Saturday, June 28, 2014

US Cong. Conyers Asks Obama For Help With City Water Shutoffs

Detroit Freedom Friday 8 organized by Moratorium NOW! marches
through downtown demanding a halt to water shutoffs by
the emergency manager.
5:49 PM, June 27, 2014

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Conyers wants President Barack Obama to sanction use of an earlier multimillion-dollar award to Michigan to help pay delinquent water bills of low-income residents threatened by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s most aggressive shutoff campaign ever.

“Assisting low-income residents with paying their water bills would help avert a public health crisis,” Conyers, D-Detroit, said in a letter to Obama Thursday. Separately, he asked Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to declare a public health emergency, calling the shutoff campaign “draconian” and raising concerns about what it could mean to the young, sick or elderly.

“Since March, water service for up to 3,000 Detroit customers per week has been cut off due to an overzealous and misguided approach to cost-cutting,” Conyers said in a statement Friday. “Regardless of the rationale for these cutoffs, the human consequences are unacceptable and unsustainable.”

Neither the White House nor HHS immediately replied to Conyers’ pleas.

Conyers’ efforts comes on the heels of the the water department’s effort to collect on more than 90,000 accounts with delinquent bills totaling more than $90 million. As a way of collecting on those debts, the shutoff campaign is targeting residential and commercial customers owing at least $150 who are more than 60 days late on payment.

Officials at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) say water service to 7,556 customers was cut off in April and May as part of the campaign, but now there are crews in place to shutoff service to speed that up to as many as 3,000 delinquent accounts per week.

While citizen groups have gone as far as to appeal to the United Nations to force water service to be restored, the Free Press reported this week that there was evidence the campaign was having the desired effect. As of June 4, more than 17,000 accounts were on some kind of payment plan, compared to 12,000 in February, before the effort was started.

In his letter to Obama, Conyers appealed to him to allow a portion of the funding remaining from a 2010 award of $498-million through the federal Hardest Hit Fund to “assist low-income residents” facing or having experienced water shutoffs. Nearly $300 million remains from the original award, which was intended to fund programs to keep people from losing their homes to foreclosures. About $100 million was repurposed to fight blight in Michigan already.

In his appeal, Conyers pointedly suggested the funds be used to help low-income residents facing shutoffs anywhere in Michigan, not just in Detroit. But it was clear who he is trying to help most.

“Last week, the Detroit City Council approved an 8.7% increase in the water rate, contributing to a total increase of 119% over the last decade,” Conyers said. He blamed the water system’s problems on a shrinking population, high unemployment, widespread blight, an aging infrastructure and short-staffing, adding that some estimate as many as two-thirds of the shutoffs will occur in homes with children.

In his letter to Burwell asking her to expand access to medical and public health services to those disconnected, Conyers said his office is “hearing accounts of pregnant women, familes with children still in diapers, the elderly and the infirm” who are having their water shut off.

“As roughly half the city is now eligible for shutoffs, we believe that immediate action is necessary to stem the consequences of this counterproductive and coldhearted policy,” he said.

Conyers also wrote Sue McCormick, DWSD’s director and CEO, asking her to “reevaluate” the policy and cease all shutoffs for vulnerable residents and those families with children — as well as those with what he called “demonstrated inability to pay.”

He also took issue with DWSD’s suggestion that the fact that 2,700 customers who were shut off in May either made payments or arrangements to pay within a short time indicated the program was working, noting that it also meant about 1,800 customers who were shut off were unable to pay.

“It is utterly unacceptable to put the most vulnerable members of our population through severe hardship, utilizing a method that clearly violates thier basic human rights, as a collection practice,” Conyers wrote.

Contact TODD SPANGLER at 703-854-8947 or at

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