September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit bankruptcy judge weighing whether to halt water shutoffs

Detroit — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Tuesday was contemplating issuing a temporary restraining order against Detroit and halt the city’s controversial shut-offs of delinquent residential water accounts.

Alice Jennings, attorney for plaintiffs who filed suit in July to stop the water shut-offs, argued in bankruptcy court Tuesday morning for a restraining order until the city improves its communication with residential customers with medical emergencies.

Jennings said residents with small children, elderly parents or life-threatening medical conditions face an “imminent” danger if their water is shut off.

“The fear is the water could be shut off at any moment,” Jennings said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Detroit attorney Timothy Fusco told the judge he would be overstepping his boundaries by telling the city how to operate its water department. Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy prohibits judges from running the city like they can when a bankrupt corporation is under their jurisdiction.

“You simply cannot do it,” Fusco argued.

Rhodes said he would issue a written order late Tuesday but had not done so as of 11 p.m.. Jennings argued her case before Rhodes commenced a trial over Detroit’s debt-cutting plan.

Jennings said costs for some water and sewer customers spiked starting in June of last year as the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department worked to start collecting for sewage runoff — money that Detroit hadn’t collected for years, she said.

“The bills went from where people could handle to being unaffordable,” Jennings said Tuesday outside federal court. “It’s not that people aren’t paying; it’s just that they can’t pay a $300 bill.”

Nicole Hill, 42, of Detroit, who had her water cut off in July, said she had been paying her bills. She’s one of 10 people represented by Jennings and she continues to fight with the department over billing issues. Hill, a divorced mother of three children, 8, 13 and 14, said she was improperly billed for months on a previous residence. She said she continues to try to get answers over billing discrepancies and estimates she’s paid almost $3,000 to the department over the past two years.

“I made a great effort to pay my bill,” said Hill, who had water service restored after eight weeks.

“The water department is saying people aren’t letting them know what’s going on. But when you do, they don’t do anything about it.”

The utility this spring began an aggressive campaign of shut-offs of Detroit residents owing more than $150 or who were two months behind on payments. Of the 174,000 active residential accounts in Detroit, more than 74,000 are past due with bills averaging about $570.

Since March, the department has shut of water to more than 19,400 residents and 157 commercial or industrial sites.

More than 14,000 residents and all of the commercial and industrial accounts have had water turned back on after paying — or making arrangements to pay — overdue bills, according to the utility.

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