July 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: Water shut-offs aimed at scofflaws, not needy

Detroit has programs to assist those who need help; but it must crack down on individuals who can pay but don't

Nothing about the Detroit water system is free. Scofflaws who refuse to pay shouldn't be immune from the consequences. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroitís water department is embarked on a delicate and difficult endeavor ó cutting off the water of those who havenít paid their bills in months. Inevitably, such an undertaking risks hurting some people who can least afford it.

But it is necessary. Unpaid water bills have become an epidemic in Detroit, and are threatening the viability of the entire water and sewerage system.

Fully half of the water customers in Detroit have stopped paying their bills. That means the other half of customers who are paying must cover the delinquency of their neighbors. Itís a big reason Detroiters were hit with an 8.7 percent increase in their water bills this year.

Certainly, many of the those who are behind on their bills are truly indigent, and canít afford to make up what they owe.

But many are not. They have simply learned that there is no consequence for not paying.

Once the shut-off notices started going out, the payments began coming in. In May, the water department sent out 47,000 shut-off notices, but only had to cut off 4,500 meters, and a majority of those were in vacant buildings.

This is not the wholesale humanitarian crisis that a United Nationís expert claimed last week. Rather, it is one more step to demonstrate that things have changed in a city that for too long did not enforce its own laws.

For those who canít pay, the water department has a variety of ways to help, from payment plans to bill subsidies. Currently, 17,000 customers are enrolled in payment assistance plans. A new program for indigent customers is set to launch next month.

The narrative being pushed by community activists is that water is a right and no one should be cut off for non-payment. But even in the days of community wells and aqueducts, citizens came together and taxed themselves to pay for obtaining and delivering water.

Itís unfair that those who can pay but donít do so are allowed to place a greater burden on their more responsible neighbors.

The water department is trying to mitigate any suffering caused by the shut-offs. But it can hardly continue to ignore such a high delinquency rate. The reality is that many customers will pay their bills only if theyíre certain theyíll lose their service.

Customers who are struggling financially have a responsibility to alert the water department to their need. Bills go out to addresses, not individuals, so thereís no way for the department to know the financial condition of a customer who is delinquent.

The picture thatís being painted of massive shutoffs that are leaving poor Detroiters without access to water is overstated.

This process should allow the department to sort the truly needy from opportunistic scofflaws, and make sure that water keeps flowing to all its customers.