Protesters march over the controversial water shut-offs Friday, July 18, 2014, in Detroit, Mich.
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DETROIT — 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 is overseeing the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. He 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. About 2,000 people protested in Detroit last week during a national convention of liberal Democrats.
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 percent 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. He has 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. The average overdue bill is $540.
There is another challenge for the water department: Water has been turned on again by rogue crews following city employees who shut it off, typically with a special tool near the sidewalk. It’s happened at more than 500 addresses since March, spokesman Bill Johnson said.
“They knock on the door and tell people, ‘For $50, I’ll turn the water back on.’ We’ve caught them,” Johnson said.
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 from the state of Michigan, foundations and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The money is crucial to preventing the sale of city-owned art and avoiding deeper pension cuts in the bankruptcy case.