Clean, free water is not a human right

The Detroit News

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ decision not to block the city of Detroit from shutting off water service to customers who haven’t paid their bills is another sign that Detroit is getting back on track.

The city’s finances and operations are improving, and sensible decisions such as Rhodes’ earlier this week contribute to that process.

Placing a continued moratorium on the ability of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to shut off service to delinquent customers would have only compounded the city’s budget challenges.

There is no right to free water, as Rhodes stated in his opinion. It’s a service that must be paid for and for those who can’t, Detroit has put together an extremely fair plan for helping them keep their water on. Rhodes rightly made that clear to the lawyer for residents insisting free water is an inherent human right.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that the half of Detroiters who are paying their bills are forced to pay more to cover the half who aren’t. Many delinquent subscribers have been able to come up with the money to restore service very quickly upon termination.

The water department is owed nearly $90 million, and it must take these overdue payments seriously. Although the initial phase of shut-offs was handled poorly by the city, resulting in a public image nightmare and nationwide outcry, Mayor Mike Duggan and the department developed a plan in August to deal with delinquent customers.

The 10-point approach allows the department to capture a chunk of the $89 million it’s owed, while treating residents fairly.

Delinquent customers will receive adequate warning and guidance on how to get assistance before their tap is closed. And the department will implement payment plans and financial assistance programs that stretch as long as 24 months to settle delinquent accounts. Customers already enrolled in DTE Energy’s assistance program will be automatically eligible for water aid. More than $2 million in donations has been raised to help.

Duggan also said the water department will improve customer service by extending hours and increasing staffing to make the bills easier to pay — a helpful provision.

In the end, every customer has to pay his or her bill for the water system to remain viable. For those who need help, there should now be adequate assistance available.

The attorney for the residents said they will appeal Rhodes’ decision, which will simply drag out this process.

Those residents would be better off availing themselves of the assistance programs the city has put in place to make sure no one who is truly indigent loses water service.