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When you get home tonight, you might grab a fast shower before dinner or maybe after the gym. You’ll wash some dishes, brush your teeth – all things that take tons of water. California has been thinking about that with its current drought.
But they’re thinking about water in Detroit these days, too. That’s because the city is resuming mass shutoffs, again, for possibly thousands of people who are behind on their bills.
When these mass shutoffs started last summer, it made national news, then international news – at one point even the United Nations got involved.
So when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan rolled out his plan to address the shutoffs last August, he started out by saying, look, water isn’t free.
"I don’t know how to filter water and pipe it from the river to somebody’s house, at no cost,” he told reporters at a press conference. “Right now, it is other Detroiters paying for it. And there are a lot of Detroiters paying a water bill who can’t afford to be paying other people’s bills as well.”
So Duggan offered a different solution: payment plans. People could pay off what they owed the water department a little bit at a time, so long as they stayed current on their new bills.
But, Duggan stressed,“You have to stick to the payment arrangements. We’re not going to make a payment arrangement with you, and then a month or two later you don’t pay.”
But here’s the thing. That’s exactly what happened. At one point over the winter, nearly all 24,000 or so of those households that had signed up for the payment plans had fallen off.
Just 300 of them were current. Every other household was at least two months late.
Andrea Malone is one of the people who’s fallen off the payment plans. She’s a single mom, and she says her 9-year-old daughter has been in and out of the hospital in recent months.
"I missed a payment because I had to pay another bill,” Malone says, sitting on her couch on a warm spring morning. “It was either pay the water, or pay the electricity, or buy food, or pay her hospital bill. So I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul!”
So today, Malone’s calling the water department. Like a lot of people, she’s trying to get back on that payment plan now that the city is once again shutting off people’s water.
After a few minutes on hold, a water department representative picks up.
While the representative pulls up her details, let’s look at the big picture: as of now, the city says about 30,000 Detroit households are on payment plans. More are signing up each week now that the shutoffs are back. Even so, about 18,000 households are late enough and owe enough to put them back in shut-off status.
Andrea is OK for now — she’s still got some time to pay down her total balance, which turns out to be more than $500. Malone says to get back on the payment plans, she'll try to borrow money from her ex, or maybe pawn her DVD player. But then what?
When asked if she feels like she can actually stay on the plan this time, she says no. "Not really. Like I said, it's tough. It's either pay the water bill or get it shut off. And I can't be without water. So, I'm struggling."
So right now it kind of looks like there's a cycle happening in Detroit: the city shuts off people's water, so people get on payment plans. But then people fall off the payment plans. And the city shuts off people's water.
It’s no secret that the payment plans don’t look like they’re working out.
Detroit’s city services director Gary Brown said so during a city council committee meeting last month: “We’re telling you, the plan was not successful. Based on what we've all agreed success should be measured by."
So what Brown suggested at that meeting is something new: It’s called an affordability plan. In other words, charging low-income people less for their water.
"Because that really speaks to the poverty that's going on in our city,” Brown says.
The city council has put together a work group exploring this idea. Councilwoman Janee Ayers says the city has to figure something out. “We can’t have that many people without water. I can’t sleep at night knowing that.”
But the city’s legal department says this all could get very messy. It points to a Michigan law that says city rates have to be based on the cost of service — not on what people can afford.
Other city council members have said, OK, let’s get creative—maybe can we offer subsidies or something.
Duggan is skeptical. “I don’t know how you begin to do an affordability plan. We’ve got 275,000 households in this city. People move every day. How would you ever figure out what the income is in a household from one day to the next?”
Actually, other cities already do this — Cleveland, for one. Portland, Oregon does too. So it may not be impossible.
For his part, Duggan is reminding people there is financial assistance available if you’re low-income, and you fall behind on your water bill.
That pot of money is around $3 million. Detroiters owe the water department about $47 million.
