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WHATâ€™S THE DEAL
The Detroit Water and Sewerage DepartmentÂ just rolled out this rate changeÂ that means property owners are generally paying more for their water bills each month. If â€œnew structure for drainage feesâ€ makes your eyes glaze over, youâ€™re not alone, but itâ€™s actually kind of a big deal — big enough that thereâ€™s a case over it sitting on the Michigan Court of Appealsâ€™ docket.
Joey Horan, a reporter working with Detour partner Outlier Media,Â told the story on Michigan Radio MondayÂ and clued us in to the big picture and the strangest details that didnâ€™t make it into the broadcast. Hereâ€™s a breakdown of whatâ€™s going on and how it affects Detroiters:
THE â€˜RAIN TAXâ€™
When rain water runs into the sewer system rather than getting soaked into the ground, it has to be treated before itâ€™s discharged into the river, which costs big money. If youâ€™ve got an impervious surface — aka something that water canâ€™t pass through into, like a driveway — the city is charging you for it, now at the rate of $598 per acre. Basically, the city is charging you for the concrete and asphalt next to your building.
A LITTLE ACREAGE, A LOT OF QUESTIONS
Is the fee change a big deal? Depends on who you ask. The city says that switching to a rate based on what you useÂ is fairer than a flat feeÂ and makes sure owners of parking lots and vacant properties without water hookups pay their share. And weâ€™ve always paid for drainage, they point out.
But the people who are suing call it an unconstitutional tax — by law, a tax would require voter approval. One of the things that makes it more like a tax than a fee, complainants say, is that it seems like the city basically started with the amount of their revenue hole and worked backwards to come up with theÂ rate theyâ€™d need to charge to make up the gap.
The water department hasnâ€™t exactly been forthcoming about their math, either: â€œIt would take a forensic accountant and a utilities economist to really break through some of their numbers,â€ Horan told Detour.
IS IT REALLY THAT EXPENSIVE?
Well, itâ€™s definitely nothing to sneeze at — the drainage fee is supposed to generate $153 million next year, which is $30 million more than it costs the city to actually deliver clean water to everyone in Detroit.
Itâ€™s true that for some people, the new rate might only add a few extra bucks to their monthly bill. But even that can be a struggle for low-income residents. Horan started looking into this story because one of Outlierâ€™s readers, an elderly woman on a fixed income, was doing everything she could to limit her water use and make her bills more affordable. YetÂ the drainage fee was something she had no control over.
And other water customers, particularly churches and commercial operations, have had much larger increases. Central Avenue Auto Parts ownerÂ Roger Skrzynski, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, had his fees increase by almost $4,000 a month after the change.
â€œIn my life Iâ€™ve been through a lot of rough stuff,â€ Skrzynski told Horan. â€œNothing has scared me as much as the government coming down on me over rainwater.â€
FLOODING ISN’TÂ FREE
Horan pointed out one of the most frustrating things about the departmentâ€™s rationale for how they divvied up the drainage costs. You would think that government-owned roads would count as the same kind of impervious surfaces that residents are paying for on their own properties. AndÂ then, it would follow thatÂ those costs would be separateÂ from what water customers are charged for. But instead the city classifies roads as â€œthe conveyance for drainage,â€ Horan said. â€œResidents are then basically on the hook, too, for all of the roads.â€
THE CAMERA ADDS 10 ACRES
Horan also brought up the most random element in this whole debacle: drones. DWSD â€œcalculated impervious area based on this drone flyover program theyâ€™re really proud of,â€ he told Detour. â€œBut at one point, someone admitted that the drone can pick up a shadow of a tree and calculate that as part of your acreage. If you think itâ€™s wrong, you can challenge itâ€¦ but itâ€™s putting the burden of accuracy on the resident, for something thatâ€™s already sort of hard to wrap your head around.â€
So, Detroit property owners,Â check your parcel on the map. Itâ€™s one of the few things you can do when drone photos and some opaque calculations determine how much you have to pay for the rain that falls on your driveway.
Make sure toÂ check out the original story on Michigan RadioÂ for more about how the Great Lakes Water Authority plays into the controversial fee, why Detroit has to treat rainwater in the first place and whatâ€™s going on with the court case. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz
*Michigan Radio is a client of Detour Collective consulting services. This piece of journalism was independently sourced and created by Detour Media journalists and is not sponsored or purchased in any way.