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Detroit Shuts Off Water As It Tries To Collect Millions Owed


Let's follow up now on the water war in Detroit. So far this year, the water utility has shut off the spigots to 17,000 customers. It wants people to do pay their overdue bills. Many residents are upset with how the city is doing this and ask if some are getting special treatment. Here's Sarah Cwiek of Michigan Radio.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: People are going thirsty in Detroit, a city with more direct access to fresh clean water than virtually any place in the world. That irony shows up in numerous ways. Here at the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center, Helen Moore has been passing out bottled water to neighbors. She does that in between mopping the floors here because this building's pipes are constantly leaking.

HELEN MOORE: Here we are, giving out water because we can't turn the community down and we still owe on the water bill. But somehow we do it, I don't know how, we do it.

CWIEK: They thought the water had been shut off when the center was closed this past winter, it wasn't. After running up a huge bill Moore managed to cut a deal with the water department. After a 30 percent down payment they're now on a $400 a month payment plan. Moore is struggling to get the center up and running again after it's been neglected off and on for years. That's also the situation with Detroit's beleaguered water department which is trying to dig out of decades of mismanagement, corruption and deferred maintenance in just a few months. Selling or leasing the department to another government or private entity is a key part of emergency manager, Kevyn Orr's bankruptcy restructuring plan. Some residences here argue he's trying to patch things up on the backs of Detroit's most vulnerable. Orr and water department officials insist they're not targeting the poor but they say the water department hasn't followed through on shut o notices for too long and too many people got used to ignoring their water bill. Deputy director Darryl Latimer says the department will work with the genuinely needy, to get them on payment plans like the one the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center is on now. Latimer says it's possible to tell why people aren't paying, just that they aren't.

DARRYL LATIMER: And so now that we started getting more aggressive, those customers that have the ability to pay are coming in and paying and those customers that have the inability to pay we're still assisting them so that they can keep their service on.

CWIEK: But Helen Moore argues that doesn't prove anything.

MOORE: So when they say all of a sudden, they can pay the bill, they are not looking at the way Detroiters care about each other and there are many of us paying other people's bills.

CWIEK: Many critics say that even if the showoff campaign is necessary, it's been handled badly. There is no big public outreach campaign to warn people that massive shutoffs were coming, no consideration of whether children or seniors lived in a home and no amnesty program like the city ran when it recently hiked rates on parking tickets. That led activists here to petition a United Nations panel, which later declared the shut offs a human rights violation if they affect people truly unable to pay. This fight is also about who owes money to the water department but hasn't had their water shut off. Put both GM and Chrysler on that list, both owed millions, though Chrysler has since paid up and GM is disputing its bill. Even the city of Detroit itself owes more than $20 million for its municipal buildings, though it's paid almost 4 million and the rest of the bill is under review. And Michigan owns almost $5 million for the former state fairgrounds. Though state officials say that Bill was caused by leaky pipes, they shouldn't be responsible for. But critics point out that other customers, like the Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center, aren't given that same consideration. Detroiter Cynthia Johnson says the effort to create a new Detroit in bankruptcy court has dumped a lot of issues on what some might call the old Detroit.

CYNTHIA JOHNSON: Let's be real clear, not for one moment are we saying that people should get water for free, that's not even the issue. People cannot survive without water.

CWIEK: In the meantime, people are surviving the best they can but many are nervous about the coming hot summer months and the possibility of even more taps going dry. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.
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