DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – It’s a major development on the Detroit water front. The city says it won’t shut off water to people with unpaid bills for the next 15 days — the latest response to a controversy that led a well-attended protest last week.
The city gave an update Monday in federal bankruptcy court where Judge Steven Rhodes has been encouraging the city to come up with alternatives to shutting off water for thousands of homes and businesses.
The city “does not want to put its customers out of service,” Detroit Water And Sewerage Department Deputy Director, Darryl Latimer said.
So, what will the city do in those 15 days?
Latimer said they’re going to increase awareness about plans and programs available to those who need help paying their bill.
“The city’s gonna go on a media blitz — they’re gonna go on a social media blitz,” WWJ’s Charlie Langton reported from the courthouse. “They’re gonna have special town hall meetings; they’re going to engage grassroots and clergy, organizations to get the word out that city does have money for those who can’t pay their water bills.”
Judge Rhodes, who is overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy, hasn’t ordered any direct action on the shutoffs — but he has required officials to give him updates on the water issue in court.
Also on Friday, a class action lawsuit on behalf of affected Detroit residents who claim they can’t afford to pay for their water.
The suit claims the water shutoffs are racially motivated, and that access to water is a basic human right.
Rhodes says people “need their water,” although he suggested he wouldn’t order any specific action.
“There’s nothing for me to do about that today,” Rhodes said, about the lawsuit.
“With the creativity of everyone involved, (the water problem) can be solved. We’ve got people without water, and they need their water,” the judge said.
The water department stopped service to about 7,200 homes and businesses in June, compared to 1,570 in the same month last year. Water was restored to 43 percent after customers paid or worked out payment plans.
The issue gained wide attention when activists appealed to the United Nations for assistance.
In Lansing later Monday, Gov. Rick Snyder was asked if he was involved in the decision on the shutoff moratorium.
“There’s been a lot of discussions, but (Detroit Emergency Manager) Kevyn Orr’s doing an outstanding job, and I support his decisions,” Snyder said.
“There were a lot of overdue bills. Most of them got paid fairly quickly,” he said. But, at the same time, we’ve got to make sure there’s good information to people who may have a need-based concern.”
Snyder said the state Department of Human Services is open to being involved with the water shutoff situation.
Speaking live on WWJ Newsradio 950 last Friday, water department spokesman Curtrise Garner said shutting off people’s water due to non-payment is nothing something they’ve always done.
If a resident owes more than $150 and is more than 60 days past due on their water bill, their water will be shut off, he said.
The city has just recently implemented a 8.7 percent increase in the water rate.
“The reason for that is because so many people have not paid, so we have now become more diligent about our collections process,” Garner said.
The city has said in the past that they have around $1 million in a fund to help people in need pay for water.
Friday’s march from Detroit’s Cobo Center to Hart Plaza got a lot of buzz on social media after “The Avengers” actor Mark Ruffalo showed up, rallying hundreds gathered in the city for another event to join him in protesting the water shutoffs.
“I’m here to shed a little light on what’s happening — the travesty that’s happening here in Detroit with these people’s water,” Ruffalo said. “…You’d think we were living in a third world nation.”
Meanwhile, ten protesters who were arrested for blocking the entrance to Homrick Wrecking company — which was contracted by the city to shut the water off — were due in court Monday morning.
But local minister Bill Wylie-Kellermann, who took part in two protests last week, told WWJ the case has been postponed.
“The could not find paperwork on us at this time,” Wylie-Kellermann said. “So, they said we would either hear (about) a court date; or, barring that, we should call in six weeks.”
The reprieve for delinquent water customers was announced on the same day that the city is expected to say whether workers and retirees approved pension cuts that would trigger an $816 million bailout for Detroit. The money is crucial to preventing the sale of city-owned art and avoiding deeper pension cuts.
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