July 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Water department: Detroit shut-offs just on pause

Members of The People's Water Board Coalition protest Detroit's water shut-offs in Detroit on Friday. The shut-offs have sparked massive outrage in the community. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

City water department officials on Monday suspended shut-offs for 15 days, as the drum beat continues to build against curtailing service to Detroiters with overdue bills.

In recent days, opponents of the practice — intended to clear the water department’s books of delinquent accounts — have appealed to the United Nations, filed a federal legal challenge, blocked the vehicles of contractors whose job it is to connect and disconnect service, and marched 1,000 strong in downtown Detroit. The federal judge overseeing the city’s bankruptcy case criticized it, too.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bill Johnson said Monday’s announcement that it is suspending its shut-off campaign, which already has interrupted water service to 17,000 households, is “a pause. This is not a moratorium.”

“We are pausing to give an opportunity to customers who have trouble paying their bills to come in and make arrangements with us,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we haven’t missed any truly needy people.”

The water shut-off campaign has followed years of lax enforcement. Critics from the singer Cher to the U.N. have condemned it, calling access to water a basic human right.

The water department isn’t backing down, Johnson insisted.

He said half of the customers whose water was cut off never made arrangements to get it turned back on, leading officials to believe they were using the service illegally. So during the 15-day pause, the department is informing “shutoff crews to more aggressively turn off illegal use.”

Roughly half of Detroit’s water customers are delinquent and could face shut-offs.

Johnson said 89,000 customers owe about $91 million. Detroit had 176,879 active residential water accounts as of June 30. Thousands of those had water restored within 48 hours after paying their overdue bills or getting into a payment program. The department had cut off service to more than 2,000 residential accounts in the first two weeks of July.

The department on Monday morning informed U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes of the suspension of its shut-off activities. Last week, Rhodes, who is overseeing Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, said the cutoffs give the city a bad reputation and are a distraction.

DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer said Monday the department will use the 15-day grace period to better communicate with customers about options for payment plans and financial assistance for those with a hardship.

“We want to ensure everyone has access to water, that they’re current or on their way to getting current on any overdue amounts,” Latimer told Rhodes.

Rhodes said he was pleased with the water department’s plan for dealing with water shut-offs, but said he couldn’t comment on the new litigation filed against the city Monday.

Rhodes last week called the issue a “solvable problem” when he asked Latimer to return and give more options on reducing the shut-offs. On Monday, he thanked Latimer for his efforts.

“Obviously you, Mr. Latimer and your staff and department put a lot of effort into the presentation and the plan it represents,” Rhodes said. “It is not this court’s role or function to rule on or even further address the adequacy of this. I can only say it does address the concerns I raised last week.”

Alice Jennings, attorneys for the plaintiffs who filed suit Monday against the water department over the water shut-offs, said the department’s 15-day moratorium won’t get her clients to reconsider legal action within the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy court.

“What the department did is not adequate,” Jennings said late Monday morning outside the federal courthouse.

Jennings said DWSD’s aggressive shut-offs are designed to help lure a private company to Detroit to either buy or operate the sprawling metropolitan water system.

“It’s our position that the payments are being taken off the backs of the poor customers to make it look like we’re a candidate to be privatized or sold,” Jennings said.

Calling the shut-offs a “health crisis” — an allegation that public health officials have rejected— Jennings said the department should have sent employees door-to-door of homes with delinquent water accounts and assessed whether the residents could afford their overdue bills.

“They never did the hard work that it took and instead they just willy-nilly started turning off water,” Jennings said.

Jim Perkinson, a professor at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, has protested the shut-offs and been arrested twice for helping block trucks from performing the cutoffs. The “pause” is a good start he said.

“Fifteen days makes a difference for the people facing shut-offs but what equally matters is what happens from here,” Perkinson said.

More work needs to be done to bring in organizations that can help, he said.

“There can be a more humane way of sorting out those who generally need help,” Perkinson said.

Detroit’s City Council recently approved a rate increase of 8.7 percent. The increase not only covers the bills of city rate payers, but also the costs associated with individuals who are not paying or are gaming the system.

Latimer has said part of the problem was the department in the past didn’t act consistently shutting off water to customers who didn’t pay their bills. The shutoff campaign targets those more than 60 days late or $150 behind in their bills. The average residential delinquency is $540, Latimer said. The average monthly household bill is about $75.

On Monday, Latimer said the department would work with clergy and grass-roots organizations in getting out the word on how residents who are behind on their bills can get help.

Residents behind on their water bills can choose a plan that typically involves paying 30 percent of the outstanding bill and then the remainder — while keeping current on the present bill — over as long as 36 months.

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, Latimer said. The department will host a “water affordability fair” at the department’s east side service center on Aug. 2.

jkurth@detroitnews.com