June 30, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Protesters seek 'affordability plan' during rally against Detroit water shut-offs

A group of community activists and religious leaders protested Monday outside of Gov. Rick Snyder's Midtown office to express opposition to controversial water shut-offs by the city. (Tony Briscoe / The Detroit News)

Detroit — A group of community activists and religious leaders protested Monday outside of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Midtown office to express opposition to controversial water shut-offs by the city.

The National Action Network and public officials from Metro Detroit gathered outside of Cadillac Place, calling for the governor to negotiate “a fair water affordability plan” for those in need and for further discussion on the issue. A couple of dozen demonstrators chanted, “This is everybody's fight, water is a human right!” while passing cars honked, showing their support.

“We’re here today because we’re seriously concerned about the people getting kicked off water,” said the Rev. Charles E. Williams II, president of the National Action Network Michigan chapter. “Michigan has the richest source of fresh water — not in the nation, in the world — so there is no reason why people who pay for this, who are in our tax base, shouldn’t have access to our water.

“So we’re standing here today to tell Gov. Snyder, turn the water back on!”

In March, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced it would target tens of thousands of Detroiters with balances more than $150 overdue or more than two months behind on their payments. Half of the nearly 324,000 water and sewerage accounts are overdue, according to the department. The company put out 46,000 shut-off notices this spring. Shut-offs, so far, have totaled about 4,500, according to the department.

Lifelong Detroiter Renla Session held a sign that read, “It’s hard to pay bills when you’re unemployed, making minimum wage or had your pension cut and taxed.” She said she’s never been in jeopardy of having her water shut off.

“These are my fellow human beings,” Session said. “If they threatened to cut off water to an animal shelter, you would see thousands of people out here. It’s senseless ... They just treat people like their lives mean nothing here in Detroit, and I’m tired of it.”

State Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Township, who marched alongside protesters, said he plans to introduce legislation to set a fund aside to help those who can’t afford to pay their water bill.

“We just got through with the coldest winter ever, and would we thought of turning heat in the middle of the winter?” Cavanaugh said. “It’s close to 90 degrees today and it’s only going to get hotter over the summer, and we’re talking about turning off someone’s water in the middle of what’s going to be a hot summer ... Those who can pay should, those who absolutely, can’t we should have compassion.”

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who was also in attendance, said the county filed a motion for mediation to spur negotiations on Detroit’s water department in bankruptcy court.

The National Action Network Michigan chapter was one of several groups to jointly file a complaint with the United Nations. United Nations experts said Wednesday that Detroit’s decision to cut off water to residents who haven’t paid their bills may violate international human rights.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a press release from Geneva citing three experts in response to reports that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is cutting off water access to thousands of residents in the city.

TBriscoe@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2541