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Star donations prompt Senate to refocus $28M for Flint

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — An outpouring of bottled water donations for Flint residents has prompted the Michigan Senate to reconsider how it targets Gov. Rick Snyder’s requested $28 million in supplemental funding to address the city’s contaminated water crisis.

Sen Arlan Meekhof.

The spending bill unanimously approved last week by the House includes $8 million to purchase bottled water, filters and replacement cartridges for Flint residents, but the Senate is poised to revise the legislation ahead of a planned Thursday vote.

“We want to make sure that the funding is going where it’s most needed,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell. “So with all the generosity from rock bands to celebrities to organizations and unions, we’re finding that there’s a lot of bottled water being donated.”

Celebrities such as actress and singer Cher, “The Tonight Show” show host Jimmy Fallon, rock band Pearl Jam and rapper Big Sean have donated bottled water to Flint or contributed to local nonprofits. A bottled water company owned by Sean “Diddy” Combs and Mark Wahlberg has pledged to donate 1 million bottles, an effort that Eminem and Wiz Khalifa are supporting.

Anheuser-Bush said last week it would send more than 51,000 cans of water to Flint, while Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo committed to providing up to 6.5 million bottles for roughly 10,000 Flint students through the end of the year.

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Hildenbrand said some of the supplemental aid originally allocated for bottled water could instead be used to fund nutrition programs, which can help reduce the effects of irreversible lead exposure, or early childhood assessments.

“It’s just a matter of prioritizing where the need is and making sure the money is directed toward the most critical need,” he said.

The total size of the supplemental appropriations bill is unlikely to change, said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, but he said the upper chamber is looking at other ways to help and give people “confidence” that resources are being directed toward the problem.

“We have some better information about where it can be used, and I think we’re going to make those changes,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive.

Samples taken from Flint homes in recent weeks indicate the city’s water quality is improving, a Virginia Tech expert said Monday, but state officials continue to recommend the use of bottled water and filters due to concerns over elevated lead levels.

Water response teams including volunteers and Michigan National Guard members have twice canvassed the city with door-to-door bottled water deliveries since Snyder declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5, authorities said Monday. They delivered an estimated 165,000 cases of water, more than 91,000 filters and 28,700 water testing kits.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he thinks the state has “turned the corner” on bottled water distribution efforts, although there is still a need.

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“I think the next step needs to be making sure we get assessments, we sure people get the health and nutrition the need, because the sooner you start that, the quicker they can start to get remediation for the problems they have,” Ananich said.

Snyder in last week’s State of the State address asked lawmakers for $28 million in Flint funding, and the full House approved the request the next day. Senate action had been expected as early as Tuesday, but plans to revise the bill have slowed the process.

Hildenbrand’s appropriations committee is expected to consider a modified spending plan on Wednesday. The Senate and House could then finalize the bill and send it to the governor’s desk by Thursday afternoon.

Snyder, who faces criticism for an initially slow response to the drinking water contamination, is expected to present his fiscal year 2017 budget in early February.

“Additional resources will be needed for water related needs, health related needs, educational needs, economic development needs and more,” Snyder said last week.

joosting@detroitnews.com