Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Shut off pause
Week 68 of the occupation
July 22, 2014
On Monday July 21, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shut offs for 15 days. This announcement came after widespread outrage over their policy of aggressively shutting off the water to people who cannot afford to pay their bills.
Mounting local, national and international criticism of the DWSD finally broke through the walls of the bankruptcy court room last week, causing Judge Steven Rhodes to acknowledge something needed to be done about the situation. This week began with the announcement of a “pause” in shut offs.
While this announcement provides some immediate relief, it is little more than a hasty effort to satisfy the Judge. It does nothing to address the depth of the problems. Nor does it do anything for those who are already shut off.
Along with the announcement of the “pause” in shut offs, Attorney Alice Jennings filed a suit on behalf of people who have been shut off. Jennings argued that the DWSD’s aggressive shut-offs are designed to help lure a private company to Detroit to either buy or operate the sprawling metropolitan water system. “It’s our position that the payments are being taken off the backs of the poor customers to make it look like we’re a candidate to be privatized or sold,” Jennings said. “They never did the hard work that it took and instead they just willy-nilly started turning off water.”
This view of the chaos created by the Water Department was supported by a new intuitive by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Together, they issued a letter asking for a meeting with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Mayor Duggan, and the Water Department. They are urging an immediate moratorium on shut-offs so that “a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents” The current brief pause does not come close to meeting this objective.
Rather, the organizations question the ability of the Water Department to implement emergency relief. They point out that it took the City until July to offer any assistance. This limited and highly restricted assistance came only after intense criticism. Further, the program they are relying on to provide help has been proven ineffective in the past. Nothing has been done to change that.
The ACLU and NAACP-LDF noted that the revived Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program had been investigated and criticized in 2010 by the Office of the Auditor General for a host of deficiencies. Among the concerns citied by the Auditor General were that the DWSD did not post payments in a timely fashion, it billed people after they had paid, did not acknowledge when customers were enrolled in payment plans, and did not post the donations to the relief program.
These deficiencies are compounded by reports now of the inability of people to get through to the water department by phone, delays in having water turned on after bills are paid, and by the limited amount of money available.
This is the program that officials of DWSD are now going to “aggressively communicate.”
The letter frames the primary limitation of this kind of short term, stop gap approach when it points out that it only helps a few people after a shut off. “An essential feature of an effective assistance program, that ameliorates public health and human rights concerns, is that it assists customers before a shut off happens.”
The callousness and short sightedness of the Emergency Manager and the water department are evident in this “pause.” Orr, Snyder and company need to stop playing with the lives of people and the future of our city.
Stop the shut offs. Turn everyone back on. Implement the 2005 People’s Water affordability Plan. Anything else is a farce.