On Tuesday, control of Detroit’s municipal water department was handed back to the city’s mayor, Mike Duggan, from the emergency manager handling the city’s bankruptcy. The move is likely to bring some relief for the thousands of struggling residents who have been going without water.
In March, the water department had announced it would start shutting of service to 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week who were 60 days behind on their bills or more. That month 500 people’s accounts were shut off, and another 3,000 in April, 4,500 in May, and 7,200 in June lost service.
Activists had appealed to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights asking for intervention on the grounds that water is a human right, and they blocked shutoff crews while holding rallies and marches in the city. On Wednesday morning, Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) along with advocates plan to deliver signatures on a petition to President Obama asking that the Department of Health and Human Services declare a public health emergency in the city and end the shutoffs, restoring service to those who have lost it.
With Mayor Duggan in control, the urgency of such an action may now lessen. Officials recently put a 15-day pause on shutoffs, and Duggan said he may extend that period while they work on a plan to address the issue. In a statement on his Facebook page, he said he expects to “have a new plan shortly,” one that “allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times.” He has said he would have handled the situation differently by giving customers more warning and outreach and marshaling resources for poor residents.
One plan that has been proposed by advocates would cap a household’s bill at no more than 3 percent of their income. It was approved by the city council in 2006 but never implemented. The cost of water in the city has risen 119 percent over the past decade and an 8.7 percent increase was approved for this year. “There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills,” Duggan said in his statement, “we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.”
Duggan, Emergency Manager Kevin Orr, and water department officials still say they want to reduce the backlog of unpaid bills, which is now $90 million. Half of the city’s water accounts are delinquent and the system is $6 billion in debt.
Advocates had alleged that the shutoff crackdown was a way to make the water department more attractive for a private investor as part of the city’s efforts to deal with its bankruptcy. They also pointed out that businesses with delinquent accounts, which account for nearly half of the amount owed to the water department, haven’t been subjected to shutoffs.
Meanwhile, the city’s bankruptcy plan appears to be moving forward after city workers and retirees approved pension cuts to avoid a worse outcome if the current plan didn’t go through. A pair of investors also voted yes on the plan despite it cutting their payout substantially. The judge overseeing the process will hold a final trial in August.