Howes: Flint water flap moves to pipes, KWA reappraisal

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver says her city needs “pipes and jobs,” influencing who City Hall is likely to hire to replace lead-contaminated water lines.

“We didn’t want the opportunity coming in and people saying none of us got a chance to bid,” Weaver told The Detroit News Thursday in an interview at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

In an attempt to turn a national municipal tragedy positive, she envisions contracting with five to eight smaller firms to replace the city’s lead service lines instead of centralizing replacement of toxic-leaching pipes with one large company. The theory behind requests for proposals going out this week for the city’s Fast Start program: to offer more opportunities to Flint residents.

Her stance, to be detailed again at a pre-bidding conference next week in Flint, evokes long-common practices in Detroit that could drive higher the cost of replacing the pipes. It also implicitly questions whether the politics of contracting threatens to trump the quickest path to repairing a serial failure of government.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who spends three days per week in Flint, doesn’t buy the tradeoff. He says hiring local companies employing local residents to replace pipes is “a good goal, too. We do it in Michigan. We do try to accommodate local business whenever we can.”

He’s right — so long as the process being devised by the Weaver administration follows guidelines tied to the $2 million in state money already appropriated for pipe removal and another $25 million expected from Lansing for the project.

Next-steps in Flint’s long-awaited pipe replacement program come as government and, especially, the private sector ramp up support for the city. Two weeks from now, business leaders “hungry to help” in Flint plan to descend on the city to determine what expertise they can muster to speed recovery — the second such effort after earlier offers were rebuffed by people close to Weaver.

Additionally, a coalition of foundations led by the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation pledged $125 million to support human, early-childhood and social services. Donors are pledging resources to augment government-financed infrastructure repairs to the city’s water system.

Still, Flint’s water woes are far from settled. Even as the state and private sector intensify aiding the city of nearly 100,000, the mayor says her administration continues to reassess its participation in the Karegnondi Water Authority and the Flint’s obligation to pay a third of the authority’s $285 million in debt.

“We did get a raw deal,” Weaver says. “We’re in a situation where maybe we stay with KWA or maybe we look at other options. We owe it to the people to really, really look at this” and to make a decision “soon. We can’t drag it out. We have to make decisions sooner rather than later.”

She stressed that Flint’s decision to leave the Detroit water system after nearly half a century to join KWA did not occur on her “watch,” or that of three others she appointed after becoming mayor late last year. Among her concerns:

First, she says the decision by former Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz to sell Flint’s water service pipeline to Genesee County for $3.9 million effectively turned the city into a buyer of water instead of a seller. Under terms of the city’s contract with Detroit, Flint owned the line connecting the city’s system to Detroit — a connection now controlled by the county.

Second, Flint residents were assured the move to KWA would guarantee lower water rates than the city has long paid Detroit. She says the assurance is no longer guaranteed for residents struggling to pay some of the highest water rates in the country.

Third, she says the city that is responsible for one-third of the debt should have more than one-quarter of the seats on KWA’s 16-member board of directors. The mayor of Flint is assured a slot on the board, and is empowered to make three additional appointments. Weaver’s three appointees are Laura Sullivan, City Council Member Eric Mays, and state Rep. Sheldon Neely, D-Flint.

“It’s a really strange place to be,” Weaver says. “We’re looking at everything legally possible. A lot of us weren’t there when all of the decisions were made. A lot of us don’t have the history of how we got where we are.”

In the real world, not being in office when a complex, long-term financial obligation is reached and signed generally is no valid excuse to jettison a long-term obligation. It’s also legally fraught, short of a Chapter 9 bankruptcy that would enable the city of Flint to renegotiate both labor contracts and revise terms with creditors.

Replacing Flint’s lead service lines will be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s doable — far easier, legally speaking, than exiting an authority that the state of Michigan and Flint’s elected leaders not too long ago embraced as the best solution for the cash-strapped city.

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Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him at 3 and 10 p. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.