DETROIT (AP) — State-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr issued an order Tuesday that gives Mayor Mike Duggan control over Detroit's water department.
The move comes as the bankrupt city's massive water system was widely criticized for shutting off service to thousands of customers who were 60 days or more behind on their bills.
Duggan has said Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials could have been more sensitive in how they handled delinquent bills and the shutoffs. On Tuesday, he promised to have a "new plan shortly" on how to deal with the issue.
"I've heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices," Duggan said. "We've got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements."
Detroit's water system serves about 700,000 city residents and 4 million people in southeastern Michigan.
Crews disconnected 500 customers in March, more than 3,000 in April and about 4,500 in May. The shutoffs topped 7,200 in June, and department records show that as of July 1, more than $89 million was owed on nearly 92,000 past-due accounts.
Several groups appealed to the United Nations for support and three U.N. experts responded that the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water. A march and other protests also were held in Detroit.
The federal judge overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy said the shutoffs were bringing bad publicity, and water officials later disclosed they were suspending the shutoffs for 15 days to educate customers on payment plans. That grace period is set to end Aug. 6.
Orr said his decision to give the department's reins to Duggan "ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city's commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD customers get and remain current on their water bills."
Detroit also sells its water service to suburban communities, which bill their residents.
"When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters," Duggan said. "There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state, or from the feds. These unpaid water bills are Detroit's alone."
Duggan said the plan being developed will help customers needing financial help and shorten wait times for those making payment arrangements.
"As for those who can pay and choose not to, we won't force other Detroiters to pay their bills," Duggan said.