By Sam Corey
Special to The Review
Hamtramck residents convened a town hall last Thursday at the Hamtramck Public Library to discuss a wide-range of city updates — most notably the rising cost of water and subsequent water shut-offs.
The event, hosted by the Hamtramck Community Initiative (HCI), was held in part to clarify why water costs have been increasing, and to offer alternative payment options for residents struggling to pay their water bills.
Rodney Johnson, the Director of Public Services for the city, explained the reason for rising costs of water. Water meters, or the small recording device outside of homes that records the amount of water usage per household, are broken, he says.
“We are no longer getting good readings from the meters,” said Johnson.
The meters, which send signals to the city, reporting water usage every hour, have been providing inaccurate information.
The misinformation galvanized city officials to replace outdated water meters. All of the necessary replacements will be completed by December of this year, Johnson said.
In the meantime, water and sewage prices on the whole continue to rise. Johnson acknowledged that fixed water prices have gone up $20 recently (excluding usage costs). Increasing costs have sparked water shut-offs around the city.
“When we started, there were 1,200 accounts” of water shut-offs recorded. “Now, it’s about half that,” Johnson said.
Michelle Oberholtzer, a candidate for State Representative in District 4, questioned Johnson on the number of shut-offs that have occurred in the city.
“I’m really concerned about it. I think that we need to know more about how many people are shut off, and to whom is getting shut off,” she said.
Although the specific number of water shut-offs in the city is unknown, Johnson approximates that around 100 households have had their water shut off this month.
If a water bill has not been paid, a water “shut off notice” will be sent to that resident’s house, giving them 10 days to pay the balance or risk having their water cut off. The amount of money owed to the city for continuing water service – whether it’s $5 or $55 — is not relevant.
Ron Orr, director of the non-profit, HCI, which hosted the town hall, has worked with Hamtramck residents and officials to help troubled youth, implement community policing projects, and remove graffiti plaguing the city in the early aughts.
This past year, Orr’s water costs have surprisingly fallen.
“Well, actually in Hamtramck, the water bills have gone down a little bit. My water bill with my two-family flat has gone down at least 20 percent” from one year prior to this past March, Orr said.
Still, Orr notes that water rates are higher than what they use to be.
“I remember when the water bill for three months would be like a hundred-and-something dollars. Now, my water bill is $85 a month.”
When questioned as to why water and sewage bills are rising, Orr cited public officials from all levels of government trying to cut spending on important public resources.
“These are all the things I don’t understand about our country. Every time we cut federal taxes, we’re cutting the paychecks of police departments, of teachers, fire departments, we’re cutting the funding to fund our water system,” Orr said.
“Municipalities are all strapped for cash and they can no longer carry the burden of letting people go without paying their water bill. All of this comes from federal taxes being lowered that forces state taxes to be lowered — all of these burdens get pushed down to a city.”
Barbara Beesley, a water activist with the People’s Water Board in Detroit, and a Hamtramck resident for 18 years, had a different explanation.
“Aging infrastructure,” she said.
Beesley noted that there are better water affordability plans in other cities, like Philadelphia, where residents pay on a tiered system based on a percentage of their household income and size.
In Hamtramck, where poverty levels are high, Beesley doesn’t want people to go without the important resource.
“Just trying to imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t wash, if you couldn’t bathe, if you couldn’t take a drink and hydrate — it’s beyond my imagination,” Beesley said.
While Beesley suggested that people should pay their water bill based on income, others, like Michelle Oberholtzer, thinks residents should pay based on their usage of water, rather than a fixed rate.
“To me, utility bills should be more variable and be more reflective of your actual consumption,” Oberholtzer said.
“One thing that was raised in the city council meeting in the spring was ‘well, the way that the City of Hamtramck is charged by the Great Lakes Water Authority is basically fixed for the year’ – but that’s misrepresentative because what is charged to the city is subject to change every year based on our usage.
“So if our residents have incentive to conserve, we may conserve and that will bear fruit in the next year’s rate setting, but if we literally have no advantage to conserving then we won’t, and that can have negative consequences.”
Residents struggling to pay their water bill can either receive assistance through the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) or pay via a payment plan.
WRAP, available to individuals in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, is eligible to anyone that is 150% below the poverty line (or $36,450 in yearly income for a household of four).
Information about WRAP is currently made available in English online, and the total amount of funding available for WRAP applicants in Hamtramck is unknown.
At the end of the meeting, Orr stressed caution for the future of water use.
“There are countries going to war over water,” Orr said, referencing conflict happening in South Africa. “Water is going to be a huge problem going forward.”
July 27, 2018