Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
July 31, 2015
This week water advocates held a town hall meeting and press conference on July 29 to highlight the connections between Detroit and Philadelphia. Philadelphia City Council has just passed a Water Affordability Program that ensures water is provided to everyone and that money continues to flow into the system. The keys to their program are an income-based approach to water rates and a forgiveness of back debt. The core question raised at both the press conference and the town hall was simple. If Philadelphia can have affordable water, why can’t Detroit?
With more than 70,000 households having trouble paying their water bills it is obvious to everyone that the recent rate hikes mean only one thing. More water shut offs. It is also obvious that more water shut offs mean spreading fixed costs over an ever smaller number of people. This will mean another round of rate hikes, and the spiral of despair will continue to expand as more and more people suffer the indignity and dangers of water shut offs.
It is also obvious that the Mayor’s assistance plan cannot meet the need. Its failures have been well documented. Assistance is a short term fix. People quickly fall behind and are unable to keep up payments on back bills as new, ever higher bills come in. The failure rate of the current plan is nearly 100%.
Fortunately State Legislators, including Stephanie Chang from Detroit and members of the Detroit City Council, especially Council President Jones and members, Ayers, Castaneda-Lopez, and Sheffield are advocating for an income based plan.
So why are the Mayor and Governor resisting this plan that is proving so reasonable in Philadelphia?
It seems that they think state law prohibits an income-based approach. They base this claim on opinions now nearly a decade old that reference a supreme court decision that is dubiously being applied to water rates. Legal analysts within the city question the application of that decision to an income based approach to water.
By any measure a claim that state law prohibits something is about the weakest argument to be made in Detroit these days. Thanks to Emergency Management and bankruptcy, we have learned how little laws mean. We have witnessed how laws governing local elections have been stretched to the point where 55% of African Americans in the state have lost the right to elect local officials; laws guaranteeing a meaningful right to petition are circumvented; and laws demanding public meetings before granting tax breaks, selling public land, or issuing contracts have all been set aside. Conflict of interest protections are no longer considered. Even the clear, unambiguous constitutional protection of retiree pensions has been overturned. All of these laws were changed in the name of a trumped up financial emergency.
Now we are being told the one law that cannot be touched is a disputed decade old court decision. A human emergency does not matter.
Such an argument makes it clear that the refusal to move to an income based water rate structure is about political will, not some law. It is rooted in the white supremacist assumptions, often repeated by the Mayor of Detroit, that people don’t want to pay their fair share and want free water.
These are outright lies and distortions. It is time for the Mayor and the Governor to face reality as the new Great Lakes Water Authority takes shape. The Authority must reflect an income-based approach to water rates for all users. As national economic expert Roger Colton has repeatedly made clear, such an approach makes the most business sense and embodies the highest human concerns for one another and our responsibilities as custodians of the Great Lakes.
Laws should reflect our most thoughtful and expansive values, not protect narrow interests.