Detroit Water and Sewerage Department: ‘Water not a human right’
Protests continue against water shutoffs
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Cleaning up the books at the expense of residents in order to make the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department more attractive to potential buyers outside the city is how one Detroiter described the recent mass water shutoffs in the city.
“I was on a payment plan,” Joseph Link II told the Michigan Citizen. “My monthly payment was $190. (So when) they set this up, it automatically put me over the amount (where my water can be shut off).”
It’s been over two months since Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced DWSD is cutting service for 1500-3000 customers a week for those residents who are behind $150 or more on their water bills, or whose accounts are 60 days overdue.
According to DWSD, nearly half of the city’s residential customers — 154,000 out of 296,000 — are delinquent.
The department’s delinquency protocol includes the delivery of two delinquent bill notices:
- Past Due Notice: When a current bill is not paid in full by its due date, a notice requesting payment will be issued 11 days after the bill becomes due.
- Final Notice: A water shut off final notice will be issued when an account is unpaid 32 days after the billing date. The notice will be mailed to the service address and mailing address, if applicable.
There are several actions a resident can take following receipt of a shutoff that includes a hearing or entering into a payment plan.
Link says he and his wife had been on a payment plan for the past two years because the water rates have gone up so high.
“We never received a notice,” he said. “We didn’t know they were cutting off water without notices, they didn’t tell us. I read something online (after).”
The ironworker, who has been employed on and off since the beginning of the year, says he couldn’t afford to have his water shutoff, adding that his grandchildren are also in the home.
“Under the department’s Collection Rules and Procedures, you still have 10 days after your payment due date to pay, when you’re on the plan.”
Link says he had five more days before he was subject to cut off, “according to their own rules.”
The Collection Rules and Procedures state: “If a customer fails to comply with the terms and conditions of a payment plan agreement, DWSD may discontinue service after notifying the customer by telephone or first class mail. The default notice shall contain the following information:
- A statement the customer is delinquent or did not otherwise comply with the terms of the PPA;
- A statement that unless missed payment(s) is made within ten (10) days of the default notice date, DWSD will shut off service;
- The date, or reasonable time period thereafter, within which service is disconnected;
- A statement the customer has a right to request a hearing before an impartial hearing officer if the customer alleges the department failed or refused to follow the terms of the PPA;
- An address and a telephone number where the customer may file a request a hearing.
“I think all they wanted to do was collect a bunch of money,” Link says. “I paid $160 to have my water cut back on.”
Link says it was within a two hour period that his water was turned off and back on, after he went to a local office to pay the bill.
He entered into a new payment plan, where he now pays $160 a month.
Lynn Rogers, who resides on the city’s east side, had to pay $240 to have her water turned back on.
She says her bill averaged $88-90 a month, but because she had been out of work she fell behind in her payments.
“I had to set up my bills differently,” she said. “But I didn’t get anything saying my water was subject to shut off. I never received a notice or letter of the new policy.”
Rogers says not having water is worse than no gas or no lights.
“I have a four-year old. We have to prepare for school. Not being able to bathe, cook, flush the toilet (is unacceptable).”
Link says Emergency Manager Orr doesn’t care about the residents.
“Why do we have to suffer? Because some people were corrupt and mismanaged funds. We have no control over that. Then they say, you voted them in. But what was the alternative?”
DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer told the Michigan Citizen in March that the shut-offs are “nothing new.”
“We do this every year. We’ve always shut people off for being delinquent in their water service,” Latimer said. “We’ve always in the winter suspended that because when the temperature gets below 32 degrees you have the propensity for lines to freeze up because of the weather, so we curtail our shutoffs for delinquencies, because if someone comes and pays and then we turn the water back on, you’ll sometimes find that the line has frozen.”
Lattimer was not available for comment for this article.
DWSD spokesperson Greg Eno, however, told the Michigan Citizen notices were mailed to residents depending on their status of delinquency, but could not confirm notices were mailed informing residents of Orr’s new policy.
“My understanding is that if you were already on a plan and sticking to that plan, your water would not be cut off,” he said.
Eno says he can’t explain why residents who are on payment plans would be cut off.
On June 3, Eno was interviewed by WDET’s Martina Guzman, where he discussed the current policy for shutoffs.
In the past, there was a reluctance to shut people off, he said.
