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Detroit plans to step up water service shutoffs

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DETROIT (AP) -- The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department plans a campaign to shut off service to 1,500 to 3,000 customers a week who are delinquent on bills, a move officials said aims to show the consequences of not paying for service.

The effort in the bankrupt city will target Detroit residents and companies more than 60 days late on bills, The Detroit News reported.

Including businesses, schools and commercial buildings, the department has about 323,900 Detroit accounts; as of March 6, nearly 165,000 were overdue for a total of $175 million. There are more than 296,000 residential accounts, including more than 154,000 delinquent for $91.7 million.

"Not everyone is in the situation where they can't afford to pay," said Darryl Latimer, the department's deputy director. "It's just that the utility bill is the last bill people choose to pay because there isn't any threat of being out of service."

The department halts cutoffs in winter because of complications associated with freezing temperatures, such as damaged pipes. This spring, however, a new contractor has been hired to target those who are more than two months behind or who owe more than $150.

"We're trying to shift the behavioral payment patterns of our customer base right now," said Constance Williams-Levye, water department commercial operations specialist. "And so aggressively we'll have a team of contractors coming in, in addition to our field teams."

According to department officials, the initiative is unrelated to Detroit's bankruptcy restructuring and is simply a renewed effort to fix a longstanding problem.

Kevyn Orr, Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager, has been trying to get suburban officials to agree to a regional authority that would take over operations and responsibilities of the utility. In return, the authority would pay millions of dollars a year to the city.

Under the cutoff plan, up to 20 additional contractor crews are expected to be employed, officials said. The department bills monthly and sends out notices when bills are overdue. When an account is more than 60 days late, a notice goes out saying service could be cut, Latimer said.

On Monday, the department plans to send mailings to thousands of customers warning that overdue bills could be considered a property tax lien and could result in foreclosure. The department also is tightening a policy that allows customers to make multiple partial payments on overdue accounts.

Detroit's water system serves about 4 million people in communities across southeastern Michigan. The costs of unpaid bills are paid separately by customers in Detroit and suburban communities, Latimer said, and the department also is working to collect on delinquent bills in the suburbs.

Concerns that suburban communities might have to pay for unpaid bills in Detroit have been among the sticking points in the idea of a regional water authority. Robert Daddow, Oakland County's deputy county executive, said improved collections would be helpful, but there are other factors.

"Shutting of the water certainly sends a message," Daddow said. "But this certainly isn't just the people who will not pay; it's the people who cannot pay because they don't have the income level that would enable them to do so."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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