The latest news from Detroit, the poster child for failed progressive policies that have dominated that city for more than a half-century, is not good. In March of 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced it would begin cutting off water service for customers at least 60 days overdue or more than $150 behind in their water bill payments. Activists outraged by the decision have taken their case outside the city—all the way to the United Nations.
The DWSD has targeted 1,500 to 3,000 business and residential customers every week as part of a get-tough approach that would enable them to begin recouping the $118 million owed from delinquent accounts. Accounts that comprise nearly half the city’s total number. As a result, the Department has shut off water service to more than 7,500 properties in the past two months alone.
“We really don’t want to shut off anyone’s water, but it’s really our duty to go after those who don’t pay, because if they don’t pay then our other customers pay for them,” said DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner. “That’s not fair to our other customers.” Garner also noted that the city has programs that help those “totally in need,” but that many of the customers who can afford to pay their bills don’t bother, “and we know this because, once we shut water off, the next day they are in paying the bill in full. So we do know that that has become a habit as well,” she contended.
It’s not the only habit of non-payment afflicting Detroit. In 2012, it was revealed that almost half of the city’s 305,000 property owners failed to pay their tax bills the previous year.
Yet the thousands of families who no longer have access to water, along with those who will shortly follow, has generated a backlash by a coalition of leftist organizations striving for “water justice,” including the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch. They have submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, calling on that organization to intervene. “What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” said Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project. “The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”
The groups have framed the argument in typically leftist terms, accusing the DWSD of attempting to rid itself of low-income customers in an effort to spur a private takeover of the utility. DWSD has denied the charge, but city officials are considering at least a partial takeover by private entities as one of a variety of strategies aimed at reducing the $18 billion of debt that has driven Detroit into bankruptcy. The DWSD accounts for $5 billion of that debt, and as of March, 150,806 out of the 323,900 DWSD accounts in the city were delinquent.
Detroit did attempt to integrate its water system with the water systems in the suburban counties of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne, hoping to create a jointly managed regional authority in return for a $47-million-per-year minimum lease payment. But the deal fell through when those counties wanted no part of the DWSD’s debt, its delinquent customers, or an aging infrastructure “with a history of disinvestment,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
Despite that disinvestment, Detroit has seen a steady rise in its water bills, including a staggering 119 percent increase over the last decade. The average water bill is now an outrageous $75 a month, compared to national average of $40. For perspective sake, the average cell phone bill is $71 per month.
Nonetheless, as recently as last week the Detroit City Council approved an 8.7 percent increase in DWSD rates expected to add an average of more than $5 per month to the current bills. Council President Brenda Jones cited infrastructure repair as the reason for the hike. “I do realize that in order to get the repairs done to our system, it’s going to take a lot of money to get those repairs because our system is very old,” Jones said.
The activists are apoplectic, claiming those affected were given no time to prepare for a shut off and that some accounts were suspended prior to the deadline. “Sick people are left without running water and running toilets,” writes Blue Planet Project Founder and Food & Water Watch Board Chair Maude Barlow.
People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook. Is this a small number of victims? No. The water department has decreed that it will turn the water off to all 120,000 residences that owe it money by the end of the summer although it has made no such threat to the many corporations and institutions that are in arrears on their bills as well. How did it come to this?
Unsurprisingly, Barlow blames “decades of market driven neoliberal policy that put business and profit ahead of public good.” A less delusional examination reveals the usual suspects: free-spending, progressive Democrats, allied with labor unions.
Beginning in 1962, Detroit elected an unbroken string of Democratic mayors and other city officials determined to impose a progressive agenda on a city that was once the richest, per capita, in the entire nation. Democrats oversaw the failed the “Model City” program, fashioned after Soviet Union centralized efforts to transform entire urban areas at once. They were in control when the riots of 1967 destroyed black businesses and drove more than 140,000 people from the city. They bestowed outlandish salaries, benefit packages, and highly inefficient work rules on city unions, a move largely responsible for driving the city’s mainstay auto industry to right-to-work states. And they were responsible for a series of corruption scandals, culminating in a 28-year prison term for former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
All of it led to the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the nation, in June of 2013.
And make no mistake: DWSD workers were an integral part of the problem. As recently as 2012, the DWSD employed a full-time horseshoer collecting $56,245 in salary and benefits — despite the inconvenient reality that the department had no horses. They also had 257 separate job classifications designed to maximize the number of workers required to do even the simplest of tasks — workers whose average compensation packages came to $86,000 in 2013.
2012 was also the year when an independent report concluded that the city could slash the staffing levels at DWSD by 81 percent, due to the reality that it was using twice the number of employees per gallon as cities like Chicago. In response, John Riehl, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 207 that represents many of the DWSD employees, told the Detroit Free Press the department needed more workers.
When the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners approved the cutbacks, 950 DWSD workers went on strike in October 2012, defying a restraining order issued by a federal judge in the process. The strike lasted five days, and Riehl declared it a victory “because it has set the precedent that unions, the community and the City of Detroit can stand up against the whole array of powers-that-be and win.”
In light of Detroit’s eventual bankruptcy, it was a temporary and Pyrrhic victory.
Today, Detroit is a city with an unemployment rate of more than 14 percent, and a poverty rate of about 40 percent, courtesy of the very same Democratic social engineering that has driven water to unaffordable levels for many of the city’s poorest residents. Even more telling, given that Detroit’s population is 82.7 percent black, this crisis disproportionately afflicts the very same minorities Democrats claim to be protecting and nurturing.
“The case of water cut-offs in the City of Detroit speaks to the deep racial divides and intractable economic and social inequality in access to services within the United States,” claim the activists taking their case to the United Nations. No, it doesn’t. It speaks to 52 years of progressive Democratic policies that have destroyed the city formerly known as the “arsenal of democracy.” The very same policies these leftist groups would exacerbate in their quixotic quest for UN-sponsored “water justice.”
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.