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Food & Water Watch’s Lynna Kaucheck says cash-strapped Detroit could actually increase revenue by billing customers based on what they can afford

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: The city of Detroit has again resumed shutting off its residents’ water, this time, up to 20,000 customers who have defaulted on their bills. Detroit’s previous water shutoffs sparked protests and international condemnation, including from the United Nations. The city entered, or filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and remains cash-strapped, which has also sparked protests from teachers after news broke that the school system is running out of money to pay them. They returned to class Wednesday after calling out sick en masse Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, President Obama visited Flint, Michigan today to meet with some of the victims of the city’s lead water crisis. Now joining me from Michigan to discuss all of this is Lynna Kaucheck. She’s a senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, working in Michigan. Thanks so much for joining us. LYNNA KAUCHECK: Thanks for having me. NOOR: So we wanted to start off by getting your reaction to this breaking news, President Obama visiting Flint and drinking filtered tap water there. This is a little bit of what he said. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Generally, I have not been doing stunts here, but, you know– [laughs] And this used a filter. You know, the water around this table was Flint water that was filtered. And it just confirms what we know scientifically, which is that if you’re using a filter, if you’re installing it, then Flint water at this point is drinkable. NOOR: So we’ve seen Governor Rick Snyder make a similar visit to Flint and kind of say the same thing to kind of deal with the residents’ fear and real outrage over this crisis, which we know the government and the EPA knew about this for a while without sharing it with the residents. Share us your thoughts on President Obama’s visit today. KAUCHECK: I mean, I don’t think that him drinking one glass of Flint tap water proves that that water is safe for people to drink. But the reality of the matter, and what’s happening on the ground, is that people there have been living with this crisis for almost two years now and, you know, children under six can’t drink that filtered water. Pregnant women, nursing women cannot drink that filtered water. They’re relying exclusively on bottled water right now. And so, I don’t really think that the president drinking one glass of Flint tap water, filtered tap water, really proves anything. NOOR: And I’m sure a lot of the residents that have been calling for the resignation or criminal charges against city officials, and even the governor, would agree with you. And I wanted to change gears to another city that’s facing its own water crisis, Detroit. So, officials have insisted they don’t want to cut off water to customers. And here is Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Director Gary Brown, addressing concerns. GARY BROWN: We don’t want to shut anybody off. Come in, ask for assistance, get on a payment plan. NOOR: So the city has said, they have told the public that if you’re one of the 20,000 or even 30,000 people behind on payments, you can come in, they’ll work on a payment plan. What is your response to that? KAUCHECK: I think Gary Brown and Gary Brown’s plan, the mayor’s plan, is out of touch with what’s happening in the community of Detroit, where the majority, I mean, almost half the city’s residents are unable to pay their water bills. We’ve been pushing, for over 10 years now, for an income based water affordability plan in this city that would help residents avoid getting to the point where their water is going to be shut off to begin with. So, in an affordability plan, you get into that plan before you have a problem. So, we wouldn’t be facing this high rate of shutoffs but also, with an income based affordability plan, you keep revenue going into the system. And so, the research that’s out there shows that when you have a plan like that in place, the system is ultimately generating more revenue. But the mayor, Gary Brown, have been just unwilling to have that conversation with us. NOOR: And talk about what the impact has been. What part of– Who, in Detroit, really, has been impacted by this? KAUCHECK: I mean, I think everybody’s been impacted by this in some way. This past weekend, with shutoffs started this week, there were lines around blocks to get into a payment center to work something out with the DWSD. I myself and some of our allies in the People’s Water Board coalition here in Detroit have been at those payment centers handing out flyers to folks waiting in line, letting them know some of their options and talking to them about affordability plans, talking to them about their bills. I mean, I’ve met people who had bills that were $5,000, and that just can’t be accurate. In some cases, they may be tenants paying rent on property. They’re up-to-date with their rent but their landlord isn’t paying their water bills. There’s all sorts of different stories but it manifests itself in different ways, so whether it’s children going to school and they’re unable to bathe or wash their hands, which we know is the number one way to prevent illness and disease spread is being able to wash your hands. They may go to school with dirty clothes. And there’s that social stigma around it. Nobody wants to admit that they don’t have water, because of all the things that can happen once you are willing to admit that, like your children could be taken away or you could lose your home. So I think that the shutoffs are felt deeply and they’re felt all across the city. NOOR: Well, we’re going to certainly keep following this story. Thanks so much for joining us. KAUCHECK: Thanks for having me. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Lynna Kaucheckis a Senior Organizer working in Michigan. Lynna works on water privatization fights, Great Lakes water issues, and food issues including factory farms and genetic engineering. Before joining Food & Water Watch, Lynna worked for Clean Water Action where she organized local, state and federal environmental and electoral campaigns.