Howes: Bureaucracy, politics complicate Flint water rescue
As much as Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis is renewing attention and offering economic opportunity for the city, two things are standing in the way: bureaucracy and politics.
Just ask Michael McDaniel, the retired brigadier general in the Michigan National Guard hired by Mayor Karen Weaver last February to head the city’s Flint Action and Stability Team. The FAST Start coordinator is still waiting to be paid for the work he’s doing.
“As of this week, it’s truthful to say I haven’t been paid yet,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s also truthful to say I will be paid. You could say it’s bureaucracy. It’s more just a straight lack of capacity. The mayor says, ‘Get the lead out of Flint,’ and that’s what I’m focused on.”
He’s not alone, judging by the ponderous Friday meetings of the Flint Water Inter-agency Coordinating Committee. Or Attorney General Bill Schuette’s unspooling criminal and civil investigation for culprits in the water crisis. Or nearly $130 million in philanthropic support from foundations, led by Flint’s own Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Or a coalition of Michigan business leaders looking for ways to bolster reinvestment in the city.
Instead, reality intrudes. Philanthropic dollars flow more slowly, and with more conditions, than big headline numbers suggest. State appropriations for replacing lead service lines require competitive bidding and multiple layers of approval by local and state oversight officials. Business leaders mull options. Over it all hang threats of lawsuits and criminal charges.
The answer to the bureaucratic incompetence that delivered the water crisis to every home in Flint is shaping up to be another mess fueled by good intentions, legal score-settling and the kind of butt covering we’ve come to expect from bureaucracy at all levels. Gives new meaning to “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”
This rush to help, greased by public outrage, political posturing and media attention, is clogged by the processes and turf battles all too familiar to taxpayers. Schuette and Gov. Rick Snyder, for example, continue to battle over whether state Health and Human Services staffers can work on Legionnaires’ disease cases lest they taint the attorney general’s investigation.
The cash-strapped city of Flint’s new mayor is struggling to assemble a new administration. The city remains without a public works director; its city engineer has been on the job for roughly a month; its city administrator and chief financial officer abruptly left in May and June, respectively; and it’s desperately seeking a plumbing inspector to speed water-line replacements.
Caught in the middle, like so many Flint residents, is McDaniel. His compensation, deemed too much for the city to shoulder, needed a back-stop from the Mott Foundation before being subject to City Council approval. The state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, scheduled to meet again next week, also must approve the payout.
Flint’s staff turmoil probably is as much a function of wariness about working for the city (who wouldn’t be wary, considering recent history?) as it is the mayor’s desire to build her own team from the municipal shell she inherited late last year. Four state-appointed emergency managers, a years-long water crisis and continuing financial distress aren’t the most effective recruiting tools.
Two state Department of Environmental Quality staffers criminally charged in April still have not received a preliminary examination — and won’t until January, a judge ruled this week. That shows how slow the wheels of justice are turning, and why Schuette’s glacially paced investigation risks impeding state help for Flint.
How? Key state officials, even members of the governor’s team, would be foolish not to wonder who Schuette and his investigators will charge next and how that would complicate their efforts. The AG has repeatedly declined to exclude anyone from his probe, including Snyder himself, a fact that cannot have anything but a chilling effect on the administration’s ability to execute its planned Flint rescue.
Add the fact that we’re in an election year: control of the state House potentially is up for grabs; Schuette nakedly is positioning himself to be the Republican nominee for governor two years from now; the governor is trying to rescue his legacy. Flint and its people pay the price.
In the battle between urgency and bureaucracy, bureaucracy is winning. Take McDaniel’s job of replacing service lines between water mains and an estimated 11,300 Flint homes. As of Wednesday, 49 partial or complete lines have been replaced, and McDaniel expects three contractors to average 12 jobs per day as in the current phase of replacements.
The next phase, financed by a $25 million state appropriation, faces hurdles. Individual line replacements cannot exceed $5,000 per home, the legislation says, and the city cannot collect permitting fees from residents or capture the fees from the appropriation. The low bids in the latest round pegged the charge at $6,400 per home for a full replacement and $4,000 for a partial line.
McDaniel and his team have some work to do — and they’re not the only ones.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.