Five years into water crisis, Whitmer works to 'earn back trust'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A help center sign outside Bethel United Methodist Church.

Flint — It’s 1 p.m. and the bottled water is all gone.

Residents had wrapped around the block earlier Monday at Bethel United Methodist Church waiting for donated bottled water that ran out an hour before the help center was supposed to close.

It’s a weekly routine, said Harold Woodson, when folks line their cars up as early as 4 a.m. to ensure access to the limited giveaway that begins at 10 a.m. Over the winter, some residents would park on Sunday night and then return in the morning to claim their spot in line.

“Usually we run out by about this time, but with the weather being in the 70s today, the crowd came through quicker than normal,” said Woodson, a former city school board member who helps run the church and coordinates help center activities.

Five years after the ill-fated drinking water source switch to the Flint River — and more than a year since Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder ended funding for free bottled water because of consistent testing showing reduced lead levels — many residents remain fearful of the water that flows from their kitchen faucets. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat who took office in January, has not proposed resuming state funding for bottled water amid ongoing donations from Nestle. But she has said she is committed to ensuring supplies are available until crews fully replace the all of the lead water pipes, a project that could wrap up by the end of July.

Flint activists and leaders say they are generally pleased by Whitmer’s early attention to the city, which she has visited multiple times.  Even if she’s not pushing funding for expanded bottled water, she’s showing up — something Snyder rarely did after the water crisis made national headlines and prompted calls for his resignation.

“I think it’s genuinely felt,” said Gregory Timmons, a senior pastor at Calvary Church in Flint who has worked with the United Methodist Church to secure resources for the city. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t embrace somebody just because of what they say. She’s visited.”

(L-R): Deputy State Budget Director Kyle Jen and Budget Director Chris Kolb join MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as she presents her ‘fiscal year 20 budget proposal,’ called, ‘The Road To Opportunity,’ to lawmakers during a joint meeting of the House and Senate appropriations committees in the Senate Hearing Room on the ground floor of the Boji Tower in Lansing, Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019.

Whitmer’s budget, introduced in early March, proposes $31.1 million in funding for Flint next year as the city continues its water crisis recovery, including a $15 million deposit into a Flint reserve fund that could be tapped for various needs as they arise.

Under her plan, the Department of Health and Human Services would spend $8.1 million on Flint responses, including $2.2 million for lead abatement and investigations, $1.5 million for nurse case managers and $1.4 million for mobile food pantries.

The Department of Education would spend another $8 million to continue and expand services in Flint, including the Early-On Program, the Great Start Readiness Program, nutrition services, school nurses and social workers. The efforts are designed to reduce the potential impact of lead poisoning. 

The 2019 budget signed by Snyder included about $7.8 million in spending on similar programs. He also approved more than $20 million in supplemental 2018 funding for lead service line replacement that was required under a federal lawsuit settlement agreement.

If that project is completed this summer, as planned, “then I think we’re going to be able to boast Flint having safe, clean water,” Whitmer said last week. “But earning back the trust of the people of Flint — it’s going to take longer, and that’s something I am determined to do.”

Chance to rebuild trust 

At the height of public outcry over elevated lead levels in Flint water, the city was going through 11 semi-trucks of water per day, organizers said. Through the end of last year, the Bethel help center would get 30 pallets of water to hand out each Monday.

Now, as Flint on Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the water switch, it’s down to 18 pallets a week donated by Nestle Waters North America, which produces the water about two hours away and has vowed to continue the supply through the end of August.

“There are three help centers functioning (in the city), and they pretty much always run out of supplies, said Jamie Gaskin, chief executive officer of the United Way of Genesee County.

Snyder stopped state funding for bottled water in April 2018 after nearly two years of water testing showed lead levels in the municipal supply had fallen below federal action levels of 15 parts per billion, a trend that has continued.

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday, March 17, 2016, on the circumstances surrounding lead found in tap water in Flint. The state  has turned over more records to the committee.

The administration cited science, but Timmons said the decision undermined efforts to build trust with local residents, whose initial water quality complaints were ignored by the state for more than a year before Snyder publicly acknowledged lead contamination in late September 2015.

It wasn't until mid-January 2016 when the state publicly confirmed the 2014-15 outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease that killed 12 individuals and sickened at least another 79 in the region. Critics and water experts linked the outbreak to the water, but the state health department has rejected it.

For residents who were unable to pick up bottled water in person, the state had relegated delivery services to the city, which then used local churches to facilitate home visits, Timmons said.

