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Judge’s ruling doesn’t mean he was unsympathetic to those facing water shutoffs

Sep 30, 2014

I once knew an opinion pollster who told me he could usually determine how anyone was going to vote without ever asking who they were going to vote for.

He did this by asking a series of litmus-test type questions about someone’s life, background and beliefs.

If you were a single mom with limited income, for example, that probably indicated you were a Democrat – unless you were a fundamentalist Christian. White professional male with a six-figure income?  Likely Republican if in business, for example. But probably not if he is a nonreligious professor.

Sadly, most of us are rather easy to classify.

Well, my guess is that one of these litmus tests right now may be the Detroit water shutoffs.

The question is, should the City of Detroit be able to turn off water to customers who haven’t paid their bills? Yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled on this. Advocates for those at risk hoped he would issue a ruling forbidding the city to do that for at least six months.

But he didn’t. Instead, Judge Rhodes basically ruled that he lacked the power to issue a restraining order forbidding the shutoffs.

Everybody needs to recognize two things here: First, there really is no free lunch. And second, it may be in everyone’s interest to help those who can’t afford one.

He said Chapter 9, the law under which Detroit has filed for protection, “strictly limits the court’s power in a bankruptcy case.”

Rhodes also agreed with the city that if shutting off the water stopped being an option, more people would stop paying their bills, further depriving the system of much needed revenue.

He did note that he was aware shutting off water service could cause tremendous hardship, but noted that there was “no such right or law” giving citizens free water.

Well, the reaction to his ruling seemed pretty predictable. An attorney for those wanting an end to the shutoffs said it was disappointing and outrageous and vowed to appeal.

Those citizens with decent jobs who pay their bills tend not to understand why anyone thinks they should get water for free.

This is a complex and highly emotional issue. But I think both sides need to acknowledge this much: First, Judge Rhodes did not say he wasn’t sympathetic to those who may have their water turned off. He said stopping the shutoffs wasn’t within his legal power.

Also, the city did adopt a new 10-point plan for dealing with water shutoffs this summer, after the city got lots of unfavorable publicity for what seemed a program of massive shutoffs.

That city plan includes some financial help for people who want to keep their water on or turn it back on.

I have no idea how well it will work. But it strikes me that this much is absolutely true: People need water, and the system cannot pay for itself. So I have two suggestions.

One is that we explore the possibilities of allowing residents to have the cost of water automatically deducted from their payroll or assistance check, if employers and the state would go along.

Second, Detroit needs some sort of last-resort panel to review shutoffs before they happen. Everybody needs to recognize two things here: First, there really is no free lunch. And second, it may be in everyone’s interest to help those who can’t afford one.  

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Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.