Government aid slow to reach Flint residents
Lansing — Tens of millions of dollars in state and federal aid approved for Flint have been slow to reach residents still suffering through the city’s water contamination crisis.
Michigan legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder have approved $67 million for Flint since October, but state departments had spent $14.1 million or 21 percent of the funding through March 12, according to recent expenditure reports.
President Barack Obama approved $5 million in federal aid for Flint with his January emergency declaration. His administration has expanded other assistance programs, some of which are also taking time to implement.
“It seems like they’re just, arguing and talking about what they’re going to do someday,” said Teresa Teal, 47, a Flint resident who has not turned on the water at her home for fear it could affect her fight with ovarian cancer. “It’s hard to live like you’re on a permanent camping trip.”
Of the $14.1 million in state funding spent, about $6 million helped Flint reconnect to the Detroit water system in mid-October. Other funding covered such areas as technical expertise for water testing, Michigan National Guard water distribution and water fixture replacement at schools and day cares.
But the bulk of Flint-related appropriations — more than $50 million — wasn’t spent through mid-March.
Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said implementing some aid programs “depends on the ability of the city of Flint to spend the dollars.” He pointed to local delays with a water bill credit program and pilot pipe replacement program.
The state had obligated but not yet spent $30 million on water bill relief, $8 million on water resources, $3 million in utility assistance and $320,000 for Flint schools to hire nine additional nurses.
While the federal aid is harder to track, money targeted for Medicaid health care expansion and an $80 million water loan allotment haven’t yet reached Flint.
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said boasting of Flint appropriations before they reach residents amounts to public relations when the focus should be on solutions. The Snyder administration has frequently highlighted the $67 million, including when the governor testified before Congress on March 17.
“I don’t think anybody wants us to rush and waste money, but let’s get these programs we know work up and running,” Ananich said. “Residents don’t feel it. They don’t think the state is going to help even though we’ve appropriated money.”
Bill relief, other problems loom
Residents could soon see relief as the city taps the largest reserve of unspent state funding — a $30 million program to credit or reimburse people and businesses who were charged for contaminated water they could not use. Snyder signed the $30 million program into law in late February, but the state Treasury said it would take time to work with the city on getting it started.
“That money is available but not spent yet because the city suspended billing last month while working through some accounting issues,” Adler said.
Flint Chief Financial Officer Jody Lundquist said the credits should show up on the next round of water bills, which the city hopes to get in the mail by the end of this week.
“The city is currently testing and reviewing preliminary results of the credit program in a test database,” Lundquist told The Detroit News. “... Administration of a program of this magnitude is very complex and must be given an incredible amount of consideration to ensure all customers receive the total credit due.”
Lundquist said that residents will see a “lump sum” appear on their bills that will “apply to current and future billings until fully exhausted.”
The $30 million program is designed to reimburse Flint residents and businesses for drinking, bathing and cooking water charges incurred since April 2014, when the city began using Flint River water. State regulators did not require the city to add corrosion control chemicals to the harsh river water, which ended up damaging aging pipes and leaching lead into the drinking water.
Local officials praised the appropriation when it was approved, but questioned whether it was large enough to help residents recoup all water charges and keep the city’s Water and Sewer Fund solvent amid unpaid bills.
Ananich, who proposed $60 million for the water bill credit program, said Tuesday it was “inadequate” for the needs of Flint. His comments came one day after Mayor Karen Weaver identified a nearly $35 million deficit in the water and sewer fund as she rolled out her fiscal year 2017 budget proposal.
“The instability in the water fund is a result of decisions made on a number of levels, including the courts and my decision to declare a water emergency because I was not confident in the product residents were paying for,” Weaver said in remarks distributed by the city.
Weaver said she will not seek rate increases to close the fund deficit, citing ongoing concerns with water quality. Lundquist encouraged residents at least to pay the sewer portion of their water bill to alleviate stress on the city fund.
Fed assistance slowed
Some federal assistance also hasn’t reached residents, including expansion of Medicaid eligibility to cover thousands of children up to the age of 21 and pregnant women.
The expanded eligibility for Flint households earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level began in early March, but the state is still working to implement requirements of a federal waiver such as public notices and operating rules before roll-out, said Jennifer Eisner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The state health department and “federal partners” hope to have more information for Flint residents “very soon,” Eisner said.
The Obama administration in January gave $80 million to Michigan in water infrastructure and water treatment loans from the current budget. About $20 million of it is dedicated to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that could be used to replace lead service lines.
Flint could be eligible for up to $17 million of the funding, and the state Department of Environmental Quality continues to work with the city on a project plan to submit for financing, spokeswoman Melanie Brown said Tuesday.
“In the meantime, DEQ has extended the deadline to July 1 to ensure that various projects from around the state also have comprehensive plans that are turned in, so they can be addressed by the greatest needs and priority,” Brown said in an email.
A larger Flint-inspired federal spending proposal remains in limbo amid ongoing negotiations between Michigan Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and the Republican majority.
The bill includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the public drinking water supply. It remains unclear when there will be action on the proposal.