Detroit's Crackdown To Collect Owed Money Means Thousands Lose Water

Melissa Block speaks with Steve Pardo, a reporter with The Detroit News, about how and why Detroit is aggressively shutting off water service to residents.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Detroit, more than 8,000 people have had their water shut off. There could be tens of thousands more shut-offs to come. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is cracking down to collect some $90 million owed by water customers. Critics of the policy say it's indiscriminate with no exceptions for the sick, elderly or poor, in a city with a poverty rate of 38 percent. Steve Pardo has been covering the story for the Detroit News, and he joins me now. And, Steve, this number is pretty staggering. Fully half of the city's water accounts are overdue.

STEVE PARDO: It is. It is. And I think that's been a problem with DWSD is that they've allowed these accounts to be overdue for a long time, and that's why now we're at a - of almost a 50 percent noncompliance rate here in the city.

BLOCK: Well, how late do you have to be in paying your water bill to get a shut-off notice?

PARDO: Well, they're cracking down now where it's two months late or $150, which is - it's about $75 a month is your average Detroiter's water bill.

BLOCK: And when you talk with some of the people who have had their water shut off, what stories are you hearing?

PARDO: Well, they just didn't have the money. They're just outraged that it happened. They didn't know they were going to do it so quickly - just the stories of surprise really.

BLOCK: We should say that of these 8,000 people who've had their water shut off, I'm assuming a good percentage of those have paid their bills and their water has been restored?

PARDO: They do. They get it back pretty quickly, and DWSD is quick to point that out. And they've also got about 17,000 of Detroit customers enrolled in a payment plan which is - what they're really telling people to do is to call them or contact them to make sure you can at least be paying something or at least get on - involved in these plans that they have.

BLOCK: Well, the department has come under a fair amount of criticism for this policy that appears heartless and discriminate as we said. How have they responded to that?

PARDO: Well, they're sticking to their guns pretty well with this saying, we know there's people out there who can't pay their bills, but we think there are a lot more who are simply choosing to not pay their bills, which is why they want them to come in and get on these payment plans. They're getting a lot of support in that way from the suburbs. There's always been a big - a big fight between the suburban customers and Detroit customers.

BLOCK: In terms of?

PARDO: In terms of rates and of water. I mean, the people - when the suburbanites see these stories that a lot of the Detroiters aren't paying their bills, they seem to be very little sympathy for them.

BLOCK: Has there been a lot of criticism, Steve, of the department itself for letting this get to be such a problem, for not taking this on sooner?

PARDO: Yeah, a lot of human rights groups have spoken out. Even - in fact - even the United Nations has come out with a statement on this thing that it's, you know - disconnection of the water service because of failure to pay is a violation of the human rights process. But there's the problem there - even the U.N. continued to say that the disconnections 'cause of nonpayments should only be possible if it's shown that the resident is choosing not to pay, instead of being unable to pay. And that's the challenge that the department has, is figuring out who can pay and who simply cannot.

BLOCK: Steve, there's some controversy, too, just about how water rates are set in Detroit. Why don't you explain how that works?

PARDO: Yeah, water rates are set - the department comes up with a number that it needs to operate its system, and then it sets rates accordingly. So they've been going up basically every year. It's an old system. It needs constant upgrades. But when they don't get the numbers that they need, their only option is to further raise the rates. The planned rate increase for this year in the city of Detroit was about 4.6 percent. But it ended up being about 8.7 percent because the department said that was mainly because of noncompliance of payments.

BLOCK: So the people who are paying their bills are going to be even more outraged because they're covering the cost for those who aren't.

PARDO: That's precisely right. They'll - the Detroit rates don't affect suburban rates, but all the Detroiters who are paying their water bills are also paying for those who are not.

BLOCK: Steve Pardo, thanks for talking with us.

PARDO: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Steve Pardo is a reporter with the Detroit News.

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