Opinion | Michigan must come together to sustain water affordability for all
Just ask Missy in Roseville or Nicole in Detroit – they can tell you the importance of access to safe, affordable water.
Missy experienced firsthand the impact of unaffordable water bills and how it led to more challenges. Nicole experienced a water shutoff in 2014, which resulted in an emergency room visit and a huge impact on her children’s quality of life and led her to become a leader in the efforts for water affordability.
During the first year of COVID-19, there were 317,631 Michigan households behind on their water bills. Michigan utilized federal Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) funding to collect statewide data for the first time. In 2020, in a Republican legislature, we passed bipartisan legislation to temporarily prohibit water shutoffs.
Average inflation-adjusted water costs have increased by 188 percent across Michigan since 1980. Every corner of this state – villages in the U.P., suburbs in Macomb County, cities on the west side and in southeast Michigan and everywhere in between – has people who have trouble paying their water bills.
Access to clean, affordable water is important for public health. Every human being needs access to water, and water coming out of your tap simply should not depend on how much money you have or where you live.
Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority have taken great steps forward to address the unaffordability of water bills, by creating the Lifeline program and the Water Residential Affordability Program (WRAP). These two life-changing programs help low-income households with their water bills and plumbing repairs.
Here’s the bad news. Neither Lifeline nor WRAP have sustainable, long-term funding. For the senior citizens and other vulnerable residents on WRAPFinity beyond the normal two-year time limit for assistance, they don’t have the assurance of funding beyond a couple years. If we don’t address water affordability in the legislature, these seniors will end up right where we were before – in a crisis with water bills they cannot afford. Also, Michiganders elsewhere in the state struggling with unaffordable water bills do not have access to water affordability programs…yet.
We represent districts in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. We are unwilling to let seniors on WRAPFinity in Macomb, moms with young children in Wayne, struggling families in Oakland, or low-income residents anywhere in the state have their quality of life, public health and financial security put in jeopardy because of unaffordable water bills.
The good news? Along with our colleagues, we introduced statewide water affordability legislation that includes a program at the state preserving flexibility for water providers to maintain or start their own program, a sustainable and reasonable funding mechanism, and water shutoff protections . Our bills would result in households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty limit receiving water bills they can afford, and water providers being reimbursed for the gap and for arrearages. The result will benefit all ratepayers who won’t see price increases as a result of bad debt or the high cost of shutting off and restarting water.
We are proud of our comprehensive workgroup process that brought together water providers from around the state, water and environmental advocates, human service providers and municipal leaders to craft impactful and practical legislation. The concept of a statewide water affordability program has the support of 67 percent of Michiganders, and 89 percent of Michiganders support shutoff protections.
Michiganders have, since 2012, paid a small monthly funding factor on energy bills to support households in need of assistance. The Michigan Energy Assistance Program was sponsored by a Republican senator, passed with bipartisan support, and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Sixty percent of Michigan voters support a similar funding proposal – a reasonable $2 per month for water affordability. For low-income residents, they would not see an increase in their water bills; they would instead be eligible for the low-income water residential affordability program which would give them a lower water bill.
Water is life. In Michigan, we’ve come together across regional political divides before to solve hard problems for vulnerable residents. We believe that we can and must do that again, to address water affordability across our state.
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