Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Detroit Water Bills Redux

Another day, another bad story out of Detroit concerning payment of bills. We've discussed this before. Not much has changed. There is still a big mess. It's a perfect storm of massive unemployment and underemployment, poverty, bad consumer decision making, poor record keeping and accounting by the Water Department and malicious gamesmanship by landlords and speculators. All of this has meant that there are some people who simply won't pay their water bills because they have had the accurate perception that they can get away with not doing so mixed with a population of people who simply don't have the resources to regularly pay their water bills. Poverty is real and limits people's ability to enjoy life. Perhaps some of the people in this latest story should not be shamed but rather all of us should be ashamed for having built a society in which large numbers of people have no opportunity to get ahead. It doesn't matter how much moral opprobrium you vent at someone for their life choices. If they don't have the money, they don't have the money. But public utility bills must be paid. I have little sympathy for someone who makes sure that their cable bill is paid but the water bill isn't. When someone does that they're telling you loud and clear what is most important to them. And it's not the water bill. If you use a service you should pay for it. Without everyone agreeing to that basic deal, society doesn't work. Things fall apart. People at the higher end of the income and wealth spectrum start to resent paying for those they see as deadbeats and freeloaders and become more receptive to the idea of starving the public sector of funds (except for military and police and fire). And people at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum become more receptive to the idea that virtually every "need" should be provided for by the government free of charge. Throw in some racial resentments around gentrification and the idea that the Water Department has devious reasons for shutoffs and demanding payment and you get  this situation. How do you survive without running water for more than two years? First, get a trash can. Put it under the roof to collect water to flush the toilet. Then, get a bucket and remember what your grandparents taught you in the early 1950s, before indoor plumbing reached all of rural America. “You use your brain. You scramble. You survive because you’re used to dealing with nothing,” said Fayette Coleman, 66, who grew up fetching water from wells in Belleville. She hasn’t had running water in her Brightmoor house since May 2013. The crumbling home is one of at least 4,000 in Detroit — and perhaps many more — whose water was never turned back on after massive shutoffs attracted international attention last year. 

The outcry faded, but the situation hasn’t. Within a block of Coleman’s house on Fielding near Lyndon, at least three neighbors have endured shutoffs, including one who spent months walking up the street, twice a day, to fill buckets at a friend’s before service resumed in mid-November. Citywide, a third of all residential accounts in Detroit— 68,000 of 200,000 — are at least 60 days past due, city records show.
The water issue is coming to light as a special panel studying water affordability is expected to present its plan to the Detroit City Council in January. The group expects to consider recommendations — including lower prices for low-income residents — when it meets for the last time Tuesday. Help is available, said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Some 39,000 residents are on payment plans, and the city has nearly $1 million available in payment assistance. “If you come in and say you are having an issue, we can find ways to help people,” Brown said. “But you have to come in.” Coleman gets by using bottled water for drinking, much of which she gets from charity. She heats water for sponge baths and flushes the toilet only after bowel movements. Otherwise, she does without.


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