Detroit Drainage Fees Are Hitting Residents Hard

The city says the increased fees that many people are seeing reflect a more equitable billing system, but residents argue the charges are unfair.

March 22, 2019, 6:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Rain On Pavement

Creative Commons Zero - CC0 / Max Pixel

Detroit water and sewer bills have risen quickly since the city rolled out a new drainage fee structure last year. In the past, residents paid a flat rate, and businesses were supposed to be charged based on the size of their water pipes or the "impervious acreage"—the area on the property covered with materials that prevent the absorption of water. The result, reports Joel Kurth, was that rates varied considerably and owners of large parcels often had lower drainage bills.

Now property owners pay $598 per impervious acre, and many have seen their monthly bills increase dramatically. They say the fees are unfair, particularly in a city with high tax rates and poverty levels. Questions have also arisen about whether the new charges are a fee or a tax. A tax, residents say, would require voter approval under Michigan state law.

"Detroit officials say the rates are fair, lowering fees for 56 percent of all residents and equitably spreading the cost of treating wastewater," says Kurth. But the city has also spent $1 billion in recent years to update its wastewater treatment facilities. The projected $150 million a year the new drain fees will bring in will help the city repay these infrastructure costs.

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