By Jan Worth-Nelson
Note: This story has been corrected to clarify that the proposal to hire Aonie Gilcreast has not yet come before the Flint City Council–Ed.
A disagreement on what constitutes acceptable water quality between city officials and Governor Rick Snyder is at the heart of Mayor Karen Weaver’s unsuccessful effort to forestall the end of water credits for Flint residents.
And in another piece of bad news, city officials predicted that for the water to be reliably safe, all residential inside plumbing fixtures might need to be replaced along with outside service lines.
The city received notice last week of the water credit cutoff from Snyder senior advisor Richard Baird saying that water credits would end as of Feb. 28, a month earlier than most people, including city officials, expected.
The state’s contention, according to Baird’s letter and the Governor, is that following a December round of testing, Flint’s water quality “meets the same quality standards as any other community in Michigan and meets all federal quality standards.”
According to Kristin Moore, Weaver’s public information officer, “more than $40,400,000 in water relief credits will have been applied from state funds to the accounts of Flint water system customers by the end of the program.” But the mayor said she believes that is still not enough, considering that the debacle was “a man-made water disaster.”
In a press conference at City Hall Wednesday, Weaver said the governor had set the end of water credits for “March 31 or until water was deemed to have met these standards,” and that now that those standards were met, according to the state, the Governor had held up his end of the bargain.
The credits, which covered water usage since April, 2014, paid 65 percent on residential and 20 percent on commercial accounts.
Weaver and other city officials, including JoLisa McDay, supervisor of the water plant, contend that even though the water quality coming into Flint homes may be good, residential “premise plumbing,” what Weaver called “our inside infrastructure” — home fixtures like shower heads, kitchen taps, refrigerator filters — over which the city has no control or responsibility — have been damaged, and would need to be replaced for tap water to be safe.
“Our definition of good water was when it was tap-drinkable,” Weaver said. “A filter should be a choice, and it’s a necessity at this point — as a result of actions by the state. So I would never tell you to take those filters off.”
Replacement of residential plumbing is included in proposals for service line replacement, Weaver said, but those programs are not yet in place.
“It’s sad information that I’m giving you,” Weaver said. “I’m not excited about standing here.”
Water rates concern of protestor
One protestor, water activist Lisia Williams, bore a sign reading “No water credits/reduce water rate” and “Mayor Weaver has the power.” After rehearing Weaver and Sabuda’s remarks, she shouted, “how’s that going to help the water rates with the residents that cannot afford their water bills once the credits leave?”
Interim chief financial officer David Sabuda said processes are being put in place for those unable to pay for their water, but that water shutoffs are likely to resume for unpaid water services in the spring. “Collection is out there — we need to collect to pay our bills, it is important that we collect,” he said.
Sabuda added no one would lose any credits already accumulated.
Though one man tried to silence Wiliams, who shouted “so are you going to stand up for the residents of Flint,” Weaver said the city was exploring how to control the water rates over time as the KWA pipeline bond funds come due — another aspect to the city’s complicated situation — a massive project ostensibly intended to provide cheaper water in the long run for the city. The pipeline is under construction and expected to be completed sometime in the next year.
A few points of common ground
Sabuda said on several other areas beyond the thorny question of water credits, the state and city found more common ground. He said the state is helping the city explore sources of funding for covering water utility costs. He said the state is preparing for resumption of lead line replacements, and helping the city receive and manage promised funds from state and federal sources.
He also added state officials are helping the city pave the way for how to restore the roads expected to be damaged by lead service lines replacement.
Nonetheless, Weaver said she left the Lansing meeting “really disappointed, I was extremely disappointed — and angry,”
“Continuation of the credits would have been really helpful for the people — to support this until the next round of testing in June, or until the lead service lines are all replaced,” she said. “And I’m not going to tell anybody to drink the water without filters. We want people to know how to protect themselves.”
“I guess he [the governor] is going to see the anger of the residents,” she said. “I was very, very surprised, when we’re supposed to be partners. This is a challenge for us.
“We need to go full steam ahead on this,” Weaver stated, while adding the city’s frustrating predicament is how to stand on its own, while still needing help from the state which she said created the current crises.
Gilcreast hiring proposal questioned
Finally, Weaver was questioned by a Michigan Radio reporter about a proposal to hire Aonie Gilcreast, a Weaver associate who has been an unpaid advisor at city hall since the mayor’s election in November, 2015. A proposal to hire Gilcreast for a full-time, paid position of $120,000 — money proposed to be provided by the state out of water resource allocations — would have to be approved by the City Council as well as the Receivership Transition advisory Board, a body appointed by the state to monitor the affairs of the city after the end of emergency manager administration in April, 2015. The proposal did not appear on the Monday night city council agenda.
The Michigan Radio reporter, Steve Carmody asked, “Is now the best time to be taking the water resource funding for hiring Mr. Gilcreast?”
Weaver replied, “If we have people who have volunteered who have played a role, let’s get them onboard. People who’ve put that kind of time in should get paid. We have a skeleton staff decimated as a results of the emergency managers — the state should be helping us rebuild our capacity.
“This is about more than getting the service lines replaced,” she continued. “It’s “about economic development and transforming our neighborhoods.” Asked if Gilcreast would be dealing with more than just water, Weaver demurred, noting that the position had not been approved. .
“You know, we’re trying to get the state out of oversight,” she said. “But we don’t have the resources — it puts us in a strange place. The state is working hard to treat the water. The state is doing their part, but I want Flint to run Flint. We’re not quite there yet.”
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.