Federal Judge David Lawton got it right in saying that the failure of leadership by the Flint City Council is “breathtaking.”
After dawdling for three months, the council finally this week approved an agreement that will keep the city on the Detroit water system.
But for only two years, at which time the whole process of vetting a water source will have to begin anew.
Mayor Karen Weaver had bargained a 30-year pact, assuring certainty for Flint residents and businesses that there would be no further disruption to their water supply for decades.
But the council waffled, even though the decision to remain with the Great Lakes Water Authority was clearly the best, and perhaps only, safe option.
In the end, the council acted at the point of a gun. Lawson had threatened to impose the agreement on the city if it did not make a decision to either remain with the Detroit regional authority or choose another source.
Council members said they were troubled by the length of the contract, which would lock in rates some members see as too high. They also wanted to hear from additional experts, which would require more months of delay.
But the pact put together by Weaver will begin saving the city $600,000 a month immediately on implementation. It will end the current situation of Flint residents paying for the Detroit water, while also paying off the bonds of the new Karegnondi Water Authority.
Lawton was correct in warning that the delay in decisionmaking was placing Flint’s financial well-being at risk, as well as the health of its residents.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sued Flint officials in late June, arguing that the Flint council was endangering the public’s health by failing to approve a long-term drinking water source.
The council could have voted to go ahead with its move to the Karegnondi authority.
But doing so would require extensive repairs to the Flint water plant, which would cost tens of millions of dollars and three and a half years to complete.
That’s too long to leave Flint in limbo.
Restoring trust in the city’s drinking water, destroyed in 2014 when a state-imposed switch to the Flint river as a water source triggered a lead crisis, is the top priority.
The continuity of remaining with the Great Lakes Regional Water Authority is the surest way to erase concerns about the safety of Flint’s water.
Even the Karegnondi authority is backing the Great Lakes contract, since it provides a vehicle for paying off Flint’s portion of the authority’s bond debt.
Weaver made the best bargain she could. City Council members may wish there were a better deal that would substantially lower water rates for residents.
But such wishful thinking contributed to the initial ill-fated water source switch.
The council should reconvene and sign off on the 30-year deal, which would be an important step in putting Flint’s water crisis to rest.