August 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Groups keep pressure on Detroit over water shut-offs as moratorium's end nears

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department on July 18 in Detroit, Michigan. The department had disconnected water to thousands of city residents who are delinquent with their bills. (Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

Detroit— City officials are continuing to compose a plan to deal with delinquent customers as the moratorium on Detroit water shut-offs approaches its end at midnight Monday.

John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, said Friday the mayor “is still working on all aspects of his plan” to help customers who can’t pay water bills, while holding those who can accountable. But no details will be released until at least Monday.

Duggan, who on Tuesday was given operational control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, has pledged better customer service for those who are trying to pay water bills and more outreach about available funds for the needy.

“We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect a new plan shortly,” Duggan said in a statement this week. He declined further comment Friday.

Still, advocates aren’t sitting idly by.

“My trust is not in the mayor,” activist Monica Lewis-Patrick said Friday. “My trust is in the people who will continue to put the pressure on and make the mayor do the right thing. This is more systemic than water. This is about everything that they have attacked, cut, slashed and burned over the last four years.”

Water officials have come under scrutiny for shutting off the utility for people who owe more than $150 or are at least two months behind on payments. Officials have said more than $89 million is owed in delinquent bills, including more than $43 million from 80,000 residential accounts.

Since March, the department has shut off water to more than 17,000 Detroiters. More than half have had their water turned on after paying their bill or making payment arrangements, officials have said.

But thousands protested against the move. The United Nations, celebrities and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes also weighed in with criticism of the plan and called for more options to aid Detroit residents.

DWSD announced July 21 it was suspending shut-offs for 15 days. Some officials have called for an extension of the moratorium while a permanent solution is found.

Council President Brenda Jones on Tuesday called for Duggan to extend the moratorium.

“(I’m calling for) a real moratorium because I don’t know what you guys had going on,” Jones said during Tuesday’s session. “It’s unacceptable that we have to continue to get a black eye nationwide in regards to water shut-offs and all of the other things that are happening in the city. It’s unacceptable.”

Groups are continuing to press the issue. About two dozen people protested outside the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offices Friday afternoon.

Earlier, Tawana Petty, 37, communications representative for a group called the People’s Water Board, continued the call for an indefinite moratorium on the water shut-offs.

“We would like for them to actually honor the moratorium ... which they didn’t do,” Petty said. “They continued to shut off residents’ water.

“We want the water back on for those residents who have had their water turned off,” he said. “We don’t need the mayor to put a plan in place, but to acknowledge the plans that are already put forward and act on it.”

DWSD officials said they continued shut-offs only for those who have had their water turned on illegally.

Terry O’Brien, 51, who lives in the Palmer Park area, said he wants Duggan to not shut off water to anybody who owes less than $1,000.

“That would be an opening point,” O’Brien said. “People should be charged for water based on using excessive amounts of it. I hope the powers-that-be realize that cutting off a few people who can’t afford it isn’t going to make them more money. It’s a pointless thing that’s being done.”

At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will host a water affordability fair at its east side customer service center at 13303 East McNichols.

Officials said the event will allow people to have face-to-face interaction with water officials who can to provide assistance and information on available programs. Residents are urged to make payment arrangements if they are behind. People will also get information on how to save on their water bills.

“We keep hearing at DWSD that there are poor people who are not receiving the assistance that they need, so we want to help them and we want to make it as easy as possible for them to receive that help. We are here to help,” the department’s deputy director, Darryl Latimer, said in a released statement. “DWSD’s goal here is simple: We want to ensure everyone has access to water and that they are current or are on their way to getting current on any overdue amount owed.”
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