A five-year-old class action lawsuit alleging the City of Highland Park improperly handled water utility bills has been settled. If a judge accepts the settlement, residents will be eligible to have years of water debt forgiven.
The suit states that the city neglected to send water bills, or sent inaccurate bills, after a lack of repairs on Highland Park’s water treatment plant forced the city to switch to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
“People were receiving water bills in the thousands, some of them in the tens of thousands.” — Eban Morales, Highland Park resident
At that point, the suit alleges, Highland Park’s water meters stopped being accurate. Starting in 2016, Highland Park hired an outside company to upgrade the water meters.
Alice Jennings, an attorney for a plaintiff in the suit, says the settlement forgives approximately $2 to $3 million worth of bills issued between 2012 and when residents’ meters were fixed. She says waiving water debt that was added to residents’ property tax bills could save homes from going into tax foreclosure.
Click on the player above to hear from Alice Jennings, an attorney for a plaintiff on the class action lawsuit against Highland Park.
Inaccurate, Missing Water Bills
Starting around 2012, some Highland Park residents stopped receiving water bills or received inaccurate ones, according to plaintiffs in the case.
“People were receiving water bills in the thousands, some of them in the tens of thousands,” says Eban Morales, a Highland Park resident and plaintiff in the suit.
“There was no procedure to complain about the bill, to have it properly reviewed.” — Alice Jennings, attorney
Morales says his water debt got so high part of it was sent to a collections agency. He and some of his neighbors saw their balances added to property tax bills.
Morales says residents organized and approached Highland Park.
“We pretty much asked them to zero out the bills and start all over because they couldn’t prove the bills were accurate,” Morales says.
But, he says, the city didn’t want to do that. So they filed the class-action lawsuit.
No Due Process
Jennings says the lawsuit was filed on the grounds that the city violated an ordinance that says water customers’ bills have to be based on actual meter readings. Additionally, she says, there was no due process.
“There was no procedure to complain about the bill, to have it properly reviewed,” says Jennings.
Jennings says the settlement addresses rules and regulations around water billing, including an income-based repayment process.
“So it’s kind of two-for in terms of supporting that community which is impoverished and it’s still going through some really rough times,” says Jennings.
If residents did pay their water bills during the disputed period, Jennings says plaintiffs are requesting a credit, subject to the conclusion of a separate lawsuit in which the city of Highland Park is suing the city of Detroit for overcharges in rates.
The next step in the process is a fairness hearing where the settlement will go before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Annette Berry to either be accepted or rejected. The hearing was originally scheduled for March 5 but is being rescheduled because the judge will now be on vacation.