Federal judge Arthur Tarnow dies following distinguished legal career

Lawyer: Detroit water shutoffs hurting city in poverty

Steve Pardo and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit The "hodgepodge" of programs "cobbled together" to aid a limited group of residents facing water shut-offs isn't good enough for a city plagued by widespread poverty, an attorney argued Tuesday.

Alice Jennings, a lawyer for 10 residents fighting against the city's controversial campaign to turn off service for unpaid accounts, made the claims at the close of a two-day evidentiary hearing in federal court.

"We are asking for a brief moratorium for those who have been hardest hit by the financial circumstances here in Detroit," Jennings told U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes.

Jennings added the "very brief" stop to shut-offs would give the city more time to craft a cohesive program.

"Detroiters overwhelming need some relief," Jennings said after the proceedings. She believes her side made a compelling argument to have Rhodes order a halt to shut-offs, though she added she wouldn't assume to predict a judge's ruling. The city needs to put together a comprehensive plan and organize the funding avenues to give residents who can't afford their water bills relief, she added.

The current process is "a chaotic mess," Jennings said.

Rhodes plans to rule Monday on the request, and a separate motion to dismiss by the city.

In laying out their case, the plaintiffs called a handful of Detroiters who detailed hardships they faced when their water was cut off as well as experts and officials with Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department.

Jennings has asked Rhodes to grant a six-month moratorium to provide a "pause" and allow the city time to establish a plan to better help those who can't afford to pay their water bills.

Chester Clemons, a water shut-off technician for city of Detroit, shuts off water at a home in Palmer Woods on July 8, 2014.

But lawyers for Detroit say such an order would encourage further delinquency, cause the department to lose revenues and lead to higher rates.

Tom O'Brien, an attorney on behalf of the city's water department, countered Tuesday that the city's new, 10-point plan to educate and assist low-income Detroiters wasn't constructed overnight.

"It was developed," he said, and "was intended to be practical."

O'Brien also pointed to an assistance fund outlined in the plan and a separate pot of aid money called for in a proposed Great Lakes Water Authority.

"That's significant money, it goes a long way," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, city officials were called to the stand to deflect criticism of the shutoff campaign, detailing multiple steps they took to educate and restore service to low-income Detroiters.

Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Mayor Mike Duggan, testified she worked to assemble a team to craft a 10-point plan for DWSD. The plan was designed to expand customer service and assistance funding options and curb water shutoffs, she said.

Since implemented last month, the plan has made a considerable difference for Detroiters, Wiley said, noting a centralized assistance fund and the distribution of educational materials. In addition, calls for water assistance have dropped from 1,000 in August to about 300 this month.

"This means we are reaching people," Wiley said. "They are understanding there's assistance and we've changed our model. We have a system in place."

Wiley stressed if residents come in and say "I can't pay it" they can get on a plan and won't have water cut off.

"The minute you apply, your shutoff is halted," Wiley said.

Wiley acknowledged Tuesday that she didn't know how many individuals were living without water and didn't know how many of these homes had children.

But when pressed about the extent of the problem by Alice Jennings, an attorney for the plaintiffs, Wiley insisted: "we have a fairly good handle on this."

There are currently 27,321 Detroit residential accounts on a payment plan, said Curtrise Garner, DWSD spokeswoman.

Besides Wiley, a consultant and water department employees were called on Tuesday to explain that revenues would drop and water bills could rise if a moritorium barring water shut-offs was implemented.

Darryl Latimer, DWSD deputy director, said the department was "breaking records" in terms of collections before a month-long moratorium on water shutoffs was implemented late July.

The department was on pace to collect $1.5 million in fees in July, he said. But the next month, where the moratorium was in place until Aug. 26, collections dropped to around $200,000.

Much of Latimer's time on the stand was spent explaining and defending the 10-point plan unveiled this summer by Duggan's office and explaining the department's shut-off polices.

The shut-offs of people behind on their bills has dropped from 700 to 900 accounts shut off per day to around 300 to 400. The slowing of the shutoffs shows the plans are working, he said.

Earlier, consultant Eric Rothstein, in a taped deposition played in court Tuesday, said a temporary moratorium "would cause more problems than it would assist."


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