Protesters drop off 158K signatures to stop Detroit water shut-offs

Steve Pardo
The Detroit News

Detroit — A local grassroots organization is calling for water shut-offs in the city to stop and it dropped off more than 158,000 petition signatures in support Tuesday.

The People’s Water Board Coalition, made up of activists, members of AFSCME Local 207 and other groups displayed more than a dozen boxes and called for a water affordability plan to be implemented for those unable to pay their water bills outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

“If we’re concerned about the public health and the right to live, we have to find a way to make water affordable for everyone,” said Sister Mary Ellen Howard, a registered nurse from the Detroit St. Frances Cabrini Clinic in Corktown. “It is reprehensible that children and families in Detroit are being put at risk of disease because they cannot afford their water bills.”

Signatures were collected online by several groups, said Lynna Kaucheck, spokeswoman for the regional Food and Water Watch organization.

“All eyes are on us right now waiting to see how we handle the situation ... how the governor’s office handles this situation will show whether or not he thinks people and their basic human rights are more important than profit.”

This spring the utility began an aggressive campaign of shut-offs for 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.

A month-long moratorium halting the shut-offs expired last month and they resumed. Attorney Alice Jennings filed suit in July to stop the water shut-offs. Early this month, she argued in bankruptcy court for a restraining order until the city improves its communication with residential customers with medical emergencies.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes delayed a decision on whether to block the city from continuing the shut-offs and ordered the groups to mediation with Detroit officials.

Rhodes scheduled a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday on the issue.

“I couldn’t imagine waking up and not being able to make formula or brush my teeth or flush my toilet,” said Halima Cassells of Detroit. “It’s inhuman.”

A Detroit News investigation showed 11,600 tax-foreclosed homes with sky-high bills went up for sale recently at Wayne County's annual auction. The water bills at the homes total $21.5 million. Of the homes, 112 of them have bills of $10,000 or more and 484 have bills of at least $5,000, according to county data.

Since March, the department has shut off 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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