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Consumer Advocates Challenge Detroit Cut-Offs, Empower Local Residents to Fight for Water Rights

Feb. 3, 2003

Consumer Advocates Challenge Detroit Cut-Offs, Empower Local Residents to Fight for Water Rights

U.S. Rep. Conyers Calls for Moratorium on Utility Cut-offs

DETROIT – Public Citizen is calling on the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to stop cutting off utility service to low-income residents. The call comes as angry Detroit residents march today in front of the department to protest the shutting off of tens of thousands of people’s water, heat and electricity. U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) is scheduled to join the protesters at noon.

Today’s protesters are demanding an emergency moratorium to end the utility cut-offs and a new affordability plan to ensure poor people have access to heat and water in the future. Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, is urging the department to provide affordable water rates from the municipal water company, which has cut off more than 40,000 residents in the past year. Public Citizen has organized a legal team, conducted research and is coordinating groups in Detroit.

Michigan Legal Services, Legal Aid and Defenders, and the Michigan Poverty Law Center make up the legal team, which is calling on the City Council to implement an emergency 60-day moratorium on the water and utility cut-offs.

“Immediate action must be taken to ensure the health and well-being of Detroit residents who are being deprived of these basic services,” Conyers said. “No citizen should have to endure what people are facing day after day during the coldest winter months. It is critical to impose a moratorium on the cut-offs. Human rights must come first.”

Added Sara Grusky, a policy advocate with Public Citizen’s Water for All campaign, “Everybody deserves water and heat. The city should address this inhumane situation. Water is a basic human right, essential to life, and must be treated as such whether you are rich or poor.” The Water for All campaign works with groups around the world to fight water privatization and defend clean and affordable water as a human right.

Senior citizens, people with disabilities, women with young children, and ex-welfare recipients are the most common victims of the cut-offs.

“The average salary of welfare recipients is less than $7.50 an hour,” said Maureen Taylor, director of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “You can be working full-time and you’re still poor. I get 20 to 30 calls a day from seniors, women and single men, and from those disabled physically and emotionally whose utilities are being shut off.” Taylor’s group has done research revealing that Detroit is not alone and that many other towns in Wayne County are experiencing similar problems.

Victor Mercado, the new director of the DWSD, spent years working for the major corporate water companies Thames and United Water. With a hard-line, pro-business approach, Mercado runs the DWSD like a profit-making corporation at the expense of poor residents, Grusky said. In 2001, Mercado introduced an aggressive plan of debt collection with subsequent disconnection of services if residents are unable to pay the charges. According to Michigan Citizen News Service, the plan includes DWSD workers cementing areas around the shut-off valves to prevent residents from turning their water back on.

Many speculate that after years of starving city services and infrastructure, the goal is to improve DWSD’s revenue stream just enough to place it on the auction block for a corporate takeover. Detroit water rates rose 9 percent in 2002.

According to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, 9,800 Detroit residents lacked gas and electricity as of Aug. 1, 2002. Another 20,000 residents were on probation and threatened with cut-offs. According to DWSD, between July 1, 2001, and June 30, 2002, the utility cut off water to 40,752 residences in the Detroit area. As of Jan. 13, the DWSD reported that it had cut off water service to 4,523 residences over the past 79 business days.

Today’s march is the sixth in a series of protests called by Michigan Welfare Rights and held at the offices of DTE Energy and DWSD.