In Detroit, controversy is raging over one of the few things the bankrupt city has in abundance: water.
So far this year, Detroit has shut off for 17,000 customers as it tries to collect millions in overdue bills.
But many residents are upset with how the city is going about it—and question whether some are getting special treatment.
“Here we are, giving out water…and we still owe on the water bill”
People are going thirsty in Detroit—a city with more direct access to fresh, clean water than virtually any place in the world.
That irony shows up in numerous ways.
Here at the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center, Helen Moore has been passing out bottled water to neighbors.
She does that in between mopping the floors, because the building’s pipes are constantly leaking.
“Now here we are, giving out water, we can’t turn the community down—and we still owe on the water bill,” says Moore, with a head shake and a chuckle. “I don’t know how we do it, but we do.”
They thought the water had been shut off when the center was closed this past winter. It wasn't.
After running up a huge bill, Moore managed to cut a deal with the water department. After a 30% down payment, they’re now on a $400 dollars per month payment plan.
Moore is struggling to get the community center up and running again, after it’s been neglected off-and-on for years.
That’s also the situation with Detroit’s beleaguered water department, which is trying to dig out of decades of mismanagement, corruption, and deferred maintenance in just a few months.
Selling or leasing the department to another government or a private entity is a key part of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy restructuring plan.
Some residents here argue he’s trying patch things up on the backs of Detroit’s most vulnerable.
But Orr and water department officials insist they’re not targeting the poor.
They say the water department hasn’t followed through on shutoff notices for too long—and too many people got used to just ignoring their water bill.
Deputy Director Daryl Latimer says the department will work with the genuinely needy, to get them on payment plans like the one the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center is on now.
Latimer says it’s impossible to tell why people aren’t paying—just that they aren’t.
“And so now that we’ve started getting more aggressive, those customers that have the ability to pay are coming in and paying,” Latimer says. “And those that have an inability to pay, we’re assisting them so they can keep their service on.”
Sacrificing the “old Detroit” in bankruptcy court?
But Helen Moore argues that doesn’t prove anything.
“When they say all of a sudden, they can pay the bill…they are not looking at the way Detroiters care about each other,” Moore insists. “And there are many of us paying other people’s bills.”
Many critics say that even if the shutoff campaign is necessary, it’s been handled badly.
There was no big public outreach campaign to warn people that massive shutoffs were coming. No consideration of whether children or seniors lived in a home. And no amnesty program like the one the city ran when it recently hiked rates on parking tickets.
That led activists here to petition a United Nations panel, which later declared the shutoffs a human rights violation if they affect people truly unable to pay.
This fight is also about who owes money to the water department—but hasn’t had their water shut off.
Put both GM and Chrysler on that list-- though Chrysler has since paid $2.9 million, and GM is disputing its bill.
Even the city of Detroit itself owes more than $20 million for its municipal buildings. It recently paid almost $4 million, and the rest of the bill is “under review.”
And Michigan owes almost $5 million for the former state fairgrounds. State officials say that’s the result of a massive one-month bill caused by leaky pipes, and argue they shouldn’t be held responsible for it.
Most of the large, institutional delinquent accounts are the result of stormwater runoff fees (some of which have been disputed for years), not for water service bills per se.
But delinquent is delinquent. And critics point out that other customers--like the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center--aren’t given the same consideration.
Detroiter Cynthia Johnson says the effort to create a “new Detroit” in bankruptcy court has dumped a lot of issues on what some might call the “old Detroit.”
“Let’s be real clear—not for one moment are we saying that people should get water for free,” says Johnson. "That’s not even the issue. People cannot survive without water.”
In the meantime, people are surviving the best they can. But many are nervous about the coming hot summer months—and the possibility of even more taps running dry.