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Beyond the bottom line

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Week 66 of the occupation

The decision by Kevyn Orr/ Gov. Rick Snyder to make the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department more marketable by shutting off water to those who cannot pay raises fundamental questions.

This crude, vicious and dangerous decision reveals what happens to ordinary people when unchecked authority makes choices dictated by profits. Bottom line thinking, devoid of human and civic values, puts individual lives and whole communities at risk.

This week a coalition of activists sent an “Open Letter to All Parties Currently Engaged in Mediations Regarding the Future of the DWSD” (See A10).

The letter points out that the fate of the DWSD is “currently being determined behind closed doors. Mediation by United States District Court judges and local political leaders will determine the utility’s future in the aftermath of the city’s bankruptcy arrangements.”

Until now, the only calculations the mediators had to face were financial ones. How much is the system worth? To whom? How much can they get to alleviate the debt to the city? Who will run it? For whose benefit?

The history of closed-door decisions has never benefited the people locked out. The current practices of those sitting behind the locked doors do not inspire confidence. They have not demonstrated any understanding of the magnitude of the issues they are facing.

United Nations U.N. logoThanks to the U.N. for finding that shutting off water to people who cannot pay their bills is a violation of human rights, people are kicking open those locked doors.

The open letter demands two key elements be present in any thinking about the future of the DWSD — the human right to water and the public trust of one of the most critical resources for life on the planet. The letter says: “This crisis can only be solved by ensuring economic and social justice through equitable public funding for the DWSD and its vital services, as well as sound environmental management. This is in keeping with the public trust doctrine and the human right to water. Whatever the outcome of the current mediation and pending privatization bids for the system and its assets, these core public interest values and policy objectives must guide the process and its eventual outcome. The current strategy of compensating for the lack of equitable funding by transferring increasing costs to users has led to human rights violations and stems from a failure to respect water as a public trust.”

Apologists for the Orr/Snyder decision, including Mayor Duggan, parrot the tired line that people should pay their bills. This evades the question. By their own calculations, 25 percent of affected households go without water for longer than 48 hours. This is unacceptable.

Congressman John Conyers, the only elected official to respond to this inhumanity, recently challenged this apology in a forceful letter calling for federal intervention. He describes the willingness to tolerate massive shutoffs as “deeply troubling” and a kind of “collective punishment.” Conyers wrote: “The Department’s attempt to ‘shift the behavioral payment patterns’ is casting too wide a net, and in fact, catching families who simply cannot afford to pay. The Department’s recent statements inadvertently confirm the current shutoff policy serves additionally as a form of collective punishment, victimizing families who are behind on their payments not because of ‘behavioral payment patterns,’ but because of poverty. It is utterly unacceptable to put the most vulnerable members of our population through severe hardship, using a method that clearly violates their fundamental human rights, as a collection practice.”

The choices are clear. Turn the water back on for everyone. No more shut offs. Adopt the original People’s Water Affordability Plan. Take the $5.7 million allocated for shut offs and use it to pay past bills.

Bankruptcy is no excuse to violate people. It does not destroy our obligations to one another or our responsibilities as stewards of the earth.

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