September 11, 2014

DETROIT, MI – Today, civil rights attorneys seeking to prevent further water shut-offs to thousands of Detroit residents released documents showing the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) recently added to residents’ financial burdens by demanding payment for six years’ worth of retroactive sewage fees.

The DWSD claimed these fees had apparently gone unbilled due to a “systems change.”

The documents shared today include a letter to DWSD from a consulting group outlining its “bill collection strategy” proposal. Apparently referring to the sewage charges, the letter states: “Bills sent with the cumulative charges likely contributed to recent customer service and collection volumes. Outstanding balances approximate $115 million. Over 80% of this is more than 60 days past due.”

In one example of the impact of this broken billing practice, a Detroit church received a bill in February 2014 for nearly $60,000 in sewage and water fees dating back to 1992, although it had been paying its bills regularly for several years.

“Those looking to blame Detroit residents for their lack of ability to pay their bills should instead be blaming Detroit officials for the mismanagement that contributed to this crisis,” said Monique Lin-Luse, an attorney with NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Hitting residents with six years’ worth of retroactive, cumulative sewage bills at a time when they are struggling to pay existing water bills is adding insult to injury.”

To illustrate the problems Detroit residents have faced in attempting to pay their bills, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund today released a six-minute video featuring interviews with residents and activists fighting DWSD’s shut-off campaign.

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“My water bill was almost $900 when I'm bringing home $300-$400 a month,” says Detroit resident Rosalyn Walker. “When I asked them why, they said because the person who lived here before you had a high bill. I think that is so wrong.”

“Revelations like this make the rush to resume water service shut-offs still more unconscionable,” says Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “Instead of addressing the needs of Detroit residents with an affordability plan, accurate bills, and an improved dispute process, the Department set thousands up to fail by sending them bills impossible to pay.”

The documents released today were filed with the court as part of the class action lawsuit, Lyda v. City of Detroit. Brought on behalf of Detroit residents and community organizations affected by the mass shut-offs, the lawsuit argues that the DWSD began water shut-offs without adequate notice and against the most vulnerable residents, while commercial entities with delinquent accounts were left alone. The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are serving as expert consultants in the case.

This suit is currently in bankruptcy court before Judge Stephen Rhodes as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. A hearing to challenge the shut-offs is scheduled for Wednesday, September 17th.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced this week that the City of Detroit and several surrounding counties have agreed to establish a new regional water authority. That agreement does not detail a plan to provide adequate assistance and due process protections for Detroit’s low-income residents. The unaffordability and due process violations will persists until such a comprehensive plan is in place.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and ACLU of Michigan continue to call for an end to the mass shutoffs campaign until a comprehensive plan is in place to address the affordability and due process issues plaguing DWSD Customers.
View documents that show the Water Department's sloppy billing practices

Watch When The Water Runs Dry: Voices From the Detroit Water Crisis

Learn about the Detroit water crisis by the numbers in a printable high-res infographic