Citing his own lack of authority in the matter, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes refused to issue an injunction against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department preventing the utility from shutting off water service to Detroit residents with delinquent accounts. The injunction, effectively a six-month moratorium, was requested to better ensure that the health of Detroit’s most impoverished citizens was not compromised while advocacy groups devised ways to make water more affordable.
The Detroit Free Press reported today that Rhodes’ decision was based on the court’s reduced powers under bankruptcy law as well as the plaintiff’s failure to show that the injunction was necessary. Rhodes said that “the last thing [Detroit] needs is this hit to its revenues” as the city struggles to resolve possibly the worst financial crisis in its history.
Chapter 9 limitations aside, the ruling was informed by answers given to questions as to whether water is a basic right and, if it is, what role the city should play in supplying it. Rhodes noted that while water is something people need to live, the provision of water free of charge is not deemed by any law to be an “enforceable right.” This mirrored statements made by Tom O’Brien, the lawyer representing the DWSD, during closing arguments. “There are limits to what the city can do,” he said, explaining that $4.5 million in proposed hardship grants and private charitable contributions hardly make a dent in the estimated $87 million in outstanding water bills.
At its most simple, this would appear to be a matter of people not paying their bills and suffering the obvious consequences. That many of Detroit’s residents facing shut off have little to no income or are elderly, disabled or children might have influence on the public’s heartstrings, but this fact should not influence decisions that affect the city’s fiscal efficiency. Eric Rothstein, a consultant who testified on behalf of the water company, advised that a moratorium risked “convey[ing] to customers who do pay their bills … that they will not face the consequences of not making their payments.” Supporting this cynical caveat were data showing that DWSD had seen their “record-breaking” revenues drop by an estimated 80 percent after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan temporarily halted service suspensions and attempted to foster reforms within the utility with an aim at aiding low-income households.
“No one ever said the water had to be free,” said Alice Jennings, the lawyer representing the groups asking for the moratorium. “Our position is the water had to be affordable.”
On average, monthly water bills in Detroit are $25 higher than the national rate. The utility company believes that water bills in Detroit is so expensive because too many people aren’t paying them. DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer says, “I think water is a right. However, if all of our customers took that stand — that it’s a human right and we’re not gonna pay — then no one would have water.” The argument seems to be that the DWSD would be reckless in giving away for free a product that could be sold to someone else, even if that “product” is also a “right”.
Say nothing of deals brokered to keep Detroit’s art safely ensconced in its museum while denizens are forced to steal water. Don’t mention shameful inconsistencies in the DWSD’s shut-off policies that often go unenforced when the debtor is a business (past-due accounts linked to commercial and industrial entities totalled over $9 million, more than twice the generous $4.5 million “set aside” for impoverished customers, yet are often not subjected to suspended service). Ignore the inherent problems of treating one of life’s necessities as a commodity first and a fundamental human right second. The glaring issue here seems to be the equivocal notions of civic well-being in Detroit’s bureaucracy using the goals of fiscal solvency and the fostering of outside investment in the city as justifications for the callous refusal to address the basic needs of its own citizens.