Detroit — July 29, 2014 at 12:41 pm

UPDATED x3: Despite supposed moratorium, Detroit water shutoffs continue


Depends on what your definition of “moratorium” is, I guess…

Last week, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, bowing to pressure from Detroit bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, instituted what they said was a 15-day moratorium on water shutoffs in Detroit. However, despite this, water shutoffs continue:

The Detroit water department recently announced a temporary break in its campaign to cut service to delinquent customers—but some people are still being shut off. […]

[T]he temporary reprieve doesn’t apply across the board, as most people had assumed.

Spokeswoman Curtrise Garner says the water department remains committed to helping anyone genuinely unable to pay their bill.

“Not one person has come into our center in need of financial assistance that we’ve turned away,” Garner says.

But, she adds: “Often what happens is that people get on a payment plan, and they only pay once. If you miss your payment plan agreement, you go into shutoff status.”

Also, the department has continued doing random audits of some customers who had already been turned off. “Among those remaining, we’re finding that 50% of those homes are back on illegally,” says Garner. “So we shut them off.”

While this may seem reasonable to some, it doesn’t appear to tell the entire story. At a Detroit City Council meeting yesterday, Monica Lewis-Patrick of the People’s Water Board Coalition told the Council of a 98 year-old man who had his water shutoff:

Lewis-Patrick called the Council and Mayor Mike Duggan “reckless and irresponsible” for not taking a stronger public stance against the shutoffs—even though Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr has control over the water department right now.

Lewis-Patrick recounted a phone call from a man who said his 98-year-old father no longer has water.

“His father’s water was shut off for a $700 bill. But the father was on a payment plan, so he didn’t understand why he was shut off,” Lewis-Patrick says. “The payment plan is not due yet. [It’s] not due until this week.”

There are a number of groups attempting to help residents who can’t afford to pay their water bills. According to an announcement about an upcoming “Water Affordability Fair” on August 2nd, almost $4 million has been provided to Detroit residents to help them pay their bills. However, the amount of outstanding bills is said to be in excess of $90 million, so the $4 million in assistance is seemingly a drop in the bucket.

It’s also worth noting that major business enterprises still owe tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid water bills:

A local news investigation revealed that Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, owed $82,255 as of April. Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play, owed more than $55,000. City-owned golf courses owed more than $400,000. As of July 2, none had paid.

The shutoffs to residents owing hundreds of dollars seems to have priority over these other, larger unpaid bills.

A coalition of over 100 religious leaders from Detroit and elsewhere sent a letter to the Detroit City Council, the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, Homrich Wrecking, Inc., Judge Stephen Rhodes, and Governor Rick Snyder demanding and end to the shutoffs. From their press release:

Seventy-five area pastors, religious leaders, and allies working on the ground in Detroit have published an open letter calling for an end to water shut-offs and the moves toward privatization, as well as for the revival and implementation of the People’s Water Affordability Plan. The letter begins with an interfaith spirituality of water and ends with an appeal to various public officials to change course, build community, and resist expulsion.

Notable signers include four bishops and judicatory heads, many women religious leaders, as well as another fifty state and national supporters. Revs. Nelson and Joyce Johnson from the Moral Monday’s movement in North Carolina also showed their support recently during a trip to Detroit.

Today, in a move that came as a surprise to many, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr turned control of the Water Department back over to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan:

Amid international attention to Detroit’s policy of cracking down on water customers with overdue bills, the city’s emergency manager this morning granted fuller authority to Mayor Mike Duggan to manage the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Duggan had said that he wasn’t in control of the department under a power-sharing arrangement he and emergency manager Kevyn Orr worked out after Duggan’s election last fall. Orr’s order makes it clear that Duggan has the authority to manage the department and make appointments to its board.

Duggan is on record as saying the shutoffs have been handled poorly. He posted this to his Facebook page today:

We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly. There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills — we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds. I’ve heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices. We’ve got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements.

It’s interesting to see Orr take this step which essentially absolves him of any responsibility for the shutoffs. Given Duggan’s position, we can only hope it’s a move in the right direction.

I would think the first step he would want to take is to hold the large businesses and other operations to the same standard as poor Detroiters are being held to: pay your bill or have your water shutoff. Perhaps if the Detroit Lions had to cancel some practices or even a game, they’d see their way clear to paying what they owe.

UPDATE: While much of this is out of our hands and in the hands of EM Orr and Mayor Duggan, there are a couple of actions you can take.

First, you can offer to help pay some or all of the outstanding bill of a Detroiter unable to pay. Go to the Detroit Water Project’s website to learn more about how you can help with that.

You can also support the fine work of the Detroit Water Brigade. Visit their website for more information on how you can contribute to their efforts.

UPDATE 2: There is action being taken in Washington, D.C. on this tomorrow, as well:

July 29, 2014

Contact: Neil Sroka, Democracy for America, 847.219.8491
Katherine Cirullo, Food & Water Watch, 202-683-4914
Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, 202.683.4905

Rep. John Conyers, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, National Advocates to Demand Intervention from President Obama and the Dept. of Health and Human Services in Detroit Water Crisis

Washington, D.C. — Representative John Conyers will join progressive leaders from Food & Water Watch, Daily Kos, Democracy for America, People’s Water Board, RH Reality Check and Working Families Organization to deliver petition signatures demanding that President Barack Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services declare a public health emergency in Detroit. Thousands of families have had their water service cut off by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, in violation of the internationally recognized human right to water.

What: Press conference to call for federal intervention in Detroit water crisis, deliver petitions from concerned Americans.

Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)
Food & Water Watch Exec. Director Wenonah Hauter
RH Reality Check Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson

When: Wednesday, July 30, 11 a.m.

Where: House Triangle, outside the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Petition signers call on the federal government to declare a public health emergency in Detroit, and to end the shutoffs, restoring service to thousands of families that have been denied safe, clean, affordable water. The petition follows on a letter Rep. Conyers wrote to President Obama in June calling for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency, urging the federal government to step in to provide support for residents who have had their water shut off.


Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.

UPDATE 3: Tawana Petty of the People’s Water Board put Orr’s decision in more blunt terms than I have here:

We know the Mayor’s been handed a hot mess. Orr didn’t relinquish his power over Detroit’s bus system or land management. He dumped DWSD on Duggan because thousands of people have embarrassed him and Governor Snyder by standing with the people of Detroit, protesting in the streets and rallying with Canadians who brought water for families in need. Regardless, it’s now up to the Mayor to implement the Water Affordability Program.

[Photo by Chris Savage | Eclectablog]