House approves $30M for Flint water bill relief, which Democrats label ‘anemic’
Lansing — The Michigan House on Thursday unanimously approved a $30 million plan to credit Flint residents and businesses charged for contaminated water, despite criticism from Democrats who argued more money is needed to keep the city’s water fund solvent.
“This bill is going to be a start,” said Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint. “We don’t want to reject anything that’s going to provide some level of relief for rate payers ... but I think it’s a deficient, an anemic response to the real need.”
The Senate, which approved the spending proposal earlier this month, is expected to sign off on minor House changes on Tuesday before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder, who requested the funding two weeks ago.
“Flint residents should not have to pay for water they cannot drink. I have continually said that the crisis will be solved by everyone coming together with solutions, and I would like to thank the Legislature for being a strong partner on getting immediate funding for recovery to the city,” Snyder said in a statement.
“Politicizing this issue has not yet delivered any solutions for Flint’s families,” he added.
The administration estimates the $30 million credit program will cover city charges for drinking, cooking and bathing water between April 2014 and April 2016. The plan does not address charges for sewer service or other water uses that are not considered part of the lead contamination public health threat.
There are about 29,000 residential water customers in Flint, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury, and about 5,000 have fallen behind on their bills.
Under the state spending plan, residents who owe for past water charges would see their debt trimmed, while those who are up to date would see credits on future bills.
Flint officials say unpaid water bills have put a major strain on city finances, and they’ve suggested the need for closer to $90 million in relief. Chief Financial Officer Jody Lundquist on Wednesday told legislators that the city’s Water and Sewer fund could run out of cash by summer without the $30 million credit program, and even then could be insolvent by the end of the year.
“The $30 million is a stop-gap; it barely even allows the city to maintain its operating budget. What it does is basically kicks the can down the road,” Lundquist previously told The Detroit News.
Neeley on Wednesday proposed a floor amendment that would have increased funding for the credit program from $30 million to $60 million, but it was rejected. The Republican majority also voted down a second amendment from Neeley that would have credited residents for 100 percent of the water portion of their bills instead of attempting to delineate between drinking, bathing and cooking usage.
“Thirty-million dollars will not solve the problem,” Neeley said Thursday. “It will not be a sufficient amount of money to recoup the users from April 2014 to April 2016 — and that’s if we have a safe source of drinking water in April 2016.”
House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said the size of the appropriation had been debated in committee and stood by the Snyder administration’s estimates on the percentage of Flint bills that would have covered potable water.
“Ultimately, we were able to come down at $30 million,” he said. “No matter where we came down, there were going to be some that were unhappy one way or the other. And it’s unfortunate that each time we act it’s considered as being not enough.”
Rep. Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, proposed adding another $3.55 million in state funding to expand the Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Program for children age 5 to 10. The amendment was rejected.
Snyder sought permission to use federal funds for WIC expansion, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected his request on Jan. 30, saying federal law limits eligibility to age 5.
Liberal activists from MoveOn.org and Democracy for America gathered Thursday outside the governor’s office in downtown Lansing, bringing along a “Snyder poisoned Flint” ice sculpture and a flash drive they said contained nearly one million online petition signatures calling for him to resign over the water contamination crisis.
“The pain and suffering that the people of Flint continue to undergo is not going to go away anytime soon,” said Neil Sroka, a Grosse Pointe resident and communications director for Democracy for America. “…The only way justice can being to happen for the people of Flint is with the resignation of the leader who let this happen.”
Snyder spokesman Dave Murray, asked about the MoveOn event, said the governor remains committed to the people of Flint and making the city stronger, citing his various funding proposals.
“There are people and groups looking to inject politics into the crisis. That doesn’t help the people of Flint and it distracts from the ongoing recovery efforts — which remain our focus,” Murray said.
In a Thursday morning floor speech, State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, urged a more civil discourse over the Flint crisis, acknowledging “mistakes were made” but comparing some of the vitriolic attacks on Snyder to “a poison in the heart, a poison of the spirit.”
“I have a lot of respect for Gov. Snyder. I consider him a friend. I want to believe he has no malice in his heart,” Casperson said.
“But I sense there’s an attack on him almost to crucify him, to get him. And I would just caution all of us that there’s more than just the man. His wife. He has children as well. Can you imagine what they’re thinking hearing what they’re hearing about their dad?”
Pending final approval of the water credit program, the state Legislature will have approved a total of $67.3 million for Flint since October, when Snyder first requested $9.3 million to help the city switch back to Detroit’s water system from the Flint River.
A $28 million plan finalized in late January included funding to help pay for additional bottled water, childhood health assessments, school services and an underground infrastructure study to determine the location of and need to replace lead pipes.
Snyder, in his recent budget address, called for another $126 million in supplemental Flint funding this year and made $39 million in recommendations for the 2017 fiscal year.