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The true cost of the water shut offs

detroit waterMost Detroit Water and Sewerage officials are saying the water shutoffs are necessary for restructuring the city department. Yet, their unimaginative, poorly planned, brutal attack on residents — mostly low income — by executing mass water shutoffs with little to no notice to residents reveal a wholly unprepared  DWSD back office and the ineptness of the department’s leadership.

This effort at restructuring is a bungled move on the part officials who haven’t showed such a lack of vision since the declaration of an emergency manager-led bankruptcy.

Public officials have gone to a new low.

The narrow vision of public officials have led us to this point. This week, even Baknruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes intervened asking DWSD to appear in his courtroom. He said the water shutoffs are not just bad publicity, attracting the attention of the world — the United Nations has weighed in — but is also angering residents. Yet, this is more than bad public relations, as the Citizen editorial board has maintained all along, but also bad governance.

Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s plan for Detroit is not just violent but also staggering in its shortsightedness. Homrich, the contractors executing the shut offs, will be paid $5.6 million. Noteworthy, the department does not have the staff nor the back end processes or policies in place to manage their massive shutoff campaign. Families are going more than 24 hours without having service restored, and DWSD representatives don’t seem to know it takes 30 percent of the amount due to get on a payment plan.

With any level of competence or any desire for a civil society that is defined by more than balanced books, officials must take up a water affordability plan.

Water affordability plans exist in other cities. Michigan Welfare Rights developed a model in 2005 that considered the plans of 40 other municipalities.

Water for all is possible. Good governance requires officials to consider more than just the bottom line.

DWSD representative Darryl Latimer told the judge the shutoffs were about creating efficiencies — but at a vicious cost.

The cost of executing this poorly thought-out plan has not just cost the city in terms of reputation loss, as Judge Rhodes asserted, but more importantly it is a blow to residents who have stayed in Detroit despite everything — with high auto insurance rates, taxes, closed school, poor city services. These are the residents most negatively impacted by the shutoffs and the ones who deserve officials’ compassion and respect.

The poverty rates in Detroit are more than noteworthy and should guide EM Orr and DWSD officials in creating a humane plan to get more Detroit residents water they can afford.

Economists often discuss externalities — the price is not always the true cost. So this has been an expensive undertaking, not only the $5.6 million to Homrich and all the labor spent explaining and justifying this malevolent plan but by ignoring the fact there is real value in adopting a water affordability plan, creating payment plans that don’t require 30 percent down and the fact that communicating with residents is a way more sensible option. The current approach is small-minded and mean-spirited.

DWSD could have upped its collection rate and ensured water for the most vulnerable at a fraction of the money to Homrich.  Instead, DWSD should hire local residents to canvas neighborhoods and meet with block clubs to discuss the changes in collections, identifying the most vulnerability and helping to steer them in a plan they can afford. Those temporary Detroit workers could have signed people up for payment plans and explained the new water affordability plan.

After all, the tremendous power of EM could force the adoption of a water affordability plan.

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