Kildee: ‘Obsession with austerity’ led to Flint crisis

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee used his appearance at a Tuesday White House event to rail against what he called an “obsession” among Michigan’s Republican leaders with austerity measures and their resulting consequences in the Flint water crisis.

Kildee, D-Flint Township, spoke during a White House Water Summit Tuesday on the circumstances that led to the city’s long-running water contamination crisis.

“The backdrop was aging infrastructure ... built for about two-and-a-half times the population it now supports,” Kildee said. “That backdrop, with the overlay of governmental austerity that minimizes the need for robust environmental protection by making it an almost second afterthought at the state level, ... created a series of almost unbelievable decisions. ...

“It was because of the obsession with austerity. And the result is that the cost of solving this problem ... is intrinsically higher that the costs of preventing it in the first place.”

Flint was placed for a second time under state emergency management in 2011 because it built up an accumulated budget deficit of $11 million, raided city funds for sewage disposal and streets, and funded its pension system at less than 60 percent.

The Snyder administration said Tuesday a failure of bureaucratic common sense, not a focus on budget cutting, caused the problem.

“Bad decisions in addressing water quality at the local and state level coupled with poor oversight and delayed action at the federal level caused this crisis and allowed it to continue threatening the people of Flint when it shouldn’t have,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said.

“The focus for Gov. Snyder and his administration now is how to move Flint forward, how to prevent such a crisis from ever happening again in Michigan and working together with anyone who is willing to do so to accomplish these goals.”

Kildee also called for a shift in the way government and economic development officials view cities and their historical arcs. Communities that have risen, peaked and then come back down to earth are not to be abandoned, he said.

“We have been operating on the assumption of growth,” Kildee said. “We don’t even have realistic models to deal with cities that have significant population loss. ...

“We’ve got to stop operating on the belief that these cities have their birth and their period of growth and expansion, followed by their period of decline as if it’s the birthright and death of a city.

In addressing Snyder’s handling of Flint, he said: “They were basically ready to move on from Flint. ... Let’s go build somewhere else ... put our next stake in the ground somewhere else. ... The bill to do that is a lot of money.”

Tuesday’s summit brought together experts and key players on a variety of water issues facing the nation. But Flint’s crisis was a topic on which many speakers touched.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Deputy Administrator A. Stanley Meiburg discussed infrastructure problems that plague all cities, but are only now coming to the forefront.

“Flint is the current focus of attention, but by no means is it the only example,” Meiburg said.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., also cited Flint’s situation as a call to action — particularly in revising laws governing water quality and dealing with outdated delivery systems.

“We have failed in our efforts to respond to this very important infrastructure (issue),” Tonko said. “I call it the hidden infrastructure, but out of sight should not mean out of mind. We have pipes that are about 145 years old in my district. ... Let’s go forward, replace those pipes and do the right thing.”

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