By Paul Rozycki
Before last November’s election there were many who wondered if Dr. Karen Weaver, running for her first elective office, was ready for prime time. It seems that we have our answer. In just a little over three months, has any mayor of a similar sized city had as much national, state and local air-time? Indeed, has any Flint mayor ever gotten so much media coverage? But, after all the interviews, Rachel Maddow appearances, CNN news interviews, newspaper quotes and celebrity photo ops, has it served her well and has it served the city of Flint well?
Certainly, the city has benefited (at least in the short run) and has garnered much national sympathy and support (both financial and otherwise) from around the nation. For better or worse, we are the poster child of the urban water crisis and the nation is paying attention to Flint’s problems. And the response has been generous.
But has the mayor’s celebrity status taken her away from the more mundane aspects of city hall?
Conflict with the Council
It was about time for the powers of the mayor to be restored, and the state finally did, giving her the power to hire and fire her own team. Yet, the firing of Police Chief James Tolbert, Fire Chief David Cox and City Administrator Natasha Henderson raised more than a few eyebrows. There is no doubt that Mayor Weaver has the power to pick her own team, as all mayors do, but many wondered about the wisdom of such a dramatic upheaval just as we are starting to get a grip on the water crisis. Police Chief Tolbert, seemed especially well regarded in the community. Though the council did approve former police officer Tim Johnson as replacement for Tolbert and Raymond Barton as the new fire chief, Weaver’s dismissal of Henderson was voted down by the city council. Several on the city council felt they were left out of the loop and not informed of the mayor’s plans. All of the new appointments still need to be approved by the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB). Once the TV cameras are gone the mayor will need to establish a working relationship with the council (and the RTAB).
When to Replace the Pipes?
However the friction with the council works out, there is one conflict that might be easily resolved. Recently the mayor and Governor Snyder seemed at odds over the timetable for removing and replacing the lead pipes in Flint. The mayor wants them fixed NOW, while the governor wants to wait for a full scientific survey of the city to locate the lead pipes.
There is perhaps no better time to apply Yogi Berra’s maxim “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”
On one hand there is no reason why the mayor can’t show immediate results. We already know of some houses that have lead pipes that need replacing. Why not take care of a few of those houses ASAP. Have a photo op with the mayor, local residents, and water activists surrounding the earthmoving equipment breaking ground for the first replacement pipes. Over the last six months or so there has been a lot of talk, many studies, panels and presentations on the water issue. That’s all good, but now people are looking for action. The anger and frustration over the Flint situation was apparent in a recent forum with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Woodside Church. Immediate action could be an initial response to that anger and it might be a first step in restoring trust.
On the other hand, there is still a lot we don’t know about who has lead pipes and who doesn’t. (Though the U of M-Flint and Rowe Professional Services seem to be making real progress with the issue.) Let’s do this right and use solid science to decide where we need to dig. It may take a little more time, but the last thing we need to do is run around digging up the city like a demented squirrel on speed looking for lead pipes willy-nilly. The odds are that by the time we’ve finished with the lead pipes we know about, we’ll know about the rest. (One suggestion to emerge from the Woodside Church forum was that some of the funds coming to Flint for the water problem should be set aside for computer software to track future problems with lead service lines.)
Beyond the Crisis
In the end, we will solve the water issue. However, there are both challenges and opportunities beyond the current crisis.
One long term worry is the decline in property values caused by the water issue. One recent projection suggested a decline of as much as 25% in Flint. Those declining property values not only hurt individuals and businesses, they reduce revenue to a city that is starving for funds and has already lost huge amounts of its tax base. Even if future property values bounce back up, state law limits a comparable rise in tax revenue.
A similar concern is that the symbol of Flint as “the city that poisons its kids” may stick with us long after the pipes are replaced and the water is fine. (How many people still mention “Roger and Me” when they hear you are from Flint? And that movie was almost 30 years ago.) The long-term image will make selling Flint even tougher.
Finally, there are the lawsuits arising out of the water crisis. Already it’s a rare evening when there aren’t a half dozen TV ads to call this or that law firm to file a suit over the lead issue. Whatever the justification for the claims (and there certainly is much to sue for), is there any possibility the city will be able pay for those suits and remain financially viable? The shadow of litigation may hang over the city long after the pipes are fixed.
A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Sooner or later we will solve the water problem. Pipes will get replaced. Water will again be safe to drink. But if that’s all we do, we’ll still be a declining, industrial, rustbelt city, with a bunch of new pipes. We need an “After the Crisis Team” to take a longer view. Flint needs to emerge from this, not only with a collection of new pipes and restored water, but with the wisdom to show other cities how it’s done and a vision of our own future.
We already have a pipe plant in the city. Could that become a growth industry? (Pipe City?) Could Flint’s colleges and universities become centers of expertise in mapping and engineering solutions? Could the local legal community develop remedies to fairly compensate those harmed, without bankrupting the city? Could the ‘water activists’ stay active and require greater accountability and trust from future elected officials?
Could all the media attention, celebrity visits, campaign promises and financial assistance become a springboard to a new city that is much more than just new pipes and drinkable water?
Let’s hope so.
EVM commentator and columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.