The city of Detroit vowed Monday not to shut off water to people with unpaid bills for the next 15 days, the latest response by officials to a controversy that has sparked large protests in the city.
The announcement came on the same day that residents filed a lawsuit alleging that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) was violating constitutional and contractual rights by turning off the taps to customers in arrears, according to the Detroit Free Press newspaper.
“In case we have missed someone who has legitimate affordability problems this will allow them to come to us to see if they can work out payments,” DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson told the newspaper. “We’ve always maintained that what we were doing was a collection effort — not a shutoff effort.”
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 of them after customers paid or worked out payment plans.
But the city issue has gained wider attention due in part to activists appealing to the United Nations for assistance.
Separately, about 2,000 people protested last week during a national convention of liberal Democratic activists.
The water department has said it needs to shut off water for delinquent accounts to recoup $175 million in outstanding bills. But it has been accused of ignoring the debts of large entities, such as a golf course that owes $437,000 and the state of Michigan itself, which owes $70,000, while going after people who owe as little as $150 on their accounts.
Nearly 50 percent of city's water accounts are behind on payments, according to the department.
Activists say the water costs for residential customers has doubled in the last 10 years. The average bill is now $75 a month, according to the Free Press, much higher than the nation’s average rate of about $40. In June, DWSD said it would again raise rates, this time by 8.7 percent.
Activists have claimed that the city is trying to rid itself of low-income customers so as to make the utility more attractive for a corporate takeover, a charge that DWSD denies. However, the city has acknowledged that it is considering at least partial privatization of the service as it attempts to climb out of its debt.
Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said Monday at a hearing over the issue that people "need their water," although he suggested he wouldn't order any specific action.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press