August 28, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Groups fight to end water cutoffs

Hearing Tuesday to seek restraining order against city

A worker for Homrich turns off access to water Wednesday at a home in Detroit. The city restarted shutoffs for nonpayment this week. (Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

Detroit — More than a dozen activists and civil rights attorneys continued their fight against the city’s water shutoffs Thursday, calling on Mayor Mike Duggan to end the practice.

The People’s Water Board Coalition said it is disappointed that about 600 Detroit residents had their water shut off on Tuesday and Wednesday. The group also said it has gone to court seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the shutoffs that will be heard at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“We’re standing up and saying now is not the time to cut water off to those who need it the most,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of National Action Network-Michigan Chapter. The group’s press conference was held outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center’s “Spirit of Detroit” statue.

“Water is a human right. What the mayor (and) governor is doing is immoral. It’s just flat-out inhumane. If it’s been working to get some back on, why not let it work to get all back on? Everybody deserves to have water, not just some,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense fund are serving as expert consultants in the ongoing litigation.

Duggan’s office could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Tuesday marked the first day city officials resumed shutoffs for businesses or residents who owed more than $150 or were at least two months behind on payments after a hiatus of nearly a month. Duggan placed the hold on the shut-offs as he began developing a 10-point plan to improve customer service and provide assistance. To help, city officials launched a new phone payment option for bills and payment arrangements.

Water officials have said more than $86 million is owed in delinquent bills, including more than $42 million from 74,000 Detroit residential accounts. The city is owed more than $26 million from about 10,700 overdue Detroit commercial and industrial accounts, according to the water department. Some suburban communities, schools and others also owe money.

Attorney Alice Jennings said city and state officials should be more humane and continue a moratorium until a water affordability plan is implemented.

“We know this for sure the way that the city went about looking at this issue is strictly about the money,” said Jennings, who is leading the legal challenge. “There was no determination (or) criteria set up for whether or not there was a senior in the home, disabled, children (or) anyone who needs water for their medical care.”

The group delivered 90,000 petition signatures opposing the shutoffs and seeking the implementation of an affordability plan to city and state leaders.

Water shutoffs have netted millions more dollars in collections for the utility compared with prior years. The department collected $503,000 from delinquent accounts in April through July in 2013. For the same four-month period this year, the amount spiked to $2.6 million.

The department was expected to collect more than $1 million in July alone before the moratorium was announced July 21.

Duggan’s 10-point water plan includes setting up the Detroit Water Fund to help residents struggling to pay their water bills. Last week, three corporate sponsors gave a total of $200,000.

To qualify for help , residents must have an outstanding balance between $300 to $1,000; maintain average water usage for their household size; and must be either enrolled in DTE’s Low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan or have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the threshold is $33,775.

dnichols@detroitnews.com