Thinking for Ourselves: Duggan Unraveling

By Shea Howell
May 8, 2015

Unless Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan makes some major shifts in his thinking, he will be the Mayor who lost Detroit. While he is announcing redevelopment plans in Brush Park, water shut off trucks are revving their engines just a few blocks away.

Defying all logic and human sensibility the Mayor is continuing to shut off water to people who cannot afford their bills. He says he has a plan to provide assistance. But no one pretends this plan is adequate. In a few short days, trucks will go out to shut off the water to thousands of Detroiters. 39,000 homes are slated for shut off. These water shut offs will be followed by the evictions of thousands more who cannot afford taxes. By some estimates as many as 10% of the population will be directly effected. Everyone else will feel the aftershock of holes ripped in our community.

In the face of this crisis the Detroit City Council has finally started to talk about a water affordability plan. More than a decade ago the City Council passed an affordability plan that was never implemented. That plan begins with a sentence that still rings true. It says: “In recent years, the unaffordability of water/sewer bills in the City of Detroit has become a substantial problem. Not only have customers been disconnected, and gone without service, but even households that pay their bills incurs substantial hardships because of the unaffordability of their bills.”

The report goes on, “While the unaffordability of water/sewer services certainly poses a social problem, it manifests itself as a business problem as well. The unaffordability of water/sewer services contributes to unpaid bills and the associated collections expenses associated with such unpaid bills.”

Mayor Duggan likes to say his aggressive shut offs have saved those who pay their bills money. This is foolish. Duggan has never given a cost benefit analysis of what his shut off policies actually cost. We do know that more money is paid to Homrich to shut water off than is in the current assistance plan for Detroit. We do know that the cost to every block that loses yet another home is incalculable.

The Water Affordability Plan provides a way for water to keep flowing to homes and cash to keep flowing into the system.

The Plan makes clear that affordability is not a mythical number. The US government put “affordability” at between 2 and 3 % of income. The EPA suggests that for households at the median income, 2.5% of pre-tax income is affordable for water.

Today many low income Detroiters are paying 10 to 20% of their income for water bills that continue to climb. In fact these bills are 120% higher than when this original plan was passed.

With the formation of the new regional water authority the Mayor, City Council and concerned citizens have the opportunity to create a truly regional system. What if everyone in the region paid a percentage of their income for water, with adjustments for excessive use?

The current rate structure is unsustainable. Every time someone is priced out of the system, the cost goes up for all those remaining. As more people drop off rates necessarily go up. As rates go up, more and more people drop off. This cycle, so evident in Detroit, spirals out of control.

Meanwhile, if people try to conserve their use of water, rates also go up. As usage goes down, rates are raised to cover the costs of the system.

This is a human crisis of international dimensions. Mayor Duggan needs to stop responding with plans doomed to fail. He needs to stop the shut offs and adopt a water affordability plan. Anything less threatens all of us.