I would be delighted to support a plan that made water service no different than roads or police service. In other words, let's get rid of the meters and pay for our water treatment and delivery, as well as sewerage, through taxes. It would mean a tax hike, but it would be so much more efficient than what we do now.
Water is indeed a human right. But it isn't free, and no matter how we choose to pay for treating, delivering clean water, and removing waste water, it has to be paid for.
Here's an aspect of the situation in Detroit that people outside our area may not be familiar with: Nearly all the water in metropolitan Detroit is supplied by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The suburbs don't have their own water systems. Everybody buys their water from the city of Detroit.
I don't know if that's common in other metropolitan areas. But I do know it's been a thorn in the side of suburban governments for most of my life. Water rates go up, and the city councils just have to tell their residents that they can't do anything about it -- it's all Detroit's fault.
So, suburbanites look at stories that tell us that thousands of Detroit residents haven't paid their water bill for ages and owe huge debts to the water department and think: "That's why my water bill is so high!"
That's not the whole truth, but it is a component of the truth. Another aspect of the situation is that the cost of water in southeastern Michigan is heavily influenced by the age and size of the system. The network of water mains throughout this area is ancient and crumbling. There are cities in this area that limit lawn watering, not because water is scarce, but because turning up the pressure to allow people to water as much as they please causes mains to blow. (Please don't take that as an endorsement on my part of unlimited lawn watering -- I NEVER water my lawn, because I consider it a waste of a precious resource.)
The Detroit water system needs repairs on a massive level, and there simply isn't enough money available to do it.
There have been attempts over the past 20 years to have a regional authority take over the Detroit water system. The suburban communities all think they could run the system better and lower costs.
There has unquestionably been mismanagement in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. But that's not the bottom line of this story. Anyone who ends up in charge of the Detroit water system is going to face insurmountable costs in maintaining and bringing the system back to full function.
One way to pay for it is X-cents per gallon of water used. Another way would be "we need this much money, everybody pay up."
Either way, all of us in this region are going to have to pay if we expect continued access to clean water.
But as for the cutoff notices in Detroit, we have another problem. Individuals owe more than they can pay. How did this happen?
Many water systems do not ever cut off accounts for non-payment, as long as someone is living at the residence. As a landlord, I've had catastrophic experience with this policy.
I own five rental houses in this inner-ring Detroit suburb. Up until two years ago, my city was one of those that never cut off water to people who didn't pay their bills. The delinquent bills were simply added to property taxes. Two and a half years ago, I was suddenly made acutely aware that most of my tenants were not paying their water bills. I found myself on the hook for literally thousands of dollars of other people's bills.
I had to pay those bills or lose my properties to tax foreclosure. I ended up having to evict several tenants, and I changed my policy on water accounts to make sure going forward that every water bill got paid every month.
But that's really neither here nor there. It only points to one of the causes of the Detroit water crisis: If there's no accountability, people tend to not pay their water bills. Can you blame them? They have X-dollars this month. If the electricity isn't paid, they get a shutoff notice. If the water isn't paid, nothing happens. Which one do you think they'll pay? This isn't about "Detroiters" (often suburban right-winger code for "blacks"). Plenty of suburbanites have done the same thing. The difference is, the Detroit system allowed people to get behind on a massive scale. People have unpayable water bills because nobody demanded that they pay until the amounts got too big to pay.
This same crisis played out in Highland Park (one of two autonomous cities within the city limits of Detroit) a few years ago. It was precipitated when Highland Park was taken over by a financial manager in December 2000. (You can't blame this one on Rick Snyder -- John Engler, another Republican, was governor at the time.) One of the things the financial manager tried to do to bring the city finances back into balance was collecting delinquent water bills. Many people owed thousands of dollars. There were people in danger of losing homes that had been in families for generations because of delinquent water bills.
It's easy to say, "People should pay their water bills." And under the current system, they should. But sudden enforcement creates a crisis where there isn't necessarily one to begin with.
Part of the problem is people don't pay their bills. The other part of the problem is lax enforcement allows the arrears to become unmanageable.
As we stand in the place we are at right now, payment plans should be offered to everyone. People who don't have enough income to deal with a payment plan should be offered assistance. And going forward, the water department needs a policy that will not allow delinquency to balloon. (When someone doesn't pay, they should be evaluated for assistance right away. If people aren't paying, but could afford to -- cut them off.)
At the beginning of this piece, I proposed taking away the meters and providing water through public funding. I realize that isn't a 100% workable solution. It wouldn't be fair for a 75-year-old widow living alone to pay the same share of the cost of the water system as a corporate CEO with an in-ground Olympic-sized swimming pool and three acres of lawn with automatic sprinklers. But it also isn't fair for water to be shut off to people living in a 21-st century urban civilization just because they are poor.
There's got to be a better way.