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Flint’s big gulp

waterThe high cost of water is about to jump even higher

Part 2 of 3

By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Editor’s note: This three-part series on water struggles in Michigan’s Black cities will cover the cities of Highland Park, Flint and Pontiac.

FLINT — A recent MLive-Flint Journal analysis of water and sewer rates in 25 Genesee County communities found the residents of Flint pay between $65 and $120 more per month than their neighbors.

And those costs are soon to rise higher still. In his proposed budget, Emergency Manager Darnell Earley is calling for a 6.5 percent hike in water and sewer rates for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. Six percent more will be piled on the following year.

Once those increases are implemented, Flint households will be paying an average of more than $190 a month for a resource no one can live without. That’s tough to swallow, especially in a city were nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Like Detroit, the city’s fortunes have long been tied to the auto industry. During the boom that followed World War II, its population hit nearly 200,000 before starting to decline. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, fewer than 100,000 live there now. As with nearly all of the cities in Michigan that have fallen under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, a majority of residents — nearly 57 percent — are African American.

But it’s not just residents leaving. In 1978, according to one study, GM facilities in Flint employed more than 80,000 people; the number now is about 7,500.

With Flint decimated by the loss of population and its industrial tax base, an emergency financial manager was installed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, in 2002 and remained in place for four years. By 2008, however, the city was again facing mounting deficits.

In 2011, using a more expansive law, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder placed the city under an emergency manager possessing authority that’s virtually unchecked. Earley is the third person to hold the job in the past three years.

As noted in a 2011 case study of Flint conducted by researchers from Michigan State University, “Ultimately … if cities with chronic fiscal stress are suffering from structural challenges beyond their control, improved management will only be able to cure a limited number of problems.”

Among the most significant of those structural problems is the maintenance of aging water and sewer systems. It is an issue facing municipalities nationwide as the federal government continues to cut back, creating a massive gap between expenditures and needs.

“Capital spending has not kept pace with needs for water infrastructure,” according to a 2013 report produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers. “The trend toward state and local governments’ assuming the bulk of the investment requirements in the coming decades will continue, with local governments’ paying an increasing share of the costs.»

It is one thing for wealthy communities with a strong tax base to absorb those costs. But the hardships are magnified when the burden falls on poor people living in a city undergoing massive cuts in an attempt to balance its budget.

After buying its water from Detroit for decades, Flint has joined the Karengondi Water Authority, which is building a 70-mile, $274-million pipeline that will bring water from Lake Huron to Genesee, Lapeer and Sanilac counties.

Until that project is completed, Flint will be drawing its drinking water from the Flint River.

Even backers of the project say it won’t keep rates from rising — and Flint taxpayers are on the hook for the city’s share of the project’s cost — but, it is promised, rates will be lower than they would have been if the city kept buying its water from Detroit.

Regardless of whether that promise holds true, the expense of trying to maintain a crumbling system will only continue to increase.

For residents such as Bill Alexander, a 73-year-old GM retiree, the feeling is there’s no place to turn for help.

“It doesn’t do any good to go to the City Council, because it doesn’t really matter what the City Council does,» said Alexander. «They will debate issues and listen to public comments, but in the end, from what we’ve seen, things will vary very little from what (EM Earley) said he wanted in the first place. If he wants to raise the water rates, he will raise them anyway.

“That’s because his job isn’t to be concerned about the people, regardless of what their hardships are. His job is to try and get the city’s budget balanced.”

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on Michigan’s emergency management law and open government, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at  aclumich.org/democracywatch. Contact him at 313.578.6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.

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