Flint recovery authority, promise zone bills advance

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Michigan Senate panel on Wednesday unanimously advanced legislation that would allow Flint to create a long-term recovery authority and establish a “promise zone” to help local students with college tuition costs.

The bills are “parts of the puzzle” to solve problems related to the Flint water contamination crisis, said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, who added the legislation could be put up for a floor vote next month.

“This doesn’t have a Democrat or a Republican seal behind it,” Meekhof told reporters. “We’re trying to fix the problem.”

Both bills were originally introduced by Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who said he was pleased to see movement a day after complaining about the slow pace of policy reforms in response to the crisis in his hometown.

The legislation would allow Flint to establish a “municipal recovery and development authority” whose members Ananich said could help provide a long-term, stable response even if the names and faces of elected officials change in future years. A revision approved Wednesday would initially cap the authority at 15 years, but legislators could later decide to extend its life.

“We all know that going forward we need to be focused on remedying and finding solutions to what happened in Flint,” Ananich said, “and this authority has some designated people with specific professional competencies that would be able to provide not only oversight, but a lot of expertise, to make sure the recovery is happening in the most effective way.”

Modeled after Detroit’s Public Lighting Authority, the 11-member board would be appointed by the Flint mayor, City Council and governor and would have to include one licensed or registered health professional, one civil engineer, one certified public accountant and one educational professional.

As a hypothetical example of how the authority could benefit Flint, Ananich said the city could decide to have the authority run its underground pipe replacement program, providing a concentrated focus on pipes rather than other aspects of municipal government.

Michigan legislators have so far approved more than $240 million in state aid for Flint, but the proposals advanced Wednesday do not include any funding.

The authority could receive dollars from foundations, private organizations or the city, state or federal government. It could also collect a tax of up to 0.5 mills on local property, if approved by Flint voters, or borrow money and issue revenue bonds.

“If they think it’s a useful tool, then they need to pay for it,” Meekhof said. “There’s a number of things in there so you could have nonprofits involved, so I think there’s plenty of opportunity. It gives them the option to use the tool.”

Another bill advanced Wednesday would allow Flint to establish the state’s eleventh official “promise zone” to help local high school graduates pay for college or career training.

Promise zones can pool private resources and Michigan law allows them to receive a share of funding from incremental growth in the State Education Tax.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, a Hart Republican who co-sponsored the promise zone bill, said it could help stem further population loss in Flint, which was already struggling before the water crisis.

“This will help give people the comfort and help keep people wanting to be in the city,” Hansen said. “It gives them the opportunity to get their kids an education that they deserve, and I think it’s a great step for Flint.”

Both bills now head to the full Senate for consideration.

The bipartisan Flint Water Public Health Emergency Select Committee continues to work on larger policy recommendations, including possible changes to the state’s emergency manager law, which Meekhof said could come as soon as “a couple of weeks.”