Detroit — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday refused to block the city from shutting off water to delinquent customers for six months, saying there is no right to free water and Detroit can't afford to lose the revenue.
Rhodes's order served as a stinging rejection of arguments made by thousands of protesters who staged rallies last summer fighting shutoffs and argued that there is a fundamental right to water service.
"There is no such right or law," Rhodes said.
A six-month ban on water shut-offs would boost the rate of customer defaults and threaten Detroit's revenue, the judge added.
"The last thing (Detroit) needs is this hit to its revenues," the judge said.
Rhodes issued his ruling after two days of hearings last week and said he lacked the power to issue a water shut-off moratorium. Regardless, a lawyer for 10 residents failed to convince him there was justification for such a drastic step, he said.
Rhodes said residents do not have a right to receive water service "let alone service based on an ability to pay."
Alice Jennings, an attorney representing the 10 residents fighting water shutoffs, said she was "disappointed but not surprised" by the judge's ruling. Rhodes, she said, missed the issue of safety and underscored the irreparable harm that comes with the shutoffs.
"We will be looking at an appeal," Jennings said. "We believe there is a right to water and there is a right to affordable water."
The city's policy of shutting off water to residents in one of the nation's poorest cities briefly overshadowed the city's historic bankruptcy case and debt-cutting plan, which hinges on spinning off the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to suburban counties.
The city started a more vigorous shut-off campaign in the spring compared to other years in an effort to get more people to pay their outstanding bills or get on a payment plan. Rhodes on Monday called the efforts a "bold, commendable and necessarily aggressive plan."
About 24,000 city water accounts have been shut off this year. A month-long moratorium halting shutoffs ended in August and crews are now back to shutting off water to up to 400 accounts a day, DWSD officials said last week.
Residents, civic groups, and "The Avengers" actor Mark Ruffalo participated in mass protests in recent months fighting the city's treatment of delinquent water customers. A pocket of protesters lined West Lafayette Boulevard outside federal court Monday.
Ten residents requested the moratorium, saying it would give the city time to establish a plan to better help those who can't afford to pay their water bills. Lawyers for Detroit say such an order would encourage further delinquency, cause the department to lose revenues and lead to higher rates.
During closing arguments, Jennings argued the "hodgepodge" of programs designed to aid a limited group of residents facing water shut-offs isn't good enough for the city plagued by widespread poverty.
Jennings told the judge that a "very brief" stop to shut-offs would give the city more time to craft a cohesive program.
Tom O'Brien, an attorney for the water department, has countered that a 10-point plan to educate and assist low-income residents wasn't constructed overnight.
"It was developed," he said, and "was intended to be practical."
O'Brien also played up a fund outlined in the plan, and a separate pot of annual aid money called for in a proposed Great Lakes Water Authority.
"That's significant money, it goes a long way," he said.
Detroit's bankruptcy trial, meanwhile, resumes Monday, five days after City Council members reclaimed power over city government while agreeing to keep Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr in place for bankruptcy-related duties.
The deal means council will resume control over city departments, contracts and other day-to-day matters. Orr's official removal will be effective if the city's debt-cutting bankruptcy plan is confirmed.
Orr is expected to testify soon about the debt-cutting plan.