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Detroit mayor announces new water plan after mass shutoffs bring human rights warning

DETROIT - Detroit's mayor, who faced international criticism for mass water shutoffs aimed at resolving millions of dollars' worth of unpaid bills, announced Thursday the bankrupt city will offer affordable payment plans to many delinquent customers.

Mayor Mike Duggan made the announcement not long after several groups appealed to the United Nations for support and three U.N. experts said the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water.

The city, an icon of American manufacturing that fell on hard times in recent decades as business moved elsewhere, including overseas, last year became the largest U.S. city to seek bankruptcy protection.

Detroit shut off water service to around 17,000 to 18,000 residential customers, about 10 per cent of the roughly 170,000 total. About 60 per cent to 70 per cent have been restored, and officials said restorations continue. Shutoffs have been halted until Aug. 25.

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.

The shutoffs were imposed against commercial and residential customers who were 60 days behind payment or owing more than $150.

Duggan promised to streamline the payment process for customers facing shutoffs, including expanding hours of operations and more staff to help. The city also has created a non-profit fund to accept donations for those in need, and it already has a few hundred thousand dollars in it, said Duggan. He was given control of the water department by state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr as criticism of the shutoffs escalated.

Among the people who had their water shut off was Atpeace Makita, spokeswoman for Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer relief group.

Makita told The Associated Press that the effort to resolve the issue, while appreciated, didn't go far enough. The group has called for a moratorium on shutoffs and income-based payment plans.

"The banks definitely, and the city itself, have a reason for wanting people to take responsibility for their bills, no doubt," Makita said. "However, it's almost like requiring blood from a turnip. People can't give you what's not there."

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