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Detroit water shutoff controversy igniting nationwide debate

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DETROIT, Mich. (WJLA/AP) -- Detroit's massive municipal water department, which has been widely criticized for widespread service shutoffs to thousands of customers, drew nationwide attention Thursday on Capitol Hill.

People stand outside Detroit City Hall, protesting thousands of residential water-service shutoffs by Detroit's water department. (AP Photo)

Due to public pressure, the department has temporarily suspended shutoffs for customers who were 60 days or more behind on bills for 15 days.

But with the prospect of shutoffs resuming in a week, some members of Congress are now asking the Obama administration and the Department of Health and Human Services to intervene in what they contend is a humanitarian crisis facing a major U.S. city.

It's "a little bit inhumane to put it kindly," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said of the water crisis facing residents in his state's largest city.

"Water is a lifeline," added Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), "it is a human rights issue and if necessary there should be federal intervention."

Detroit's water system serves about 700,000 city residents and 4 million people in southeastern Michigan, but the city-owned water system has about $6 billion in debt that's covered by bill payments. As of July 1, more than $89 million was owed on nearly 92,000 past-due residential and commercial accounts.

Water officials began an aggressive shut off campaign in March, disconnecting 500 customers that month. More than 3,000 lost service in April and about 4,500 in May.

The shutoffs topped 7,200 in June and collected $800,000 last month compared to about $150,000 in June 2013. But several groups appealed to the United Nations for support, and three U.N. experts responded the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water. A march and other protests also were held in Detroit.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is currently run by a board of commissioners, but the entity reported to previous mayors before the city's emergency manager Kevyn Orr was appointed as emergency manager in August 2013, a job that tasked him with overseeing the city's finances and most operations.

The city's bankruptcy trial is slated to start in mid-August, and Orr's 18-month term is up in September.

In an order announced this week, Orr restored control of the water system to the mayor's office.

Earlier this month, the federal judge overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy said the shutoffs were bringing bad publicity, and water officials later disclosed they were suspending the shutoffs to educate customers on payment plans. That grace period is set to end Aug. 6.

Mayor Mike Duggan has said water department officials could have been more sensitive in how they handled delinquent bills and the increased shutoffs. He promised to have a "new plan shortly" on how to deal with the issue.

"I've heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices," Duggan said. "We've got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements."

Orr said his decision to give the department's reins to Duggan "ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city's commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD customers get and remain current on their water bills."

Detroit also sells its water service to suburban communities, which bill their residents.

"When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters," Duggan said. "There is no outside funding from the suburbs, from the state, or from the feds."

Duggan said the plan being developed will help customers needing financial help and shorten wait times for those making payment arrangements.

"As for those who can pay and choose not to, we won't force other Detroiters to pay their bills," Duggan said.

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