“There had been some folks in other areas of city government (who) put pressure on the department — putting forth the notion that water is a basic human right,” said Eno. “The fact of the matter is of course we have a huge infrastructure that needs to be paid for. It’s an old infrastructure.”
He added, “We have a number of people who are not paying their bills and it just can’t go on. It’s a new day and it’s a new way of doing things.”
Eno says DWSD is not insensitive to the fact that there are a lot of people in Detroit who are poor, those needing help should “call us and have a discussion.”
The community responds
City of Detroit retiree and community activist Russ Bellant attended a monthly board meeting before the water commissioners May 28. During public comments he addressed many residents’ concerns about the shutoffs.
“The department doesn’t exist as a money-making entity but as a public health institution for the people of Detroit and the region,” Bellant told the board.
Bellant, who’s also chair of the Detroit Public Library Commission, says the shock and awe of the shutoffs are overwhelming.
“It’s like shoot first and talk later,” he said. “If you do it without notice, you’re not doing it as a last result. If we had a full employment economy, then you could understand people being less forgiving.”
Bellant says several of his neighbors have been hit with shutoffs.
“The families I’ve talked to in my neighborhood and others around the city are confused about why they’re being hit (in this way). Some knew they were behind, but thought they’d have time to pay it. These are people who mow the lawn on the vacant lots next door (to them).”
Bellant says the city isn’t giving them any opportunities.
“Several who had their water cut off, may have the water back on,” he said. “(But) they had to take money for food and other utilities to get it back on.”
During the ongoing bankruptcy hearing, Jones Day, one of the city’s many restructuring firms where Orr was a partner just before his appointment as Detroit EM, told presiding Judge Stephens Rhodes there was no money for infrastructure repair because of the amount owed to the DWSD by its customers.
Abayomi Azikwe and Atty. Jerome Goldberg, of Moratorium NOW! say that’s not true; it’s because of fraudulent loans.
“In 2011, there were bonds floated in total of a billion dollars to fix the infrastructure” said Goldberg. “But $537 million went instead to pay off interest rate swaps to JP Morgan Chase, UBS, Morgan Stanley and (other financial institutions),” Golberg said. “The banks were rewarded. More than half of the money for infrastructure went to banks. (Now) we’re talking about raising rates on Detroiters and going through with tens of thousands of shutoffs.”
Azikwe and Goldberg led demonstrators as they marched at the DWSD on Randolph St., May 30, to protest the mass water shutoffs of city residents.
“We’ve had enough of these fraudulent loans. That’s what has driven Detroit into bankruptcy and ruin as it is,” said Azikwe. “We’re calling for direct action to block the water shutoffs. The communities need to mobilize to stop them from doing this…. If there are hundreds or thousands of people out then of course it can’t succeed.”
Azikwe says the shutoffs are a direct effect of emergency management.
“Cutting off water is a human rights violation. People are entitled to basic amenities,” he said. “This is not coming from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, it has nothing to do with their guidelines, you can make arrangements to pay past due water bills. This system is set up specifically to intimidate, to terrorize, to drive people, particularly African Americans out of the city of Detroit.”
Cicely McClellan, who joined the protest, also says emergency management is the cause of the shutoffs. According to McClellan there are two sets of laws operating in Detroit.
“We are seeing two separate laws, and when we see that, we call it apartheid,” she told the Michigan Citizen. “They are disproportionately cutting off citizens, the low income, the elderly, children, who need the water and allowing large corporations not to pay their water bills. It’s a sin.”
Recently local media has reported tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars are owed by businesses and organizations. WDIV reported Palmer Park Golf Club owed $200,000, Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey owed $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000.
Moratorium NOW! and D-REM (Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management) again demonstrated June 6. Protesters met in front of the DWSD at 735 Randolph and marched to Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans headquarters at 1050 Woodward.
“Quicken Loans was part of the sub-prime lending in Detroit,” Goldberg said. “In almost every issue (including the water shutoffs) the real source of what caused the problem is being overlooked.”
Goldberg says the financial institutions are responsible for Detroit’s blight and the 67,000 home foreclosures that have led the city to bankruptcy.
The organizations plan to rally at DWSD every Friday at 4 p.m., part of the Freedom Fridays movement.
To make payment arrangements or for further questions regarding your bill or shutoff status call 313.267.8000.