DETROIT — United Nations human rights experts described Detroit's mass water shut-offs as "a man-made perfect storm" Monday and called on city officials to restore water to those unable to pay, including those with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Meanwhile, Detroit's officials said the two lawyers' actions and conclusions were agenda-driven and not based on "facts" about the city's progress in helping residents keep or regain service.
Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque, who were in town to observe the effect of water service shut-offs, said they affect the poorest and most vulnerable — and particularly discriminate against Detroit's majority black population.
The representatives of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner made the trip after activists appealed to the U.N. for assistance. They visited residents who have lost water service or have struggled to keep it, and they met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and water department officials for about two hours Monday morning.
The city, the nation's largest municipality to file for bankruptcy, said it made about 27,000 shut-offs between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30. Most shut-offs were halted for several weeks during the summer to give residents a chance to enter payment plans but they resumed and topped 5,100 in September.
The U.N. officials cited falling population, rising unemployment and a utility passing on higher costs associated with an aging system. De Albuquerque said she has seen shut-offs in other U.S. cities and developed nations, but nothing like Detroit.
"Our conclusion is that you have here in Detroit a man-made perfect storm," de Albuquerque said. "The scale of the disconnections in the city is unprecedented."
The mayor's top aide, Alexis Wiley, said the city is "very disappointed" with the U.N. visit. She said Detroit is helping residents by beefing up customer service, getting 33,000 people in payment plans — up 15,000 since August — and logging a more than 50 percent drop in residential calls for water assistance.
"They weren't interested in the facts," Wiley said. "They took a position and never once (before Monday) reached out to the city for data."
De Albuquerque and Farha called their conversation with Detroit officials "constructive." They said they can't enforce recommendations but want to help the city and residents resolve the situation.
"If the city does not have enough money then other levels of government have to step in to support," de Albuquerque said.
Some advocates took the issue to federal court, but the judge overseeing Detroit's municipal bankruptcy trial ruled last month he lacked authority to force the utility to stop the shut-offs.
About 21,500 shut-offs were made in 2012. That number rose to 24,000 last year.
The tactic appears to be effective in getting people to pay. The water department said it collected about $2.5 million in water and sewage bills for all of 2012 and again last year. About $3.7 million was collected through the first nine months of this year.
De Albuquerque said residents have told her and Farha that they want to pay their share as long as it's just and fair.
"No one asked for a free ride," she said.