Nearly two weeks after a rally attended by at least a thousand people protesting water shutoffs in Detroit, which led to a 15-day suspension of new service cancellations, emergency manager Kevyn Orr issued an order giving Mayor Mike Duggan control over the city’s water department, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Duggan promised to have a “new plan shortly” to address the highly criticized effort to collect delinquent water bill payments. However, activists who have been protesting the shutoffs remain unconvinced that the change in leadership will have any tangible results.
“This order ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city’s commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewage Department] customers get and remain current on their water bills,” Orr said in a statement, according to the Detroit Free Press.
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In March, the DWSD launched an effort to collect about $119 million in delinquent payments from more than 150,000 customers
and reduce the department’s $5.7 billion debt load. Since then, 17,000 residents have had their water shut off, including 7,556 residents in April and May and another 7,210 residents in June alone.
“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,” Duggan said during the announcement. “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.”
Council member Mary Sheffield previously told Rewire that her office has received several calls from people who have been paying their bills but are still getting shutoff notices. “People are also complaining about vacant homes with running water that can help drive up cost, that the department is now seeking residents to pay for,” said Sheffield.
Human rights organizations also have raised concerns that the shutoffs are punishing low-income residents specifically. A report from Demos characterized the program as “mass enforcement to discipline the people” and as a “misuse of the right to deny service.” Moreover, the United Nations released a statement saying that “disconnecting water from people who cannot pay their bills is an affront to their human rights.”
The department’s aggressive collection efforts have led advocates and local organizations to form the People’s Water Board Coalition, which is advocating for access to and the protection and conservation of water for Detroit residents. The coalition comprises a number of community groups, including social justice, environmental, labor, and conservation organizations.
Shea Howell of the Boggs Center and Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (which is a member of the People’s Water Board Coalition), told Rewire in a statement that the shift in leadership of the water department back to an elected official is a welcome change. “It is obvious that the emergency manager is unable to respond in a humane, fair, swift, and effective way in the face of a mounting human crisis and international embarrassment,” said Howell.
During a recent protest, residents called for a moratorium on all water service shutoffs. However, after a moratorium was put in place activists remained skeptical. “As excited as I am about the 15-day moratorium, I am under no illusion that the struggle has been won,” Tawana Petty previously told Rewire.
“The change was probably more abrupt than it needed to be,” Duggan told WXYZ-TV Detroit. “We’re going to do our best to distinguish between those who genuinely are delinquent and can pay and we are going to treat them appropriately.”
Duggan said that his office is building a plan with the DWSD that will assist residents in need of financial help, and will shorten wait times for those seeking to make payment arrangements for delinquent bills. More advanced warning on water shutoffs, more outreach to the community, and a gathering of more resources for low-income residents also will be a part of the plan.
“I’m really focused right now on improving support to those who want to make payment arrangements or those who are in need, and so I expect in the next week we will come out with a plan jointly with the water department and we will address it more effectively than it has been so far,” said Duggan.
Howell says it remains to be seen if the mayor will be able to address the situation any better than the emergency manager. “Thus far his responses have been disappointing and do not show any understanding of the dimensions of the human suffering that is going on nor of the systemic collapse of the efforts to see water as a revenue source, not a human right,” said Howell.
“His most egregious comments continue to make it sound as though this crisis is the result of a few people who are choosing not to pay their bills,” Howell continued. “He is attempting to turn one Detroiter against another at the very moment when public leaders should be encouraging turning to each other for support and sustenance and safety.”