Our editorial: Don’t pay for dirty Flint water

The Detroit News

Flint city leaders continue to bill residents for water service, including bills for past service of contaminated water. But residents shouldn’t be on the hook for water they can’t use.

Until households have the water filters and other materials they need to make sure their water is clean, it’s unfair to ask them to pay for the utility.

Culpability for the contaminated water rests with city and state officials, as well as bureaucratic officials at the state and federal levels. And that’s who should work together to find a solution to help pay for residents’ water bills going back at least several months, and possibly to the point when water was first contaminated.

At a press conference Monday, regarding an investigation into the water crisis, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also said Flint residents shouldn’t have to pay for unusable or harmful water. “If you can’t use it, you shouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said.

Schuette is bringing on Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood as well as retired Detroit FBI Chief Andrew Arena to help in his office’s investigation.

Flint’s finance director recently said the city stopped sending water shutoff notices to residents over the holiday season, but will begin issuing them again. The newest shutoff notices will be for bills from November and December.

But still, the water was contaminated at that point and had been for many months before. Residents shouldn’t have to pay for any water services that might have contained improper levels of lead or copper.

Gov. Rick Snyder last week requested $28.5 million from state lawmakers as a short-term fix for some of the city’s issues, including covering costs the Flint water system needs to recoup if it’s not going to get it from residents’ bill payments.

That’s the right approach.

And with 40 percent of Flint’s population living in poverty, paying water bills is already an issue for many families. The contamination and its effects only compound that.

The governor has also pledged to help residents find other means of financial assistance to ensure they don’t get cut off from the water system for not paying their bills.

Aid won’t go directly to residents, but to the water system to help offset costs.

And expect more requests for aid to come. Snyder will outline a 2017 budget proposal in February, which is sure to include substantial funding for Flint.

But the city’s water system will need significant investment to recover from the past year — and it wasn’t already in great shape. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said it could cost as much as $1.5 billion to fix the city’s damaged water distribution system.

The interim director of the DEQ said the price tag might be hard to estimate at this point, but that Flint has about 500 miles of iron pipe that are 75 years old.

Those kinds of infrastructure challenges will have to be dealt with, in addition to reconnecting all Flint residents to a healthy water source, and ensuring they have corrosion control methods in place.

For whatever clean water services residents have been given — which will be hard to pinpoint — Flint should consider payment plans similar to those Mayor Mike Duggan instituted in Detroit following the water crisis two summers ago.

As state and local officials continue to sort out logistics of providing water and filtration systems to residents, and Flint residents continue to adjust to living without a reliable water source, no one should have to pay for water that might harm them or their kids.