By Sarah Alvarez
Anytime a group of people gathers regularly, little traditions start to form, intended or not. The monthly meetings of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Board are no different.
The ritual starts during public comment period, early in the meeting. A resident steps to the mic, reveals the total of their astronomically high bill, swears up and down they didn’t use the thousands of gallons of water necessary to justify that bill and waits for the Board to respond.
Meeting minutes are full of summaries of these exchanges. The resident is typically told to talk to a customer service representative on hand, and another resident steps up with a water issue, or even a similar mystery bill.
When the Board shuttles complaints to the customer service reps, there is no public record of what happens next. Why was that bill so high? Did the customer have to pay? We hear, regularly, from residents who end up on a payment plan for a problem they think has more to do with the DWSD system than their house.
(However, DWSD changed policy this year. Now, if someone calls out a plumber and finds out the spike in their bill is related to a leak, DWSD will return a partial credit once the customer shows they’ve gotten the leak fixed.)
Kija Gray was more certain than most the water bill she got in March for $3,762 couldn’t be right. She also went further than most in contesting it, fueled by the certainty that a house with no plumbing — aside from a few pipes capped off close to the floor — couldn’t use thousands of gallons in a day.
Gray bought the house on the city’s east side from the Detroit Land Bank three years ago after an investor abandoned it to tax foreclosure. She trusted herself and her neighbors to take better care of the property than the city, and the neighbors now keep up a community garden in the backyard.
Gray lives three doors down from the vacant house and is fixing it up slowly to meet Land Bank requirements that purchasers must make progress renovating land bank houses. To show progress over the winter, Gray put the water bill for the home in her name.
A few months later when the surprise bill arrived, Gray immediately went to customer service for the water department. Her first lesson about challenging your bill: hustle. You only have 28 days to dispute the charges, Gray learned.
She was offered a payment plan that day, but opted instead for a hearing that happened a few months later. DWSD instituted this alternative in the fall of 2017 to give customers the opportunity to resolve disputes with the help of a neutral party.
The hearings take place on the 10th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center downtown. Though less formal than a court proceeding, these hearings have an Administrative Law Judge making a binding — and final — decision. According to DWSD records, 161 hearings have been held since the beginning of the year, with those customers disputing a total of $447,801 in charges. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh said the department does not keep track of which disputes are residential and which are commercial.
“I didn’t know what my defense was going to be going in,” Gray said, who described feeling like the deck was stacked against her at her hearing in August. “I’m going into your courtroom with your data, like I’m going into a gun battle with a knife. They have access to way more information than I do.”
DWSD loses more of these hearings than they win, but they still keep the bulk of the money in dispute . Since January, DWSD has prevailed just over 40% of the time, but customers were credited back only about 23% of the amount at issue, or just over $100,000 altogether.
According to Gray, DWSD believed she either tampered with her water meter or that the pipes that run under the house could have a leak. Gray said when she presented she did her best to emphasize that she had no reason to tamper with the meter and was proactive in all her encounters with the water department.
She also tried not to let the judge lose sight of what seemed obvious: that it would be very strange for a house with no plumbing to rack up a water bill worth thousands.
Altogether the hearing took about 45 minutes. The judge sided with Gray, categorizing the overcharge as a “billing error” rather than a meter malfunction and ordered Grey’s bill get a close to $4,000 adjustment.
Gray has specific advice for other residents challenging their water bills. “Don’t be intimidated,” she said of the hearing process. “They aren’t friendly but it is still a service that we all pay for.”
Despite her win at the hearing last month, Gray still hasn’t seen the $3,762 charge come off her water bill. We’ve sent an inquiry to DWSD on her behalf to see what the holdup is.
Keep reading here, with more on why these billing mistakes might be happening, tips for challenging your own water bill and what’s even worse than water shutoffs. And if you want more of Outlier’s reporting,sign up to get In the House in your inbox once a month.