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Activists asking United Nations for help amid Detroit water shutoffs

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DETROIT (WJBK) -  The Detroit Water Department is shutting off service to people who will not or cannot pay their bills. Now, activists are appealing to the United Nations to get involved, alleging Detroit is committing human rights violations.

A Canadian group collaborating with Detroit activists has submitted an official complaint to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, trying to pressure the city to stop the shut offs.

"Water is a common good and it should stay a common good," says Maureen Taylor, who runs the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. She says she's tired of the city shutting off water to poor people who can't afford to pay their bills.

"What kind of government will allow for water to be turned off where there are women and children? It's just unconscionable," she says.

"If water is a human right, I mean, I'm fine with that. If someone can show me a way to provide the service where it's free, and we would do that, but there's a cost associated with providing this service," says Darryl Latimer, deputy director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

He says most Detroit customers are paying their bills but around 35 percent are not, and if they are more than 60 days past due and owe more than 150 dollars they have 10 days to pay, make arrangements or face shut off.

"The department is trying to be proactive because we don't want to execute shutoffs. We want customers to come in and make payment arrangements. But, for some reason, it seems as though it's been reported that we're doing this mass shutoff effort and these shutoffs have always went out every month so it's not anything that's new," Latimer says.  

But Latimer admits given the bankruptcy there is a renewed push to get those bills paid.

The department says in May they sent out 46,000 shutoff notices and cut off water to around 8,000 people, most of whom paid their bills right after it happened. He says an aging infrastructure and failure of people to pay mean the monthly cost of water here is close to double the national average of around $40.

RELATED: Detroit water department responds to water shutoffs
    
"You heard a report of a 9 percent increase in rates - most of that is due to bad debt associated with uncollectibles. So, we're trying to get that number under control so that we can control rate increases," Latimer says.

Latimer says the department is trying to get cost sunder control but if people are unable to pay they will work on a payment plan with them.

Fox 2 Detroit has not heard back from the United Nations yet but the coalition involved in the effort is hoping to not only draw attention to this issue but also apply pressure and even impact the country's human rights effort if no action is taken.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department released a statement responding to the "misinformation about water shut offs and suburban water rates." You can view that full statement here.

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