Bernie Sanders calls Detroit shutoffs an ‘outrage,’ as city seeks more help

Litha Akins

Detroit resident Litha Akins said water service was restored to her house this week after a Bridge Magazine article about shutoffs featured her plight. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

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DETROIT—Detroit officials took steps this week to quell the flood of water shutoffs, as the controversy has become an issue in the Democratic presidential campaign.

On Wednesday, board members of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department voted to ask a regional authority to double the amount of aid available to residents to avoid shutoffs.

The action came two days after Bridge Magazine reported that city shutoffs last year jumped 44 percent to 23,473. As of Jan. 15 of this year, 37 percent of homes in the City of Detroit, about 9,500, that were shut off in 2019 still didn’t have service.

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The board’s vote, which still needs to be finalized this month by the Great Lakes Water Authority, came about four hours after Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders condemned the city’s shutoffs.

“Detroiters are having their water shut off because they can’t afford outrageous water bills,” Sanders tweeted, linking to Bridge’s article.

“Meanwhile, Nestle gets to bottle unlimited amounts of water for a few hundred bucks a year. That is a moral outrage. Clean water must be a human right."

The tweet referred to Michigan’s decision in 2018 to allow Nestlé Waters North America, to pump 1.1 million gallons of water from private wells in Michigan for a $200 annual fee to the state (plus the cost of water to municipalities) to sell as its Ice Mountain brand.  

Before Wednesday’s water meeting, Detroit officials pointed out to Bridge — correctly — that the state’s decision on Nestlé had nothing to do with the city’s ongoing payment collections-campaign that has shut service to 141,000 accounts since 2014.

The statement from the Vermont senator, though, comes as Detroit water officials are increasingly defensive about the shutoffs. 

The City Council also is considering asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a public health crisis emergency and stop shutoffs for needy residents. That’s based largely on a fear that shutoffs increase water-borne illnesses, as one study suggested they might.

“Do shutoffs in Detroit increase disease?” Gary Brown, director of the water department, asked the council this week.

“I say ‘No. They don’t whatsoever.’ So I think it’s short-sighted to be asking for that drastic of a measure.”

Instead, Brown pointed to his proposal before the Great Lakes Water Authority to increase the amount of assistance to needy Detroit residents to $5 million from $2.4 million for the Water Residential Assistance Program, an income-based program that provides up to $1,000 per household.

It was created when Detroit leased its water system to the suburban authority during the city’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. The 40-year deal calls for the authority to pay Detroit $50 million per year to help repair the city’s 2,700-mile network of pipes that serves about 4 million customers across much of southeast Michigan. 

The proposal, which goes before a GLWA committee this week, would also allocate $10 million in assistance for needy suburban customers, Brown said. The program helped about 17,000 city residents avoid shutoffs in the past few years, Brown said.

“I don’t want anyone to believe this program will solve every issue with poverty, but for a good many people, it could make a huge difference,” he said.

Speaking to water commissioners, Brown noted the shutoffs have improved city water bill collections rates to 95 percent from less than 70 percent, freeing more than $50 million for the aging system.

The shutoffs come as monthly bills have risen astronomically, some 400 percent over the past 20 years to an average of $77 per month.

Unlike other cities, Detroit no longer attaches delinquent water bills to tax liens. Doing so would exacerbate a tax foreclosure crisis that has already caused more than 100,000 homes to revert to government ownership in the past 10 years.

But Bridge reported this week that shutoffs are lasting far longer than initially reported by city officials.

For those whose service was restored last year, the average wait was 29 days, according to city records Bridge obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Less than 1 percent of shutoffs —  a total of 50 last year — were turned back on in a week or less.

“I’m really appreciative of everything,” Akins said, after her water service was restored. “God is good and God bless everyone who helped.” (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)


Speaking to water commissioners, Brown addressed Bridge’s findings and a woman featured in the article, Litha Akins. The widow’s water was disconnected in April and she endured a winter without a working furnace by turning on a gas stove and putting blankets on windows.

Brown said city crews restored Akins’ service this week, but her problems go far beyond water. Two-thirds of her $733 monthly income, $500, goes to pay her back taxes to Wayne County. 

“This is a poverty issue. A lot of people have let this lady down,” Brown said, listing a litany of issues with her house, including a crumbling roof, flooded basement and broken water meter.

“She needs to be in affordable housing. This is not a safe environment.”

Akins told Bridge on Wednesday she’s grateful for the help. A social services agency this week installed a furnace and water heater, and she is looking forward to taking her first hot bath in months, Akins said.

