Water Authority Must Make Water Affordable to Keep Service for All 

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The People’s Water Board Coalition opposes the water and sewerage rate increases approved by the Great Lakes Water Authority Board of Directors at its meeting on February 23, 2022. As low-income households still emerge from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, this is not the time to return to business as usual.

As Michiganders, we learned many things during the more than two years of the deadly pandemic. One of them is that low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities have experienced many years of water insecurity due to unaffordable water bills and rates. Another one is that when governments, private sector stakeholders, and communities work together we can protect public health while working on solutions to long-standing affordability problems.

The GLWA’s 6.1% wholesale charge increases – 3.7% for water and 2.4% for sewer – will be met with additional charges by local utilities to its customers. Without an affordability program based on low-income residents’ ability to pay, we will continue to see struggling people be unable to manage higher bills along with arrearage burdens.

“As a Detroit resident and mother who has been directly impacted by water insecurity issues, I am appalled and fearful of what this recent rate hike will mean for my family and my community,” says Nicole Hill, PWBC community outreach organizer. “Many residents like me are dramatically affected by systemic poverty and racism, as well as a plethora of other societal issues. This rate hike will ensure that when the Detroit moratorium ceases effect at year’s end massive numbers of residents will cease to have access to running water in their homes.” 

Additionally, PWBC strongly disagrees with GLWA’s public campaign to blame and shame the City of Highland Park, plus adding additional sewerage rate hike charges to other GLWA customers, while a legal dispute plays out in the courts and with State of Michigan officials. 

PWBC has worked for years to make sure everyone has access to safe, clean, affordable water and sanitation, particularly since2014 in Detroit when massive water shutoffs followed in the wake of the Emergency Manager takeover. That unnecessary tragedy has only been temporarily halted by the moratorium on shutoffs due to the pandemic. That moratorium is scheduled to end this year. 

COVID is slowly going away even though its economic downturn which hit low-wage workers especially hard is still felt by them. That makes the water bill increase proposed by the Great Lakes Water Authority all the worse. Jacking up the price of a basic human necessity is bad in the best of times and these far from the best of times for many essential, but lower-paid workers. 

Water is becoming unaffordable for many people across the nation due largely to the need to fix aging infrastructure and remove hundreds of miles of lead service lines. (yet another reason to pass the federal Build Back Better legislation). But the price of water bills for low-income households has actually declined is Philadelphia due to their implementation of an income based water bill structure. Their program is based on the original 2005  Water Affordability Program that Detroit City Council passed but was never implemented, and that the People’s Water Board Coalition has been touting for years. 

The Philadelphia plan sets a certain rate for water bills based on household income. Therefore, as estimated by economist Roger Colton, the revenue stream to the Water Department actually increases and is stabilized because people are paying what they can afford versus being disconnected and the utility receives nothing. Income-based water bills virtually eliminate the need for shut-offs which cost the City of Detroit millions paid to outside contractors. 

Rate hikes versus true affordability will decrease revenue to the system because of the costly, erratic, on-again, off-again cycle of shutoffs, unaffordable “payment plans” and unsustainable charitable donations. There is a way out of that ugly, downward spiral. The Great Lakes Water Authority and elected leaders develop solutions that recognize low-income people can only afford water based on their income.  When we base water bills on this economic and social reality, we will have a more moral and economically viable system.