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Water off, dispute on

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"Turn on the water!" This was U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ final statement last week to Highland Park Mayor Linsey Porter, who has refused to turn on the water of about 400 residents who are unable to pay their bills.

Nearly 35 residents and public officials gathered at the Highland Park library Dec. 23 to talk about why so many people fell behind on their water bills and ways to get them paid. Erratic billings, a steep rate increase and welfare reform all seem to have played a role.

But after some discussion, Conyers became impatient with Porter’s explanations and demanded that he turn on residents’ water.

"This is not a keep-the-water-off meeting, it’s a turn-the-water-on meeting," said Conyers, who called the water shutoffs "inhumane."

"I wish it was that easy," answered Porter, who helped organize the meeting. He said that income levels are so low in Highland Park that some people "simply cannot afford to pay their utility bills, water, lights or gas."

Porter also said he feared that if he did not turn off the water to delinquent accounts, the city would not be able to pay an outstanding bill and current charges owed Detroit, which supplies Highland Park with water and sewage disposal.

Highland Park went for nearly a dozen years without a water and sewage rate increase. But Detroit recently took the city to court over this issue and the $5.6 million it owes for sewage disposal, explained Porter. As a result, Highland Park’s rates were raised by 62 percent in 1996, he said. Now, 65 cents of every dollar Highland Park’s water department collects from residents goes to Detroit to pay off the outstanding bill and interest accrued. If the city’s $250,000 a month bill is not paid, Porter said, Detroit could foreclose on Highland Park and possibly force the city into receivership.

"If I wanted to play politics," said Porter," I would turn on everyone’s water, but I have to be fiscally responsible."

Porter and others who spoke at the meeting blamed the water shutoffs in part on welfare reform. Maureen Taylor, president of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, helped organize the meeting. She said the state pays a portion of welfare recipients’ utilities. But when recipients leave welfare and enter the job market, as the state has been pressuring recipients to do, they are no longer eligible for the utility payment program; consequently, they are stuck with huge unpaid utility bills, said Taylor.

"They are in a catch-22," she said. "They want to work, but if they work, they can’t keep their utilities on." Taylor also said that the state can remove children from homes that are without water.

Some people complained that their water bills were more than $800. One 75-year-old woman who has a water shutoff notice said she fell behind because she had not received a bill in about seven months from the city and forgot to pay. Others at the meeting also said they had not received a water bill for several months. Porter admitted that the water department has been in disarray but said improvements are under way.

In the meantime, Conyers, Porter, and many community organizations are trying to find funds to pay residents’ water bills.

"We need to avert all the needless suffering that is going on," said Conyers.

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