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Flint, MI– For four days, Russ Dotson, his wife, and two toddlers slept huddled in front of their living room fireplace.
On Feb. 8, they were one of approximately 23 families whose water was shut off after not making an appointment to upgrade their water meter–the consequence of a recent initiative from Flint City Hall aimed at getting all residents’ water meters up to date. The Dotsons live in an older house with a boiler, which meant not only did they not have water–they didn’t have heat.
When Dotson got home from work that day, he said he was surprised the water had been shut off. He said he hadn’t received any kind of notice of a shutoff, and that they had paid their bill on time.
Right away, he said, he called multiple city phone numbers to get information about the shutoff, but didn’t get a call back. Then he called his councilperson, and that’s when he learned about the city’s efforts to upgrade old water meters.
On Dec. 21, Mayor Sheldon Neeley said the city would be pursuing collections of delinquent water accounts from habitual non-payers. In addition to going after non-payers, they also announced that they’d shut off water for residents who failed to make an appointment to get their water meters upgraded–something multiple council members took issue with.
On Jan. 10, City Treasurer Amanda Trujillo explained to the Flint City Council that residents with outdated meters would be receiving notices asking them to make an appointment to get the meter replaced. She said the process of replacing the meters takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
If within two weeks, the resident does not schedule an appointment, their water will be shut off, and the resident will have to pay a reconnection fee to get their water turned back on.
“I just want to emphasize that the goal is not to turn people off. We want to change their meter. That is the goal,” Trujillo said.
Dotson said he personally didn’t have a problem with the city shutting off his water if he had refused to get a meter upgrade, but he said he did not receive any warning.
“I should have gotten a letter. That’s it. ‘Hey, you’ve got two weeks to schedule this or we’re going to cut off your water,’ and we never got that,” Dotson said. “I asked my neighbors if they ever got cards, and they said nobody got anything on the door.”
On Feb. 22, Trujillo told Flint Beat in an email that residents are given notice “in accordance with the City Ordinance,” with a minimum of three notices sent to each residence encouraging the residents to contact Customer Service and make arrangements to upgrade their meter.
“The goal is not to shut off any customer, but to update extremely outdated water meters owned by the City of Flint before they stop working,” Trujillo stated in the email.
Luckily for Dotson, he said his mother-in-law was able to go directly to Neeley and explain the situation.
Karen McDonald-Lopez, Dotson’s mother-in-law, is a former attorney for the city of Flint. She said she personally knew many people working at city hall, so once Dotson had exhausted other numbers, she made calls of her own.
“But it boiled down to the mayor insisted on implementing his … change of the meter policy,” she said of her conversation with Neeley. “It pretty much it boiled down to well, if you had complied, then you know, it wouldn’t have been shut off and you’d have your heat.”
McDonald-Lopez said that Dotson and her daughter both work out of town, with their children in daycare.
“If it was a regular piece of mail they would have gotten it, but if it was a flyer stuck in the door, they may not have seen it, or it may have blown away, I don’t know,” she said. “It just seems like a serious consequence to suffer for such a short notice period.”
She said Neeley offered to send her a copy of the shut off notice for Dotson from the city, but she hasn’t received it yet. Still, by about 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 9, Dotson’s water had been turned back on.
Neeley did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
“I’m blessed with the connections that I have here. But I don’t think that most of the people in Flint have those connections,” he said. “So I don’t know if there are some poor east side people who are out of heat and water.”
But while his water was turned back on, heat was still an issue.
“When you turn water off and then on, it releases a bunch of sediment … which clogged up my boiler. So it took me days to get somebody to come over here to clean my boiler,” Dotson said.
In the meantime, Dotson bought two space heaters from Walmart for a total of $89.64. He also ran his fireplace for those four days, which he guesses will result in a hefty bill from Consumers Energy.
It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, Feb. 11, that people from Plumbing & Heating, Inc., were able to come to his house and fix his boiler.
According to the $681 bill, the workers found that the water supply line to Dotson’s boiler was “plugged,” and needed to be “replaced due to debris from city water meter.”
Dotson said he submitted the bills to the city, but hasn’t been reimbursed yet.
McDonald-Lopez said she didn’t think the city had considered the fact that turning off water would mean turning off heat for people with boilers.
“So I told the mayor, I said, ‘Well, I think because you’re shutting the water off in the winter, people who have boilers are going to be without heat. That should have required a higher level of notice, like certified mail, before you shut someone’s water knowing that that’s going to shut their heater off.’ I don’t think they ever thought about the boiler situation,” she said.
Additionally, she said she didn’t think that residents were given enough time to know about the change in policy regarding water shut offs as a result of not upgrading water meters.
She said that shut offs due to non-payments are one thing, because residents should be aware of the policy and aware that they’ve not paid their water bills. But with the change in the meter upgrade policy happening so recently, she didn’t think there was “enough time to get the word out.”
“What was so urgent about doing this in February? I don’t know. If you’re going to shut people’s water off and cause their heat to go off, don’t do it in the dead of winter, do it in the springtime, and that way everybody would have plenty of time to get adequate notice,” McDonald-Lopez said. “I think it was inadequate notice, and I think the penalty that people suffered was too harsh.”
On Feb. 18, Trujillo told Flint Beat that water shutoffs have stopped for “the next couple of weeks for the water meters.” However, she said letters to customers to change their old meters will still go out.
“If someone has boiler heat it is imperative that they call us to let us know that they want their meter changed but have boiler heat,” she said in an email. “Accommodations can be made if customers call the Customer Service number. If the water is shutoff after standard work hours, customers should call the water emergency number at 810-766-7202.”