On Monday, the National Action Network Detroit Chapter and several other community activists from Detroit gathered in front of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s office to protest the controversial water shut-offs in the city. Starting in March, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began sending shut-off notices to 46,000 customers whose bills remained unpaid. On June 25, the United Nations condemned DWSD’s cutoffs as an “affront to human rights.” While it’s important that DWSD receives funds to make up for their deficit, the department must also keep the lives of Detroit residents in mind when implementing programs to collect water bills.
It’s understandable that DWSD needs to collect money to continue funding water services, and in light of $120 million in unpaid water bills, the company must take action to correct this problem. However, shutting off citizens’ water, a basic human need, isn’t an appropriate solution. Sue McCormick, DWSD director, stated the majority of unpaid water bills stem from residents who can afford to pay but believe they can get away without paying their bills. McCormick also expressed the company’s willingness to help anyone legitimately unable to afford the cost. Therefore, DWSD must take an aggressive approach to pursue contact with non-paying customers to discover each person’s circumstances and appropriately handle each case accordingly. If contacting each customer fails to help, DWSD must take other actions — like requesting mayoral or governmental assistance — in solving payment issues.
During DWSD’s initiative to shut off water, the Detroit City Council recently passed a bill to increase water bills by nearly 9 percent. At $75 a month, the average Detroit water bill is nearly double the U.S. average. Poverty-stricken citizens shouldn’t face an unreasonable cost for a basic human necessity, especially given the council’s justification for the increase. According to the Lansing State Journal, the increase stems from delinquent bills, yet increasing a cost because some can’t pay causes a repetitive cycle. Those unable and unwilling to pay their water bill will continue avoiding payments while the city will continue raising water rates. This reality sets a precedent that punishes complying citizens, and with higher bills come more citizens unable to pay their bills which increases the risk of water being shut off.
While the nearly 9 percent increase fails to correct delinquencies, it also furthers the poverty that struggling residents experience. While five dollars more a month towards water may not be much for some citizens, this increase is a significant amount to lower socioeconomic families — particularly those who already can’t pay their bills. Adding the risk of water being shut off only increases the stress that citizens experience. While programs are beginning to help citizens, DWSD must make sure all struggling families receive assistance and access to water.