Detroit’s emergency manager spokesperson, Bill Nowling, said the shutoff policy is a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring.
Keep in mind that 38% of Detroiters live in poverty. That per capita income for city residents is $14,861. That the reported unemployment rate is 14.5%.
…the water department’s shutoff policy is uncompromising, making no exceptions for households with infant children, elderly or disabled residents.
Thousands of bills and shutoff notices didn’t reach customers,… the department didn’t spend a dime on advertising or outreach. – DWSD spokeperson spokesman Gregory Eno
Detroit Free Press Editorial: Why Detroit water shutoffs are not an open-and-shut case
A fiasco, an outrage, a budding humanitarian crisis, a community health risk, shortsighted, atrocious public policy — take your pick of terms to describe an aggressive Detroit Water and Sewerage Department campaign to shut off water service to delinquent city customers.
Keep in mind that 38% of Detroiters live in poverty. That per capita income for city residents is $14,861. That the reported unemployment rate is 14.5%. That the water department’s shutoff policy is uncompromising, making no exceptions for households with infant children, elderly or disabled residents.
Then ask yourself how cutting off water to impoverished residents benefits anyone.
Better yet, ask Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. His spokesman, Bill Nowling, said the shutoff policy is a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring.
“No other major city in America has let accounts go delinquent for so long,” Nowling said. “These are difficult decisions. … We have to run the system so it runs for everybody; when we don’t collect the bills, it doesn’t run well. We have a plan in place for lower-income people, or people who have trouble paying their bills to get on a payment plan, so I don’t think you can say we’re callous about the plight of lower-income residents.”
The United Nations isn’t so sure. After receiving a complaint from a citizens’ group, the UN issued a statement warning that cutting off residents who can’t afford to pay from public water and sanitation has far-reaching implications, from public health (let’s remember that deadly third-world conditions such as cholera are driven by lack of sanitation) to child welfare. If shutoffs disproportionately affect African Americans (and in an 83% black city, that’s a fair bet), it could mean the U.S. is in violation of certain international treaties.
The water department says about 90,000 delinquent customers owe about $90 million for water, a staggering amount. Service was cut off for 7,556 customers in April and May, and the department has now added sufficient crews to shut down another 3,000 customers each week. (It’s important to note that delinquent bills don’t create a budget hole, because the shortage is figured into Detroit water rates. Though the Detroit City Council recently approved an 8% rate increase, in part because of unpaid accounts, department spokesman Gregory Eno said it should result in a roughly $5-a-month increase to the average bill.)
The department is targeting customers who owe more than $150, and whose accounts are more than 60 days late. Water department representatives are quick to point to the number of residents who, post-shut-off, immediately settled accounts or set up payment plans. About 60% of customers had service restored within 24 hours, and roughly 40% of the rest in 48 hours.
It’s good policy for the department to work to improve collection rates, and to prompt customers with sufficient funds to pay what they owe. And given the poverty rate in Detroit, it’s smart to identify delinquent accounts before balances soar to an unmanageable sum.
Yet there’s no question that the department’s longstanding history of tolerance for unpaid bills has helped to create a culture that enables nonpayment by those who can afford to. Sound policy would discern who can’t pay, and who won’t, before cutting off service.
But because of the culture of nonpayment that the department helped to create — and with $90 million in bad debt, it’s impossible to argue that the department hasn’t contributed to this problem — such a policy shift should come slowly, and should err on the side of caution.
A department-funded payment assistance plan will relaunch on July 1, months after shutoffs started. It’s inexcusably bad timing. The policy shift should also have included a significant public awareness campaign to combat customers’ justifiable belief that nonpayment won’t lead to a shut off.
Yet the department’s efforts to educate customers that a change was coming has been shoddy, at best. Eno acknowledged that thousands of bills and shutoff notices didn’t reach customers, but said the department didn’t spend a dime on advertising or outreach.
Folks, he said, should simply pay their bills.
That’s true. And for almost any other service but water and sewerage, it’s a defensible argument.
Contrast DWSD’s lack of outreach to another public safety policy shift — the first laws requiring American motorists to wear seat belts were passed in 1984, but the federal government still allocates millions each year to the national “Click it or Ticket” advertising campaign. It was a concerted effort to change Americans’ behavior, in response to a policy shift. Thirty years later, it’s still going.
It’s hard to say what will happen next. Neither the city nor the water department have evinced any signs they’ll recalibrate ill-conceived policy shift, and without direction from Orr or his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, it’s likely shutoffs will continue — while Detroiters’ health and quality of life hang in the balance.
-Detroit Free Press editorial, June 27, 2014