The people who run Detroit’s water system faced fierce criticism Wednesday, after the United Nations issued a statement calling the city’s mass water shutoffs a possible human rights violation.
Critics lined up to blast officials at a Board of Water Commissioners meeting for ongoing efforts to cut off customers with unpaid bills.
Many cited the UN’s assertion that “when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
The statement quotes several experts on water and sanitation issues from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It comes after a coalition of groups fighting the water shutoffs lodged a formal protest with that office.
But Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials said they’re willing to be “flexible” with customers who genuinely can’t afford their water bills.
“Those folks that have affordability issues, we work with them and give them a minimum amount they can afford to continue their service,” DWSD Deputy Director Daryl Latimer told Water Commissioners.
DWSD announced in March that it would launch an effort to cut off about 3,000 customers a week and collect almost $120 million in delinquent payments.
On Tuesday, the department sent out a statement addressing what it calls “misinformation” about the shutoffs.
It says DWSD sent 46,000 customers shutoff notices in May, and cut service to 4,531 customers.
Officials say about 60% of those who were cut off had service restored within 24 hours.
But some residents and activists fighting the shutoff campaign say that doesn’t square with scenes of real suffering they've seen in some Detroit neighborhoods.
Detroit resident Jean Vortkamp estimates that about one-third of the homes in her east side neighborhood were shut off recently.
“I’ve seen families with children get their water shut off. There’ll be like six kids sitting on a porch, and their mom has run out to find who’s going to pay the bill,” Vortkamp says.
Latimer said DWSD plans to launch a program that offers water payment assistance to low-income households July 1.
He said that in the meantime, the department has been referring struggling customers to other assistance programs. But he admitted those had run out of money.
Detroiters have seen water rates balloon over the past decade, and the Detroit City Council just approved another rate hike of almost 9%.
Department officials say that’s because there are fewer customers paying into a system of largely fixed costs, and the fact that many people just don’t pay their bills.
And with DWSD’s future being fought out in bankruptcy court, they insist that shutting off service is the only way to collect enough revenue to keep the aging system operational, and make needed upgrades.
Director Sue McCormick says the department “has no desire” to shut off anyone’s water, and will work with people who truly can’t afford to pay their bill.
But she says they “need to hear from folks about (the) very specific situations” that critics have pointed to as inhumane.
McCormick says that “based on what we’ve seen so far,” most delinquent customers are people who assumed they could get away with not paying their bills.
“We have a behavioral problem among those who can pay, but are choosing not to,” McCormick says. “And that is really the issue that we’re trying to address.”