Snyder talks water bills, pipes with Flint residents

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint residents peppered Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday night with questions about their water bills and whether the state plans to help replace underground pipes damaged by corrosive river water.

Snyder took questions during a 45-minute telephone town hall the same day he proposed a $30 million plan to credit or refund Flint residents who paid for water they cannot not drink due to lead contamination.

Several callers, who were randomly dialed ahead of the event, asked the governor about that proposal. Roughly 7,300 residents participated, according to the administration.

“I want to know when are we going to be reimbursed for water,” a caller named Gloria told Snyder. “We’re trying to hold out, but we need to know when something is going to happen. The bills are very high, and we ain’t getting no good answers about it.”

The Republican governor, who also hosted a conference call last week, said the plan he announced earlier Wednesday was informed by similar concerns he had heard from Flint residents.

“It is a big issue and it is a burden,” Snyder said of the water bills. But he stressed that his proposal is a recommendation. He’s likely to formally request the funding in a budget presentation next week.

“I, as governor, don’t have the money, I have to go to the Legislature to get them to approve it,” Snyder said. “So they have to pass something to say the money is now available and can be spent.”

A caller named Elwood told the governor he opposed the water consumption credit plan because “I didn’t pay with credits, I paid with cash, and I look for cash back.”

Snyder told him some details of the plan still need to be worked out with city officials. He said residents who moved away from the city may get a refund for a portion of their past payments, while current residents would see a credit on future bills.

“What I’m recommending is about 65 percent of the water portion of the bill be considered a credit,” Snyder said, noting the plan would not cover sewer costs. “As we get this approved by the Legislature, we’ll be working with the city about the best way to make that credit happen, and that’s something we still need to work out.”

Several other callers asked Snyder about pipes inside and outside of their homes, and whether they will need to be replaced in order to restore access to safe drinking water.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is pushing for immediate removal of pipes damaged when the city began using Flint River water in April of 2014. The state failed to ensure proper corrosion controls were added to the harsh water, which leached lead from the pipes, creating the ongoing public health crisis.

A caller named Anita asked Snyder how long it would take to replace “infected” pipes. The governor did not provide a timeline but described a three-step process.

The first step, he said, is to follow the advice of experts like Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who has recommended the city attempt to reestablish phosphate coating on existing pipes and then test the water to determine its safety.

The second step is to map the infrastructure, Snyder said, noting the process is underway but has been complicated by incomplete or outdated city records.

“To the degree we don’t have any prior information, we’ll actually have to do some physical examinations to determine whether there are lead pipes or not,” the governor said. “That project has already started, but it will take some time to complete.”

The third step, Snyder said, will be to prioritize which lead service should be replaced first. He noted that other Michigan cities, such as Lansing, have replaced lead pipes over the course of several years but described “an issue of urgency” in Flint.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said earlier Wednesday that the state should immediately begin digging damaged pipes out of the ground, and he proposed closing an insurance company tax credit “loophole” to help fund the effort.

“Replacing the most dangerous lines first I think is extremely important,” said Ananich, pointing to Friday’s announcement by state and federal health officials that water samples collected from 26 random taps since the last week of December have shown lead levels higher than what filters are rated to handle.

He noted that U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, this week proposed $1 billion in emergency federal funding to replace Flint’s underground pipeline system.

“It’s becoming a bipartisan issue now that folks think we have to deal with this,” he said.