A federal judge overseeing Detroit's bid to get out of bankruptcy refused to block the city from shutting off water to customers for a six-month pause over unpaid bills, claiming that the city couldn't afford to lose the revenue, the Associated Press reported. After a month-long moratorium halting shutoffs ended in August, up to 400 accounts are again being closed off each day, DWSD officials said last week.
Last summer, thousands of people staged rallies to protest shutoffs, arguing that residents in one of the nation's poorest cities had a fundamental right to water service. However on Monday, Judge Steven Rhodes said that although low income residents had not been properly helped by the water department, they still had no "enforceable right" to water.
"There is no such right or law," Rhodes said adding that the city's recent strategy to get people into two-year payment plans, starting with a 10 percent down payment, was "bold" and "commendable," especially since 30,000 customers have currently been enrolled, The Detroit News reported.
"Advocacy groups seeking a moratorium on shutoffs testified last week that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's policies of mass shutoffs - 19,000 in recent months - are leaving low-income households with seniors and children without water service," USA Today reported.
"They asked Rhodes to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the shutoffs until the city can come up with a better way to address the unaffordability of water service in a city where more than half of households live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level."
Rejecting constitutional arguments of due process and equal protection, Rhodes said he doesn't have the authority to interfere with city services and issue a water shut-off which would threaten Detroit's revenue.
"Detroit cannot afford any revenue slippage," said the judge, who heard two days of testimony last week.
Outside the courthouse, Alice Jennings, an attorney representing the 10 residents fighting water shutoffs, said she was considering an appeal to U.S. District Court. Although she was "disappointed but not surprised" by Rhode's ruling, she claimed the judge had missed the issue of safety and underscored the irreparable harm that comes with the shutoffs, according to the AP.
"We will be looking at an appeal," Jennings said. "We believe there is a right to water and there is a right to affordable water."
Meanwhile, supplying water without payment would cause the department to suffer financially. "There are limits" to what the department can do, city attorney Thomas O'Brien said.
Cash-strapped Detroit, which became the largest U.S. city to ever file for bankruptcy protection last July, began to disconnect water services for all the households that were unable to pay their bills in March. The process was accelerated since early June, with around 3,000 customers being cut off each week and some 22,000 households disconnected from water services from March through August.