'Daily Show' steps into Detroit water shutoffs

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit's controversial water shutoffs were highlighted in a satirical news segment Monday night on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

"It's one of our biggest problems here," said The Detroit News' editorial page editor, Nolan Finley, while describing the conditions surrounding the issue during his appearance on the Comedy Central show.

"Why pick on Detroit?" he told straight-faced correspondent Jessica Williams, who asked him to explain if the city's poor residents truly wanted "free water."

The humorous segment included interviews with an attorney and local activist as well as Williams seeking water at Joe Louis Arena and a golf course — both places she described as facing overdue water bills yet no shutoffs like Detroiters.

In classic "Daily Show" style, when Finley mentioned to Williams that water technically wasn't free, he was interrupted with shots of the arena, Ford Field and a golf course, flush with a gushing fountain.

Finley said "The Daily Show" reached out to discuss producing the segment, which was taped about three weeks ago in his office at the old News building on Lafayette in Detroit.

"I tried to present a complex issue as fairly as possible," he said. "They taped me for 90 minutes, looking for the 'gotcha' moment, and I'm pretty sure I probably provided it for them."

"No way was I drinking water while the cameras were rolling," Finley tweeted Monday night after the show aired. "Kept offering it to me. 90 mins of talking and not a drop."

"Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams speaks with Nolan Finley of the Detroit News.

The Detroit Water Brigade also announced its appearance in the pre-recorded segment. The brigade is a group of volunteers working to bring emergency relief to families facing water shutoffs. It also advocates for an income-based water affordability plan in Detroit.

Justin Wedes, co-founder and chief organizer for the water brigade, said the segment was taped Oct. 23 at the group's Highland Park headquarters.

"It should be a good laugh for everyone," said Wedes, of the segment. "And we needed attention on Detroit and the city's aggressive water shutoff program."

Wedes said the brigade was hosting a public viewing party at the Anchor Bar on Fort Street in Detroit.

"It's very exciting, and we're looking forward to it," he said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in the spring began an aggressive campaign of shutoffs 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.

Meanwhile, recent cold weather will slow water service shutoffs in Detroit but not halt the nearly yearlong push to collect on accounts 60 days or $150 or more past due, officials said.

Crews have disconnected service to 31,300 customers since Jan. 1 due to unpaid bills and will continue that this winter — stopping only during long bouts of below freezing temperatures when the ground is too hard to dig to water connections.

Shutoff numbers skyrocketed from about 1,200 from January through March to over 3,000 in April. The issue brought local, national and even international protesters to Detroit.

A several-week respite allowed people behind on their bills to enter into payment plans. Shutoffs dropped from a high of 7,200 in June to 1,600 in August. They have since picked back up with 5,100 in September and 3,831 last month.

In a news release Monday, city officials said they have worked to reduce the number of shutoffs, and to get customers who lose service reconnected as quickly as possible.

The city said 2,350 of customers who lost service in October contacted the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to arrange a payment plan and had service restored within two days.

A campaign announced in August by Mayor Mike Duggan has more than doubled the number of customers on payment plans from 17,000 to more than 37,000, officials said.

"These numbers clearly show that our new approach is working," said department director Sue McCormick. "More customers are avoiding shutoffs by entering into our payment plans."

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The Associated Press and Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.