Judge won’t intervene in water shutoff controversy
Detroit — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has rejected a request to reconsider his previous decision not to intervene in Detroit’s water shutoff controversy.
The judge this week denied a request for a rehearing of the matter by critics of the city’s water shutoff program. Alice Jennings, an attorney representing about 10 city residents, sought to have the judge issue a moratorium on shutoffs and order water services restored to those who had service cut off.
But Rhodes said his September ruling dismissing the complaint was proper.
“The Court concludes the City’s motion to dismiss was properly granted, and thus the plaintiffs’ several motions for reconsideration must be denied,” Rhodes wrote in an opinion released Thursday.
Jennings, along with several grass-roots organizations, sought the moratorium to establish a plan to better help those who can't afford to pay their water bills. The groups called for water rates to be set based on a customer’s ability to pay. She did not immediately return a call Thursday.
Rhodes clarified several of his September decisions, including his ruling that Michigan law does not allow a municipality to base water rates on a customer’s ability to pay.
“They claim a constitutional right to water service at a price they can afford to pay,” he wrote. “The Court rejects this claim. There is no support for it. Michigan law does not permit a municipality to base its water rates on ability to pay. ... Nothing in the case law suggests that it is unconstitutional for state law to require a municipality to fix the price of a service according to the cost of providing it rather than ability to pay.”
The city began an aggressive campaign in the spring shutting off water to thousands who were two or more months behind on bills or owed more than $150. Water shutoffs were ordered halted over the summer but resumed after the month-long moratorium ended in August.
This season, water had been cut off to more than 30,000 accounts, though the majority had services turned back on within 48 hours after settling bills or becoming involved in a payment plan, city officials said.
In August, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced a 10-point plan to make it simpler for Detroit residents to enter into payment plans and apply for financial assistance. Since that time, the number of customers in payment plans has more than doubled from 17,000 to more than 37,000, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Rhodes called it a “bold, commendable and necessarily aggressive plan,” saying “It appears that it has been generally successful in providing necessary assistance to customers in the group that suffered temporary income reductions, by providing them with time to cure their delinquencies as well as financial assistance in curing their defaults.”
He said, however, that it was less clear if the 10-point plan would be of help to those who chronically do not have the means to pay.
“Because the poverty rate in the City is about 40 percent, this is likely to be a large group,” he said.
The plan currently relies on a combination of public funds and charities to help people pay their water and sewerage bills. “Unfortunately however, there has been no analysis of whether the available resources will be sufficient to address this need over the long term,” Rhodes wrote.