How driveways, parking lots are changing the cost of Detroit water bills

Business owner says drainage cost rose to $1,000

Detroit (WXYZ) - There are big changes coming to the water bills for hundreds of thousands of people, and it has nothing to do with how much water we’re using.

Whether you own a vacant lot or a high-rise, how you pay for drainage is changing.  And that has some long-time Detroiters upset.

Seventy-three-year-old Bernice Toles has lived on Detroit’s west side for 49 years.  Back in the 1980’s, when the home next door was torn down, Toles bought the vacant lot so she could keep up the yard and the garden.

Toles says she was shocked last fall when she suddenly started getting a water bill for this lot, in addition to the bill for her house.

“I just feel like this is not justified,” said Toles.

The only thing on the bill for the empty lot: a drainage charge of $22.50.  Bernice says she’s been calling the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to find out why she’s being billed for rainwater and snow run-off this way.

“It doesn’t seem like it helped very much if you complain to them.  And I’d like to see them respond to us a little bit better,” said Toles.  She isn’t alone.

“I said what is this crazy amount, what is this new $1000 charge,” asked Detroit business owner Donna Heligman.  Heligman says in July, the drainage fee listed on her bill jumped from $190.56 to $1,011.33.

Heligman owns two small strip malls along Telegraph on the west side, where Detroit’s comeback hasn’t completely kicked in.  Some of their stores are vacant.

“We’re a little mom and pop operation.  We can’t afford to take $12,000 [a year] and add it to our bills.  We have mortgages, we have bills,” Heligman told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Right now, Heligman is getting a Green Credit on her bill, so her total drainage fee is actually $382.50.  But she’s very worried she’ll soon have to pay that full $1,011.33.

“This is our money, literally going down the drain,” said Heligman.

“The first misconception is that drainage charge is new. It is not new,” said DWSD Director Gary Brown.  Brown says it costs Detroit $151 million every year to transport and treat billions of gallons of stormwater run-off and snowmelt.

“People have been charged for drainage for decades, but it was buried in the sewage rate,” said Brown.

Brown says for many customers, the drainage fees were based on meter size, which has nothing to do run-off.  That means some customers were paying thousands of dollars every month, while others, such as downtown parking lots that don’t have a water department account, were paying nothing.

“When it rains on that hard surface, on that parking lot, the water goes into the drain. [It] ends up at the waste water treatment plant to be cleaned before it can be put back out into the river.   So those customers were receiving a service that others were paying for, and that’s certainly not equitable,” said Brown.

DWSD is now using aerial images to measure how much impervious acreage you have.  Translation: the more concrete and hard surfaces on your property, such as driveways, parking lots, and rooftops, the more storm water run-off you have. 

Commercial accounts started getting the revamped bills this past July; residential customers will see the changes in July of 2018.

Brown says everyone will be given the chance to earn a “green credit” to keep costs down.

“We’d like to work with them on building out green infrastructure projects, whether it’s a rain garden, or rain barrels, or disconnection of downspouts, so that we can take storm water out of the system and make Detroit a more environmentally friendly city,” said Brown.

Director Brown admits, they could be doing a better job communicating these changes to customers – and they’re working on that. 

“We thank them for their patience.  We know that DWSD in the customer service department has been a little bit behind, but we’re now caught up.  We have staff available,” Brown said, inviting customers to call 313-267-8000; then push “6” to get the Drainage Team.

Brown says DWSD will help both Bernice Toles and Donna Heligman to better understand the Green Credits. 

With the billing changes, Brown says drainage costs will actually be reduced for about 1/3 of the residential customers. 

DWSD has more information on their website.

According to DWSD:

In compliance with federal regulations, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) incurs $151 million annually to store, transport and treat billions of gallons of stormwater run-off and snowmelt (drainage) that flow from impervious, hard surfaces to our wet weather treatment facilities. Since 1975, most Detroit property owners have been paying for drainage. In the 1980s, DWSD attempted to move properties to impervious-based billing. This resulted in varied rates and billing, where some properties are charged based on a fixed rate based on meter size, while other properties are charged based on the impervious acreage of their parcel(s).

DWSD maintains a combined sewer system designed to serve a population of two million people, now paid for by 680,000 residents and businesses. Most other (newer) communities in southeast Michigan do not have combined sewers and pay for stormwater costs (if recovered) through other sources such as property taxes. In fact some of these suburban communities have lobbied the Michigan Legislature to request stormwater legislation so they can bill their residents and businesses for the cost of the service separately.

Like most utilities, State law requires that DWSD charge residents and businesses for the cost of service rendered.

To allow property owners time to prepare for this change, DWSD is phasing transition by property class: Starting with city-owned and never-been-billed properties (October 2016), industrial properties (January 2017), commercial (July 2017), tax exempt (July 2017), faith-based (July 2018) and residential (July 2018).

To soften the transition impact, there are credits for properties going from meter-based to impervious acreage. Also, residents will receive a 25% automatic credit due to disconnected downspouts and other stormwater flow characteristics of residential parcels when they transition in July 2018.

Rates for customers already billed on an impervious area basis are expected to decline more than 30 percent over three years.

To further reduce customer bills, DWSD has a Drainage Charge Credits program. Customers can earn up to 40% credit on their bill for implementing measures that reduce annual volume of flow, and up to 40% credit for measures that control peak flow rate. Measures include installing rain gardens, adding cisterns, building retention basins, or disconnecting downspouts. DWSD is designing offsite mitigation and community outreach credits. Green stormwater infrastructure will not only reduce customer bills, but will help prevent untreated overflows, preserve water quality, beautify and revitalize our neighborhoods.

Residential side lots (vacant lots) that are charged for drainage services, but do not have any impervious surface on the parcel, can request DWSD remove the charges for that parcel and it will do so once the parcel is verified to have less than 0.02 impervious acres.

DWSD will soon launch a Capital Partnership Program with a 50/50 match up to $50,000 for nonresidential properties that install approved green stormwater infrastructure projects.

The first step in the credits application process is for customers to verify their data -- ensure they own the property, property boundaries are correctly drawn and the amount of impervious surface is accurately measured. Customers can view parcel(s) and update account information by visiting the drainage website at www.detroitmi.gov/drainage  (enter your address in the parcel viewer), emailing drainage@detroitmi.gov or calling 313-267-8000 and following the prompts to speak with a drainage customer care specialist.

Stats:

67% of drainage cost were paid by impervious acreage billed customers prior to October 2016.

33% of drainage cost were paid by fixed rate, meter-based billed customers prior to October 2016.

More than 800 communities across the country use similar methods for managing stormwater. Green stormwater infrastructure programs have been established in major US cities including Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City, Milwaukee, Cleveland, St Louis, Atlanta, Louisville, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

200,000+ DWSD customers. Cost recover is as follows:

17% Industrial;

10% City/State/County/Federal;

6% Schools/Academia;

32% Commercial/Medical/Housing;

2% Tax Exempt and Faith Based; and

32% Residential.

There are 63,027 parcel acres in the city of Detroit; 139 square miles of green stormwater infrastructure opportunity to become the greenest city in America.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473

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