“I’m really excited. I’m really appreciative of everything,” Akins said.

“God is good and God bless everyone who helped.”

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J Hendricks
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 8:36am

Well, now that Bernie’s on the case, we can add free water to free health care to free college, etc. as part of the agenda. (Along with get out of jail free cards for illegals, for felons (New York). Although the lag in turning water back on is intolerable-a sign of utter incompetence in the bureaucracy.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:55am

Why is water not a public good paid through taxes? Why is it acceptable that basic necessities should be profited off?

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 1:38pm

If water is for all intents free as you propose, why would I spend $100 to get a plumber out to my home to fix a running toilet or faucet? Or would that now be free too? I thought you folks were always harping on conserving water? How's that going to work out?

Fri, 02/21/2020 - 4:22pm

Dumb as ever, Matt. You truly never disappoint. The point is that water treatment and infrastructure should be supoorted by taxes as a public good. The responsibility for the homeowner to maintain their own facilities starts after the main line into the house. Simple, like you

middle of the mit
Wed, 02/26/2020 - 12:22am

Uhh because you are UNABLE to fix your leaking toilet or faucet?

Did that stop water from flowing into your home? NO! You called the plumber because YOU DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO STOP THE WATER FLOWING INTO YOUR HOME!

Two totally different problems.

You libertarians need to get a grip on what personal responsibility is.

David Andrews
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:00am

Allow me to give one conservative's point of view!
The state has for at least 70 or more years required hookup to public water if it is available; it is against state law to drill for and use water on your property for potable functions. The sets up the condition where a governmental unit car arbitrarily deny a life essential to an owner of that government.

I recommend installation of a bypass line that would allow about 50 gallons per day with the isolation valves closed as a living minimum. The city could structure their charges so that a household using 1500 gallons or less would pay no water bill. Households using more than 1500 gallons per month would pay slightly more for their water such that the total collected by the water department would remain the same.

Everyone in the city would have water, and every gallon would be paid for - never a shutoff again, only a flow reduction. 50 gallons a day is small enough to force a family to work towards getting their bill paid, yet enough to continue life.

One other thought, if the city did away with industrial water rates, residential rates would drop enough that people could afford to pay for their water.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 1:41pm

And who's going to cover the considerable cost for installing this system? Remember these folks already can't pay their water bill!

David Andrews
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:04pm

Every cost is a considerable cost. The people served by the water system should carefully consider every cost of that system doing business. Tell me, if you know the total residential volume of water on the system to the total industrial volume? It is all delivered as potable water, so why do residents pay 3, 4, 10 times the amount for water that Industries pay? If Industries in SE Michigan were to pay a tenth of a penny more for each gallon they buy, would residential water be free? Do you know? Do you know if Industries waste more water each day than the isolated homes would use if not isolated?

The cost to set up the system I mentioned to allow 50 gpd flow would only require drilling a 1/4" hole in the isolation gate valve, and that only need be done on services that the city shuts off.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:23am

If you take oil or gas out of the ground, you pay an extraction fee. If you cut timber you pay a cutting fee. So part of the solution is to charge an equivalent fee to those that take water and use those funds to subsidize low income families. Another part of the solution is to shut off unused water pipes so the GLWA has a more manageable system. You read about empty blocks in Detroit, so simply abandon service to those blocks. Those that are 1 or 2 homes among empty blocks have a choice. Be moved to a more dense population area or be without water.

Ken Tokarz
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:46am

City of Detroit residents would have the ability to pay their water bills if they did not have drainage fees. Detroit Public Schools Community District pays approximately $8 million dollars a year for drainage fee’s while LCA received tax abatement dollars to install mitigation systems that drastically reduced their drainage fee’s. Saunders has no clue as to what he is commenting on. Side note, Wayne County sued the exempt roads from the drainage fee’s.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 11:59am

Most people don't smoke while pumping gasoline or working on natural gas service lines. Then , there are those who say ,
'It hasn't happened yet so I am not worried about it."
Cutting off residential water in Flint and Detroit during and after the Regional 2017 -2018 Hepatitis A Emergency declared by the state is like smoking while pumping gas . Ignore the public health risk for underfunded local public health departments. Ignore that it followed 16,000 shutoffs in 2016 . We tell people basic handwashing and not sharing unwashed utensils is the first step in prevention ,along with vaccination. Is a household without water as bad as being on the street without access to water ?

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 1:47pm

I'd send Bernie the bill, because with his pronouncement another 1000 water bills just got tossed into the trash, (right on top of the student loan bills)!