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Williston, North Dakota, has experienced a few oil booms and busts starting in the '50s, when oil was first discovered there. During the last boom cycle, researchers estimate the town doubled in size to more than 30,000 people.
Some people in Williston disagree about what's in store for the city, given a downturn in oil prices and drilling. Is it experiencing another bust? Or just a slowdown?
Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil is among the pessimists.
“It’s very difficult in a boom-and-bust economy,” he says.
Kalil recalls how his dad, a banker, got stuck with loans that soured after oil field companies went belly up in the '50s. Kalil says his dad and the bank president tried to sell oil field equipment for 10 cents on the dollar. Then there was another boom-bust cycle in the early '80s. Kalil had to confront its aftermath directly as a city and county official.
“It took until just a few years ago for the city of Williston to pay off its debt from that boom, for pushing out infrastructure to developers who were going to come in and build and then didn't show up,” he says.
In the last decade, new fracking technologies brought oil rigs roaring back to life in North Dakota. Kalil nervously watched developers descend once again.
“We attracted everyone who had failed in Sacramento, everyone who failed in Phoenix, everyone who failed in Las Vegas, everybody who had failed in Houston, everyone who failed in Florida,” he says. “And they all came here with unrealistic expectations. And it’s really frustrating for those of us left to clean up the mess.”
Kalil says Williston is now $300 million in debt for building up infrastructure like roads and a water-treatment plant to accommodate the boom-time growth. He fears the town has overreached and won’t recover quickly, as global demand for oil is expected to be muted over the next few years.
But others think Williston will snap back after what may be just a temporary slowdown.
Swiss-based firm Stropiq is moving forward with plans to build a $500 million development in Williston that would include retail, residences, hotels and a water park. The proposal cleared some big hurdles in Williams County planning and zoning committee meetings over the past few months.
“If we were to try to time each stage of it with oil price fluctuations, we'd never get any place,” says Stropiq’s Terry Olin.
When Stropiq announced the project last year, oil was trading at about $40 a barrel higher than it is today. And more than twice the current number of drilling rigs were operating in North Dakota — 185 compared to about 80 today.
“Whatever price oil is, it’s temporary, high or low,” Olin says. “We're on one of 10 oil fields in history that's ever surpassed a million barrels a day. Technology is now to the point where we can access oil under the Bakken [formation], and we're not going to forget how.”
A number of experts agree that the oil industry in North Dakota is poised to rebound — eventually. Among them is Elliot Eisenberg, a real estate economist. He says it’s not unreasonable to plan a big project in North Dakota’s Bakken right now, unless you believe oil prices will never rise.
That said, he argues that developers today need a fair dose of patience, given the subdued outlook for oil.
“Investors with very long time horizons might say, 'Look, labor costs are now lower, land prices are lower. We could actually build a project now and decide that, yeah, we're prepared to sit on it two or three years and see what happens,’ ” he says.
Eisenberg says estimating the future population of Williston is, nevertheless, a difficult task. How many kids and spouses of oil field workers will settle in the area?
That question has already vexed the school district. And it could thwart big mall projects like Stropiq's. So says Tom Rolfstad, Williston’s former director of economic development. He's generally upbeat about the town's future and thinks it's just going through a slowdown, not a full-on bust. But Rolfstad acknowledges retail needs permanent residents to thrive, and many oil field workers around Williston are temporary.
“A lot of people rotate back somewhere else,” he says. “And they spend their money on their house back in whatever state they came from. So that maybe hurts us a little bit.”
Even if the oil boom regains its steam and Williston attracts more workers who will throw down roots, Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil may not rest easily. While he fears Williston's got another bust on its hands, he doesn't exactly want another boom. It would mean gobs more people, traffic and crime.
“The one complaint that you hear over and over again about this oil boom is that our time has been stolen from us,” he laments. “This was a five-minute town. This was a town where in five minutes you could hit the gas station, the grocery store, the bank and be on your way. It was so easy to live here.”
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