THE OAKLAND PRESS: Customer assistance fund will allow Oakland County agency to help residents with water bills

By Paul Kampe, The Oakland Press

POSTED: 02/19/16, 3:56 PM 

Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency Client Service Coordinator Richena Lawrence Friday, Feb. 19. The agency offers assistance with utility bills and will soon be administering funds set aside by the newly formed Great Lakes Water Authority to help Oakland County residents who qualify pay their water bills. Paul Kampe-The Oakland Press 

A new program established by the newly formed Great Lakes Water Authority, which assumed operations from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Jan. 1, has earmarked $4.5 million to help qualified residents in its service area pay their bills or settle delinquent accounts.

The water authority serves some four million customers in Southeast Michigan including approximately 800,000 water customers each in Oakland and Macomb counties.

The Water Residential Assistance Program, approved by the authority’s board Feb. 10, will allow the Pontiac-based Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, which helps clients with utility bills such as heat and electricity, to now offer assistance with water bills.

Chief Executive Officer Ronald Borngesser said about half of the residents who visit the agency for assistance with utilities also have a need for help with water bills.

“There really wasn’t anything available for them,” he said. “Some communities just shut the water off and there was no alternative for us to help in those situations.”

The agency is still in the process of finalizing the arrangements for the water assistance program, Borngesser said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority is expected to soon decide on the amount it will charge suburban communities and other wholesalers participating in the system. The authority has also been busy informing its customers the water it provides is clean and uncontaminated in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis.

PATH TO SELF-SUFFICIENCY

No such assistance program existed within Detroit’s water system. Great Lakes Water Authority Chief Executive Officer Sue McCormick said the consortium’s founders realized a need for a sustainable assistance program, noting other large cities have seen success with similar programs in their water systems.

Qualifying customers — those with a household gross income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold with past due bills or water service that has been shut off — are eligible to receive a bill credit of $25 per month and assistance with past due bills for a total of up to $1,000 per year.

Customers have to stay current on their bills for 12 months to remain in the program.

The initial millions for the assistance program are tied to a 0.5 percent commitment of the authority’s revenue and future program amounts could fluctuate, McCormick noted.

“We’re not trying to be the only source of support for the communities we serve,” she said, adding it’s likely the funds will be exhausted by the end of the year. “Having too much money shouldn’t be a problem.”

Funding for assistance is linked to revenue projections for each county.

In Oakland County, where some 1,350 customers are currently on a payment plan, that is approximately $912,000. Neighboring Macomb County will have some $468,000 allocated. Almost 700 customers are on a payment plan there.

Nearly 6,000 customers in the Great Lakes Water Authority Service area are currently on billing plans, including more than 2,200 in Detroit.

The program also has a conservation component aimed at limiting excessive bills — determined as those residential customers using 120 percent of the average water consumption — due to conditions such as leaky pipes or faucets. Qualified residents will be eligible for a water use audit and minor repairs up to $1,000.

The water authority also plans to educate customers how to use less water.

“It’s costly for the people who can least afford it,” McCormick said. “That will help us all avoid unnecessary water use.”

The water authority also plans to help those in need seeking employment and social services.

“It’s not just ‘here’s $25 for your bill.’ Let us help you on a path to self-sufficiency,” McCormick said.

The assistance program will be administered by a third party, Wayne Metropolitan Community Agency, and is not intended to extend beyond two years, McCormick noted, barring unusual circumstances, and customers will be expected to reapply annually.

STATE AID

Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the department encourages customers struggling to keep up with their water and other bills to contact the utility company as soon as possible.

Wheaton said some six percent of the nearly 1,000 utility assistance payments the department has made since Oct. 1 have been for water.

The department offers up to $175 per year to qualified residents for help with their water service and the new program from the Great Lakes Water Authority could help customers owing more than that amount, Wheaton added.

The Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency also has offices in Ferndale and Holly. Call (248) 209-2600 or visit OLHSA.org for more information.

Call 517-373-3740 or visit michigan.gov/mdhhs for more information about the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s utility assistance program.

Visit www.glwater.org for more information about the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Read the article on The Oakland Press' website here.