July 7, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Conyers, Detroit Water Brigade vow fight to help those threatened by shut-offs

'Water is a human right,' said U.S. Rep. John Conyers. 'It's necessary for life.' The congressman said he will ask President Barack Obama for federal assistance. His opponent in the Democratic primary, the Rev. Horace Sheffield, says he supports a 60-day moratorium on shutoffs. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

Detroit — U.S. Rep. John Conyers vowed Monday to fight for Detroiters whose water is being cut off and said he would seek federal aid.

Conyers, speaking Monday in the city for a newly formed coalition called the Detroit Water Brigade, said the water issue is “the most important item on my agenda.”

“This is a national issue,” the Detroit congressman said.“Water is a human right. It’s necessary for life.”

In March, the utility announced it was starting a campaign to target tens of thousands of Detroiters with balances more than $150 overdue or more than two months behind on their payments.

The department and contractors working for it have cut off more than 8,000 accounts from March to May. The department has more than 178,000 active residential accounts and nearly 80,000 of them are past due, totaling nearly $42 million in overdue accounts, according to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.

About 76 percent of those whose water was turned off in May paid their bills and had service restored within two days, according to the department.

Conyers, who is running for re-election and faces a Democratic primary challenge from the Rev. Horace Sheffield of Detroit, said he would look to President Barack Obama, “encouraging him to release serious funds that are available at the federal level.”

“That I feel is my responsibility as a member of Congress from this area,” he continued.

Sheffield said Monday he supports a 60-day moratorium on water shutoffs. And residents who are unable to pay should be able to pay less — just as the city struggles to pay only some of its debts as it goes through bankruptcy.

“Detroit is not able to pay all of its bills, and we have Detroiters who can’t pay all of their bills,” Sheffield said.

State Rep. Kurt Heise, who was the director of the Wayne County Department of Environment and a former county drain commissioner, said the Detroit water department apparently let people slide on their water bills for too long. Other municipalities, he said, add unpaid water bills to a resident’s property tax bill. Or they simply cut off the water like Detroit is now doing.

“Some communities will shut you off after a certain amount of time but so will Edison and Consumers Energy and MichCon,” the Plymouth Republican said. “Now under (Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn) Orr, the rules are changing. This is an election year. It’s an emotional issue, and it’s a wedge issue. But DWSD has got to be run like a true public entity.”

Demeeko Williams, an organizer with the Detroit Water Brigade, said volunteers dropped off about 40 cases of water Monday afternoon for those who need it at the Dexter Elmhurst Community Center on the city’s west side. The organization plans to use the center as a kind of home base, Williams said.

“Once the word gets out I’m sure there will be people people coming in who need water,” he said. Meanwhile, the group — which was created in June — is looking for more volunteers as well as donations from people looking to help.

Conyers sent letters last week Friday to Obama and other officials requesting immediate action concerning the shut-offs, which he has labeled “overzealous.” He said Monday he wanted to meet with Detroit Water and Sewerage Director Sue McCormick to discuss the issue.

Water officials said McCormick supports efforts to create more affordability programs. More than 17,000 Detroiters are enrolled in payment plan programs, the utility said.

There are more than 293,000 city residential water and sewerage accounts. Nearly 138,000 are past due.

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Monica Lewis-Patrick, founder, We the People of Detroit. (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)