By Mark Guarino
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Detroit residents with unpaid water bills now have 21 more days to pay or set up a payment plan as the city reassesses its policy on how to deal with a $90 million backlog in unpaid bills, the mayor said on Monday.
The bankrupt city attracted unwanted international attention earlier this summer when it accelerated water shutoffs, turning off water to 7,210 accounts in June as it struggles to return to financial health.
Experts from the United Nations called the shutoffs "an affront to human rights," saying the city's high poverty and unemployment rates make paying mounting water bills impossible for a significant portion of the population.
About 90,000 residential and business water accounts are still delinquent in the Detroit area, most of them in the city of 689,000 people, others in surrounding areas.
The controversy made its way into the city's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings last month when Judge Steven Rhodes, who is presiding over the city's plan to exit Chapter 9 bankruptcy, criticized the city, saying the mass shutoffs were bringing "bad publicity for the city it doesn't need."
In response, emergency manager Kevyn Orr handed control of Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department to Mayor Mike Duggan who promised a more streamlined, and fair, response to those with delinquent bills.
"If we make it more convenient for Detroiters to make payment arrangements and we do a better job of communicating the available help for those truly in need, I'm convinced the great majority of Detroiters will step up and take care of their bills," Duggan said in a statement Monday.
Two weeks ago the water department issued a 15-day moratorium to shutting off service to residential customers with delinquent accounts. And, under the new extension announced by Duggan, customers have until Aug. 25 to make payment arrangements.
Duggan promised the rollout on Thursday of a plan that will address new strategies for payments. Commercial accounts due for a shutoff will not get an extension.
Detroit currently pursues shutoffs to accounts that are 60 days delinquent and owe more than $150.
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Gunna Dickson)