Officials: Flint water rates could double in five years

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint — Residents, already burdened with some of the highest water rates in the country, could see those rates double in the next five years.

Even under the new Karegnondi Water Authority, the amount city residents pay for water will rise significantly, according to officials with the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee. The news, announced at the committee’s meeting Friday, came as a surprise to some members.

“Was this known?” asked Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center researcher whose work helped uncover high levels of lead in Flint.

According to Jeff Wright, KWA’s chief executive officer, the amount Flint pays will likely rise substantially for several reasons. Among those, the fact Flint has not passed on all of the rate increases previously handed down by the Great Lakes Water Authority, which is its current provider.

Instead city officials have tapped Flint’s water and sewer fund to offset the GLWA’s increases and keep from passing them on to residents. With that fund depleted, Flint may be forced to see a rapid increase that would bring them more in line with actual water prices.

The typical Flint resident is currently charged about $53.84 per month on the water portion of their bill, not counting sewer costs, according to a report prepared by Raftelis Financial Consultants of Missouri and released in May.

That report also warned of projected bills doubling during the next five years without action to upgrade the system and address fixed costs.

As a result, the typical water portion of a residential bill is estimated to rise to $110.11 per month by fiscal year 2022 “if no action is taken” to address various issues, according to the report.

Starting in April 2014 when Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, Flint spent 18 months drawing its water from the Flint River. The move was intended to provide cost savings after decades spent as customers of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department — now known as GLWA.

Once the newly formed KWA comes online, Flint expected to hook in to the system and have greater control over it water situation.

But in that 18-month stretch, state and city officials failed to treat the river water with corrosion controls, which experts believe resulted in lead contamination and, possibly, a spike in cases of Legionnaire’s disease.

In October, Flint was hurriedly switched back to GLWA to get safe water back in to homes until KWA was ready.

On Friday, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri acknowledged the looming rate increase, but said that under GLWA, the rates “would have been even higher.”

KWA officials have projected their system would save Flint roughly $600 million over the course of 30 years.

Given the decisions made by the state officials that contributed to the water crisis, Hanna-Attisha thinks residents should not have to worry about their water rates.

“People in Flint should never have to pay for water again, and they anticipate a doubling of water rates?” she said in an email response to questions. “It really should be free forever.”

Dickson Sykes, 55, stopped in to pay his water bill at City Hall in Friday’s 95-degree heat. The prospect of higher rates did not sit well with him.

“It’s ridiculous right now,” Sykes said. “They want $325 dollars right now, just for me to turn my water on, after the mess it’s been.”

In an effort to find savings for Flint residents, committee members discussed the possibility of having the city’s water treated by Genesee County’s new plant, set to come online some time in 2017. Flint has considered treating its KWA water itself, but committee officials are looking at what costs might be saved by having the county do it.

It’s a possibility, Wright said, but one KWA officials will not move on unless it is requested by Flint.

“It’s been talked about in the margins by some in Flint and some at the state,” Wright said. “Our position is that if the city truly wants to have us treat the water, we’re willing to discuss it.”

Another cost savings issue discussed by committee members is addressing the numerous leaks that plague the city’s water deliver system.

JoLisa McDay, Flint’s utilities director, said her resources are stretched thin in an attempt to meet mandates handed down by the federal government.

“We’re forced to do only what the EPA requires us to do,” she told the committee. “We need other resources to be able to attend to these problems.”

Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.

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