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Detroit has put water shutoffs on "pause"--but not across the board

The Detroit water department recently announced a temporary break in its campaign to cut service to delinquent customers—but some people are still being shut off.

Last week, water officials agreed to a 15-day “pause” in water shutoffs, which have ramped up since March as the department tries to collect millions in delinquent payments.

The department was under pressure from Detroit bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes.  He criticized how the effort had been handled, telling city officials they should have done more to make sure people struggling to pay their water bills aren’t being cut off.

But the temporary reprieve doesn’t apply across the board, as most people had assumed.

Spokeswoman Curtrise Garner says the water department remains committed to helping anyone genuinely unable to pay their bill.

“Not one person has come into our center in need of financial assistance that we’ve turned away,” Garner says.

But, she adds: “Often what happens is that people get on a payment plan, and they only pay once. If you miss your payment plan agreement, you go into shutoff status.”

Also, the department has continued doing random audits of some customers who had already been turned off. “Among those remaining, we’re finding that 50% of those homes are back on illegally,” says Garner. “So we shut them off.”

One Detroit activist fighting the shutoffs says calls for help keep coming in at almost the same rate.

Monica Lewis-Patrick of the People’s Water Board Coalition told the Detroit City Council what she's seen of the current situation Monday.

Lewis-Patrick called the Council and Mayor Mike Duggan “reckless and irresponsible” for not taking a stronger public stance against the shutoffs—even though Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr has control over the water department right now.

Lewis-Patrick recounted a phone call from a man who said his 98-year-old father no longer has water.

“His father’s water was shut off for a $700 bill. But the father was on a payment plan, so he didn’t understand why he was shut off,” Lewis-Patrick says. “The payment plan is not due yet. [It’s] not due until this week.”

But Curtrise Garner insists that shouldn't happen to anyone keeping up with their payments. “I’ve never seen anyone on a payment plan get shut off if they adhered to the agreement,” she said.

Water department officials had promised Judge Rhodes they would use the 15-day “pause” period to mount an aggressive public information campaign so that everyone who needs assistance knows how to get it.

On Saturday, the department will host a Water Affordability Fairto provide direct assistance to low-income customers with overdue bills.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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