More than 10,000 Detroit residents apply for water program
A record number of Detroiters enrolled in a new water accessibility program have saved an average of $63 off their September bills — but the city still lacks sufficient funding to keep it running beyond the next year and a half .
The City of Detroit’s Water and Sewer Department launched the Lifeline plan over the summer to offer flat monthly rates between $18 and $56, depending on income and water usage. More than 10,800 people have applied for Lifeline so far, already exceeding 4,000 households part of another affordability program in any given year.
The Lifeline plan is an 18-month pilot program paid for with $15 million in state, regional and federal dollars, DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said in an email. This funding could support 20,000 households in the Lifeline plan. City officials are still working to find other sources of funding to continue the new program. A recent proposal would use funds from the department’s agreement with American Water Resources (AWR) — a water and sewer line protection plan — to support the program.
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For years, advocates have been asking for a way to deal with high water bills and nonpayment shutdowns. The city of Detroit’s moratorium on pandemic-era shutdowns expires at the end of the year, and officials said those enrolled in the payment plans will not be disconnected.
As of Oct. 3, 10,815 Detroiters have applied for the Lifeline Plan, Peckinpaugh said.
Of these customers, 4,224 received their first invoice in September. Another 6,591 applicants are in the process of entering the program or have already been enrolled and should see the changes reflected in their October bill, he said.
Wayne Metropolitan Action Agency – the organization that recruits the Detroiters – is working on the large number of applications received when the program was initially launched. The typical turnaround time for a decision is 7 to 10 business days, Peckinpaugh said.
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Last year, the average monthly bill for a residential customer was $81.62, according to DWSD.
Customer water usage must remain below 4,500 gallons per month to be billed at a flat rate. If a household exceeds this amount, they will be charged a higher rate of approximately $4.50 for each additional 748 gallons, or 1 centum cubic foot (CCF), plus a sewage volume charge of 5.54 $ per CCF. If a family’s income qualifies them for the first tier of the program and they end up using 6,000 gallons of water, their bill would be $38.06 instead of $18, according to the DWSD.
Peckinpaugh said of the more than 4,200 registrants, 95% of households use less than 4,500 gallons of water per month. Two hundred hearths are beyond use. Wayne Metro performs water checks on these homes to determine if leaks are causing high water usage.
Maxine Medina signed up for the Lifeline Plan earlier this year. She said the program would be a relief since she would have to pay $18 a month.
Medina, 54, had been out of work for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is now back at work, but for several months she has relied on other sources of income – unemployment, savings, her partner’s job and odd jobs.
She was struggling to cover her expenses and felt like she had to make some tough choices. Medina’s bill before joining the program averaged $62 to $68 per month.
“It’s mentally exhausting,” she said. “You are trying to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
When Medina opened her most recent bill, however, she didn’t see the savings she was hoping for. She thought she hadn’t signed up for the program yet. But she was accused of using more than the approved amount of water.
Medina said she had been traveling for a month and a half and no one really used water in her home. She lives alone. However, she watered her lawn at the end of the summer and sometimes a friend uses her washing machine, which she thinks could explain the usage.
“We can put her in touch with our home water audit team as soon as possible to make sure she doesn’t have any leaks or plumbing issues that may have caused the spike,” Shama Mounzer, executive director of empowerment and inclusion services for Wayne Metro, said in an email.
Peckinpaugh said it was possible the water leaked or someone used his outside water tap. If she had a leak, she can apply for a “leak credit” with a receipt showing it was fixed, he said.
Medina’s experience echoes some concerns raised by advocates at the program’s launch.
If a customer exceeds usage, Wayne Metro provides a free water audit and plumbing repairs, according to the DWSD.
The DWSD collected feedback from residents – via an online form, registration fairs and meetings of the Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) – from late June to September. Comments ranged from praise for the program to questions about eligibility. Others expressed concern that the usage cap was too low and said the plan didn’t go far enough.
Commentators have recommended a host of changes, including asking the Detroit City Council to pass a formal ordinance to enact a water affordability plan to encourage DWSD to be more flexible about the level of usage. depending on the number of people in a house.
Peckinpaugh said the DWSD is reviewing the comments and will return to the Board of Water Commissioners within the next three months with a possible amendment.
We The People of Detroit (WPD), a water advocacy organization, has been in constant communication with the DWSD about their concerns regarding the Lifeline plan.
Tiana Starks, communications director for WPD, said 4,500 gallons is a low number for low-income customers who have multiple people living in the same household.
“Overall, we think the plan is a step in the right direction,” Starks said. “Our concerns are about long-term funding and the gallons available under the plan.”
How to pay for the program in the future
When WPD asked DWSD Director Gary Brown in August what would happen at the end of the pilot plan if no funding was secured, he replied that they intended to approach the governor and the US legislature. state to secure funding to keep the plan running through 2024, and will advocate for funding at the federal level.
The water department continues to be in communication with elected officials and philanthropy and water advocates, Peckinpaugh said.
“DWSD continues to support the national coalition that encourages Congress and the EPA to establish a long-term Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP),” he said.
At a Sept. 21 meeting of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, Brown suggested that the DWSD could support the Lifeline plan with money the department receives from AWR, its supplier for watermain protection plans. and sewer offered to Detroit residents.
In exchange for DWSD’s approval of AWR’s water and sewer line protection programs for Detroit customers, the water department will receive 2% of AWR’s annual registrations for “community programs.” . This percentage is what Brown hopes to offer as annual support for the Lifeline plan.
“I think we’re going to make recommendations on three or four ways we can help our low-income customers with the dollars that come in,” Brown said at the meeting.
The contract, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, estimates that AWR will provide DWSD between $800,000 and $2.1 million over the first 10 years.
Peckinpaugh said AWR’s first payout will likely occur around January and is based on the first seven months of signups, rather than the full 12 months since approval in May. Since then, approximately 12,000 Detroit residents have enrolled in the AWR program.
Most of them have signed up for the combined water and sewer line protection plan that costs $7.98 a month, according to Benjamin Brockschmidt, director of strategic partnerships at AWR.
With the current number of registrations, Outlier Media and Free Press estimate that approximately $13,000 will be awarded to DWSD in January. Brockschmidt said that figure is accurate.
The DWSD and AWR declined to provide a full-year enrollment estimate. Peckinpaugh said a better estimate can be provided at the end of the calendar year when there is a final enrollment count.
Peckinpaugh said Brown will present to the BOWC at the earliest December finance committee meeting on how best to use those funds for the Lifeline plan.
How to get help
The next enrollment fair, where residents can learn more about the program and apply in person, will be October 24 from 3-7 p.m. at Grace Community Church (21001 Moross Road). Residents must register first by calling 313-386-9727.
For more information on the Lifeline plan, go to www.waynemetro.org/dwsdlifeline/, or call Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727.
Contact Malak Silmi, Report for America Corps member for Outlier Media, at [email protected] or 734-985-0377.
Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility forDetroit Free Press andDetroit Bridgeas a body member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support his work atbit.ly/freepRFA. Contact Nushrat: [email protected]; 313-348-7558. Follow her on Twitter:@NushratR. Register forBridge Detroit Newsletter.Become a subscriber to Free Press.