Using Our Own Best Practice

By Kim Hunter 

As I traveled this summer for work and visiting family, many people asked me about Detroiters having their water shut off. Family and friends are amazed that city officials are still cutting off families’ water supply and they are even more amazed when I tell them there’s actually an alternative to shutoffs that will bring in more revenue to Detroit’s Water Department.

That solution was the subject of a joint Detroit Philadelphia news conference late last month. Groups of Detroiters battling against water shutoffs worked to bring attention to a unanimous vote by the Philadelphia City Counsel that guarantees families with low-incomes will pay for water based on their income. The Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition and Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management held a news conference where folks from Philadelphia joined in via Skype. The groups also sponsored a public forum on water later that afternoon. If Philadelphia could give families the tools to pay their water bills and prevent devastating mass shutoffs, Detroit could do the same.

Though Detroiters held up the work of Philadelphia’s Council as a best practice, Detroiters were the first to come up with income-based water bills to prevent shut offs. Back in 2006, City Council approved an ordinance that was not signed by the Mayor or implemented. Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) worked with economist Roger Colton to design the ordinance and both were present at the July 29 press event.

Colton was on hand at the press conference and gave an easy to understand, nuts and bolts low down why affordable water makes sense from a fiscal point of view: the city collects more money if families get bills they can afford to pay than if they get bills they can’t afford to pay. While it doesn’t necessarily take a nationally recognized economist to reach this conclusion, it was very helpful to have someone of Colton’s stature making the case. Marian Kramer of MWRO noted that increased revenues from income based water bills versus old style payment plans and charity was part of what persuaded the Detroit City Council to approve the measure almost a decade ago, though it wasn’t made law.

That point about income-based water bills was further driven home by Anthony Campisi, spokesman for Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who was instrumental in passing the framework and Rob Ballenger of Community Legal Services (CLS) of Philadelphia. Both talked about how Philadelphia realized that the very low rate of return on shutoff cases all but forced a more commonsense solution than the sort of payment plans and collection methods Philadelphia was using and that Detroit continues to use.

Then there is the human cost, the details of which rarely get serious attention. Josie Pickens with CLS Philadelphia talked about the “Catch-22” bind many families are put in when the city shuts off their water. Families with children can be reluctant to seek help getting their water back on because those in homes without water can have their children taken and put into protective custody. Of course, families with children also need and use more water than those with adults only.

There are folks who have been in the hospital, still convalescing when they return home who may need more water than usual to take care of their ailment but get home to find a shutoff notice or worse yet, to find their water has been shutoff.

Monica Lewis Patrick, a Detroiter with We the People Detroit and the People’s Water Board, dropped her prepared remarks to talk about a call she had received the morning of the press conference of just such a case.

As if this all of this wasn’t enough to make the case, videographer Kate Levy and the ACLU’s Curt Guyette have produced an amazing video that documents the fact that the private charities coordinated by Mayor Mike Duggan to support families in danger of having their water shutoff have, excuse the pun, run dry.

Detroiters are supporting one another as best we can understand the circumstances, supplying water where needed and taking in people whose water has been shutoff. Now it’s time for those elected to serve to give families the tool they need to keep their water on. Philadelphia has taken a page from Detroit’s playbook to keep water flowing to families and to keep their water department solvent. Now that our solution has been exported to another state, we can only hope it gains value in the eyes of those elected to serve.