Many Detroit residents likely fell behind on their payments and couldn’t get caught up after being blindsided by six years’ worth of back sewerage charges that landed without warning or explanation in their mailboxes last year. That shocking revelation was found in documents handed over in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by attorneys seeking a reinstatement of the moratorium on water shutoffs and implementation of a true water affordability plan that’s based on the income of customers.

The bombshell about the back sewerage fees is contained in a June 2012 consultant’s report produced for DWSD. The massive billing snafu was just one of the reasons customers were having trouble keeping up with payments. “Changes across Detroit have contributed to the DWSD’s financial issues,” the report noted. “As a result of the recession, the population of the city fell. Write-offs spiked at $42 million in fiscal 2010 before falling… A three-year lien process with the county treasurer’s office slows write-offs and recoveries.

“Billing issues have also hurt revenues. A systems change caused sewer charges to go unbilled for roughly one-third of customers for about six years. Bills sent with the cumulative charges likely contributed to recent customer service and collection volumes.” With fewer people living in Detroit — the result of a foreclosure crisis brought on by predatory lending and massive fraud on the part of the nation’s biggest financial institutions — water bills rise for those who remain. When water bills tied to homes sold at tax auctions can’t be collected, the costs go up for everyone else. When you get slammed with six years of bills all at once, you are in immediate risk of shutoff. Making matters worse, as Mayor Mike Duggan recently acknowledged, is the fact the current system in place to help low-income people pay their water bills is drastically underfunded, falling far short of what are considered to be national standards.

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