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Investigation: See who owes Flint the most in unpaid water bills

In Flint, when businesses don’t pay their water bills, residents are left to pick up the tab
Published: Sep. 3, 2021 at 4:55 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - (9/3/2021) - The city of Flint is owed nearly half a million dollars in unpaid water bills from area businesses. These bills are a year or more overdue.

ABC12 News learned of that number as complaints continue to pour in over high water rates.

As explained in a report earlier this year, when businesses don’t pay, the mayor says residents’ bills go up to help cover the difference. A Freedom Of Information Act request filed earlier this year shows who isn’t paying and what the city is doing to collect the money owed.

ABC12 asked for a list of every business with an outstanding water bill, but the city’s FOIA coordinator said that record didn’t exist. ABC12 News then sent a refined request, seeking the names and owners of every business that haven’t paid their water bill in a year or longer, as well as how much is owed and when a payment was last made.

The city sent the addresses, but hid the name and owner of each business. Going line by line, ABC12 News found the entity that owes the most in past due water bills is the city of Flint.

“Sometimes I get the question why the water bill is so high, what is going on. Well, we have a habitual non-payers,” Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said in a Feb. 12 interview.

That interview in February prompted this investigation. After looking into the so-called absentee landlord of the now-condemned Sunset Village and Richfield Court apartment complexes in Flint, ABC12 News learned he owed nearly $1.2 million to the city for water.

Neeley said residents pay when businesses don’t.

“We can’t stabilize our rate system, because we have all this outstanding debt that is owed to us from these bad actors,” Neeley said in the February interview. “And so, it doesn’t allow us to really stabilize and then be able to really pass on, you know, a real affordable rate to our residents.”

He was unable to share at that time how many other businesses weren’t footing their bills. That’s what prompted ABC12 News to file the Freedom of Information Act request for more answers.

The city supplied the addresses of businesses with water bills that hadn’t been paid over the last year or longer. In total, the 133 businesses on their list owe $484,688.67.

The record shows one of the owners hasn’t paid anything toward their bill since 2001. The issue there is that it’s connected to one of 27 addresses provided that doesn’t exist in the city’s Property Portal.

Using that website to search the other addresses and determine what the businesses are and who owns them, ABC12 found the city owes the most money.

According to the record, 5306 North St. owes $65,508.30 in outstanding water bills, which is the highest amount owed on the list provided.

The Flint Property Portal shows the location is an old school near Bonner Park on the north side that the city owns. No payments have been made on that massive outstanding bill since July 2019.

ABC12 News tried to sit down with the mayor to ask about the property the city’s website says the city owns and why, as he’s previously said, people who live in Flint are having to pick up their water bill tab.

After reaching out to the mayor’s communications team Monday morning, ABC12 News was eventually told the Mayor didn’t have any availability to speak at all this week.

Via email, the Mayor’s communications team disputed what their own website says, explaining the City doesn’t own the property at 5306 North Street. When questioned further, the City said the utilities are in a church’s name.

On this topic, earlier this year, the Mayor also told ABC12 News that nonpayment from businesses over the years wasn’t his administration’s fault. It’s important to note Neeley has been in the mayor’s office for nearly two years.

“It didn’t happen here,” he said in February. “So, you could talk about previous administration or you could talk about emergency management. Equally they failed the residents of this community. We’re now as an evaluation taking a look at the evaluation takes us time to look at things to evaluate and go through our operational audits to see where the failures are, before we can act.”

So, has the city acted to hold these businesses accountable and to recover that half a million dollars?

Because the mayor refused an on camera interview, ABC12 News had to send questions to the communications team via email.

Melissa Brown, sent in an emailed response: “Demand letters for payments have been sent and we’re gathering information to enforce collections.” If the city didn’t receive any payment two weeks later, she said a shut-off notice was sent.

It’s not clear when the city started taking action, but Brown said the list is now down to 84 businesses with outstanding water bills.

The city didn’t share the new list, so it’s not clear if some businesses paid their debt in full or if others have been added.

ABC12 News also asked Brown if any business had their water shut off as a result of nonpayment. The city said not since December 2019, so it’s difficult to understand if the demand letters are working.

ABC12 News asked about the shutoffs because 27 businesses on the initial list don’t exist and several others aren’t open anymore. That begs the question of whether a shut off notice really matters to those owners.

It’s also known that the city had some trouble getting a hold of the Sunset Village and Richfield Court apartments’ owner because he lived out of state. It’s not clear if that’s an issue with the 84 businesses the city is tracking.

But, according to the record, a majority of the business owners linked to the addresses provided do live in Genesee County. Some are repeat offenders with outstanding bills for multiple businesses. Three live out of state.

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