Advocates, residents and city officials have consistently faced off on water affordability over the last several years. An agreement on an income-based solution for Detroiters finally landed last August with the launch of the city’s Lifeline Plan. The program provides income-eligible households with a fixed monthly water bill rate that can be as low as $18 a month.
The program is expected to cost at least $15 million each year. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) also expects to need an additional $20 million for plumbing repairs each year. The program launched with funding only until early 2024.
The governor has allocated money for water affordability statewide, but how much of this money will go to Detroit and whether or not the city will need to come up with additional funds remains up in the air. DWSD Director Gary Brown’s recent statements have made it appear the department has found enough money to fully cover the program.
“The Governor has reached out and she has signed a supplemental budget that makes $25 million available for this program immediately,” Brown said at a Feb. 16 virtual town hall meeting, “And so we’re happy about that. That will certainly get us through the next year and a half.”
Outlier Media found there are yet to be any state funds secured for the water affordability plan and no set timeline for when any of it will be disbursed.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did sign a bill last month which included $25 million for a statewide water shutoff prevention fund. This funding is not allocated specifically for DWSD or any city water department.
Whitmer’s office referred Outlier to the state legislature for comment. House Speaker Joe Tate was one of the legislators who worked on the bill.
“The details of how that $25 million will specifically be used have yet to be defined,” said Amber McCann, Tate’s press secretary.
Detroit advocates, residents and city officials have been organizing around getting the Lifeline Plan permanently funded since last summer when it was first announced as an 18-month pilot program.
In an email to Outlier, DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh clarified Brown’s statements from recent meetings and said Brown’s statements were just enthusiasm.
“Director Brown is advocating for Detroit and the entire state, and clearly we don’t expect the entire appropriation to come to Detroit,” Peckinpaugh said. “We ask the water advocates to join DWSD and Director Brown in encouraging state leaders to have sustained funding for water affordability, including asking legislators to approve Governor Whitmer’s $40 million for water affordability in the next budget cycle.”
Although Peckinpaugh clarified Brown’s statements to Outlier, there has not been any public correction, and Detroiters may be misinformed about the water affordability program being fully funded.
Brown first falsely claimed state funding was secured at the Feb. 16 Ombudsman’s virtual town hall meeting. Around 170 people attended the meeting to hear more about the Lifeline Plan.
“Our advocates are absolutely right. Until you have sustainable long-term funding, you just have a pilot program,” Brown said at the town hall.
We the People of Detroit is one of the groups strongly advocating for water affordability. Its president is Monica Lewis-Patrick.
“For the City of Detroit to secure the full funding necessary for long-term water affordability, Mr. Brown and DWSD must provide an accurate and transparent accounting of what it will take to realize that goal,” Lewis-Patrick said. “Previous communications that have misrepresented the data and the nature of community collaboration has created distrust in the community.”
A day earlier at the DWSD Board of Water Commissioners meeting, Brown said, “I’m happy to report that on January 30, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a supplemental budget that includes $25 million this year that takes effect almost immediately for water affordability.”
A commissioner asked what it’s for and Brown replied that it’s “for affordability, this is strictly for Lifeline.”
He then went on to say the department was close to securing an additional $40 million and that DWSD is working with legislators to increase that amount to $75 million.
“While it’s not perfect, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in finding funding for this program going forward for the foreseeable future,” he said during the meeting.
The $40 million Brown mentioned is included in a supplemental bill presented alongside the governor’s fiscal year 2024 budget on Feb. 8, and is for “local water utility affordability.” However, the state has not yet determined how and when it will distribute the $40 million, McCann said.
Peckinpaugh said DWSD is confident it will get the funding it needs to continue the program.
“Detroit still has at least $5 million from the federally-funded Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) and another $5 million coming from the Great Lakes Water Authority via WRAP (Water Residential Assistance Program) in July.”