Howes: Flint water woes drive opportunity for change
Mackinac Island – A year ago, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver used a friendly chat on America’s longest front porch to telegraph her coming reappraisal of the city’s commitment to the new Karegnondi Water Authority.
Her audacity elicited a written corrective from KWA CEO Jeff Wright, also the drain commissioner for Genesee County. In a letter to the editor, he called her “negative comments” in The Detroit News “baffling and simply not correct,” and proceeded to publicly school the new mayor on details of the city’s agreement with KWA.
Except that Flint is abandoning KWA, giving Weaver what she said she wanted that day: a “look at other options” that culminated in change. The winners are the Great Lakes Water Authority, formed amid the restructuring of Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and the people of Flint, who will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps.
“Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good,” Weaver said in an interview last week at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.”
Under Flint’s 30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. The agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system.
“We have pipes going into the ground now,” the mayor said, referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines. “We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”
Good for Flint. For too long, the city’s name has been short-hand for disinvestment and deindustrialization, compounded over the past three years by bureaucratic incompetence in Lansing and callous decision making by a string of state-appointed emergency managers.
The city needs to move in a positive direction, if only in small steps — not that the long-term return of Detroit water to Flint will absolve state and federal bureaucrats, or prod the Legislature into action, or ease the hits to the reputations of Flint and Michigan.
Weaver says the city trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; is hiring 33 more firefighters, thanks to federal grants; and continues to work with the office of Gov. Rick Snyder to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis.
A $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown is moving, creating a central, historic space that could draw patrons to events, restaurants and bars. All of it can bolster an economy hit hard by the water crisis that began unspooling as soon as the city started drawing untreated water from the Flint River.
“I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint,” the mayor said. “They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”
Exactly right. Partisanship has its limits, as Weaver may be learning. Flint’s crisis erupted amid a long and grueling presidential campaign in which the industrial Midwest — and Michigan in particular — proved to be the central battlefields for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who carried the state in the Democratic primary.
Each in their own way used Weaver and the city’s government-inflicted plight to rhetorically bludgeon Snyder, his administration and Republican stewardship, repeatedly. Others used the fiasco to discredit the state’s emergency manager law, despite evidence that it worked as intended in the Detroit bankruptcy as well as workouts in Allen Park and Benton Harbor.
But it’s the governor, especially some of his closest senior aides, philanthropies like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and business leaders who keep working to address the problems in Flint — not the pols who swooped in, rattled off sound bites and now are long gone.
Of course it’s Snyder’s job to try to make things right in Flint, given the mountain of evidence documenting the state (and federal) role in the water crisis still weighing on the city. But the city is moving in the right direction, and that’s a badly needed start.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.