By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s plan to turn the water department into a regional asset has been smashed by the absolute refusal of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel of Macomb County. In a politically motivated move to pander to racist views of the city, both men acted on what the Detroit Free Press called “old line biases and divisions.”
In response, Orr is calling for bids from private companies to take over operations of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Claiming he will put safeguards to cap rate increases to four percent a year and require $696 million in capital improvements over the next five years, Orr dismissed critics who claim this move is hasty and ill-conceived. Orr claims having final bids by June 1 is “doable,” in spite of the complexity and possible pitfalls such a serious move would entail. Within a few days over 40 companies expressed interest in purchasing Detroit’s water department.
Thus we face another rush to shift public responsibilities and critical resources into private hands in the name of a trumped-up emergency.
To make the sale of water more attractive, and to diminish the concerns of suburbanites, Orr also announced an “aggressive” shut-off policy for those who have fallen behind on water bills. Orr is targeting 150,000 residents and plans to hire 20 companies to rush shut-off teams into neighborhoods. This response is possibly illegal and certainly immoral.
These decisions reflect an attitude about our natural resources in direct opposition to that of most people in the city and around the globe.
Water is a human right. In 1977, the United Nations declared, “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs.” In 1999, the UN General Assembly affirmed, “The rights to food and water are fundamental human rights and their promotion constitutes a moral imperative both for national governments and international community.”
In our City Charter, the first item in the Declaration of Rights includes water. It says the people should expect the city to take “aggressive action” to maintain and protect the integrity of our “natural resources» from “encroachment and/or dismantlement.” The People’s Water Board says, “Water is life. The People’s Water Board advocates for access, protection, and conservation of water. We believe water is a human right and all people should have access to clean and affordable water. Water is a commons that should be held in the public trust free of privatization. The People’s Water Board promotes awareness of the interconnectedness of all people and resources.”
Placing a fundamental human right outside of the responsibilities of the public and into the hands of a private, for profit concern violates our deepest understanding of our responsibilities to one another and to care for the earth.
For many of us, the debts of the water department should never have been included in the original build-up of billions to justify the imposition of an emergency manager. The system, with all its imperfections, was a self-sustaining entity, with its own bonds and the capacity to meet them.
Now the debt built up through Wall Street manipulations is being used to justify turning over to a for-profit company a city service that is essential for everyone.
The petty pandering to racist politics by suburban leadership and the rush to convert a human right into quick cash are as misguided as they are wrong.
We need new thinking about our water system. For example, in Milwaukee, the development of rain gardens and marsh areas supported by the city was an important tool in creating mixed-income communities. Our responsibility is not to shut people off. It is to ensure everyone, including the emergency manager, respects this basic right.