A Tale of Two Detroits: Divided by the Politics of Municipal Water

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July 15, 2014; International Business Times

National Nurses United, a national union for registered nurses, declared the Detroit water shutoffs as a health threat disproportionately affecting the poor. NNU co-president Jean Ross condemned the Detroit Water department shutoffs as a “disgraceful attack on the basic human right of access to safe, clean water.”

“Lack of water, like unsafe sanitation, is a major health disaster that can lead to disease outbreaks and pandemics,” Ross added. “The city must end this shutoff now.”

The NNU perspective is not shared by Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency financial manager of the bankrupt city. Orr described himself as “very supportive of the water department’s and the Board of Water Commissioners’ decision to do what every other regulated utility does in the United States, which is, if you use water you’ve got to pay for it.”

Although according to the International Business Times 15,000 residential water customers have had their water turned off (though some have had water restored after making payments) and MLive said 4,500 customers have lost water service, Orr added a contrary perspective: “Let’s tamp down the verbiage and hysteria out there that we are cutting off water to tens of thousands of people,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

Orr called on differentiating “legitimate” residential customers from “scofflaws and the people gaming the system.” Representative John Conyers, on the other hand, indicated that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department plans to increase the rate of turnoffs to 3,000 a week. While neither Orr nor Conyers wants to see crooks stealing water service, the city announced last week that it had found 79 people in a three-day period stealing water. (It isn’t clear whether that is 79 water thieves in one small area or 79 water thieves discovered in a broader investigative effort by Detroit Water.)

The Detroit News reported that the federal bankruptcy judge, Steven Rhodes, weighed in with a concern that the Water Department’s get-tough policy toward delinquent residential customers was “a problem that’s affecting this bankruptcy.” He called for the Water Department to present the court with options for helping beyond the recently announced $1 million fund for low-income delinquent customers. Judge Rhodes said that Detroit is “getting a reputation not only in this country but around the world” as a result of the water shutoffs, and it’s pretty clear that he didn’t mean that the reputation was good.

On Friday the 18th, National Nurses United and several other organizations, including Working Families and the National Action Network, the latter led by Rev. Al Sharpton, are planning a march from Detroit’s Cobo Center to the offices of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to protest the continuing shutoffs. The Detroit situation continues to look and feel like a civil rights issue, but being played out against the backdrop of a bankrupt municipal government.—Rick Cohen