Flint’s financial crisis became a health crisis with the decision to unhook from the Detroit water system and start delivering water to residents itself. Since the city was under state emergency management at the time, much of the responsibility for fixing the problem rests with Lansing.
One way it could help the city find the resources to address its lead-tainted water pipes is to help seek relief from debts owed to the federal government.
When Flint switched away from using Detroit water, it began drawing water from the Flint River. To put it mildly, it was a mistake that residents are paying in several ways.
Random testing found high levels of lead in children with the source traced to the Flint water system. An estimated 30,000 of the city’s 102,000 residents were using and drinking contaminated water. That includes pregnant women, patients at hospitals, schoolchildren and seniors.
Switching back to the Detroit water system was just the first step. Now, the city has to work out the financial details to improve the safety of the water and replace thousands of lead-contaminated pipes that connect the main water lines to individual homes.
It also has to deal with the lingering effects of lead on the health of its children.
Some assistance is on the way in a two-pronged effort to forgive about $22 million in federal loans Flint has had to take out, and also secure future loans that can be forgiven.
State officials, who administer the federal funds, say this is being done but have not given a timetable.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, is working at the federal level to get loan forgiveness. He notes that this in itself will help reduce water rates for residents because of what they were paying to eliminate the debt. Water rates increased 35 percent because of the switch.
The state is expected to provide some help. Gov. Rick Snyder wants to cover half — $6 million — of the cost for switching back to Detroit water. Flint will pay $2 million, and $4 million will come from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
But the debt relief is also a critical financial factor and one that should be hastened.
Kildee stresses that local officials and citizens had no say in the water system switch because it was authorized by an emergency manager, who was making all of the economic decisions.
“It was just a bean counter decision, but he should have started with the question is the water safe? Safety should have been paramount,” Kildee says.
“None of the residents had anything to do with this, but they’re paying the highest price.”
Recovering from the decision will be expensive and warrants considerable help from the state.