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Tuesday, 29 July 2014 18:36

Orr gives control of Detroit's water department to mayor

Written by  Steve Pardo and Christine Ferretti | The Detroit News
Amid international attention to Detroit's policy of cracking down on water customers with overdue bills, the city's emergency manager this morning granted fuller authority to Mayor Mike Duggan to manage the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Amid international attention to Detroit's policy of cracking down on water customers with overdue bills, the city's emergency manager this morning granted fuller authority to Mayor Mike Duggan to manage the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The city’s emergency manager on Tuesday issued an order that ramps up Mayor Mike Duggan’s responsibilities over the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

The Emergency Manager Order 31, issued by Kevyn Orr, gives the mayor the power to manage the utility and make appointments to the Board of Water Commissioners.

The order comes as DWSD has been criticized for its water shutoffs, targeting those who owe more than $150 or are at least two months behind on their payments. The department says it’s owed more than $89 million in active accounts, including more than $43 million from the 80,000 overdue accounts from residents.

“This order provides additional clarity to the powers already delegated to the Mayor,” Orr said in a statement. “As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department works to operate more efficiently and communicate more effectively with customers, it is important to ensure there are clear lines of management and accountability. This order ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city’s commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD customers get and remain current on their water bills.”

Orr’s personnel and members of the commission as well as suburban leaders have been in discussions over how to revamp the department for months. The sides have argued over pension issues for DWSD retirees and the formation of a regional water authority.

Bill Nowling, Orr’s spokesman, clarified the change late Tuesday morning, saying the move covers operations and management and that it was “important to note that Order 31 does not delegate to mayor any authority over negotiations on creation of an authority or any other restructuring issue.”

DWSD, Detroit and suburban officials were ordered into mediation in April and are under a gag order not to talk publicly on any negotiations.

Duggan, in a statement posted Tuesday on his Facebook page, said he welcomes the order, adding residents are complaining over long waits in person and via the telephone in their attempts to make payment arrangements.

The mayor added he met Monday night with DWSD leadership and they intend to develop plans together “to fix these problems.”

“We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues, and I expect us to have a new plan shortly,” the statement reads. “There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills — we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds. We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. As for those who can pay and choose not to, we won't force other Detroiters to pay their bills.”

The Board of Water Commissioners is made up of seven members who set rates, oversee DWSD operations, and approve contracts. The board includes four members from Detroit and one each nominated by the Wayne County Executive, the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner and the Macomb Public Works Commissioner.

Meanwhile, City Council members grilled DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer over issues residents are having in making payment arrangements and reaching customer service representatives.

Council members made it clear that the department’s 20 customer service representatives were inadequate compared to the thousands that need assistance. Latimer vowed the department will get additional phone lines and more staff.

Councilman James Tate added he, too, has been confused over DWSD billing, noting he received a $400 bill for one month of service.

DWSD announced last week that it was suspending the shut-offs for 15 days. The water department has said it made the move to provide customers an opportunity to make payment arrangements and that it is not a moratorium.

The department’s pause came after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes told water officials the issue was “causing a lot of anger” and hardship among residents and instructed DWSD to come up with additional options to assist residents.

Water department officials have said about half the customers whose water was cut off never made arrangements to get it turned back on, leading officials to believe the service was being used illegally.

Latimer told the council that despite the moratorium, the department has continued to turn off illegal water hookups.

Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said the sight of shut-offs continuing despite the pause “breeds mistrust.” The only shut-offs are those with water illegally turned back on, Latimer said.

The company and contractors working for the department shut off water to more than 17,000 Detroiters since March. More than half had their water turned back on within two days after they either paid the overdue bills or went on a payment plan, department officials said.

President Brenda Jones Jones noted at a Monday subcommittee meeting that she plans to ask the department to extend its suspension of the shut-offs and will raise other concerns.

Also on Tuesday, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano continued his call upon the department to indefinitely extend the moratorium.

“The negative impact of this policy probably goes beyond what was intended or expected,” Ficano said in a statement. “But it is clear now that the human cost of this policy requires a concerted effort to help folks get the water they need and get help paying their bills. The city and DWSD need to do the right thing and give residential customers their water while aggressively pursuing options to help them get their water bills paid.”

Last week, opponents and activists rallied outside City Hall, delivering thousands of petition signatures urging Detroit’s elected leaders to end the shut-offs and issue permanent protections.

The protest spanned several hours and culminated with a convoy of vehicles from the Windsor chapter of the Council of Canadians that delivered about 200 gallons of water for Detroit families.

Activists first drew attention to the issue last month by filing a human rights complaint with the United Nations. A panel of three experts concluded Detroit's shut-off policy may violate international human rights.

The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. also have weighed in, expressing “grave concerns” and asking the department to cease termination services and made recommendations for an affordability plan.

Detroit had 176,879 active residential water accounts as of June 30. Of those, more than 80,000 are overdue in their bills, according to the department.

Duggan, in his statement, stressed that when some residents don’t pay bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters and that there’s no outside funding from the suburbs, state or federal government.

“These unpaid water bills are Detroit’s alone,” Duggan wrote. “So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.”

The department is offering the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program with $1 million in funding to help customers in need and a “water affordability fair” on Saturday.

Link to original article from The Detroit News
Read 3317 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 July 2014 18:39

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