Detroit water shutoffs suspended for next 15 days

Detroit suspended its aggressive policy of cutting off water to customers with unpaid bills on Monday, the latest response to a controversy that has prompted large protests and caught the attention of the judge overseeing the city's bankruptcy.

Water department stopped service to about 7,200 homes, businesses in June

Nearly half of the 329,000 accounts are in arrears and the average cost of a Detroit water bill is double the national average. (Davido Coates/Detroit News/Associated Press)

Detroit suspended its aggressive policy of cutting off water to customers with unpaid bills on Monday, the latest response to a controversy that has prompted large protests and caught the attention of the judge overseeing the city's bankruptcy.

The city said there will be no shutoffs for the next 15 days. The disclosure was made in bankruptcy court where Judge Steven Rhodes has been encouraging Detroit to come up with alternatives to shutting off water for thousands of homes and businesses.

The issue gained national attention last month after activists appealed to the United Nations for assistance, and is a pending issue as the city prepares for an August trial on the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The water department stopped service to about 7,200 homes and businesses in June, compared to 1,570 in the same month last year. Water was restored to 43 per cent after customers paid or worked out payment plans, though thousands more have been affected since last fall.

Water department deputy director Darryl Latimer said the 15 days will be used to educate customers on how to cure their overdue bills and avoid shutoffs.

The city "does not want to put its customers out of service," Latimer said.

Rhodes is overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy but hasn't ordered any direct action on the shutoffs. But required officials to give him updates in court, which has put a spotlight on the issue.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit to stop the shutoffs was filed Monday, but Rhodes said, "There's nothing for me to do about that today."

"With the creativity of everyone involved, it can be solved. We've got people without water, and they need their water," he said.

People lose water if they're more than 60 days behind or owe $150 US. The average overdue bill is $540.

Detroit had been shutting off water at a rate of nearly 3,000 residents per week. It also recently increased water rates by nine per cent.

A convoy of Canadians is to transport water from Windsor to those who need it in Detroit on July 24.

The reprieve for delinquent water customers was announced on the same day that the city is expected to say whether workers and retirees approved pension cuts that would trigger an $816 million bailout for Detroit. The money is crucial to preventing the sale of city-owned art and avoiding deeper pension cuts.

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