July 18, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Detroit water shut-offs spark war of words

Nine arrested in Detroit water shut-offs protest
Nine arrested in Detroit water shut-offs protest: Detroit police arrested five men and four women who formed a human blockade outside of a private contator that executes some of the water shutoffs for the city.

Detroit — State officials on Friday disputed that water shut-offs in Detroit constitute a public health crisis, despite protests in the city that drew large crowds and led to at least nine arrests.

A group called National Nurses United, which led a march and protest downtown Friday near Cobo Center, said the shut-offs pose a public health emergency and demanded an immediate moratorium on them. The group’s co-president, Jean Ross, has called the shut-offs an “attack on the basic human right of access to safe, clean water.”

But a state Department of Community Health spokeswoman indicated a public health emergency does not exist in Detroit.

“Based on our understanding of the number of residents impacted by the shut-offs, we do not feel there is a public health crisis as we are confident that the assistance programs in the community can serve the actual number of residents being impacted,” Angela Minicuci said in a statement.

The water department’s attempt to crack down on widespread delinquencies amid the city's financial crisis has led to at least 42,000 shutoffs since July 2013. That has prompted a wave of criticism, including from the United Nations, celebrities — actor Mark Ruffalo spoke at Friday’s protests — and even the city's bankruptcy judge.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder said his office is “actively monitoring” the situation and said there are “multiple programs to help those who are truly in need.”

“Our understanding is that no one truly in need will go without water and are confident that’s the case,” spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said.

The state’s response capped a day of vigorous protests Friday in two locations in the city, including outside a business linked to performing the shut-offs. That demonstration prompted police to make nine arrests.

About two dozen people earlier Friday blocked the entrance of Homrich Wrecking Inc., a private contractor that has executed some of the turnoffs, for more than six hours, holding large signs with photos of children using water and a banner reading “Stop the Water Shut-offs.”

Two city police squad cars and a patrol wagon were parked outside the demonstration on East Grand Boulevard. A commander for the city police’s tactical unit informed the demonstrators they would be arrested if they didn’t move. They didn’t. Police then arrested demonstrator Baxter Jones, 58, of Detroit, who was in a wheelchair, around 1:15 p.m. before taking eight more into custody.

Demonstrators chanted “Who’s on their side? Corporations. Who’s on our side? United Nations.”

“Somebody has to do something about what’s going on,” Jones said. “They are cutting off people’s water. We have to have water to live.”

Jones, one of the group who referred to themselves as the “water warriors,” held a sign: “Beat back the bullies!”

“This whole thing revolves around greed,” Jones said. “Greed does not allow you to use your conscience. How can you consciously deprive a human being their right to live? It’s horrible.”

At the National Nurses United protest near Cobo, more than 1,000 demonstrators marched to Hart Plaza demanding the city restore water to all. They chanted “No water, no peace” and “water is a human right, fight, fight, fight.”

“We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have full and immediate access to clean water,” Ross said.

Demonstrator Nayyirah Shariff, 37, of Flint said she pays about $150 to $200 a month on a combined water and sewerage bill. Nearly half of that is in fees, she said.

“I work with a lot of elderly people and they can't afford that,” Shariff said. “There are people who are leaving homes they own because they can't afford to pay the water bill.”

The Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage announced in March it would target Detroit households with overdue balances of more than $150, or more than two months behind on bills. Since spring it has shut off water to more than 15,000 homes. The water department has released a list of more than 200 businesses that could have water shut off for late payments.

In 2013, the department shut off water to 24,024 accounts. Shut-offs began to spike dramatically after July 2013, when the department hired contractors to expedite the process. The department cut off 2,752 accounts in August; 3,487 in September; and 3,700 in October, with cutoffs tapering off in the winter months. Crews normally stop most cutoffs when the temperatures average below freezing.

Spokesman Bill Johnson has said service has not been shut off to anyone who has come to the water department with a “legitimate problem” paying their bill.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer on Friday called for a moratorium on Detroit’s water shut-offs until city officials can assess who has the financial means to pay off delinquent accounts — and who doesn’t.

“It’s been a backward approach,” Schauer said in an interview at the Netroots Nation conference being held at Cobo Center. “I mean … cutting people off and then offering financial assistance is the wrong approach.”

Deputy water director Darryl Latimer was in bankruptcy court this week explaining the once-lax department’s new policy for shutting off water. The average residential delinquency is $540, he said. The average monthly household bill is about $75.

The department says thousands of delinquent customers have had their water restored within 48 hours after paying overdue bills or enrolling in a payment plan.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has asked Latimer to return Monday with further options for those who can’t afford to pay their water bills.

On Friday, the water department was scheduled to turn off 385 illegal usages and 93 other accounts for nonpayment. They also were expected to turn on service to 41 accounts.

Curtrise Garner, a department spokesman, said crews were supposed to set out at 7 a.m. to begin restoring service to the 41 accounts, but the early morning protest delayed the work until 2 p.m. As a result, it was anticipated they would be out working past midnight.

“Someone could have actually had a turn on for 8 a.m. today and now it could be 8 p.m.,” Garner said.

According to DWSD, there were 7,210 shut-offs in June and 3,118 accounts were turned on.

This month, the department announced a Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program with $1 million in funding to help customers who can’t afford water. It is financed by a voluntary 50-cent surcharge the department has collected for several years.

The department also refers those with financial troubles to aid organizations at the county and state levels, including the Department of Human Services and The Heat and Warmth Fund. And it has a water fair to explain payment options.

Staff writers Candice Williams, Christine Ferretti and Chad Livengood contributed.

Members of The People's Water Board Coalition protest Detroit's water shutoffs in Detroit. / David Coates / The Detroit News
Members of The People's Water Board Coalition protest Detroit's water ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)