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People are calling this obscure change to Detroit’s water bills the ‘rain tax’

Detroit's new drainage fee might sound like a snooze -- except it's kinda like you’re getting charged every time it rains.

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WHAT’S THE DEAL

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department just rolled out this rate change that means property owners are generally paying more for their water bills each month. If “new structure for drainage fees” makes your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone, but it’s actually kind of a big deal — big enough that there’s a case over it sitting on the Michigan Court of Appeals’ docket.

Joey Horan, a reporter working with Detour partner Outlier Media, told the story on Michigan Radio Monday and clued us in to the big picture and the strangest details that didn’t make it into the broadcast. Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on and how it affects Detroiters:

THE ‘RAIN TAX’

When rain water runs into the sewer system rather than getting soaked into the ground, it has to be treated before it’s discharged into the river, which costs big money. If you’ve got an impervious surface — aka something that water can’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 use is fairer than a flat fee and makes sure owners of parking lots and vacant properties without water hookups pay their share. And we’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 the rate they’d need to charge to make up the gap.

The water department hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about their math, either: “It would take a forensic accountant and a utilities economist to really break through some of their numbers,” Horan told Detour.

IS IT REALLY THAT EXPENSIVE?

Well, it’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.

It’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 Outlier’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. Yet 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 owner Roger Skrzynski, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, had his fees increase by almost $4,000 a month after the change.

“In my life I’ve been through a lot of rough stuff,” Skrzynski told Horan. “Nothing has scared me as much as the government coming down on me over rainwater.”

FLOODING ISN’T FREE

Horan pointed out one of the most frustrating things about the department’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. And then, it would follow that those costs would be separate from what water customers are charged for. But instead the city classifies roads as “the conveyance for drainage,” Horan said. “Residents are then basically on the hook, too, for all of the roads.”

THE CAMERA ADDS 10 ACRES

Horan also brought up the most random element in this whole debacle: drones. DWSD “calculated impervious area based on this drone flyover program they’re really proud of,” he told Detour. “But 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 it’s wrong, you can challenge it… but it’s putting the burden of accuracy on the resident, for something that’s already sort of hard to wrap your head around.”

So, Detroit property owners, check your parcel on the map. It’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 to check out the original story on Michigan Radio 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 what’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.

 

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