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State, local officials call for state water affordability program

Drinking Water
Joost Nelissen
Drinking water

Local officials joined some Democrats in the Legislature Monday to call for a state fund to help low-income households avoid water service shutoffs because they can’t afford to pay their bills.

The legislators and advocates said there should be a statewide water assistance program similar to the one that helps low-income households pay for heat. A 2020 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 317,000 Michigan households face the threat of water shutoffs.

State Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said that is bad for families and it destabilizes communities.

“The statewide water affordability legislation is not only the moral thing to do for Michiganders who are struggling to make ends meet,” she said, “it is also the smart thing to do for the financial stability of our water systems and it’s the right thing to do to protect our public health.”

Chang is one of the sponsors of bills proposed in the House and the Senate to create more protections against water shutoffs.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan endorsed the proposal. Detroit has adopted water affordability measures, including an income-based flat-rate billing system. He said that also helps keep low-income families in their homes.

“What most cities in this state do is put the unpaid water bills on the tax rolls, which means after three years, your house can be foreclosed for non-payment of a water bill,” said Duggan.

Under the legislation, the money for the funding would come from a $2 per-meter surcharge on water bills. The rollout was announced as Governor Gretchen Whitmer is getting ready to deliver her annual budget proposal on Wednesday.

The Senate is operating under a slim Democratic majority and the House has an even 54-54 split until mid-April special elections to fill two vacancies. Both the vacancies are in Democrat-leaning districts.

Republicans are signaling they are not on board with the plan.

State Representative Alicia St. Germaine (R-Harrison Township) said there are existing local programs and creating a new statewide system would subsidize some ratepayers while saddling most households with higher bills.

“It’s getting very difficult, even for young people who are just starting out, to have to pay into low-income water affordability programs, a regional program and then a state program,” she said. “Where does it end?”

St. Germaine suggested she and other Republicans might consider supporting a plan that allows communities with their own water affordability programs to opt out of a new statewide arrangement.

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Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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