Water Crisis in Detroit: Who’s Being Shut Off and Who’s Not?

Detroit

June 28, 2014; MLive

Indebtedness isn’t always treated equally in our society. Some people get dunned incessantly by debt collectors while others seem to be able to run up thousands or even millions in debt but are given the latitude to extend their indebtedness until their income and assets catch up. Differences in treatment—or indifference to some of the human costs—seem to be the case with Detroit water bills.

As we reported last week, the indebtedness of hundreds of thousands of Detroiters involves delinquencies on their water bill payments. But some customers’ water bill delinquencies may be getting different treatment from city bill collectors. Individual property owners may owe a few months or several months on their average $75-a-month water bills, but a few have some bigger numbers. According to information attributed to the Michigan Citizen and Detroit television station WDIV, the Palmer Park Golf Club owes the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department $200,000, Joe Louis Arena (where the Detroit Red Wings hockey team plays) $80,000, and Ford Field (home of the Detroit Lions) $55,000. We haven’t seen reports on the city shutting the water on the Lions or Red Wings yet.

But Detroit Water has gone after delinquent residential customers like Nicole Hill, a single mother with three children whose water has been turned off. She is one of thousands who are more than $150 dollars behind on their water payments that Detroit Water has targeted for shutoffs as an inducement to pay their bills.

Hill says she moved into her apartment five years ago, but shortly thereafter started receiving monthly bills from the Water Department for about $200. Bills that high might indicate a water leak someplace, and Hill called the department but couldn’t get explanations or revisions. She was then told that she somehow owed $5,754. She began paying $2,800 a year to try to catch up, but the City demanded another $1,700, money she doesn’t have, before it would even consider putting her on a payment plan. With no water service in her apartment, she has now has sent her children to live with friends, fearful that Child Protective Services would take them away if they were discovered living in a place without water.

If you have lived through a water shutoff for any prolonged period of time during the hottest months of the year, you know the health and sanitation challenges facing Nicole and her children. This is a human rights crisis, as the United Nations and several advocacy organizations such as Food & Water Watch have made clear, as well as a local health crisis. Late last week, Representative John Conyers tried to ratchet up public awareness of the dimensions of the crisis. He wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to release some of the $200 million available to Michigan in the “Hardest Hit Fund” to deal with some of the cutoffs and petitioned HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to designate the situation in Detroit a public health emergency, enabling the provision of federal health relief.

In the pages of nonprofit journals like ours, much attention has been devoted to the unprecedented efforts of regional and national foundations to gather resources to prevent the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts from being auctioned off to help pay for the city’s pension obligations. In addition, foundations have taken the lead in generating plans for the revitalization of Detroit’s troubled neighborhoods, with their surfeit of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. But the water shutoffs as implemented by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department end up adversely affecting Detroit’s poorest citizens, who have to live through what seems like the kind of public health crisis that would be expected in a Third World country.

Facing indebtedness of $5 billion, the Water Department has financial needs that would strip most foundations of what they could possibly provide. But the same applies to the Hardest Hit fund, which has only $200 million left earmarked for Michigan. No funding entity appears prepared and capable of paying off Detroit Water’s debt. But nonprofits, foundations, and others should be joining together to reverse this untenable human rights crisis.

There’s plenty that suggests that the city’s water hasn’t been well administered in recent years and the department’s get-tough strategy to get customers to pay seems extraordinarily heavy-handed toward the poor. Detroit’s ultimate revitalization cannot be carried out on the backs of the city’s poorest, especially in the case of these water shutoffs.—Rick Cohen

  • mike flanagan

    Detroit is finally making citizens pay up. That is the way it should work in this nation. You use a service or purchase goods; you pay. Feeling this is overwheming poor people is way off base. Municpal water service in Detroit is not overly expensive. The citizens there who are complaining keep their cell phone service going no matter what. Typical liberal stuff that shows how the nations priorities are skewed.

  • Paul Felix Schott

    July 1, 2014

    Las Vegas is under a

    NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE…..Excessive Heat Warning July 1, 2014.

    With Temps mostly 80 to 110 all of July

    Lake Mead Water Level has dropped 26.04 FT from January 2014 to July 1, 2014.

    Lake Mead Water Level has dropped 40.00 FT from January 2013 to July 1, 2014.

    Lake Mead Water Level has dropped 50.00 FT from January 2012 to July 1, 2014.

    Lake Mead is running out of water faster then Mark Cook and many Officials
    would like you to know. Lake Mead is more then 100Ft + below FULL POOL, LAKE POWELL
    as of April 2014 was 100FT + below FULL POOL.

    More than 30 years ago was the last time both of these two lakes were at or near
    FULL POOL for part of the year.

    Lake Powell took more than 15 years to reach FULL POOL. Lake Mead will not fill to FULL POOL in a year or two or many.

    With more than 500,000+ people living in Las Vegas and 1 million + around Satan’s City,
    with more than 100 miles to go to get out of the Hot Mojave Desert to water or cooler temps
    this will be a very sad and bad disaster for many that do not have the better sense to leave a very wicked place.

    It will not take much for the Hot SUN temps and Evaporation and lack of rain fall to make the blind and lost… PERISH!

    Las Vegas is not a Desert Oasis Spring and soon many will think it is as hot as hell it is “A DEATHTRAP” Made by all that follow Satan.

    The Lord’s little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    Read the Bible GOD s official word on what is going to happen.

  • ejhickey

    I used to live in Detroit many years ago. Fortunately, I moved away for better prospects . Over the years I felt sorry for Detroit as it sunk lower and lower each year. When I heard about these water shut offs my first instinct was to find some way to help out because no one should be w/o access to water. Therefore I donated some money to the WAVE fund in the belief that my donation would help some unfortunate and down on their luck person or family keep their water turned on. However since my donation was made , I have read a number of stories that say many Detroiters simply refuse to pay their bills because they want to get the water for free. In other words , they can pay but won’t pay. Now I feel like a fool. Is this what I donated money for? Never again , brother! I won’t get fooled again. Detroit can stew in its own juices.

  • Virginia

    Yes, people should pay their bills, but unequal implementation of policy is unfair. It also seems like the city gov’t isn’t/hasn’t been upfront about infrastructure problems (leaks, etc.)
    At this point, they need a moratorium on past due balances for residences and small businesses while payment plans can be worked out. You can’t get blood from a stone.

  • JoeAnn

    WHAT I UNDERSTAND IS THE CITY OF DETROIT IS UNABLE TO MUSTARD UP ENOUGH MONEY TO RUN THEIR CITY SO THEY ARE TRYING TO RAISE THE MONEY ON THE BACKS OF THE POOREST RESIDENTS BY SENDING OUT OUTRAGEOUS HIGH WATER BILL THAT MAY OR MAY NOT GET PAID, GOOD JOB DETROIT

  • JOEANN

    I WANT TO THANK YOU FOR BEING A GOOD PERSON I HOPE YOUR LAST STATEMENT IS NOT TRUE BECAUSE THE WAY I SEE IT YOU DON’T HELP OUT BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HEARD IT’S BECAUSE WHAT IS IN YOUR HEART. THE LORD NEVER NEED A REASON TO BLESS SOMEONE JUST HOPE THE BLESSING KEEP COMING AMEN.

  • Monica

    Maybe if they had job opportunities they would be able to pay it! You can’t make grass grow in the Deseret. You can’t expect people without any other options to pay money they don’t have. If you’re going to turn the water off. Turn the whole city off. Not just one group.