248-409-1900 dburke@mi-worklaw.com

By:  Dan Cohen – 7/29/14

          It seems like the local story about the “inequity” of shutting off water to residents who have not paid their water bill simply won’t die. Of course, the real inequity is that many people have not made even the slightest effort to pay their water bill for extended periods of time while the rest of us Metro Detroiters have seen our water bills skyrocket in recent years. I’ve often wondered why the water bill always seems to go up even when I haven’t watered the lawn much, as has been the case this summer Is the answer that water is a precious commodity which has become more expensive because of low lake levels? This might have be one of the reasons, until this year when rainfall has replenished the lakes. But, I suspect another reason is that nearly a hundred million dollars has not been collected from Detroit residents. Yes, residents of 45 other communities have been subsidizing the water usage of Detroiters. Approximately half of the 170,000 residential water accounts in the city are behind by at least 90 days and at least $150. Some residents can’t but many simply don’t want to pay their water bill.

          Paying your water bill should be more important than paying your cable bill or your cell phone bill. If you don’t pay those bills, you lose the service. Granted, the consequences of a water shut off is much more serious than having your cable or cell phone turned off, so this is really about making choices. If water is a necessity, and it is, then it should be one of the top priority expenditures, along with food and shelter. Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr has generally defended the shutoffs, saying payment arrangements can be made. The water department says that 17,000 residents have been put on payment plans. Orr has also said many customers have since paid up and have had services restored. In all, some 15,000 residents have had their water shut off.

          Of course, some of those who have lost their water probably cannot afford to pay for it. I think there should be a program for these people, whether they reside in Detroit or elsewhere. But, they fall into a completely different category then those who have simply taken their water consumption for granted and failed to prioritize their bills. Those who can demonstrate they must make a choice between putting food on the table and paying their overdue water bill should be treated better than those who simply elect to keep their premium cable channels while not paying their water bill.

          When I go on line and look at what people are writing about this, almost every post cries foul. Some say it is racism, the work of conservatives and Republicans. I doubt that this decision has been made along racial lines. Rather, the decision to require users to pay for water is likely the result of recognizing that the “old” way of doing business landed Detroit in bankruptcy and the recognition that somebody has to pay for the water being used within the city limits.

          Some note that businesses have not paid their water bills but have not had their water shut off. Only this last argument resonates with me. If businesses have not paid their water bill, then they too should be required to pay up or make payment arrangements. The point is to collect money owed to the City. This is not a novel concept. I say good for the City of Detroit. It is about time something is done to address this problem. Detroit is not the first and won’t be the last municipality to ask residents to pay their bills.