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Press Release: UUSC Dismayed at Court’s Decision in Detroit Water Shutoffs Case

International human rights organization the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) has voiced profound concern over U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven A. Rhodes's decision this morning dismissing a petition for a moratorium on Detroit's ongoing water shutoffs.

September 29, 2014

Contacts:
Media liaison: Jan Dragin, Dragin Communications, 339-236-0679
UUSC Communications Director: Paul Twitchell, 617-301-4355

DETROIT, Mich./CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Monday, September 29, 2014 — International human rights organization the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) has voiced profound concern over U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven A. Rhodes’s decision this morning dismissing a petition for a moratorium on Detroit’s ongoing water shutoffs.

The petition was part of a continuing class action suit on behalf of at-risk Detroiters calling for accelerated restoral of water services to those who qualify for special aid and/or provision of an affordable payment plan.

UUSC legal analyst on domestic and international water rights issues Patricia Jones said, “When it comes to access to water and sanitation, no government should carry out such mass water shutoffs, especially in cases where a shutoff presents an extraordinary burden and health risk for households with children, pregnant women, low income seniors, the disabled, and people suffering from chronic illness.”

UUSC’s Jones said last week’s decision by Rhodes to allow a second day of testimonies by the plaintiffs and city defendants “was heartening and gave some hope that the arc of justice, legal and moral, would come down on the side of human rights.

“Testimonies last week by some of Detroit’s most in-need residents aggrieved by the city’s water shutoffs, policies, and procedures were responsible and courageous — and reflected intolerable situations of low-income households with children and people with disabilities who have been at the mercy of bad policies and confounding management chaos,” said Jones.

“The plaintiffs and their attorneys have struggled against the full weight of the legal profession and the courts in an uphill battle to save the most basic of public services: access to water,” she said.

According to the Detroit Free Press, in his Monday morning decision Judge Rhodes noted, “Chapter 9 strictly limits the court’s power in a bankruptcy case,” and he could therefore not issue an injunction against water shutoffs.

Rhodes said that Michigan state law dictates that Detroit may only charge rates reasonable to operate its water system, but the law makes no mention of ability to pay.

The judge drew from earlier testimony of city officials, further stating in his decision today that the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) would face “significant risk” of increased default rates and a drop in revenues if a moratorium were issued.

UUSC’s Jones, who participated in a July 18 rally Detroit and supported the pro bono attorneys for the class action suit, said, “The DWSD record shows that it is not collecting fees from major corporations, that the bonds the utility issued went directly to pay over $500 million in interest rate swaps to major commercial banks, and the plaintiffs in the suit had all paid their bills, most of which showed significant administrative error.

“The state law also says that DWSD must produce records showing what water was used, what payments were made, and the balance owing,” she said. “DWSD didn’t fulfill that letter of the law either. It seems that low-income people are the ones who will foot the bill for those commercial interests who are not fulfilling their obligations. That isn’t the intent of state law.”

‘Missed opportunity for justice in America’

Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president and chief executive officer of UUSC, said, “This is a missed opportunity for justice in America. Most government bankruptcy proceedings will have significant issues with basic services. “

To date, more than 19,000 customers two months or more behind in their payments have had their water shut off without regard to the residents’ life conditions and poverty qualifications.

UUSC has been an active advocate nationally and in Detroit since the water shutoffs rose to crisis level this summer and gained international attention.

The rights organization, based in Cambridge, Mass., has collaborated in Detroit with regional Unitarian Universalist activists, with regional advocacy groups, and with Detroit attorney Alice Jennings of Edwards & Jennings as well as other members of a team of pro bono attorneys representing residents affected by the shutoffs.

Next on UUSC’s agenda: The Detroit water crisis will figure prominently in the October 7 national consultations held in Berkeley, Calif. UUSC’s Jones will present on a panel before national and local governments, civil societies, and faith institutions about the crisis in accessing basic services for vulnerable residents in communities across the country.

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BACKGROUND:

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is a human rights organization powered by grassroots collaboration, working throughout the United States and 15 countries worldwide. Since 1940, UUSC has fostered social, economic, and environmental justice, protected civil liberties, worked toward a world free from oppression, delivered aid with dignity, and advanced the rights of people left behind during conflicts and natural disasters.

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