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Dem presidential hopeful Sanders slams Detroit water shutoffs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders waded into the debate over water shutoffs in Detroit, calling the practice a "moral outrage."

The Vermont U.S. senator and self-declared democratic socialist tweeted Wednesday morning about the city's controversial practice as he shared a Bridge Magazine article.

"Detroiters are having their water shut off because they can’t afford outrageous water bills," Sanders posted. "That is a moral outrage. Clean water must be a human right."

Democratic presidential candidate and senator, Bernie Sanders speaks in Detroit on Oct. 27, 2019.

In a Wednesday release, Sanders' campaign pointed to The Detroit News' recent report on a resolution by Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, urging Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a public health crisis and put a stop to shutoffs for poverty-stricken residents. 

The effort is the latest call for a public health declaration to aid the city's poor after water rights advocates and a group of attorneys made similar pleas in recent years.

Detroit gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills during the city's bankruptcy. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies was implemented amid its financial crisis.

Last year, the city shut off water to 23,000 residential accounts. By the final day of the year, 12,500 had not been restored. Of those, 3,000 were turned back on in the first two weeks of 2020, and 5,400 others showed no signs of usage in 2019, according to water department figures provided last week. 

Detroit's council approved Tuesday a request by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown that will allow the Great Lakes Water Authority, Metro Detroit's governing water provider, to vote on increasing the allocation for its Water Residential Assistance Program.

Brown's proposal would increase the allocation for Detroit from about $2.4 million to $5 million annually and would expand eligibility. The changes still require approval from the authority's board.

Brown stressed that no Detroiters should be seeing service interruptions if they ask for help. He has opposed to a moratorium on the shutoffs.

"When people talk about a moratorium on bills, what they really mean is they are shifting costs," Brown told reporters Tuesday. "They are taking costs not being paid by one group of customers and shifting it to a group that are paying. And that's just not fair."

Sanders' remarks come a day after his campaign announced he's adding more staff and field offices in Michigan, including in Detroit, ahead of the March 10 primary. 

The Detroit office opening is slated for Friday. 

In 2016, Sanders narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan's primary.

cferretti@detroitnews.com