WATER: City officials quiet on shut-offs; DWSD dysfunction victimizes many
By T. Kelly
DETROIT — Although Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr promised citizens that emergency management would mean improved city services, their program of water shut offs has left thousands of residents without the most essential service: water.
Citizens who lined up outside the west side DWSD payment center, July 8, told stories revealing DWSD’s dysfunction more than the customers’ delinquency.
DWSD reports it disconnected 500 households in March; 3,035 in April; and 4,531 in May. In June, there were 7,210 shutoffs and 3,118 turn-ons, leaving over 4,000 households, and an an untold number of people, without water.
While the United Nations has expressed concern, no elected city official has. Mayor Mike Duggan’s spokesperson John Roach said since Emergency Manager Orr controls the water department, the mayor is “frustrated over a function he doesn’t have control over” and that “this could be handled a lot different than it was.”
Citizens are shocked by the shut offs — especially with no notice — and are outraged that the elderly, children, the sick are without water.
“This emergency manger was supposed to help … but we’ve been bamboozled,” April Campbell said. Campbell and her husband Edmund said she came home from work at 5 p.m., June 29, to find her water shut off. After being unemployed, he has just found work following graduation from a medical billing program. The couple said they received no disconnect notice and worked out a payment plan for their arrears.
“We vote in people thinking they’re on our side … and they should be looking out for us, they are ones we trust in the city of Detroit. And they let other people come in and treat us like it don’t matter. They treat us like … it don’t matter. And without us, it don’t run,” she said pointing to the center.
Other residents reported they had been shutoff with no notice.
Shirlane Harris showed her bill. It had a due date of July 15. Her water was cut off July 7.
“I should have had until the 15th before they shut it off,” she said.
Her bill shows a past due balance of $860 and that she owes $52.40. Harris said she has been paying $50 a month for a long time. The bill has no disconnect notice, only the warning: “Past Due Notice. If past due balance is not paid immediately service is subject to disconnection.”
Harris said, “Usually they’ll send you one with the red lettering to let you know it’ll be disconnected.”
Another resident from Russell Woods said she had no notice of shutoffs for any of her three properties. However, when after a 35-minute wait she reached a DWSD clerk on the phone, she was informed that since she was in arrears for $80 on a $126 bill, and $80 on a $120 bill and hadn’t paid in over 60 days, she was subject to immediate shut off. She had no notice.
In a phone interview, DWSD public relations spokesperson Curtriss Garner insisted “everyone gets a shut off notice.” She said, “many people tell you they didn’t get one, but they do. It’s automatic.”
A DWSD clerk reached on the department’s payment phone line said those in arrears must pay 30 percent of the outstanding bill and a $30 reconnect fee. Payment arrangements can be made, the department insists.
DWSD is paying Homrich Inc., $5.6 million over two years to execute the shutoffs and reconnect accounts brought current. Homrich is a demolition company with a site at 2660 East Grand Boulevard, Detroit, but headquartered in Carleton, Mich.
Customers coming out of the payment center said DWSD clerks refused to take partial payments from customers.
“People take advantage sometimes (by not paying their bills), (but there) should be a way where they give a notice, and you make arrangements before (you’re) shut off,” said a woman who would only provide her first name, Gerri. “It’s so hard sometimes in this city. My auto insurance is going up again. I have an excellent driving record. And it’s so unfair. It’s gotten better for some, but it’s so hard.”
Unemployment is running close to 50 percent in the city, and the tax base has been depleted by bank foreclosures on 72,000 properties in two years.
According to DWSD, 50 percent of their revenue goes to operating costs — keeping the water flowing — and half goes to paying the debts.
Jerry Goldberg, Moratorium Now, points out a bond issue of over $500 million approved by voters in 2009 was not used by the department for repairs and infrastructure as intended, but was instead paid to the banks to settle outstanding SWAP agreements.
DSWD has left local businesses untouched, despite reports that at least a third of the $90 million in outstanding accounts comes from commercial properties.
The hard times in the city are legend. Detroiters pay the highest auto insurance rates in the country. Gov. Snyder cut off cash assistance to 11,000 families last fall and shortened the period for the jobless to collect unemployment assistance. He raised taxes on the elderly both by reducing the homestead exemption and by taxing pensions for the first time in state history. The water shutoffs in such conditions are inhumane in the eyes of many residents.
“It’s inhumane that seniors, mothers, single mothers with children, fixed income who can’t survive with what they have,” said April Campbell.
“It’s like they’re trying to get us out of here for some reason,” Edmund Campbell chimed in.
Some think there is a reason and say it is the Detroit Future City plan.
Early in his term, former Mayor Dave Bing said the city would be downsized. He withdrew that word after a public outcry. However, according to an analysis of Bing’s Detroit Future City Plan by Wayne State Professor Peter Hammer, downsizing is what the plan is about.
By forcing residents out of abandoned, largely vacant areas of the city, planners hope to create areas for drainage ponds and mini-forests where there were are now neighborhoods, Hammer said.
Hantz farms has begun the forestation process with acres of trees planted on east side empty lots they received from the city for far less than market value.
In the steady rain that fell July 8, customers huddled in a line outside the DWSD center.
“Things like this (the line outside) is an example of the systemic problem within the water department,” said Kate McClaine. “This is them taking extra precautions (for their own safety) and wasting the citizens’ time because of the protests (against the cutoffs). There’s not a question they’re afraid things are going to get out of control if there are too many people in there. So rather than implement something that moves the system along quickly, they’re holding up all these people who have places to go and things to do and lives to live. And they’re just trying to pay their bill,” McClaine said.
There were two clerks working inside, customers said. No one was admitted without a security guard opening the door. Those with checks or credit cards got in first, those with cash forced to stand outside longer.
“We’re in the heart of one of the worst places… Here you’ve got 20 people standing with cash in their pockets,” McClaine said. “This is trouble waiting to happen. … Why put the citizens at risk for a utility?”
Watch video interviews with Detroit residents who have had their water shut off at www.MichiganCitizen.com.