By Paul Rozycki
It looked like the Flint water crisis was over…and it wasn’t.
It looked like the pandemic was over…and it wasn’t.
The water crisis
In Flint, as July ended, nearly all of the lead pipes in the city had been replaced, a court settlement was on track, lead levels were at record lows, and it seemed that the seven years of the Flint water crisis might be behind us.
Then the newly installed pipes on Court Street began failing, flooding the neighborhood with water, and creating huge sinkholes in the middle of the newly paved road. Arguments over who is to blame, and who is to pay may go on for some time.
Then a group of Flint residents, led by former Mayor Karen Weaver, objected to the proposed $641 million water crisis settlement as it went to U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy for approval. They felt that the amount of money allocated wasn’t truly enough to compensate those Flint residents who had been harmed by the water crisis. They also objected to the proposed $202 million in fees for the attorneys who led the lawsuits against the city and others involved in the litigation.
Recently, when announcing the positive news of lower lead levels for Flint water, Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said “We know that trust was broken.”
It looked like the water crisis was over….and it wasn’t.
As we entered the summer many of us were ready to drop our masks, get out of the house, and resume something that resembled a normal life. The dramatic drop in the number of new COVID cases and hospitalizations seemed to justify that view.
Then along came the delta variant, which is more contagious, that began to infect those who had not been vaccinated. A surprising number of young people were being hit with the virus, in sharp contrast to last year, when it was mostly older individuals who had to worry.
As vaccination rates lagged, there was a fear of a fourth wave of the virus. Distrust caused as many as a third of all Americans to remain hesitant about getting the vaccine. Los Angeles and other cities began to require masks again, and many worried about what the start of the new school year might bring for young students, who hadn’t, or couldn’t, get the shot.
The distrust between the Democratic governor and the Republican state legislature caused the lawmakers to approve proposals that would limit the governor’s ability to react to future emergencies or pandemics.
It looked like the pandemic was over…and it wasn’t.
With those things in mind, it may be even more unsettling to look at other worries on the horizon. And as we try to move beyond the pandemic, and the water crisis, the challenges of the future arise from a similar cause….a lack of trust.
The city council elections
The recent August primary has chosen the city council candidates for the November election. City council elections, in an off-year, typically receive little attention from the voters or the public in general. But this year’s choices will determine whether the Flint City Council continues with the divisive, rancorous habits of recent years, or whether it becomes a more civil governing body that can be trusted to lead Flint.
The city budget
The most important duty of the city council is to approve a budget. They missed the deadline required by the charter in June, and just barely passed a budget by the end of the month as required by law. But the dry columns of numbers in a city budget underscore a major problem for the future of Flint.
In a city with a shrinking population and tax base, how do you provide for the increasing needs of its people? Like most cities that have lost population, Flint has a large number of retirees, and a shrinking number of current workers.
That doesn’t leave a lot of money for more police, better streets, efficient garbage service, or lower water rates. Right now some of the pandemic funds will buy the city some time, but the council will need to make hard financial decisions in the not too distant future. Will those decisions be accepted and trusted by Flint residents?
Redistricting commission begins
A few years ago, Michigan voters approved the creation of a non-partisan commission to redraw the state’s election districts. Every ten years, after the census, election districts are redrawn to assure that there are an equal number of people in every district.
But in the past, how those districts are drawn has been a source of much partisan conflict. Whichever party has the majority in the state legislature has been able to design districts to elect their own people—what is commonly called Gerrymandering. Michigan’s new commission hopes to avoid that.
However, with the census being delayed by the pandemic, they will be under a very tight deadline to create Michigan’s new districts by Nov. 1, as required by law. Right now a judge has ruled that there is to be no delay because of the pandemic and late census numbers.
That may lead to complaints about the fairness of the process if later census numbers are different that those initially given to the commission. Will that lead to distrust of future elections held in those districts?
The future of Flint Community Schools and the MOU
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Flint Community Schools are facing a crisis even more pressing than the city of Flint. As shown in Harold Ford’s extensive coverage in East Village Magazine, they are losing students at an alarming rate, and currently enroll less than a quarter of the students within the city.
The relationship between the Flint School Board and Superintendent Anita Steward is growing more combative by the month. The system has had seven superintendents in the last 15 years. On top of all that, the Flint schools are facing financial challenges as the enrollment shrinks, and demands increase to repair and maintain its aging buildings.
One positive note is the new education funding package proposed by the governor, and the COVID relief funds may provide a financial cushion, at least for a while.
Another bright light on the horizon for the Flint schools, is the proposed Memo of Understanding (MOU), led by the Mott Foundation. It would provide a dramatic increase in funds and new programs to rebuild the Flint Community Schools.
But that MOU has a long way to go before everyone buys into it, and it’s already facing criticism from those who distrust the motives and the Mott Foundation. Recently, the friction between the school board, the superintendent, and the Mott Foundation caused the foundation to briefly pause its funding until communication and trust is restored.
Donald Trump, the election, and trust
And finally, it looked like last year’s election was over….and, at least for some, it wasn’t. It’s astonishing that nine months after the election, and seven months after the inauguration, there are still many who refuse the accept the results of the 2020 election. In spite of endless recounts, audits, challenges, and more than 60 court rulings, the previous president and his followers still contend that they won last year’s contest.
The implications of that denial is about more than Joe Biden or Donald Trump being president. It’s about whether or not we can trust the whole system that we have created. That same distrust lies behind many of the challenges we face with the Flint water crisis, the pandemic, the city council, the city budget, redistricting, and the revival of the Flint schools.
Until we can restore that trust, none of these crises will truly be over.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.