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A colleague who watched the taping of my interview with Comedy Central's The Daily Show said afterwards, "Well, you were 95 percent good."

Right then, I knew the 5 percent of the 90-minute session that wasn't so good would be where the editors found excerpts for the TV show.

I was mostly right, although, in fairness, I felt I got off easy. Jon Stewart's schtick is slaying conservatives, and I expected the worst. So why do it in the first place? Why not? I enjoyed the sparring, had fun with the reporter and crew, and knew exactly what I was getting into.

I just wish it had been funnier.

The hilarity typical of the faux news program was missing. That may be because there's not much humor in what's happening in Detroit, particularly when it comes to water shutoffs.

Like every other outsider who has come to Detroit to report on the water shutoffs, The Daily Show seized the narrative of a heartless city closing the taps of the desperately poor. But the issue is much more complex, and Stewart's crew was certainly not alone in missing the layers.

During the interview, I repeated the unfairness of singling out Detroit — every city in America cuts off water service to those who don't pay their bills. The difference here is that a dysfunctional government allowed people to get away with not paying for so long the delinquent tab was too much for a lot of customers to handle when the city finally called the debt.

I spent at least a third of the time talking about Detroit's culpability, but that didn't make the cut either. The last thing I wanted was to appear as the defender of the city's incompetence.

Still, fairness demanded an explanation that after its ham-handed initial round of shutoffs, Detroit did pause, regroup and put in place subsidies and payment programs to aid those who truly can't handle their bills. Today, most service cutoffs are restored within 48 hours.

What I wanted most to convey is that in Detroit, soaking the rich is not an option, because there are so few wealthy residents and the corporate community is too thin. If you don't pay your bill here, your neighbor, who may be just as bad off as you are, has to cover it.

A major reason the poorest residents in Metro Detroit pay the highest water rates is that 50 percent of the customers in the city were delinquent on their bills, in the amount of $91 million.

Weeding out those who are gaming the system from those who truly need help is a messy but essential step in restoring functionality to city government. That's true whether we're talking about water or property taxes. The no-pay culture has to end.

Yes, the city screwed up in every humanly possible way. And yes some business customers are among the scofflaws — though two cited by the program, Palmer Park golf course and Joe Louis Arena, are city-owned facilities.

It doesn't change the reality that Detroit will not recover from its financial collapse if people take services and don't pay for them. The Daily Show felt it scored its gotcha moment when I said, "Nothing's free."

But I'll stick by that. The free ride is over; now, everybody has to pay.

Not funny, but true.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313)222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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