Detroit's Blue Ribbon Panel on Affordability Releases its Report

The past two years, water affordability has been front and center in Detroit. While opinions vary, it was clear that a review of policies, best practices, assistance programs, and rate setting was in order. In passing the 2015-16 water rates for the City of Detroit, the City Council approved the hike with the condition that a panel be created to look at water affordability.

In October 2015, the City of Detroit convened the Blue Ribbon Panel on Affordability (BRPA), comprised of national experts and local stakeholders, to collectively identify and evaluate options to address low‐income customers' challenges in paying water and sewer bills and the subsequent service disconnections. The panel has recently released its report.

The BRPA met four times between October 2015 and December 2015. National experts, asked to represent their professional experience and provide their personal perspectives rather than that of their employers, included:
  • Janice Beecher, Director, Michigan State University Institute of Public Utilities
  • Julius Ciaccia, Chief Executive Officer, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
  • Roger Colton, Co-­‐Founder, Fisher, Sheehan & Colton
  • Robert K. Miller, Deputy Director, Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans
  • Eric Rothstein, Principal, Galardi Rothstein Group (Chair)
  • Scott Rubin, Attorney at Law
Regional members included:
  • Mary Blackmon, DWSD Board of Water Commissioner
  • Julie Kavanagh, Macomb County Community Services Agency
  • Karla Marshall, Policy Analyst, Detroit City Council Member Scott Benson
  • Demeeko Williams, Political Director, Detroit Water Brigade
Based on the research, discussions and conclusions among the panel, they made several
for the City of Detroit and the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) to undertake.
BRPA Recommended Immediate Actions:
  • Expand Assistance Programs: Increase funding for assistance programs for bill payment and water conservation through allocation of non-rate revenues, generating availability for the most economically-disadvantaged customers.
  • Improve Customer Service: Dedicate necessary resources and provide leadership support for billing, collection and customer service improvements. Assign customer accounts to financially-responsible parties rather than by street address.
  • Enhance Business Processes: Improve communication to avoid water shut-offs and assist customers in meeting their payment obligations. Develop skills-based customer service teams that provide case management services as needed.
  • Advance Universal Access: Affirm to the public DWSD's commitment for universal access to water and sewer services with rates that help ensure customers can afford the services required to promote public health and sanitary conditions.
BRPA Recommended Long-Term Actions:
  • Inclining Block Rate: Design and implement inclining block rate for water and sewer services. Higher per-unit cost for increased levels of water usage with predefined blocks of consumption.
  • Improve Billing System: Enhancements to include automated billing procedures and revised business processes.
  • Expand Assistance Programs: Expansion of customer support programs to include water conservation and plumbing repair assistance administered through third-party, qualified service providers.
BRPA Recommended State and National Advocacy:
  • Lead Policy Discussions: The City of Detroit / DWSD should participate - in collaboration with local community groups - in national and state policy discussions and advocacy to highlight increasing water affordability challenges.
  • Raise Funds through Partnerships: The City of Detroit / DWSD should continue to enhance its collaboration with local community groups and charitable organizations to raise funds for low-income water affordability assistance.
  • Advocate for State Legislation: The City of Detroit / DWSD should participate in the development of State of Michigan legislation to establish new fee revenues (e.g., water withdrawal fees) to support water affordability programs.
  • Propose Increased Landlord Responsibilities: Additional legislative measures to address landlord‐tenant bill payment responsibilities to, for example, help ensure landlords may be compelled to repair leaking plumbing or pay their tenants' bills.
  • Advocate for Federal Legislation: The City of Detroit / DWSD should actively endorse proposed federal legislation to establish a water and sewer equivalent to the federal Low-­Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

As the recently appointed DWSD Director, I am committed to carry out the panel's recommendations and to improve our processes to meet the evolving needs of our customers. Steps have already been taken that include 44,560 customers on payment plans versus approximately 9,000 one year ago, preventing tens of thousands of customers from water service being shut off. Most of these customers participate in the DWSD 10/30/50 Payment Plan.

On March 1, we launched the most robust assistant program in Michigan, the regional Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP). And, we are improving customer service processes that include email/text alerts to neighborhoods when there are significant water main breaks in their area.

We will keep residents and stakeholders aware of the outcome of the BRPA recommendations on the city website.