Ricardo Russell’s monthly water bill averaged around $60 at his home on Detroit’s west side. Then in January he opened an envelope from the Detroit Water Department claiming he had used $2,000 worth of water—in one month.
Russell, 37, went down to the city’s water department to ask a representative why his December bill was so high. “The lady thought I owned a business or something,” he told me during one Saturday morning in midtown Detroit in late October. “She asked, ‘Did the business go up?’ And I said, ‘It’s a residential street, it’s a residential house. It’s only me there. There’s nothing abnormal going on.’”
The city representative said she would send someone out to Russell’s home. Meanwhile, Russell cut off water access in every location in the house, except for the bathroom. The February bill dropped down to $1,150, still well above the $60 Russell normally pays. When a technician visited Russell’s home, he said there was an issue with the meter and replaced it. Russell went back to the water department to see if he could get his bill reduced, and was told to hire a plumber to determine if a pipe was broken. He hired a plumber, who charged $150 an hour, to check all of the pipes in the home.
The plumber, Russell said, found a pipe the size of a spoon with a crack in it that was connected outside of his home where the city pulls water into his home. The plumber replaced that pipe and Russell’s water bill shot down to $40 the next month. But when Russell asked the water department if the balance on his bill could be reduced, he was told there was nothing that could be done. He says he was placed on a payment plan that required him to pay 20 percent of his total bill upfront and the rest in monthly installments for the remaining 11 months. The bill was more than $4,000 at that point, so he had to pay at least $400 immediately.
Russell worked in technical support management before having to leave his job on disability and is currently enrolled as a full-time PhD student at Central Michigan University. He wasn’t making enough money to make an upfront payment and he claims the representative told him he either had to make a payment immediately or risk having his water cut off.
“I came up with the $400 because I didn’t want the water cut off,” he said. “Because if they cut the water off then they charge you to put the water back on. It’s crazy.”
That is how most Detroiters see the state of affairs in their city. Crazy.