Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Flint Water Crisis Leaves City Finances in 'Very Precarious Situation'
Photo: Flint resident Angela Hickmon, 56, shouts out with no reservations as she calls for an end to paying water bills in the city until this "man-made disaster" is figured out during a protest outside of City Hall on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 in downtown Flint, where residents tore up and burned their water bills. "A lot of apologies need to be made," she said. "Our water has been messed up for a long time. We don't know what it has done to our babies. It's very appalling. These emergency managers put us in this predicament, and they need to pay to get us out. They should be the one paying all of our water bills, not us." Jake May | MLive.com

Jake May | jmay2@mlive.com
Gary Ridley | gridley@mlive.com
January 25, 2016 at 11:18 PM

FLINT, MI – Flint officials say the city is in a "very precarious situation" as a growing number of people are refusing to pay for water service.

City Administrator Natasha Henderson told city council members Monday, Jan. 25, that the city's water utility could be out of money by the end of the year as Flint's public health emergency drives down collections on water bills.

"This is an imminent concern," Henderson said. She added that conservative estimates say the water fund will be out of cash by December.

The city is currently in the national spotlight after elevated blood levels were discovered in some Flint children after the city changed its water source from Lake Huron water purchased from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014, a decision made while the city was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager.

State regulators never required that the river water be treated to make it less corrosive, causing lead from plumbing and pipes to leach into the water supply.

Even though the city reconnected to the Detroit water system in October, local officials have advised Flint resident not to drink city water unless they are using a lead-clearing filter.

The crisis has brought attention from national media organizations, celebrities and investigators. Attorney General Bill Schuette even tweeted earlier this month that residents shouldn't be billed for water that they are unable to drink.

But, Henderson said all of the attention continues to have a negative impact on the city's finances, a city that has been managed by a string of governor-appointed emergency managers due to its rocky financial footing.

"That has a tremendous impact on the city's ability to be fiscally sustainable," Henderson said.

However, the city's financial state seems to draw little sympathy from residents who already pay water rates that are dramatically higher than the city's neighbors and continued to be charged service fees for a product they are being told shouldn't be consumed without filtration.

More than 60 people protested in front of city hall on Monday before the meeting. Many of the protestors were disgusted with the fact they are still being billed for water service.

The protest culminated with residents tearing up and burning their water bills.

"Our water has been messed up for a long time," said 56-year-old Flint resident Angela Hickmon. "We don't know what it has done to our babies. It's very appalling. These emergency managers put us in this predicament, and they need to pay to get us out. They should be the one paying out water bills, not us."

Henderson said the city has the authority to issue shut off notices and raise rates, but leaders have chosen not to do so in light of the current water crisis.

The city announced in November it would send out 1,800 water shutoff notices, but Henderson said the city hasn't disconnected service for nonpayment since Aug. 7, 2015, -- the day Genesee Circuit Judge Archie Hayman issued an emergency injunction in a lawsuit challenging water shutoffs and how the city's rate increases were calculated.

Hayman initially ruled the city must eliminate a 35 percent increase in water and sewer rates enacted by Mayor Dayne Walling in 2011, but eventually said the city could return to its previous rate structure.

The dwindling cash flow could also impact the city's sewer service, since it is included on residents' water bills. It has also forced the city to put any capital improvement plans on hold for the water system.

Henderson said she and other city leaders have met with Gov. Rick Snyder's office about the financial problems facing the water fund. So far, the state has not offered any assistance.

"We have not received any relief from the state on this at all," Henderson said.

The Synder administration requested a supplemental appropriation for the current fiscal year that would use $22 million in state money plus some federal money to direct $28 million to address immediate in Flint. It allocates state funding to six department and would enable the state to increase National Guard efforts, increase nurses in schools and replace fixtures in some public places.

"Right now we are focused on meeting the immediate needs of Flint residents, getting them water, filters, replacement cartridges and making sure they know that calling 2-1-1 will get them the assistance they need," said Snyder Press Secretary Dave Murray. "Gov. Snyder said he wants to make sure that no one in Flint has their water shut off, and we're aware of potential revenue challenges."

More than $17 million of the funding would go to provide emergency bottled water, filters, blood testing and other services.

The bill, however, also includes $5 million to aid the city in the loss of revenue from unpaid water bills and new water system infrastructure.

The state House passed the bill 106-0 on Jan. 20. It is currently awaiting approval from the Senate.

"Time is of the essence and we do need the state to respond," Henderson said.

No comments: