Detroit water shutoffs: Elected official shares his story

DETROIT – Detroit's water shutoffs have affected thousands of residents and businesses--from people who can't afford to pay to those who have simply ignored their bills. Even a well-known elected official who says he knew about the water crisis admits he made a mistake.

The Local 4 Defenders broke the water story earlier this year, which has now garnered national attention. The Defenders have been sharing residents' stories.

Read background: Timeline of water shutoffs

Eric Williams' service was cut off for non-payment.

"The last time I paid a bill, a water bill, it was paid every three months. Am I right? Or am I wrong," Williams said.

But Williams was wrong. Bills have been sent monthly for seven years. He paid within the day of his interview and his service was restored.

Nicole Hill is contesting her $5,000 bill. She's convinced the water department has made a mistake.

"There's no way I can pay it," Hill said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said anyone with an outstanding balance of more than $150 could have their water shut off. The department said it has nearly $90 million in past due accounts. They are going after everybody from the unemployed to the rich and powerful.

Story: Detroit tries to crack down on wasted water

The Defenders' first report in April exposed, not only the homeowners who were late to pay, but also the businesses.

Story: DWSD owed $118 million in unpaid bills

Joe Louis Arena and Eastern Market have since paid their bill. City-owned golf courses are still negotiating with DWSD.

Protestors have hit the streets and surrounded City Hall, angered by what they call a human rights violation.

Inside City Hall, Detroit City Council member James Tate said even he's been personally affected.  He agreed to share his story with the Defenders with the hope that others would learn from his experience.

His bill was three months late. Shutoff notices were sent, and eventually service was cut.

"The reality is, elected officials, we experience life just like everyone else," Tate said. "I can't put it on the water department. Realistically, life happens. Whether it's student loans that my wife and I have to deal with, or car repairs. You can't predict life. When that happens, you've got to prioritize."

Tate made a payment and his service was immediately restored.

"I handled the business like I would expect any other resident to do so," he said.

Tate said he didn't ask for special treatment. He was treated just like any other customer and knows there are Detroiters who need help.

"If you can't pay the bill, genuinely, there should be some kind of safety net to assist," Tate said.

 DWSD says the biggest problems are those who can pay their bills, but ignore them. And, those who choose to steal water.

One example is a house on the city's east side, where service was cut last year. No payments have been made, but recently, through an illegal hookup, water is flowing again.

The water department has suspended shutoffs until early August so it has time to work with customers.

"We're trying to communicate and make sure all of our customers are aware of the assistance programs that are here to assist them," said Darryl Latimer, DWSD director.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will host a Water Affordability Fair on Aug. 2. to help customers with financial hardships. Click here for more information.