State, Flint clash on crisis, new water source

Chad Livengood and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Tensions between state and Flint leaders flared up Friday over management of the city’s water emergency and proceeding with the connection to a new water source.

The strained relations between members of Gov. Rick Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s administrations happened during a weekly meeting of officials managing the crisis and came three days before the two-year-anniversary of Flint’s switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The move made under state emergency management is blamed for the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

Discussion at the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee’s weekly meeting centered on a hiring of “program manager” to execute long-term goals in Flint’s recovery.

Flint City Administrator Sylvester Jones Jr. said there’s a “power dynamic” causing “conflict” between city and state officials as each side tries to navigate the public spotlight after nearly four months of operating in a state of emergency.

“I can sense there’s some fatigue that’s happening right now, that Flint is getting on your nerves right now,” Sylvester said at the Friday morning meeting. “... In order for us to recover from this, we have to be partners and that means something very different than what we’re experiencing right now.”

Sylvester’s remarks appeared to be sparked, in part, by skeptical comments from Snyder’s urban initiatives director, Harvey Hollins, who initially questioned if a Flint resident would be qualified to fill the vaguely defined program manager job.

Hollins, who chairs the committee’s meetings in downtown Flint, said state officials are committed to “constant dialogue” with city leaders.

“The dynamic of power is not a push back, it’s a discussion,” Hollins said with Weaver sitting next to him at the meeting. “But it requires, Mr. Jones, communication. And so when we reach out and we try to touch base and to get involvement from the leaders in this community and (get) no response, that’s a dynamic that has to change.”

The discussion reflected the frail condition of city and state relations a year after Snyder’s last emergency manager vacated City Hall and power was restored to locally elected leaders.

“We want to be in communication with the state,” Jones said. “We’re also running a city.”

Snyder aide Rich Baird, the governor’s point man in Flint, said the state’s “framework of accountability” for solving Flint’s water crisis has to be “driven by the city and the city’s representatives.”

“But if they’re not embraced by the people who own this community, then we’re just doing stuff and hoping it’s the right stuff and half the time it turns out it’s not,” said Baird, who is a Flint native.

In an effort to get more local input on the committee’s decision-making, Snyder issued an executive order Friday adding a member of Flint City Council to the now 18-member panel. City Council members will recommend the member for the governor to appoint.

Committee members also had questions at Friday’s meeting about the Karegnondi Water Authority — everything from whether it would be the best long-term solution to Flint’s water woes to how it came to be. And many of those answers will be needed soon.

Flint is committed to purchasing 18 million gallons per day of water from KWA when the new 63-mile water pipeline to Lake Huron is up and running — likely in late June or July. But Flint can’t tap the new water system until the city meets testing criteria established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which isn’t expected to occur until next year.

Flint is on the hook for 34 percent of the principal and interest owed on $220.5 million in bonds KWA issued in April 2014 to finance the pipeline project, according to bond documents.

Despite that commitment, there are still many who question if Flint might not be better served by remaining with the Great Lakes Water Authority, the Detroit-based system that is currently supplying the city’s water. Another option would be to purchase water from a third source.

In a report to the committee Friday, state Treasurer Nick Khouri emphasized that time is short.

“I can’t emphasize enough how decisions need to be made quickly on these issues…,” Khouri said. “The quicker a decision can be made, the quicker the water could be flowing under one of these three options.”

Jones questioned the decisions that put Flint on its path to joining KWA.

“It was always my understanding that the decision to transfer (to KWA) was based on controlling the rates to customers,” he said. “We’re now hearing that 40 percent of leakage is within the City of Flint. So when we think about that decision to switch … it doesn’t appear that the rationale to reach that decision was really sound.”

A Genesee County official, however, countered that water loss in the system was calculated into the KWA project. And leakage will continue to be an issue regardless of where the water comes from.

Weaver said the slow pace of decision-making on the city’s long-term water source was deliberate — an attempt not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

“Some of us weren’t around for the KWA decision,” the mayor said. “We’re moving slower because we have a responsibility to the people of Flint.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood