Miller rips Senate leader over Fraser sinkhole loan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller blasted Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof on Wednesday after the upper chamber rejected a $3 million grant to help repair a massive Fraser sinkhole, agreeing instead to provide a $5 million loan.

The former congresswoman said her fellow Republican “has the wrong job title” and is “not a leader,” adding that “term limits can’t come fast enough for some people.”

“We have a collapsed pipe that serves more than half a million people and more than 40,000 businesses in Macomb County,” Miller said in a scathing statement. “Sen. Arlan Meekhoff is playing games while the rest of us are working to get this problem fixed.”

Meekhof’s office shot back later Wednesday, arguing Miller “has spent too much time in Washington” and “doesn’t get to dictate the terms” of state aid that was ultimately approved by 36 senators and will provide her with “the means” to fix the problem.

The West Olive Republican defended changes to the supplemental spending bill earlier in the day. Unlike a House-approved grant, the loan offered by the Senate would require the county to repay the debt over five years or jeopardize state revenue-sharing payments.

“They own it, they have to maintain it,” Meekhof said of the pipe that collapsed on Christmas Eve, displacing residents and forcing some home demolitions.

“There seem to have been some problems with it, but it’s their problem to solve. I’m happy to give them a no-interest loan, which we did, but I’m not interested in having the line out my door go forever with people that want to get in line for free money on their infrastructure.”

The Republican-led Senate rejected an amendment that would have restored a $3 million grant approved by the House, shooting it down in a 17-20 vote despite pleas from Macomb County legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Meekhof said he had discussed the spending bill with Miller but declined to discuss details of their conversation.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, had urged the upper chamber to provide assistance in the form of a grant, arguing the Fraser sinkhole has statewide implications because “millions of gallons of raw sewage” were discharged into the Clinton River.

“This is an issue that affects everybody, as it stands to negatively impact the Great Lakes,” Bieda said in a floor speech. “It’s one that needs to be fixed in the near future, as the rains that are anticipated in April will only exacerbate the problem.”

Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, also urged his colleagues to approve a grant rather than a loan, arguing Macomb is a “donor” county when it comes to state taxes and support.

“It is very, very dismaying, to say the least, that we have people who are quite happy to line up at the trough year after year, taking money from my people as their roads are falling apart,” Rocca said. “Now when we need a little bit of help, to get a tiny little bit of money back, people seem hostile to that. It doesn’t seem right.”

Despite frustrations over the move from a grant to a loan, the modified supplemental spending still passed the Senate in a 36-1 vote.

The bill, now headed back to the House for additional debate, would also authorize disbursement of $100 million in federal funding to help resolve the Flint water crisis.

The Senate attached new strings to funding approved last year by Congress and authorized this month by the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring the city to document pipe replacement numbers and costs on a quarterly basis.

“It’s been three years since Flint residents had safe, clean, drinking water, but I’m grateful that federal funding has been secured for my community,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement.

“We can now begin the next phase of replacing each and every lead-tainted pipe in our city, so that one day Flint residents can safely drink the water from their tap.”

While the state has also provided direct assistance to Flint, Meekhof said the Fraser sinkhole is different because there are not the same questions of “culpability” by state actors.

Public Works Operations Manager Anthony Forlini recently told legislators a permanent sinkhole solution could cost between $140 million and $150 million. The county wants to coat the pipe with a protective layer that would prevent leaks for the next 200 years.

But first, Macomb is working to fix a drain interceptor in hopes of preventing potential flooding from heavy rains, a project that could cost $75 million. A county board recently awarded a $32.7 million construction contract to Dan’s Excavating in Shelby Township to fix the failed interceptor by Sept. 15.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said he wants to help Macomb County, but he doesn’t think the state should “get into the business of just giving out direct grants whenever there’s a disaster or problem” requiring an infrastructure fix.

“We have a lot of infrastructure throughout the state in a lot of our municipalities and our counties, so I think we need to be careful about a precedent that we’re just going to be sending general fund grants out to fix potential problems,” he said.

But Miller, along with several Macomb County House Republicans who said they were outraged by the changes in the Senate, appear poised to continue the fight as the bill moves back to the lower chamber.

She said the $3 million grant would help fund a bypass system necessary to diver the flow of sewage around the collapsed interceptor and blamed Meekhof for standing in the way.

“It is incredibly pompous and arrogant for one man to stand in the way of a project designed to keep raw sewage out of 150,000 Macomb County basements and raw sewage from being discharged into our magnificent Great Lakes,” Miller said.

The supplemental funding bill also includes $1 million to cover design expenses already paid as the Michigan Capitol Commission develops a larger plan to replace the internal infrastructure of the aging building.