Woodard said.

Councilperson Henry noted, “A bill will come for use of Detroit water and this council will be asked to pay it. We don’t know what we are being charged.”

Woodward said he sent the mayor a letter Jan. 2 asking for information about the water situation, but had not heard anything.

Windom, reached by phone in D.C., said the bills were actual — meters were read and there had not been a rate increase since he’s been in office.

He added that a contract does not exist between Highland Park and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) for the use of its system and that residents would continue to be charged the HP rate.

“There was an arrangement made where (DSWD) would supply water … That was because of an emergency situation,” Windom said. “This is not nothing new. The plant has went down for various reasons in the past. I don’t know why people are trying to act like this is something new.”

Citizens will pay the same rate, Windom said.

In December, HP residents received water bills for hundreds to thousands of dollars. The letters outlining the WRAP program accompanied the first bill sent to some residents in over a year. It directed residents to “review the water bill and the included WRAP Pay Agreement … Complete and sign the pay agreement and submit it back to the Water Department within thirty (30) days of the included bill (no later than Jan. 24).” The notice also directed residents to express their commitment to pay a quarter of the total bill and the remaining balance on a payment plan. Shutoffs would result for failure to comply, the notice warned.

A former city official, who wishes to remain anonymous, says residents could make their own payment arrangements and were not obligated to the “quarter payment of the total bill.”

“It was poorly communicated,” he said.

However, citizens at the Council meeting said there was little negotiation when they tried to deal with city staff — by phone or in person. Residents told of being snubbed and treated poorly by the workers at the water window in the basement of city hall. One resident said he watched a woman leave the window in tears after trying to get a print out of her meter readings from a rude employee.

E-mail appeals to the city didn’t work either, one Massachusetts Street resident said. “I filed my dispute online. It was returned to me with the message that the person ‘was not here,’” A.J. McGee said.

Residents acknowledged they owed for water but were dismayed by the year’s delay in getting billed, asking why. Some said for the last year they had been paying a monthly amount so they would not be caught by surprise when bills were sent out.

Clarence Pye, president of the East Grand and Brush Block Club, described for the Council the confusion many residents felt.

“The mayor stood at this podium and stated the water bills were not retroactive; there was no rate increase; no penalties and no water shut offs,” Pye said. “I heard on the news this morning the bills had to be paid by the 24th and that if you don’t come up in the WRAP program, your water will be shut off. You’ve got residents with $900 a month income with $4,000 water bills.”

Worse yet, Pye said, was that many in his block club still had not received a bill in over a year.

Bernice Mia of the Richton block club echoed that complaint.

“I have no bill yet,” Mia said. “I was promised (one) on the 14th, but I haven’t received one; not yet. This is a shame before God.”

Many expressed confusion over how the bills were generated since they had not seen anyone reading meters.

According to Woodard, the Council questioned at what rate the usage was charged and whether there was a rate increase reflected in the bills.

Windom said in the phone interview that he could not state for sure the rate amount at the moment but that there was no rate increase in the current bills.

Everyone was charged at the same rate as the last bill they received, he said.

Woodard explained that when Windom took over in January 2012 he reassigned the water plant staff to work in city hall, and wanted to bring the billing process current before sending any more bills. Woodward said he encouraged the mayor to urge residents to pay monthly amounts so that some money would be coming in and the plant could operate.

Windom has claimed that under former mayor Hubert Yopp, the billings were not current and that was why he stopped the billing process to bring things up to date before mailing out bills.

Yopp admitted in a telephone interview that when he took office in 2008, his administration faced a problem with “delinquent billing.”

But he said he imparted a plan that put people on the street reading meters in a timely manner, which was in place when he left office.

“The first of 2012, I understand there was a change of personnel in the water department and some of the meter reading personnel was transferred to the water plant,” Yopp told the Michigan Citizen. “With no one reading the meters, how can you efficiently tell me what my bill is?”

Yopp says he made his last payment in May 2012 and stopped making payments because of a “rumor” the city was going to use Detroit’s water.

“The mayor made an announcement that bills would be forgiven and he would not go retroactive. Now he’s reaching back and charging water for the past year. How he can lawfully, legally do this? I have no idea.”

Yopp said if the cumulative bill issue was to be handled by a court of law, the city would have to show what amount was used.

In the meantime, some citizens asked if the city would forgive the bills.

The water plant runs as an enterprise fund, Woodard said. Under Michigan law that means the operation must pay for itself and cannot forgive debts.

The security of the city’s water plant was also of concern to many. Woodard said auxiliary police were watching the facility.

Contact Zenobia Jeffries at zjeffries@michigancitizen.com

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