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Forget left and right on water shut-offs. Let's figure out how to fix the non-payment problem

Update: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has announced a 15-day suspension of its controversial shutoff campaign.  

Unless you’ve been completely out of touch, you know that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been shutting off service to thousands of customers who haven’t paid their bills.
This has sparked huge controversy, protests and even condemnation from the United Nations. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes even got involved.

Last week, he told the deputy director of Detroit’s water department that shutting off water to city residents has, quote "caused not only a lot of anger in the city (but) also a lot of hardship."

And the judge added, "it’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now." That much is not in dispute. But not everyone is in agreement that this is an atrocity.

Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, supports the shutoffs, saying that the rule everywhere is that “if you use water, you have to pay for it.” He notes that there’s an assistance program, and says that if people are in trouble, “all they need to do is call.”

Meanwhile, Nolan Finley, the Detroit News editorial page editor, wrotelast week that many customers are having their water cut off because “instead of using what resources they have to cover their needs, (they) instead have chosen to service their wants.”

Orr and Finley’s comments seem harsh and callous, and to a degree, they are. What Orr seems to be missing is that Detroit is largely a city of people who have only the foggiest notion of how the system works. They don’t consume news the way he does.

Some can’t really read. Finley seems to be ignoring the fact that some of these residential shutoffs are happening in homes with small children, who can’t possibly be blamed.
But at the risk of being immediately attacked by those on the liberal side of the spectrum, there is indeed some truth in what both men are saying. Finley cites a couple of disturbing statistics. While barely half of Detroit residential customers have been paying their water bills on time, two-thirds or more pay their cell phone and cable bills, presumably because companies providing those services have been much quicker to cut them off.

Now, we don’t know if those are exactly the same people.

But this much is true: There is nothing wrong with insisting adults take responsibility for their actions. And we probably all know some people, in Detroit or elsewhere, who just plain don’t.

We have a lot of people both left and right talking at each other, not with each other.

I haven’t seen any hard data on just who is losing their water service, but I do have an idea how to address the problem.

Detroit put together a task force to measure blight in the city. Why not create another one that visits and assesses every home facing a water shutoff? They could inform the residents as to what their options are, and make a recommendation.

That might go a long way to help people, in more ways than one. We have a lot of people both left and right talking at each other, not with each other. I suggest we change that.

Everyone agrees Detroit needs to be saved. For that to happen, we need to reach the people who live there. 

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