July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Welcome to Dysfunction Junction

Just as Detroit was starting to gain some positive traction for its image, it walked off the dock by bungling an overdue attempt to end the cityís pay-if-you-want culture.

For years Detroit adopted a lackadaisical approach to collecting its debts. Half of city residents are delinquent on their property taxes. Half ignore their water bills. Up to 20 percent steal electricity. And even in the best neighborhoods, squatters are living for free in abandoned homes.

Why pay for anything if you can get away with not paying?

Thatís been particularly true for water, where payment is such an alien concept that the city of Highland Park stopped even sending out bills to customers of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Conscientious residents had to come downtown to City Hall to figure out what they owed.

So it was a positive and necessary step when Detroit finally decided to crack down on the scofflaws who owe the water department $95 million ó thatís $95 million owed to a bankrupt city that canít afford to fully staff its Police Department, maintain its parks or upgrade its antiquated technology. Again, it was the right thing to do.

But how things are done matters. Detroit made a cursory attempt to warn delinquent customers that water shut-offs were coming, and then marched out and began turning off the spigots. For most of the past due accounts, the threat of a service cut-off was all it took to get them to settle their debt and keep the water flowing. A few, however, simply couldnít pay, and apparently werenít savvy enough to avail themselves of the various assistance programs.

Those hard cases became the story of the shut-offs. Every do-gooder outfit in the country rose to denounce the heartless Detroit leaders who were denying water to the thirsty. In a cruel coincidence of timing, a convention of Democratic extremists was in Detroit at the height of the cut-offs, and happily welcomed the excuse to march and get arrested on TV.

The United Nations declared this a humanitarian crisis. Even the moribund entertainer Cher risked exposing herself to daylight to condemn the inhumanity of Detroit.

A frustrated Judge Steven Rhodes, who is hearing Detroitís bankruptcy, thwacked the city in the head, wondering aloud how it could inflict on itself such a black eye at such a critical point in the case.

And so the cut-offs are paused while Detroit figures out how to better do what it should have done in the first place ó give needy customers ample warning and more than ample information on how and where to get help.

Of course, restarting the shut-off initiative will be a fraught enterprise. Itís hard to imagine the water department can do anything that will satisfy those who view free water as a basic human right. There will be renewed protests for sure.

What there canít be are any more images of poor Detroit mothers and their babies weeping over dry water spouts.

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews.
Watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on ďMiWeekĒ on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.