Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes is holding an evidentiary hearing today to help him decide whether he should order a six-month halt to the water shutoffs in the city for people with unpaid bills with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Ten individuals and a handful of welfare rights and legal advocacy groups have requested the moratorium.
City attorneys, in asking Rhodes to dismiss the request, say such an order from the bench would be unprecedented in a bankruptcy case as it interferes with the daily operations of the water department. They also object to a blanket ban on shutoffs because some water hook ups are illegal.
Here’s some background on the issue and an explanation of how the issue reached the judge overseeing the city’s bankruptcy trial. Here’s what’s happening in the courtroom.
As the state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Maureen Taylor said she has visited hundreds of homes where there’s been no water. “It’s beyond sad. There are empty bottles of water, empty containers of water. It’s sad. People are scared. It’s a horrible thing to see,” she said.
Taylor was one of the witnesses for the group that’s asking Judge Rhodes to authorize a six-month postponement of shutoffs for residential water service customers with past due bills. Taylor said she doesn’t like Mayor Mike Duggan’s 10-point plan to assist Detroit residents who are having trouble paying their water bills.
“If you miss one payment, there’s a larger amount of money you have to come forward with and it does not relate to any households who had service cut off and they restored it without permission,” Taylor said during her testimony. “We begged the city of Detroit to let us draft a payment program because we really know how to do it. My organization has been involved with water disputes for over a decade.”
Hydration, hygiene, sanitation are the three functions of water, said John Armelagos, who works as a nurse at the University of Michigan Health System and is the president of the Michigan Nurses Association. He testified for the group requesting the six-month postponement of any shutoffs to Detroit’s water customers who have past due bills.
Like Gaines earlier (see below), Armelagos detailed some of the individual and community health effects of living without water: greater vulnerability to hepatitis A and other diseases, head lice, scabies.
But under cross examination by a city attorney, Gaines admitted he was not aware of any increase in communicable diseases in Detroit in the last two years while the shutoffs have increased.
George Gaines was the city’s deputy director of health during Mayor Coleman Young’s tenure. Gaines, who has master’s degree in public health, testified about how the water shutoffs could lead to the spread of hepatitis, salmonella, or giardia.
“When water is shut off, that means you do not have a toilet that you can flush which means you have to get some provisions to safely get rid of human waste. That also means you don’t have any water to wash your hands and you begin to think immediately about what are the diseases that would result from an unsanitary way of defecating,” Gaines said.
He repeatedly called it a “campaign” to shut off water to residencies.
“When you start talking about thousands of people without the ability to flush their toilets or wash their hands, I think you put the community at risk of communicable diseases that are passed fecal or oral and can get into the water and into the food that people consume,” Gaines said.
Stopping water service because people can not afford to pay their bills only makes problems worse citywide, according to Roger Colton, a public utilities expert testifying for a coalition of individuals, welfare rights groups and lawyers who want to stop the shutoffs to customers with past due bills. Colton says Mayor Mike Duggan’s new 10-point plan to help people pay water bills won’t work because it won’t help people catch up once they get behind because it increases the amount customers owe if they miss a payment.Instead, Colton recommends low-income residents be allowed to set aside a percentage of their income for their current and future bills. But on cross examination, city attorney Sonal Mithani asked Colton if he knew such a plan would be illegal under Michigan law. He said he did not.
But Detroit’s water and sewerage department director, Sue McCormick, says the city can’t afford to ignore payments for service. She says the department needs the funds to operate and to maintain its bond rating so it can borrow money for infrastructure improvements. DWSD director Sue McCormick testified that the number of shutoffs this year has totaled about 20,000 and last year was 24,000. Under questioning by Alice Jennings, an attorney for the plaintiffs, McCormick said she didn’t know how many of the dwellings were vacant or had children or people with disabilities living in them. As of July 31, the city had $86 million in overdue water and sewerage bills. About $42 million of that was for residential services. McCormick is paid $190,000 annually.
The first witness was Tracy Peasant, who lives near Marygrove College. She said a large portion of her outstanding bill was due to a faulty sprinkler system at a home she had rented prior to living at her current place. Her water was turned off a year ago and restored in June.
“Someone came out to my home driving a DWSD truck. I thought that she was coming to turn the water back on. … She said I’m here to make sure your water is still cut off,” Peasant testified. But when the worker saw Peasant’s family members, “She said I can’t do this with these kids and when she left she said you have water now,” Peasant said. The second witness was Maurikia Lyda, who is one of the 10 plaintiffs seeking a halt to the shutoffs. She testified that she tried to talk to someone at DWSD and get into a payment plan for her bill that had topped $1,000. “I called them several times. I could never get through. I was calling and no one would ever pick up the phone. There were days I would call and stay on the phone two and three hours at a time,” Lyda said. “When I finally got to talk to someone about my bill they was telling me there was so much I had to put down. … I didn’t want to put it in my name because I was a renter. … they was telling me I had to put it in my name.” Lyda, who lives on the east side, said a DWSD representative told her it would cost $100 to transfer the water service to her name and $500 to have service restored. But the day the lawsuit was filed, her water was restored.