DETROIT — The judge overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy refused Monday to stop the city from shutting off water if people can't pay their bill, saying there's no right to water and the law doesn't give him the power to keep the taps open anyway.
Judge Steven Rhodes gave critics of the shutoffs a two-day hearing last week. He said their arguments were "interesting and creative" but couldn't trump the legal standard under bankruptcy law or constitutional law — or the potential harm to Detroit's perilous finances.
"Detroit cannot afford any revenue slippage," the judge said.
"It cannot be doubted that water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life," said Rhodes, but that doesn't mean "there is an enforceable right to free and affordable water."
Nearly 22,000 homes lost water due to shutoffs from March through August, according to the water department, though 15,251 had service restored in that same period.
The city stopped shutoffs in July for more than 30 days after Rhodes said they were causing anger and bad publicity. Protesters marched, and even the United Nations criticized Detroit.
Mayor Mike Duggan responded by offering a two-year payment plan, starting with a 10 percent down payment, for people weeks behind on bills of more than $150. Roughly 30,000 customers now are enrolled.
Rhodes called the payment plan "bold" and "commendable" but said it probably wouldn't rescue all residents with chronically low income. Indeed, that was the argument of opponents, who said homes without water — especially if children or ailing senior citizens live there — should be considered a public health emergency.
Alice Jennings, an attorney representing people who have lost water, said she was considering an appeal of Rhodes' decision to U.S. District Court. She had asked for a six-month suspension of water shutoffs and restoration to anyone dry since April.
"This relief solves no long-term problems for customers," Rhodes said. "It must be a means to an end. But what is that end?"
Outside court, the reaction was sharp. The Rev. Charles Williams II accused the judge of being "morally inept." Another activist, Marian Kramer, said Rhodes doesn't understand the needs of "people who are starving."
"No one has said these folks should have free water. We said we should have an affordable price," Williams said.
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