Detroit water has team investigating water, utility thefts

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A grow house on Seven Mile on the city's east side has more than just marijuana that is illegal there. The suspects were stealing electricity and water - and authorities estimate they're costing Detroiters big money.

"When you steal that water you're essentially asking poor people to pay your bill," Gary Brown said.

In a city where 50 percent of the customer base falls below the poverty level, Detroit Water and Sewerage has been under fire for water shutoffs and rate increases.

But director Gary Brown says he is aware of the problems and one way he's trying to keep prices down is by shutting down businesses that are stealing water.

"There will always be an underground economy going on," Brown said. "But when that underground economy starts affecting an 82-year-old grandmother that's struggling to pay her bills - well we're going to get involved at that point."

Brown has hired a team of six investigators, former police officers who hit the streets each day and recently a tip led them to what appeared to be an abandoned building. Once inside it was anything but empty.

A green garden hose led all the way to a pump station. Not just marijuana but authorities say the building was committing large scale utilities theft. 

"It's hard to tell how long he had been operating," Brown said. "But tens of thousands of dollars - if not hundreds of thousands of dollars - with both the utility for water but also for electricity. It takes a lot of light to run a grow operation like this."

Police and prosecutors say 28-year-old Clinton Township resident Marin Pergega was behind that illegal operation on Seven Mile. 

He was charged with delivery and manufacturing of marijuana, malicious destruction of property, tampering with meters and public utility fraud. These are charges that could land him behind bars for several years if he's found guilty.

"He's costing Detroiters that can't afford anymore cost on their bills - he's causing them to pay more than they should - and we're not going to allow that to happen," Brown said.

Brown says investigators have the technology and manpower and they will prosecute people who are stealing water.

"They're not out looking for crime - they're out investigating billing and collection irregularities," he said. "And if a crime gets in their way they're going to deal with it," he said.

Since August, Detroit Water and Sewerage have conducted more than 400 investigations, and more than $4 million has been identified in unpaid or illegal usage. Most of these are legal businesses.