Blue Ribbon Beginnings by Shea Howell

Blue Ribbon Beginnings

October 17, 2015

This week the Detroit Blue Ribbon Committee on Water Affordability held its first meeting. It did not begin well. The panel is repeating the same mistakes that the last water affordability committee made.

Reports of the day-long meeting raises serious concerns.

The meeting began in the wrong place. Instead of looking at the problem of water shut offs and why they are happening, the group started by focusing on the legal climate of water affordability. Solon Phillips, chief administrative corporation counsel for Detroit provided the perspective of what he thinks they cannot do, instead of beginning with what needs to be done.

Mr. Phillips emphasized that an income based water affordability plan is illegal in Michigan because of a 1998 Michigan Supreme Court decision in Bolt vs. Lansing. This interpretation has been widely disputed. Essentially the case says utilities can only price their product on a cost basis. The court case has been consistently cited by the Mayor and his minions as the reason Detroit cannot have a plan based on income.

Such a stance is nonsense. This narrow interpretation of Bolt is widely disputed by legal scholars and advocates for an income-based program. At the very least, the new Blue Ribbon committee needs to seek a second opinion. It should invite attorneys who have considered this issue to provide alternative interpretations of Bolt.

The limited interpretation given by Phillips was used to stop discussion of an income based plan in the Mayor’s last effort to address the issue of water shut offs. In fact it was used in such a heavy handed way that the community advocates sitting on the panel were forced to resign. They were told their report could not even be read by the newly forming Great Lakes Water Authority and would not be forwarded to that group. None of those advocates have been asked to sit on this new committee.

The reality is that legal restrictions change all the time in response to political will and experience. The “climate” the committee should begin with is the experience of people living in our city. Shutting off water to thousands of people is intolerable. It is an assault on basic human rights. It is morally indefensible.

On any given day about 25,000 households are behind on their water bills. Nearly 30,000 households are on payment plans. More than 120,000 people, most of them children, were shut off from water last year. These shut offs are continuing today.

The reality of Detroit is that nearly 300,000 people live below the poverty line of $24,250 a year. That is nearly 40% of our population. And as every one knows, people are becoming poorer as unemployment and layoffs spread, pensions are cut, basic health care is shifted to individuals, and the cost of food and utilities escalate.

Our first obligation is to ensure that all people have access to safe, clean, affordable water.

It is not sustainable to insist on a system that prices out nearly half the people who depend on it. Yet this exactly how water is priced today. Gary Brown, the new head of the DWSD, acknowledges that the current policy means rates are likely to rise between 8 and 10% every year from now on.

If this second Blue Ribbon Panel is to make any progress it needs to start with the basic truth that people are behind on water bills because they cannot afford them. The legal climate needs to be shaped to fit the reality that our first obligation to one another is to ensure that all people have access to the necessities of life. To begin anywhere else is indefensible. It is an example of the inability of those in authority to demonstrate a basic understanding of our responsibilities to one another.

 

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