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Control of Detroit water department placed in mayor's hands after criticism of shutoffs

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DETROIT - Control of Detroit's massive municipal water department, which has been widely criticized by the United Nations and others for widespread service shutoffs to thousands of customers, has been returned to the mayor's office.

The move comes a week after the department said it would temporarily suspend shutoffs for customers who were 60 days or more behind on bills for 15 days, and a few months ahead of the expected handoff of financial control of the bankrupt city from a state-appointed manager back to Detroit's elected leaders.

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 U.N. 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.

His order, announced Tuesday restores 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 Tuesday 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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