Last week Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency over the level of lead being found in Flint’s tap water, and this week he activated the state National Guard to help provide residents with bottled water, filters, and lead testing kits.
But even in the midst of this crisis, city residents aren’t just being charged for their poisoned tap water — they’re being threatened with shutoffs if they don’t quickly pay their bills.
In 2011, Flint lawmakers imposed a rapid 35 percent increase in water rates, against a city law that requires utility hikes to be implemented gradually, and started issuing shutoff notices to those who were past due. A judge halted the shutoffs last summer, ordering the city to undo the increase and revise customers’ bills. But the shutoff notices resumed in November based on the prior rates, going out to about 1,800 past due households.
And while they were paused for the December holiday season, they have once again resumed this week. Finance Director Jody Lundquist could not tell Michigan Live how many notices are expected to be sent out in this round.
Even residents who aren’t behind, though, are frustrated that they’re still being billed for water they can’t even drink. “The city is still billing residents for the contaminated water being pumped to their homes and expecting immediate payment,” Sylvia Orduno of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization explained in an email to ThinkProgress.
And the amounts demanded are quite high. In 2014, the Flint Journal reported that the average water and sewer bill in Flint was $140 a month. For anyone of limited means, that couldn’t come at a harder time. “The pace at which help is getting to residents is causing them further health consequences, suffering, and debt,” Orduno said. “Bottled water is an expensive alternative and requires constant, large supplies to meet the need.”
Kary Moss, executive director of the ALCU of Michigan, thinks that given the emergency over lead contamination, residents shouldn’t be charged, particularly for all of the time the Flint River — believed to be a source of the lead — was the source. “All arrears should be cleared,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “Nobody should have to pay for any of this.” Another advocate, Leon El-Alamin of the M.A.D.E. Institute that has been distributing clean water, said bills should at least be reduced by half until the water is drinkable again.
Residents similarly told the Press they feel they shouldn’t be paying. Alamado Saldana Sr. says his water has been shut off twice, and each time he has had to find hundreds of dollars to get service restored. “I would pay the bill, and it wasn’t even 30 days after I paid it that I got another shut-off notice in the mail,” he said. He thinks he deserves a refund for that money spent.
Officials in the mayor’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.
Concerns about the safety of the city’s drinking water began nearly as soon as it switched the source form Detroit to the Flint River, with residents complaining that it was cloudy, foul smelling, and bad tasting while potentially causing health problems. Officials kept insisting it was safe, however, despite a whistleblower’s claims that they knew of problems as early as July and may have rigged water tests to cover things up. In September, public research came out that linked the water switch to a significant increase in the levels of lead found in children’s bloodstreams.
Even as the crisis became clear, government was slow to react. Weeks after city officials declared a state of emergency, the state government did the same, and even then it took several days for bottled water to start getting handed out.