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‘Water moratorium is right step; now restore service to all’

A.01.Maureen Taylor

Maureen Taylor, Michigan Welfare Right Organization

Lila Cabbil

Lila Cabbil, People’s Water Board

By Zenobia Jeffries                                                                                                                  The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — As this paper goes to press, Mayor Mike Duggan is preparing to release a plan for residential water shutoffs in Detroit. 

On Aug. 4, the mayor announced he was extending the initial 15-day moratorium on shutoffs for residential customers until Aug. 25, despite DWSD spokesperson Greg Eno’s assertion there would not be an extension. 

In a prior interview with The Michigan Citizen, Eno said he did not foresee an extension or another opportunity for residents to get their affairs in order without being subject to shutoff. 

The extension allows the Duggan administration and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to devise a plan that would better handle collections of overdue bills. 

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr turned over the authority of the DWSD to Duggan last week. Duggan will release the details of his plan Aug. 7. 

Meanwhile, human rights activists and Detroit organizers say the moratorium extension is a “tiny” step in the right direction. 

“The extension as far as we understand it is to allow residents to make (payment) arrangements. It does not touch service for those who have already been turned off,” said Maureen Taylor, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. 

Taylor believes instead of “redesigning” bill collections, the mayor and water department should be establishing an affordability plan for Detroit’s mostly low-income residents.

“The city is supposed to be finding ways to implement the Water Affordability Program (introduced in 2006) so we won’t have to run into this ever again,” Taylor told the Michigan Citizen.

In a community meeting with Rosedale Park residents in July, DWSD contractor Charlie Fleetham told residents there would not be an implementation of an affordability plan because such a plan is against state law. 

According to Fleetham, the water department “can only charge the cost of service” or risk being sued. 

That’s not true, says Taylor, who calls that interpretation of the law “subterfuge.”

“They continue to float that lie. That information is incorrect, (an affordability plan) does not violate any state laws.”

Taylor says Fleetham and those who say an affordability plan violates state law are misinterpreting a clause that states bill payment arrangements cannot be formulated so that people with money are responsible for paying for people without money.

“(An affordability plan) is a formula crafted to allow more affordable payments for people who have less money,” she said. “Every other utility provider is able to craft a payment arrangement for people with (low incomes). We cannot treat it as a commodity, therefore if you can’t pay for it you can’t have it.”

Besides, she says, “We have an emergency manager here, the constitution has been thrown out the window.”

Lila Cabbil, People’s Water Board, says the extension of the moratorium does not “correct the wrong” that has already been done.

“If they did an analysis, they would understand the response would be turning the water on,” she said in a phone interview.
Cabbil says the DWSD and Duggan continue to operate from a “business-type” model, which shows the disconnect city officials have to residents.

The moratorium extension and the plan to “redesign” collections, she believes, reveals the way in which city officials continue to make the wrong assumptions about people’s capacity to pay. 

“The moratorium should have been baseline. To stop what you’re doing because it is not appropriate, but also to undo what you’ve done wrong,” Cabbil says. “When you don’t consider what you’ve done to people, that’s callous. (This) fight is all about money, if it were about people we wouldn’t have this fight.” 

Both Cabbil and Taylor believe restoring service to residences is a high priority.

“I don’t see it (as) responsible leadership until it’s turned back on,” says Cabbil.

Taylor says DWSD has a list of nearly 60,000 residences due to be shut off. 

“We suggest they use their shutoff professionals and clearly identify the 20-22 percent of those properties that are abandoned and turn the water off there first. They should then go to the businesses that owe millions of dollars and give them the “10-day notice” like everybody else — this 90 million debt could go down to about 20-25 million,” Taylor says, and added cities across the country have adopted water affordability plans for low income residents. “(Then) we can (go to Washington) D.C. and ask the president to declare Detroit a disaster zone, as Congressman Conyers has said, and we initiate a water affordability plan immediately so that we never revisit this form of domestic terrorism again.”

Mayor Duggan’s spokesperson John Roach, did not answer emailed questions for this article, but replied the mayor will address such issues at a Aug. 7 press conference.

In June, Detroit attracted international attention when the United Nations criticized city officials and declared the shutoffs a human rights violation.

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