Mary Huddleston won’t drink the water that comes out of her tap, but in January she got a water bill for more than $1,000.
In December, the city of Flint, Michigan, installed a new water meter in her house, and when the first reading came back, Huddleston was told she’d been undercharged and now owed the city $1,090.09 in back payments.
“They just said they’d been undercharging me because they’d been estimating it for all that time,” said Huddleston, a 76-year-old widow. “But how’s that my fault?”
Last year, Flint was in the throes of the worst lead poisoning crisis in recent memory. As it scrambles to replace 6,000 pipes leaching lead this year, the beleaguered city is strapped for cash and looking to collect money from residents for water used during the crisis.
In March, the city of Flint issued shutoff notices to 31 residents who owe between $2,000 and $5,600 in water bills. And this week, the city threatened to terminate water services for more than 8,000 people who haven’t paid their bill in over six months. The city has said it will place tax liens against people’s homes (or throw thousands of people into foreclosure) if they don’t pay by May 19.
Why the sudden and widespread crackdown? The reason is that Flint is no longer receiving financial assistance from the state to help pay its water bills. And city officials are now desperately looking to residents to pick up the tab.
Huddleston didn’t receive one of the 8,000 notices threatening to terminate her service because she has paid her shutoff notices each month, or the minimum amount the city requires to maintain service.
“I told them there was no way I could pay this,” said Huddleston of her January bill. “I wrote letters. I asked for an administrative review, but the day before the appointment, they called and said I couldn’t get a meeting because their lawyers weren’t there.”
As of today, she still hasn’t had the opportunity to meet with city officials. And she still has an outstanding balance of $638 to pay.
“People are moving away, and a lot of people I talked to said they weren’t paying it because we can’t even drink the water,” said Huddleston. “But I’m old; they know I’m stuck here.”
Kristin Moore, a city spokesperson, said in an email that water shutoffs were routine and have been performed for years. The process was suspended last year “due to the water relief credits provided by the state.” But after they ran out, the city was forced to send 8,002 letters to collect on two years of delinquent water payments totaling $5.8 million.
"I feel like my hands are tied," said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver in a statement to Vox. "This is the law, and we have to follow the law. But we are working to see if any changes or something can be done to help the residents affected by this."
Flint’s water still isn’t safe to drink
In February, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder ruled that the state would stop subsidizing water in Flint. Rich Baird, a senior adviser to Snyder, told Flint officials financial assistance would end because lead levels in the water had dropped below the federal action limit during the last six months of testing.
But Flint’s water still isn’t safe to drink. City officials still advise against drinking the tap water without a filter. The city’s latest round of testing put Flint’s 90th percentile lead level at 12 parts per billion (ppb), which is below the federal action limit of 15 ppb but is still higher than the proposed 10 ppb threshold Snyder said he wants written into law. The Environmental Protection Agency has said there’s no known level of lead that is safe in drinking water.
David Sabuda, the city’s interim chief financial officer, told the Detroit Free Press that the end of the state subsidy means the city is now saddled with two water bills that it must finance on its own. Each month Flint pays $1.1 million to the Great Lakes Water Authority for Detroit water and roughly $440,000 to cover its debt for the newly built Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, even though Flint is still months away from using it.
But Sabuda argued that customers who have fallen behind in payments, whether from financial hardship or in protest of Flint’s continued state of duress, need to pay up.
“Customer payments are necessary to help the city of Flint collect the funds needed to pay over $1.2 million per month for treated water and provide for water and sewer services as Flint continues to recover from the effects of the man-made water crisis,” he said in a statement. “It is important that these customers address their unpaid balances.”
Melissa Mays, an activist and longtime Flint resident, is one of the 8,000 residents who received a letter from the city saying to pay her water bill or face a tax lien. Mays owes the city $891 and plans to skip this month’s car and mortgage payment in order to pay her bill because she can’t risk losing her home, but she doesn’t think it’s fair.
“The state had been paying our $1.2 million water bill to Detroit, but they just decided to stop paying it even though they know our water is not better,” she said. “We didn’t make the choice to switch the water, but we have to foot the bill.”