Detroit residents describe pain of water shutoffs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Carol Ann Bogden recounted Monday the humiliation she experienced in July when a city crew marked her home and turned off her water service for delinquency.

Since her husband died eight years ago, the 68-year-old former nurse said she's struggled financially and with health ailments. She owes $1,123.

"I was really embarrassed. I started to cry," Bogden testified in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Monday. "I thought that was done and over with back in the second World War."

Bogden was among the residents before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday testifying about hardships that resulted in water shut-offs and the lack of notice and resources offered by the city to get them back on track.

Attorneys for 10 Detroit residents fighting water shut-offs produced the witnesses to convince Rhodes to impose a six-month moratorium that would halt the shut-offs. But attorneys for the city are countering that such an order would be harmful to Detroit and the public.

Rhodes has convened the evidentiary hearing in response to a July lawsuit aiming to block Detroit from continuing the controversial shut-off program for residential customers with delinquent bills. Those behind the suit claim the city isn't doing enough to improve its communication with residential customers with medical emergencies.

Rhodes also heard Monday from others behind on their bills and had water turned off. All said they tried, without success, to get some sort of aid with their bill.

"I'm not looking for free water, I'm just looking for affordability," said Tracy Peasant. "I just want to be able to afford it." The Detroit resident went without water from September 2013 until June over an $8,000 bill that she said was the result of a water leak at a rented residence.

A tearful Peasant said she's on a fixed income of $259 a month, plus an additional $400 from her daughter's part-time job.

Her water troubles began with the landlord she'd been renting from. But it followed her to a new rental property as she attempted to pay the connection fee.

"I didn't know it was going to follow me," she said. "I did everything I could do to try to address the problem."

Peasant said she went multiple times to the DWSD office "trying to get help." She was told she'd have to pay $4,000 get her water back on.

In the meantime, Peasant said, she continued to reside in the home with eight children.

The water department officials, she said, told her "there's nothing I can do for you."

Rhodes, who is presiding over Detroit's historic bankruptcy trial, set the hearing last week, noting that an adequate record had not yet been developed for him to make a ruling.

Attorney Alice Jennings, who represents the customers fighting the shut-offs, filed suit in July .Jennings has said that individuals with small children, elderly parents or life-threatening medical conditions face an "imminent" danger if their water is shut off.

DWSD Director Sue McCormick, when questioned Monday by Jennings, said she didn't know how many residences where service was disconnected housed children or disabled people.

But attorneys for DWSD and the city on Monday said ordering a stop to shut-offs would be the same as the city providing free water — a move that would raise rates for all Detroiters who pay their water bills.

The plaintiffs' plan is to call Detroit residents at risk of shut off, public health officials, an economist and nonprofit members as witnesses during the hearing.

Rhodes initially delayed a decision and ordered the parties to mediation.

Since then, plans were announced for the Great Lakes Water Authority, which calls for Detroit to retain ownership of its water system but gives suburban counties more of a stake in its operations. Among its components, the plan outlines $4.5 million in aid for people in Detroit and throughout southeast Michigan who can't afford to pay water bills.

On Friday, Detroit's City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the regional authority.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department stepped up shut-off enforcement in March for individuals 60 days behind or owing more than $150.

About 15,000 customers experienced shutoffs between April and June.

Mayor Mike Duggan previously placed a hold on the shut-offs as he developed a 10-point plan to improve customer service and provide assistance.

Duggan noted the reception has been positive since the moratorium was lifted on Aug. 26.