Detroit bankruptcy judge says he can't stop water shutoffs

Detroit's bankruptcy judge says he can't prevent homes from having their water shut off, if they can't pay their bills. Critics call the shutoffs a public-health crisis that disproportionately affects children, the poor, and the elderly.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
Detroit water activists Tawana Petty (l.), Priscilla Dziubek (c.) and Lou Novak (r.) stand outside City Hall to protest against the increase in water shutoffs for residential customers with unpaid bills in Detroit, in this photo taken July 24, 2014. US Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled on Monday that Detroit can continue shutting off water service to nonpaying customers, saying his court does not have jurisdiction over the issue.

The judge presiding over Detroit's bankruptcy said Monday he could not block the city of Detroit from cutting off water access to residents with delinquent bills. 

With this order, Judge Steven Rhodes rejected the pleas from thousands of protesters who argued over the summer that water is a basic human right. Those protests briefly grabbed headlines during the historic bankruptcy proceedings that have consumed the city since last year. Even the United Nations criticized Detroit for human rights violations, after the city's mass water shutoffs. 

But in response to a lawsuit filed to mandate a six-month moratorium on shutoffs, Judge Rhodes said there is no legal basis for citizens to claim water rights. 

"Chapter 9 strictly limits the courts' power in a bankruptcy case," he said, according to the Detroit Free Press. Detroit represents the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

He also said banning water shutoffs would be a blow to Detroit's finances that the city cannot afford. 

"The last thing (Detroit) needs is this hit to its revenues," he said, according to The Detroit News

Rhodes agreed in part with the plaintiffs – which include water customers, attorneys, and welfare rights groups – that long-term damage can occur when people do not have access to water. Still, he said "significant harm" could happen in the case of a six-month moratorium, reports Michigan Radio

In a city that can often be painted as a symbol of American manufacturing decline and urban decay, the water shutoffs offer a window onto the basic steps the city must take in order to make the long journey of recovery, says Aaron Renn, an analyst with the urban policy website, The Urbanophile.

"What Detroit's citizens need most from their government is well-functioning public services. A water utility with 50 percent delinquencies is a reflection of a city that has failed its basic responsibilities," Mr. Renn writes. "Fixing [the Detroit Water and Sewage Department] is but one of the many changes necessary to restore Detroit – but if city officials don't have the stomach to collect long-overdue bills, how will they undertake tougher reforms?" 

On the other hand, the water shutoffs have been taken up by activist groups, residents, and even celebrities as an issue of public health in a city "where more than half of households live at or below 150% of the federal poverty line," the Free Press reports. 

Some 24,000 delinquent water accounts have been shut off in Detroit this year. Yet with $90 million in overdue bills, the process of shutting off water ramped up in the spring as a move to get people to pay outstanding bills or switch to a payment plan, The Detroit News reports. Between March and August, close to 22,000 homes lost water as a result of shutoffs, although 15,251 had service restored in that same period.

In response, people began protesting in the streets. Supporters and community activists from around the country sent jugs of water to Detroit. Shutoffs were eventually halted for a month in August, after Rhodes said they were angering people and generating bad publicity.Since that moratorium ended, water accounts are again being shut off at a rate of 400 per day, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. 

Alice Jennings, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs who sought a moratorium on water shutoffs, said she is disappointed with Monday's ruling and plans to appeal the decision. 

"No one ever said the water had to be free," she said, according to the Free Press. "Our position is the water had to be affordable. We're still looking for affordable water." 

The plaintiffs have argued that the shutoffs disproportionately affect senior citizens on fixed incomes, families with small children, and poor citizens. But during June and July, the peak months of the shutoffs, the Detroit Water department was able to collect $1.7 million in money owed. During the August moratorium, however, only $200,000 was collected. 

Rhodes' decision comes days after the Detroit city council voted unanimously to remove Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, an option under state law after an emergency manager has served 18 months. Under Mr. Orr's leadership, Detroit worked out a "grand bargain" with unions to cut benefits and pension costs and roll back a $18 billion deficit.  Leadership will be returned to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) and the city council. Orr will stay in an advisory capacity, as the city completes its bankruptcy proceedings. 

  • Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 
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