Planet Money
4:13 am
Mon August 11, 2014

Detroit Struggles To Get People Who Bailed On Water Bills To Pay

Originally published on Mon August 11, 2014 7:04 am

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And next we will report on the battle over water in Detroit as it looks from the end of one tap. The city is straining to get people to pay their water bills. It's been shutting off water to thousands of customers. And this week under intense protest, the city is tweaking that approach.

Zoe Chace of NPR's Planet Money team has the story of one consumer.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Tamika Mims lives on the West Side of Detroit and she's had a rough couple weeks. It started on a Thursday in July, 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

TAMIKA MIMS: I had just mopped my kitchen floor. I didn't even do the dishes yet.

CHACE: She looked out the window and saw the Detroit water department guys coming to turn off her water.

MIMS: So I went to go real quick, while he doing that, to try to fill my tub up with some water. It didn't work. It was over. No water whatsoever.

CHACE: Tamika's been without running water in her kitchen or bathroom. She filled up jugs of water from her family's house, stacked them on the kitchen table.

MIMS: And then when it rained so bad, I turned over my white bucket and it filled up with water from outside.

CHACE: How did you feel when you did that?

MIMS: (Laughter) Proud that I didn't waste it all on the ground.

CHACE: Tamika got behind on her bills and figured she would skip the water one for a few months. Honestly, she didn't really think there would be a consequence.

This has been happening all over Detroit lately. That's because something like 40 percent of the city's tax base owes the water department. Even major businesses and city institutions and the state of Michigan fell behind on their bills. Tamika owed $600. Some hospitals owe more than $20,000.

To understand what happened and how the city is trying to fix it, I rode around with Chester Clemons. He's with the water department. He drives around turning people's water on and off.

Why are people not paying their bill?

CHESTER CLEMONS: At one point in time that the water department used to be the one bill that it wasn't policed as much. You know, it was a bill that, you could wait six to eight months before you paid the water bill.

CHACE: So people didn't pay and then some of their neighbors didn't pay. So many people weren't paying, residents like Navarre Smith opened up their bill and found water rates were going up.

NAVARRE SMITH: They've been saying this for years; oh, well, you know we need to - that's why your bills goes up because we're, you know we need that for repairs and people don't pay. But then nothing gets fixed.

CHACE: Water bills in Detroit are some of the highest in the country, which makes it even harder if you are on the edge, like Tamika. This spiral could have gone on for a long time but something big happened - Detroit declared bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy doesn't fix everything but it does make your problems super-obvious and it became very obvious the water department was nowhere near paying for itself.

And suddenly, the city of Detroit decided it was going to crack down.

MIMS: Detroit Water hit the whole block.

CHACE: More than half the houses on her street had their water cut off. And Tamika was left feeling like, yeah she was to blame, but where had the city been all this time?

MIMS: I was lazy, and they were, too, because they know they need to shut it off before you make it so high. And you got us all lazy and comfortable and then you want to turn us off.

CHACE: People all over the city started to pay up - and this could've been seen as a victory, except for one thing - it looked really bad, cruel actually. Thousands of poor people without running water in a major American city. Protests in the streets, lawsuits filed, water getting trucked in from Canada. The United Nations got involved, said, water is a human right and the city is being inhumane; denying water to people who can't afford it.

So last week the city backed off some.

MAYOR MIKE DUGGAN: So the goal was the right goal. I just don't believe that it was executed in the right way.

CHACE: Mayor Mike Duggan said the city has a new plan to deal with the water debts. The shut-offs were paused. They'll start again in two weeks, but with a lot more help for the people who are having trouble paying; more flexible and responsive billing system.

Tamika borrowed money from her boyfriend, paid off part of the bill, got on a payment plan and found that the city held up its end of the bargain.

CLEMONS: How're you doing? Water department. I'm here to turn your water back on.

MIMS: Can you, please?

CHACE: Chester showed up the very next day.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

MIMS: Hey, you hear that water?

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.