By Shea Howell
Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT—On July 21, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shut offs for 15 days. This announcement came after widespread outrage over their policy of aggressively shutting off the water to people who cannot afford to pay their bills.
Mounting local, national and international criticism of the DWSD finally broke through the walls of the bankruptcy court room recently, causing Judge Steven Rhodes to acknowledge something needed to be done about the situation. Last week began with the announcement of a “pause” in shutoffs.
While this announcement provides some immediate relief, critics say it is little more than a hasty effort to satisfy the judge. It does nothing to address the depth of the problems. Nor does it do anything for those who are already shut off.
Along with the announcement of the “pause” in shut offs, Attorney Alice Jennings filed a suit on behalf of people who have been shut off. Jennings argued the DWSD’s aggressive shutoffs are designed to help lure a private company to Detroit to either buy or operate the sprawling metropolitan water system.
“It’s our position the payments are being taken off the backs of the poor customers to make it look like we’re a candidate to be privatized or sold,” Jennings said. “They never did the hard work that it took and instead they just willy-nilly started turning off water.”
This view of the chaos created by the Water Department was supported by a new initiative by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Together, they issued a letter asking for a meeting with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Mayor Mike Duggan and the DWSD.
They are urging an immediate moratorium on shutoffs so “a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents.” The current brief pause does not come close to meeting this objective.
Rather, the organizations question the ability of the water department to implement emergency relief. They point out it took the city until July to offer any assistance. This limited and highly restricted assistance came only after intense criticism. Further, the program they are relying on to provide help has been proven ineffective in the past. Nothing has been done to change that.
The ACLU and NAACP-LDF noted the revived Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program had been investigated and criticized in 2010 by the Office of the Auditor General for a host of deficiencies. Among the concerns cited by the auditor general were DWSD did not post payments in a timely fashion, it billed people after they had paid, did not acknowledge when customers were enrolled in payment plans, and did not post the donations to the relief program.
These deficiencies are compounded by reports now of the inability of people to get through to the water department by phone, delays in having water turned on after bills are paid, and by the limited amount of financial assistance available.
This is the program officials of DWSD are now going to “aggressively communicate.”
The letter frames the primary limitation of this kind of short term, stop gap approach when it points out it only helps a few people after a shutoff:
“An essential feature of an effective assistance program, that ameliorates public health and human rights concerns, is that it assists customers before a shutoff happens.”
The callousness and short sightedness of the emergency manager and the water department are evident in this “pause.” Orr, Snyder and company need to stop playing with the lives of people and the future of our city.
Stop the shutoffs. Turn everyone back on. Implement the 2005 People’s Water affordability Plan. Anything else is a cruel farce.