Over the summer, the world was shocked by the statistic that over half of Detroit Water and Sewerage customers can’t pay their bills. The UN even stepped in to take action. But what happens when your bill is wrong and you are still threatened with a shut off?
Write a House bought "The Peach," the first home to be renovated, in a 2012 Wayne County foreclosure auction for $1,000. We started renovations on the house this May (2014), and called the Water Department to establish an account. We were told the home owner had to appear in person to establish a new account, so Toby, our co-Founder, took time off from work to do this.
We called to establish service and were told the next available appointment was in June. An employee came out and restored our water service by twisting a valve in the yard near the street. I could have done that myself, but that is illegal.
Sometime between the purchase and June, we knew that DWSD had come out and cut service to the house. We expected to start fresh with a new account and a new meter. No one had lived in this house for a very long time.
Then a bill for $2,263.72 came. And around that time, right after we had just established service for the first time since we owned the house, DWSD started cutting off service to "delinquent" accounts.
Over the following months, I have appeared in person at the water department once, and called fifteen times. Hold times can be long, up to 30 minutes, but some days I got lucky and only held for two. Everyone I have spoken to at the department has calmly, and in a professional manner, explained the DWSD policies to me that they are paid to to uphold. I have not yet been in touch with anyone that actually sets these policies.
I have invested more than 10 hours trying to take care of this bill. Here's the process
1. You have to appear in person to dispute a bill that you believe to be incorrect, and bring evidence. Call this the Water Trial, if you will.
2. At our Water Trial I presented the deed to the property, showing that much of the water use they had tried to bill us for occurred before we owned the house. The rest was based on "estimated" meter readings, not actual water used. I explained that the house had been vacant so there was no way we used that much water.
3. The DWSD determined that service to the house had been shut off last November. My customer service rep also agreed that many of the service charges (and subsequent late fees) were from before we owned the house. She was not able to adjust the bill based on this, but she agreed to pass it on to the people that handled processing for disputes.
4. Once you have disputed a bill, it can take up to 60 days for DWSD to process this change. They continue to send you bills for the past due amount in the meantime. The full amount.
5. A month after disputing the bill we got a bill asking us to pay the entire $2,263.72 to avoid a shut off. I called and was told that I should pay the amount and if there was a refund issued later, it could be applied to our future bill. It felt like a ransom. Pay $2,263.72 of water we did not use so it is not cut off tomorrow? The other option is to enter into a "payment plan" whereby you agree to pay 10% of your ridiculous bill until you have paid it off. I asked for this option to buy us some time. I was told you had to appear in person to be put on a payment plan.
6. I called again and talked through the case again, as I already had in person, with a different customer service representative. I was told that I could pay 10% of the bill and that they would put a hold on any further shut off notices until the dispute was resolved. She agreed to grant an exception by not making me appear in person again. We paid $232 toward the bill.
7. The time to make phone calls during the day is a white-collar office job luxury. I am fortunate not to work in a factory job where one only has very limited access to phones during business hours. I can only imagine how much higher hold times are during the limited hours that folks are off work and DWSD is still open.
8. More shut off notices came. Two got posted on the actual house and the rest came to the address on file for our account.
9. I appeared in person to dispute the case on September 19. It says "Day Off" in my google calendar, because I requested time off from work to go down there during business hours. My Water Trial wait time was about 30 minutes. The trial was also 30 minutes.
10. Over the weekend we got another bill for $2,263.72. I called again this morning. I was told that about $100 worth of late fees had already been removed from the account, but that the rest is still processing.
11. Somewhere in the giant file of unpaid water bills that shocked the public, our non profit has added $2,263.72 to the total number. How much of that total number is due to other property owners that bought vacant houses and were hit with extremely large bills?
We will continue to work out our disagreement with DWSD legally, but I have considered what I would do if this was my personal home and I was too broke to pay this. Tapping water illegally from another line would likely have saved me 9 hours of time.
— Sarah F. Cox, Write A House Co-Founder
For a larger picture of the water crisis in Detroit, please see board member Anna Clark's piece in the New York Times.