As it struggles to right itself after years of collapse, Detroit continues to push the boundaries of municipal law and social order. The latest chapter of this sad tale has to do with something that most Americans take for granted — water.
Detroit has residents who haven’t paid their water bills. So do many other cities. But as with so many things, Detroit’s water problem is outsized to the point of absurdity. About 150,000 Detroit residents are behind on their water bills. That’s a huge portion — more than 20 percent — of Detroit’s population, which is down to about 700,000 people. The non-payment problem is so severe that Detroit has begun to shut off water to those who don’t pay their bills. The shut-offs started, then the Mayor imposed a moratorium to give people a chance to enter into payment plans, and now the shut-offs are on again.
It’s hard to imagine what living in a city would be like if you didn’t have running water — but it’s not hard to forecast that it would quickly become disgusting and unhealthy. Water is needed for hydration, cooking, clothes-washing, personal hygiene, and waste disposal; no water means clogged toilets, dirty people, and filthy, dangerous living conditions. It’s why a United Nations group criticized the shutoff, opining that “[d]isconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”
It’s hard to feel sympathy for either party to this dispute. It’s a sign of the ridiculous extent of Detroit’s mismanagement that more than 100,000 people were allowed to fall into arrears and that the city was reduced to taking the draconian step of shutting off water to thousands at one time. Where were the administrators and bill collectors while the roster of deadbeats grew? Some residents also say their bills are just wrong and that the water is too expensive, and given Detroit’s awful record I’m guessing the city wasn’t exactly providing the most efficient, cost-effective water service in the nation.
And yet, storing, treating, and delivering water costs money, and bankrupt Detroit doesn’t have any. It’s easy for UN groups to pronounce that free water is a basic human right, but who is going to pay for what is necessary to deliver it? Other Detroit residents? The State of Michigan? The federal government? Or perhaps the UN would like to foot the bill?
I’m guessing that a good chunk of those 150,000 Detroit residents who owe on their water bills didn’t treat it like a basic necessity when bill-paying time came. I’m guessing that many of them realized that the city wasn’t trying to collect on water bills, and therefore those bills weren’t prioritized and weren’t paid. The money that was available got spent on other things, and the amounts owed accumulated to the point it became unmanageable — and when Detroit finally came knocking for payment, there wasn’t the money available, and the only option was to react with outrage. If that is the true story for many of those 150,000 Detroit residents, who is at fault for their predicament?
We’re going to be learning lessons from the sad story of Detroit for many years to come.