Detroit targets businesses' overdue water bills

The Associated PressJuly 9, 2014 

Detroit Water Shutoffs

Chester Clemons, a water shut-off technician for the city of Detroit, shuts off the water at a home in the Palmer Woods neighborhood of Detroit, Mich., on Wednesday,July 8, 2014. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is putting businesses on notice that it will shut off water service if they don't pay their bills following recent efforts to crack down on residential customers who are in arrears.

THE DETROIT NEWS, ELIZABETH CONLEY — AP Photo

— The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is putting businesses on notice that it will shut off water service if they don't pay their bills following recent efforts to crack down on residential customers who are in arrears.

The department plans to send warning letters this week to about 200 commercial and industrial customers with accounts listed as more than 60 days overdue, including a golf business and a cemetery, The Detroit News reported Wednesday.

Active commercial and industrial sites account for about one-third of the $90 million in past-due bills that the department says it is owed. The top 40 on that list, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000.

"All we're doing is taking enforcement action to protect the integrity of the system," said Bill Johnson, a department spokesman. "We have not been very aggressive in cutting off water over the years. We admit that. The people will pay their bill when they're forced to pay their bill.

"Part of it is our fault. We've never had a strict enforcement policy on paying the bills."

The department in March announced plans to crack down on residential customers, leading to thousands of shutoffs and prompting protests from longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit and others who want water service restored to those homes.

More than 22,700 accounts in the city are listed as commercial or industrial. The department said they collectively owe $33.8 million.

One owner of a Warren real estate group that owes more than $80,000 said the problem with its account stems from a tenant.

"The property doesn't have active water on the site — not even a meter," said Michael Samhat, president of Crown Enterprises Inc. "We're not sure how this bill got generated. Right now, we're working with the tenant trying to help them and we want to work with the city of Detroit water department."

The News and the Detroit Free Press reported that the water department has unveiled a $1 million program to help low-income residents pay their water bills. The program is funded by a voluntary program that takes 50 cents from each paying residential customer's bill, along with varying amounts from commercial customers, the department said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, following a Tuesday news conference, said the delinquent water bills "could have been handled in a far more sensitive way."

"We should have had funds for those who genuinely can't pay set up ahead of time," Duggan told reporters. "We should have had more rigorous notices before we saw people turning off water."

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