Flint urging state to reverse water bill credit cutoff

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver plans to meet with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this week or next and urge him to reconsider plans to end a state-funded water bill relief program at the end of February.

In a Monday press conference, Weaver criticized the Snyder administration for providing “really short notice” on terminating the bill credit program because of recent testing showing lead levels in city tap water have dropped below the federal action limit.

City officials said they believed the program, which reimburses Flint residents and business owners for a portion of their water bills, would continue through at least the end of March. They had hoped for even longer.

“That was the understanding, and so I was hopeful that things would get extended,” Weaver said in a City Hall press conference published online by WEYI-TV. “I was disappointed when that did not happen and we were given this short notice.”

David Sabuda, interim CFO for the City of Flint, speaks about water credits being cut after Feb. 28 during a press conference on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017 at City Hall in Flint, Mich.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the governor is “happy to meet with Mayor Weaver” but said the administration never told Flint officials the credits would last through the end of March.

Snyder and Michigan legislators last year appropriated $42.75 million in state aid to help reimburse Flint customers for contaminated tap water. Despite recent improvements, officials continue to advise against drinking Flint water without a filter.

The state had spent $36.65 million of the water bill relief funding through Dec. 31, according to a tracking tool. A supplemental budget bill Snyder signed in December included an extension allowing program spending to continue through “no later than March 31, 2017.”

But Rich Baird, a senior adviser to Snyder, last week told Flint officials the program would end Feb. 28 because lead levels in the municipal water system dropped below a federal threshold during the latest six-month testing period.

Flint resident Keith Pemberton holds up a handmade sign that simply reads "Lies" alongside his wife to silently protests as Flint Mayor Karen Weaver speaks during a press conference on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017 at City Hall in downtown Flint.

“Although we have had several conversations regarding the circumstances under which these subsidies would end, I wanted to formally advise the City of Flint with this correspondence,” Baird wrote.

He said the state will continue to provide free filters and filter cartridges for Flint water customers.

Data released last month pegged Flint’s 90th percentile lead level at 12 parts per billion in the testing period that ran from July 1 through the end of 2016. That’s below the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion but still higher than a proposed 10 ppb threshold Snyder has said he’d like to write into state law.

Flint exceeded the federal lead limit in the previous round of testing. Operating under a state-appointed emergency manager, the city began using Flint River water in April 2014. The harsh river water ended up damaging aging pipes, which leached lead into the municipal supply.

City official argue the decision to cut off the water credits at the end of this month is premature.

“When’s the water good? It’s when you don’t have a filter at the end of your tap,” Flint chief financial officer David Sabuda said Monday.

“We need every dollar to be able to get our feet back on firm ground and to be able to pay our bills,” Sabuda said. “We really feel also the loss of the credits at this time will pose a hardship to our customers. You know every month counts.”

Results from one six-month round of testing will not satisfy many Flint residents whose water quality complaints were initially ignored, said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

“It seems to me the governor is in too much of a hurry to put Flint behind him,” Kildee said in a Saturday interview with The Detroit News.

The administration should have provided more warning to city officials who will have to deal with the budget implications, Kildee said. “It’s not something that any accountant would do, but it’s an accounting approach to what is a civics problem,” he said.

Congress last year approved $100 million in federal funding to help Flint replace lead service lines and make other infrastructure improvements. The city has developed a spending plan for the money but has not been awarded the grant funding.

Since late 2015, Snyder and legislators have approved more than $253 million in state spending related to the Flint water contamination crisis. The governor’s 2018 budget proposal includes another $48.8 million for Flint, including $25 million for a reserve fund that could be tapped to meet future needs.

Snyder also wants to deposit another $260 million into the state’s “rainy day fund,” which would bring the balance of the government savings account above $1 billion.

“We know that there’s money there,” Weaver said. “There’s a great rainy day fund that the state has, and that’s why we’ve said that we deserve more. It’s not like they don’t have money.”