DETROIT (AP) — Facing international criticism for mass water shutoffs aimed at resolving millions of dollars' worth of unpaid bills, Detroit's mayor announced Thursday the bankrupt city will offer affordable, consistent payment plans and financial assistance to many delinquent customers.
Mayor Mike Duggan made the announcement Thursday at City Hall. His office and Detroit water officials spent days redesigning how collections will be handled.
Duggan said the "city needs to be more mindful making sure water is affordable," and added the plan should make it much easier for people to pay or seek help if they cannot.
"If you're truly in need, we're going to get you to the right place," he said.
Detroit has shut off service to around 17,000 to 18,000 residential customers, approximately one of 10 of the roughly 170,000 total. About 60 percent to 70 percent have been restored and officials say restorations continue, though officials say at least 20 percent of residences cut off are abandoned.
The shutoffs have been imposed against commercial and residential customers 60 days behind or owing more than $150. Several groups appealed to the United Nations for support, and three U.N. experts responded the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water.
Duggan promised to streamline the payment process for customers facing shutoffs, including expanding hours of operations and more staff to help, and improve notification to delinquents. The city also has created a nonprofit fund to accept donations for those in need. It already has a few hundred thousand dollars in it, said Duggan, who was given control of the water department by state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr as criticism of the shutoffs escalated.
Shutoffs have been halted until Aug. 25. That date remains in place but the city plans a Water Fair on Aug. 23 to give customers one final opportunity to take care of bills and get support.
Among the people who had their water shut off was Atpeace Makita, spokeswoman for Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer relief group that met with mayoral staffers before the announcement.
Makita told The Associated Press that the effort, while appreciated, didn't go far enough. The group has called for a moratorium on shutoffs and income-based payment plans.
"The banks definitely and the city itself have a reason for wanting people to take responsibility for their bills, no doubt," Makita said. "However, it's almost like requiring blood from a turnip. People can't give you what's not there."
Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit Branch, said the plan isn't perfect but "reflects a major step in the right direction." He called the situation a "national and international embarrassment."
"We wish that (the moratorium) would be longer. However, it is what is and we are saying we are supportive of this step," he said.
Detroit's water system serves about 700,000 city residents and 4 million people in southeastern Michigan, but the city-owned water system has about $6 billion in debt that's covered by bill payments. As of July 1, more than $89 million was owed on nearly 92,000 past-due residential and commercial accounts, which are still subject to shut off.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is currently run by a board of commissioners, but the entity reported to previous mayors before Orr was appointed as emergency manager in August 2013, a job that tasked him with overseeing the city's finances and most operations.