DETROIT (AP) — A lawyer representing poor Detroit residents urged a judge Tuesday to suspend water shutoffs until next spring and order the city to come up with a new way to keep a critical service in place for people who simply can't afford it.
"Detroit has an endemic poverty issue. ... We may not be able to save everybody, but we may be able to keep children and parents in homes with running water," Alice Jennings said.
Judge Steven Rhodes heard closing arguments after two days of testimony from city officials as well as a handful of people who have no water or on the verge of losing it because of unpaid bills. He'll make a decision Monday.
The mayor's chief of staff and representatives from the water department offered details about an August strategy that keeps water flowing if customers put down 10 percent and agree to a two-year payment plan. Residents with very low income could also qualify for aid from a $2 million fund.
"I would say it has been successful," said Darryl Latimer, the department's customer service chief.
Daily shutoffs are down 50 percent to 350 to 400, and roughly 30,000 people are enrolled in payment plans, said Alexis Wiley, top aide to Mayor Mike Duggan.
"We've reached a huge chunk of people," Wiley told the judge.
Nearly 22,000 homes lost water from March through August, according to the water department, and 15,251 had service restored in that same period.
Rhodes, who's overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy, the largest public filing in U.S. history, has taken extraordinary interest in the plight of water customers. The city stopped shutoffs in July for more than 30 days after the judge said they were causing anger and bad publicity. Protesters marched, and even the United Nations criticized Detroit.
Duggan announced the payment plan a few weeks later, but it hasn't satisfied everyone. Residents told Rhodes about bathing with bottled water and the humiliation of having a blue line painted on the sidewalk, a sign to utility crews to turn off service.
Latimer warned that people behind in their bills likely would not pay if shutoffs are halted until next spring. He noted, for example, that the department collected $200,000 in overdue bills in August during the brief moratorium, compared with more than $900,000 in July.
"The department has very lean cash reserves," Chief Financial Officer Nicolette Bateson testified.
The judge asked city attorney Thomas O'Brien during closing arguments if Detroit had a responsibility to residents with chronic money problems.
"There are limits to what they can do," O'Brien said of the water agency. "That's the hard reality."
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