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Detroit has drawn fire from all over the world for shutting off water to customers delinquent on their bills, but the city isn't unique. Cities across the country do it also.

In Michigan, Hamtramck, Warren, Pontiac, Eastpointe, Romulus and other cities have shut off delinquent customers as a way to improve collections. Elsewhere, so have other big cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis.

"It's universal in the utility world that at some point, you have to shut off service as part of your larger commitment to the community," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit group with more than 50,000 members who work in the industry. "If you never shut the water off for anybody, those people who continue to pay have to shoulder the entire cost of a system that is servicing a lot of customers that aren't paying. That's not a sustainable business model."

Curtis said water officials know better than anyone how important water is to public health and quality of life. But they are obligated to maintain systems that can serve everyone.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department ramped up its shutoff efforts in March in an attempt to collect more than $90 million it is owed by Detroiters who are behind on their bills. But as the shutoffs accelerated, so did the criticism.

The United Nations decried the shutoffs. Welfare rights groups marched downtown to protest them. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who is presiding over court cases in Detroit's bankruptcy, criticized them as well and told water department officials to show what they were doing to help indigent Detroiters keep their service.

Last week, the department halted the shutoffs until Aug. 5 while it continues to alert poor customers to available assistance programs.

"All we're doing now is letting everyone catch their breath," said department spokesman Bill Johnson, who noted that the effort has led to record collections on delinquent bills. "We've said from the very beginning, anyone that comes to us with a demonstrated financial hardship, we won't turn them off, and if they are turned off, we'll turn them back on."

He acknowledged some people were caught off guard by the effort to improve collections.

"We take full responsibility for not having a rigorous enforcement policy in the past," Johnson said.

He said the program is designed to target people who have the means to pay but haven't. He estimates that 60% of the customers whose water is shut off pay their bills in full within a day or two.

That doesn't surprise Hamtramck emergency manager Cathy Square, who launched a similar effort there last summer. Hamtramck faced a $350,000 debt in its water fund and risked losing a sewer grant because it didn't have enough match money, Square said.

When the city shut off 150 accounts in July 2013, word spread quickly. In all, 390 delinquent customers came in to pay.

"They were lined up around the building to pay," Square said. "We really turned our situation around in Hamtramck."

The water fund now has a $2 million fund balance, money that can help win grants and fund repairs, Square said.

Warren ramped up its shutoff efforts in 2010 after years of adding unpaid water bills onto property tax bills, said water superintendent Tom Pawelkowski. The move reduced the unpaid bills from about $3 million annually to about $1 million, he said.

Every city has its own shutoff protocols. Some are written into ordinances; others are adopted as policies. Some start the process as quickly as 21 days after a bill is due. Others wait for 60 or 90 days. Some use outstanding balances such as $250 to trigger a shutoff.

In 2011, Pontiac hired a private company, United Water, to manage its system.

"We have a pretty standard policy across all our systems," said Madeline Power, spokeswoman for United Water, which manages 90 water systems in 21 states. "Customers have 21 days to pay their utilities. Unpaid past-due bills that exceed 90 days face shutoff."

About 3% of Pontiac's 19,500 accounts have faced shutoff for nonpayment since May 2013, she said.

Big cities across the country also use shutoffs when customers don't pay.

Baltimore has about 411,000 water accounts and ends up shutting off about 3,000 per year for nonpayment, spokesman Kurt Kocher said. Accounts face shutoffs when the outstanding balance exceeds $250, and the city offers payment plans to people who are behind.

"We shut off if a bill is delinquent," said Jim Sondermann, special assistant to the water commission in St. Louis. "It's an effective tool. People typically pay pretty quickly when they are shut off."

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