(Source: MIRS.news, Published 10/26/2023) Residents living on the cusp of poverty could only be charged 2% or 3% of their household income on their water bills if they enroll in a state program, under legislation that received more than three hours of House committee testimony Thursday.
If paying even 2% of a household income is too heavy of a lift, the Low-Income Water Residential Affordability Program requires water companies to work with residents on a special payment arrangement. The bills read that as long a customer is paying at least $10 a month for water or if the customer flakes out on a deal, service cannot be shut off.
The new Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) fund would be funded through a $2 monthly charge on everyone’s water bills.
While talked about how among urban and progressive communities for years, water affordability became a more prominent issue during the COVID-19 pandemic when an estimated 317,000 Michigan households found themselves behind on their water bills, Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) told the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee today.
“We are the Great Lakes State and water affordability must be addressed statewide to give every family a chance to make it in Michigan,” Chang said.
Every corner of the state saw people having trouble paying their water bills, she said, causing water shutoffs that had families scrambling to fulfill the most basic of needs.
“I had to bathe and flush my toilet using bottled water. It was a terrible experience,” said Willy Brake, a member of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.
Others spoke of similar experiences, living in households in which paying for utilities fell under paying rent and food in terms of priorities.
Later in the committee hearing, Committee Chair Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) confided that she, too, was forced to use a Panera bathroom and shower at a friend's house because her residence was without water.
At one point, Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford) quoted an online post that found the average water bill in Michigan was $29. The testifier at the time explained that most public utilities separate their water charge from their sewer charge in their billing, but when the charges are added up in the final bill, it's much more than $29 a month. The number $80 a month was shared with the committee as the average monthly water bill in Detroit.
“Do you pay $29 a month for water?” Pohutsky asked Schriver. “Because I don't.”
Rep. Abraham AIYASH (D-Hamtramck)’s HB 5088 and five other companion bills apply to all state water utilities but allow those utilities to develop their own program if the cap remains at 3% of the person’s household income.
Pohutsky said she’d prefer to move the bills out of committee before session adjourns for the year, but she’s leaving it up to the bill sponsors on whether to iron out any remaining issues in committee or on the House floor.
Highlights of HB 5088 and the remaining bills – Rep. Donavan McKinney (D-Detroit)’s
HB 5089, Aiyash’s HB 5090, Rep. Mike MCFALL (D-Hazel Park)’s HB 5091, Rep. Jimmie Wilson Jr. (D-Ypsilanti)’s HB 5092 and McKinney’s HB 5093 include:
- If the fund runs out of money, the discount disappears
- The fund can go toward plumbing repairs of up to $2,500. The program would pay for repairs higher than that if there is “extreme need.”
- A task force made up of DHHS director appointees representing water companies and their clients would oversee the program
- Customers who enter the program with unpaid water debt under $1,500 can have that amount forgiven. Those who owe more than that could have their debt forgiven if they make their agreed-upon monthly payments for two straight years.
- Customers can’t have their water shutoff unless the water company posts a delinquency notice on the front door and then tries to get in touch with the resident three other times – either through email, text message or first-class mail.
The bills also set specific perimeters on when water can be shut off and limit the service restoration charge to $150.
It also allows tenants to request a landlord move a water or sewer bill into their name, which makes the property management folks uneasy. The property is under their name and if a tenant fails to pay and the water gets shut off, they’re responsible.
A final piece of the bill limits the penalties to a resident who extends their water hose to a neighbor who can’t pay their bill to a civil infraction. The first offense is 50 hours of community service. The second offense is a $250 fine. The third offense is a $500 fine.
Rep. David Martin (R-Davison) was concerned his Genesee County residents would end up coughing up as much $24 a year to cover the unfunded liability costs or management blunders coming out of the Detroit water system.
However, the bill reads that at least 80% of the money in the fund must be spent on helping the poor pay their bills.
The $2-a-month charge can increase year-to-year, but cannot be 10% higher than it was the year before.