Howes: In Flint water war, city only has one choice

Daniel Howes

A nearly week-long boil-water order in Oakland County may not instill confidence in Flint City Council members being pushed to green-light the cash-strapped city’s deal with the Great Lakes Water Authority.

They’d be wise to consider the alternatives. None of them is particularly good for a place steeped in the politics of water, bureaucratic incompetence at all levels of government and the high costs of making bad decisions.

In a filing in federal court, Mayor Karen Weaver is accusing City Council of stalling its decision to approve a contract with GLWA. It would tie the city’s water supply to the metro Detroit authority for 30 years — and offset $444,000 in monthly bond payments by Flint to the nearby Karegnondi Water Authority.

Council’s refusal to act effectively has “put the public’s health at risk and created an inevitable timetable for possible receivership and/or bankruptcy of the city of Flint,” the filing says. And it accuses council of “dereliction of their fiduciary duties.”

Probably so — but for two mutually exclusive forces: the city’s shaky financial condition and the understandable skepticism of council members and the residents they represent. When state officials largely to blame for a lead-contamination crisis in the city’s water sue to enforce their preferred deal with GLWA, it’s natural for council members to balk.

Wouldn’t you? Consider the sordid history of the Flint water crisis, the long paper trail documenting it, the implication of local, state and federal officials, the congressional hearings, and, yes, the racial implications of the whole mess.

This has “mistrust” written all over it. Still, slow-walking a water deal that is probably the city’s only meaningful alternative amounts to spending money Flint can ill-afford to spend — $1.7 million and counting since July, the mayor told The Detroit News this week.

No wonder she’s throwing around the “B” word, predicting receivership and other financial calamity in a city that’s known its share under four state-appointed emergency managers. It’s the only leverage she has, short of a federal court order that forces council to act.

But let’s be clear: as successful as Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy turned out to be — ahead of schedule, consensual deals with creditors, collective bargaining contracts with all of the city’s unions for the first time in recent memory — the chances of Gov. Rick Snyder approving bankruptcy for Flint are next to nil.

In what effectively would be the last year of his term? In the city whose plight (thanks largely to state ineptitude) did more to tarnish Snyder’s reputation than all other things combined? In a town that is the state’s second-largest minority-majority city behind Detroit?

The words “no way” are, in this case, insufficient. As much as Flint’s books and its contracts with vendors, unions and utilities like GLWA and KWA might benefit from the restructuring only municipal bankruptcy can deliver, its probably safe to say it won’t happen.

And that’s probably a major reason Flint council members are dithering: because they can. Because the political benefits redound more to them than they do the mayor. Because wary residents are more likely to reward an overabundance of caution than a summary concession to Lansing’s preferred option.

Except this: What other option does Flint actually have for its water supply? Investing even more in a renovation of its mostly moribund water treatment plant so the city can pump KWA water into its homes and businesses?

After all the drama of the past few years, try selling that to residents traumatized by the switch to untreated Flint River water and the lead contamination it unleashed. But that’s the only practical alternative to rejoining GLWA and its legacy connection to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Negotiate a shorter-term deal with GLWA, as some council members have suggested? Possible, but equally favorable terms — including monthly credits that equal Flint’s debt obligation to KWA — are less likely in an industry whose financials depend on long-term agreements.

You know, just like cities and towns do, the better to map budgets, to plan capital spending and to set local water fees charged to residents and businesses.

Flint’s mayor may not be able to actually deliver on the bankruptcy threat. But council’s indecision isn’t likely to deliver, either. Flint needs stable, predictable, quality water, and sticking with GLWA and Detroit remains its best option.

(313) 222-2106

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.