Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Next Round of Detroit's Water Shut-offs

March marks the one year anniversary of Detroit's notorious residential water shut-offs. During summer 2014, the City of Detroit shut off water to thousands of households (33,000 consumers by year's end) as a result of over $175 million in uncollected charges (triplepundit.com). Detroit's 2013 bankruptcy set the stage for the financial struggle of its water utility. The Detroit News summarizes the results of the shut-offs: the "aggressive [shut-off] campaign angered residents, activists and civic groups, spurring protests over the city’s treatment of delinquent water customers." An emergency management team created payment plan options to assist those in need and enrollment is now over 25,000. About 3,800 have applied for financial assistance from the Detroit Water Fund while over half of those applicants qualified.

Recently, a new round of water shut-off notices has sparked new concern. Some news sources put a positive spin on these notices, stating that the notices serve to bring people to the municipality to learn about their payment or grant options. The recent bout of shut-off notices is due to a glut of delinquent accounts which were unable to be shut-off during the winter season (when water service must be maintained to avoid pipe bursts). Although residential water shut-offs loom in light of the notices, the City states that it will target businesses before residential accounts. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department will target the nearly 10,000 accounts that have been deemed "illegal hookups" (buildings that have been shut off at a water meter but still showing water usage). 

It is easy to take water charges - and water usage - for granted. In light of such hot-button antics in Detroit, it is interesting to consider how water charges fare with the class's tax evaluation criteria of equity, efficiency, feasibility, and adequacy. 

The UN criticized the shut-offs of 2014, stating that water is a human right. A Detroit judge disagreed with their assertion. In a bankrupted City with an underfunded water authority, what are the appropriate outcomes of water charge delinquency

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