The international humiliation that Detroit has been facing in recent weeks resulting from the draconian and selective enforcement of water bills by shutting off the water of thousands of residents without proper notice, has forced a major change at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced Tuesday at press time that through Emergency Order 31, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will now have control of the water department. The sudden move signals the gradual transition of power from emergency management as the city goes through bankruptcy.
But it also indicates the kind of pressure the city has come under in the wake of the water shutoffs as well as negative press coverage both from the local press as well as the global media.
Even Detroit Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes raised the issue in court, saying it is hurting Detroit’s international image.
“This order provides additional clarity to the powers already delegated to the mayor,” Orr said. “As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department works to operate more efficiently and communicate more effectively with customers, it is important to ensure there are clear lines of management and accountability. This order ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city’s commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD customers get and remain current on their water bills.
Duggan, as the newly elected mayor, welcomed the development of now having control over DWSD.
“I welcome the Emergency Manager’s order this morning giving me the responsibility for dealing with the water department issues. We need to change a number of things in the way we have approached the delinquent payment issues and I expect us to have a new plan shortly,” Duggan said. “There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills. We need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds.”
Duggan said he’s heard from many frustrated residents about the water department and its recent shutoffs.
“I’ve heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices. We’ve got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements,” the mayor said. “But it is important to remember that in the water system, each city is its own separate legal fund.”
However, the mayor made it clear that, “When some Detroit residents don’t pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters. There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state or from the feds. These unpaid water bills are Detroit’s alone.” Duggan said he has met with the leadership of the water department and will be rolling out a plan to fix the problems of DWSD. Meanwhile, the Detroit Branch NAACP through its president Rev Wendell Anthony, issued a statement in support of mayoral control of DWSD.
The Detroit Branch NAACP has opposed the appointment of an emergency manager in Detroit, noting that it violates the governance rights of residents to elect their officials.
“Today’s announcement by Emergency Manager Kevin Orr, that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will regain management and control of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department, is indeed most appropriate and overdue,” Anthony said. “The recent mass shutoffs of water in the city of Detroit on residents without proper notice, without regard to financial consideration or health concerns, was insensitive and ill-timed and needs to be reconsidered. We hope that this move is an indication that democracy is rapidly returning to the city of Detroit.”
Anthony said he believes that the move made by Orr was a result of the public outcry in response to the water shutoffs.
“It must be indicated that the voices of descent, the critical reviews, the community meetings, and the international outrage over this condition have all played a part in arriving at this moment,” Anthony said. “It is now time to structure a plan and a strategy that will allow people to be educated on the issues of changes in the water department, programs available to assist for special financial needs, and a more sensitive management style to interface with this community.
“The people cannot be turned on to celebrate a new Detroit while the water in Detroit is being turned off, which humiliates the people of Detroit.”
But the NAACP believes water bills should be paid.
“We believe that people should, in fact, pay their water bills. We recognize that water must be processed and sewerage service must be provided,” Anthony said. “Yet, the high increase in costs over the last several years, as well as the restructuring in the calculations regarding costs for water and sewerage services, must be reviewed.”
The Michigan chapter of the, Sierra Club, which prides itself as the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization, is among a litany of groups that are calling for an end to the shutoffs, citing possible environmental hazards.
“Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, believes the water of Michigan and all of America is held in public trust. The public trust doctrine is the principle that water is held in common — no one made it, no one owns it — and is preserved for public use,” said David Holtz, chair of the Sierra Club Michigan chapter.
“Detroiters, and all residents of Michigan, have a basic right to water and the mass water shutoffs in Detroit should end. There is considerable evidence that insufficient advance notice and payment options were given prior to the water shutoffs. Moreover, Detroiters currently pay about twice the national average for water and are among those the least able in the country to afford these rates.”
Last week more than 200 gallons of water were delivered to some Detroit families whose water has been shut off from a Canadian group, the Council of Canadians, that crossed the border to exercise international relief in Detroit, showcasing the extent to which the city has gotten the attention of the world on the water crisis.
The gallons of water were received at a rally organized by the People’s Water Board, the group led by longtime social justice advocate Maureen Taylor. She and her group have been involved in creating an affordable water plan.
DWSD has instituted a 15-day moratorium on the shutoffs which the Michigan chapter of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called insufficient.
“The water department’s plan as it outlined did not address the adequacy of the assistance plans. While more communication is important, there must also be a revised definition of affordability at a minimum,” ACLU Michigan Director Kary Moss said in bankruptcy court recently.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.