By Shea Howell
April 25, 2015
Nearly one billion people took action to protect the planet in celebration of the 45th Earth Day. People cleaned up trash in public parks and along the Great Wall in China. Trees were planted around the globe. Politicians promised green jobs and green economies. Wind and solar energy were celebrated. Compost was shared. Bikes replaced cars, at least for a day. In countless ways people acknowledged our responsibility to care for the Earth.
Two days after Earth Day Highland Park received notice water for the entire city will be shut off.
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge John Murphy ruled that Highland Park must pay $20 million in unpaid water bills to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The DWSD is threatening to turn off the taps on May 1.
Highland Park is no stranger to water crises. The city was under emergency financial management from 2001 to 2009. It has been under financial review by the state since 1996 and its school system continues to be controlled by an Emergency Manager.
Much of this financial distress has been tied to water. The failure to collect water bills has been a key factor in the city’s woes. In 2012 Highland Park was forced to close its own water department because it could not afford repairs. It then became dependent on the Detroit Water system. As many as 90% of the residents are behind on water bills. Bills are notoriously late. When they do arrive, they are often in the thousands of dollars. These bills, in a city where more than half the households live below the poverty line, predictably go unpaid.
One week earlier, the city of Hamtramck announced its own aggressive shut off operation targeting 950 businesses and residents, reporting a $1.2 million deficit.
In Detroit, Mayor Duggan announced a revised effort to deal with the 73,000 homes owing $47million in unpaid bills. The new policy comes on the heels of widespread recognition that the Water Assistance Plan was a complete failure. Offering somewhat more generous support for overdue bills and waiving penalties for those who fell behind under the previous failed efforts, the Mayor says he has $6 million available to help. To say this is way too little, too late is an understatement. There is nothing that will make this effort any more successful than the last. It is doomed to fail. How much help this will offer anyone in Detroit remains unclear as $4.5 million of the total appears to be designated for regional use.
Regionally, we have yet to see figures about shut offs throughout the newly forming Great Lakes Water Authority. But it is clear that Duggan’s Water Affordability Plan is a bust. He has no back up plan. He will continue shut offs, driving more and more people out of their homes.
This inhuman position is tied to the Mayor’s mantra that “free water” is not an option.
This claim is ridiculous. Not one single group advocating a Water Affordability Plan is asking for “free water.” Not a single civil rights group or community organization has asked for this. Everyone understands that safe, clean water takes money and effort to get to our homes and businesses. Everyone knows we have a costly infrastructure to maintain. The Mayor and some in the corporate elite appear to be the only people talking about “free” water.
The heart of the Water Affordability Plan is that everyone pays something, based on their income level. The Mayor needs to look seriously at this plan. He needs to look to our neighbors in Cleveland and Portland to ask how they managed such systems.
We are on the verge of a system collapse. What more will it take to wake the Mayor up to reality?