“They felt touched, and the trust was beginning to be build — not from a state system, but overall,” he recalled. “Just when we were beginning to build a foundation of conversation and dialogue and trust, that was cut off.”

Community leaders have already provided "a lot of feedback” to Whitmer about ongoing needs, Gaskin said. He suggested one way the state could ramp up support is by helping to resume home deliveries to residents who still have verified lead contamination at their homes.

“We can’t go back all the way, but there’s a lot of room for us to move going forward,” Gaskin said. “And I think what’s special is the governor has an opportunity to reset the dialogue between state government and the city. Because quite frankly, she’s a fresh face.”

Completing the lead service line replacement project would be an important step, "because that gives us a moment where we sort of finalize something,” he said.

But fear and resentment may linger amid residents' federal lawsuits against the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, criminal cases against local and state officials and the long-term impact of lead exposure, which could affect young people for life.

“I really think it’s a long-term prospect to rebuild trust,” Gaskin said. “We’re struggling to remain committed around these basic needs, because so much of the support has changed.”

Local inroads

Whitmer campaigned in Flint prior to her election and has held two recent roundtable discussions with The Flint Journal, including an April 10 event that featured local citizens and longtime water activists.

"It was beautiful seeing the governor come in and sit down with the grassroots and involve all the citizens and let us feel like we are part of something," said activist Arthur Woodson, who participated in the event. 

Whitmer recently hired Gary Jones, a well-known local figure who had worked as a constituent services aide to Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, to be a liaison between her administration and the city.

While top Snyder aide Rich Baird had led a “Mission Flint” team on the ground, Snyder himself was rarely seen in the city in his second term, which was dominated by fallout from the water crisis.

“He sent envoys; she comes,” said City Council President Herb Winfrey. “And that’s big to me.”

Whitmer also had her first official meeting with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver in early April.

"We were able to update the governor on the progress that Flint has made, as well as some of the challenges we are still facing," Weaver said in a statement. "We have follow-up meetings scheduled between her office and some of our department heads. We are looking forward to continued progress."

Flint Councilman Eric Mays yells at colleagues on April 22, 2019.

Flint was run by a series of state-appointed emergency managers when the city switched water sources. State regulators failed to ensure proper corrosion controls were added to the harsher river water, which ended up eating away at protective coatings that had formed on aging lead pipes.

The Snyder administration fully restored local control to Flint in 2018, but restoring trust at all levels of government remains a work in progress. 

A Monday meeting of the Flint City Council Special Affairs Committee devolved into a shouting match and ended with Council member Eric Mays threatening to “sue the sh—” out of colleagues when they asked him to leave because of his extended rant over an ongoing power struggle. 

“People are losing their house and still dying from the water, and they say, ‘Who can we trust?’” Council member Maurice Davis said later Monday in a full meeting. “They can’t trust us because we don’t trust ourselves. We’re fighting amongst ourselves. If we don’t get it together, this city is in a sad place.”

Statewide initiatives

All told, Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature authorized nearly $560 million in Flint water crisis response funding since 2015, including more than $277 million in discretionary spending from the state's General Fund.

But local organizers have increasingly relied on outside support, including Nestle bottled water donations and pledges from billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk to pay for hydration stations and student laptops in Flint schools.

State Rep. Sheryl Kennedy, a Davison Democrat who visited the Bethel Church help center Monday, said Whitmer’s budget proposal includes other statewide initiatives that would also benefit cities like Flint.

Kennedy is part of a bipartisan group sponsoring legislation to create tuition-free college and job retraining programs proposed by Whitmer. Flint is “perfectly poised” for the programs, she said, noting proximity to Mott Community College and the Genesee Career Institute.

Katia Kenney, 18 of Flint, volunteers as she loads cases of water into vehicles as non-profit Pack Your Back distributes more than 37,000 bottles of water on Monday, April 22, 2019, at Dort Federal Event Center in Flint.

“What we haven’t been able to do is get people access to those skilled training programs, so this has the potential of completely turning around the Flint community and also the suburbs around Flint that are more rural but also dealing with poverty,” she said.

Whitmer’s budget also proposes spending inspired by the Flint crisis, including $37.5 million in supplemental state aid to help other communities replace lead service lines and $60 million to help school districts around Michigan install filtered drinking fountains.

As far as the city itself, “we have a real presence in Flint, and we’re going to continue to do that so we can earn back the trust,” Whitmer said. “They were let down in the worst way. It’s not fixed yet, but we’re getting there.”