Friday, June 27, 2014

Delinquent Water Bills, Detroit and The United Nations

I do my best to pay my bills on time. I expect the same from others. If I use a service I pay for it. If I loan money I want the money returned. I don't think that's too much to ask from other adults. Things can get a little tricky with relatives or other intimates because the relationship warps our understanding of money. So I avoid loaning money to people in those categories. If they need assistance I will give it to them, if I can. But people close to me know that I like my money very much and don't like giving it away. So that preserves the balance.
But where there's no personal relationship there is no misunderstanding of what money means. With people who lack a personal relationship with me there is never any expectation on my part that money loaned won't have to be repaid, regardless of who is the creditor and who is the debtor. My bank expects monthly mortgage payments. The bank is entirely uninterested in my problems making that payment. All they want is their money. I work for pay at my company, not because I enjoy the witty repartee. So, as is incredibly obvious to most adults, when you make a deal or purchase goods or services, you are supposed to live by the deal or pay for the goods or services you bought. Unfortunately in my home town of Detroit, the Water Department is running into some pushback as it seeks to either obtain payment from delinquent customers or shut their water service off. 

The reason for the Water Department's new aggressiveness in going after delinquents is probably related to the city's bankruptcy. Not only has the Emergency Manager made it clear that business as usual can't continue but of course the Detroit Water Department can't be privatized or merged into a regional service provider unless it shows that it can actually get customers to pay their bills.  I mean would you invest in or purchase a business where customers used the product but refused to pay for it? No you wouldn't. These decisions make sense for the entire organization but inevitably there are going to be some people that get hurt and may not even be deadbeats.

On July 1, the department is planning to relaunch its dormant financial assistance program with the help of the Heat and Warmth Fund, also known as THAW. The program is funded by 50-cent donations from paying water customers. More than $800,000 is available.THAW will help determine how much customers who qualify for assistance must pay. DWSD officials stressed that all customers will have to pay something toward their bill. Water service to 7,556 Detroit customers was cut off in April and May, according to the department. Now, the department officials said enough shutoff crews are in place to halt service to 3,000 delinquent accounts per week.

The overall effort to collect on more than 90,000 active accounts owing $90.3 million past due has drawn criticism from activists and a coalition of welfare rights groups. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, called the shutoffs inhumane and “economically short-sighted.” The department’s shutoff campaign is targeting customers — residential and commercial — who are more than 60 days late on their bills and who owe at least $150. The average monthly bill for water and sewer service in Detroit is $65, according to the department. An 8.7% increase effective next month is expected to increase bills by $5 a month. The rate hike was partially blamed on delinquent bills. City Councilman Gabe Leland, who supported the rate increase, said the financial assistance program’s availability next month — about three months after the shutoffs began — reveals how the DWSD sets its priorities. “It seems like right now the department is taking no prisoners,” Leland said, adding that people should pay their bills. “To shut people off, that’s one thing. Let’s do it with some more preparation.”

Of course this being Detroit, a welfare rights organization even attempted to get the United Nations involved on the theory that water is a universal human right or that disparate impact theory showed that the people harmed by shutoff notices would be mostly black and thus therefore the shutoff policies were racially discriminatory. This kind of logic makes my head hurt. I'll leave that to lawyers who are actually qualified to discuss it. Bottom line as I see it is if you use a service you pay for the service. All else is folly and laziness on an individual level. If you want to collect water in your backyard from the rain and use that water to brush your teeth, go to the toilet, clean your body and for your drinking needs you go right ahead and do that. But if you want to have clean safe treated water that runs the gamut of your preferred temperature range delivered instantaneously to your home, well you need to pay for that, just like everyone else does. Now, all of that individual responsibility stuff out of the way there are at least three systemic issues here:

1) What happens when an economy simply doesn't need as many people as it used to? Unemployment in Detroit is chronic. This is in large part because the high-wage, relatively low skill auto jobs that built and sustained the middle class in Detroit have vanished thanks in part to automation, globalization and departure for the suburbs or southern states. This didn't happen overnight but honestly there is nothing the current President or either political party is doing to change employment patterns in the "inner city". You can have all the individual responsibility you want to but if you lack money, some bills get dropped. It's a related issue that I haven't touched on for a minute but this is also why I am opposed to "immigration reform". There are too many American citizens that are falling by the wayside. We can't provide jobs for our own and we want to bring in more people? But seriously, what if late model capitalism simply doesn't require the workers that its predecessor model used to? How do we handle that as a society?

2) Isn't there some residual pride left in people? Is it really a human rights violation to have your water shutoff? Again, we may decide that it is. But in that case we will all have to pay additional taxes to provide water "free" of charge to all. I have no issue doing that for seniors or people of extremely low means. But for your run of the mill American, poor or not, I would balk at doing that until I had more information on their circumstances. Housing in Detroit is not exactly expensive. 

3) Related to number one, a black man with an associates degree has roughly the same economic chances as a white man with a high school diploma. Education pays for everyone but it pays better for some people than for others. Again, if we (that is the US) have through history and current practice shut large out numbers of people from the employment market then we're going to end up with some unknown proportion of them not being able to pay water bills. So again, we need to provide jobs for people, even those who do not have a college degree. And the highest need for jobs is in the black community.

I don't have all the answers on this. I think that we have to distinguish between the truly destitute, for whom we can find assistance, and the person who simply doesn't think his or her water bill is something they have to pay. Unfortunately the only way to make that distinction is to shut off service to delinquents. If they want the service, they'll pay their bill. If they can't step forward and let's have a discussion about what happens next. I am sympathetic, especially as the Detroit bureaucracy has a well deserved reputation for notoriously bad record keeping and organization. There will definitely be a high number of false positives caught up. But there will be many more folks who just got used to paying late and are screaming because the free ride is up.

What's your call on this situation?

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