“Game changers” for City of Flint: Mayor touts blight, ARPA funds, proposed water credit, infrastructure

By Tom Travis

This article has been updated to include the correct amount of the C.S. Mott Foundation grant towards the Hasselbring and the Brennan Community Centers from $300,000 to $750,000. The Hasselbring Center will receive $450,000 and the Brennan Center will receive $300,000.

Hot topics for Flint residents are city employees’ pension fund, blight elimination, and the spending of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Funds) funds on Flint’s crumbling infrastructure.  One plan for ARPA money distribution includes a $300 water credit for residents, a proposal awaiting City Council consideration.

In a press conference Sept. 22, Mayor Sheldon Neeley addressed each of these items to a standing-room only crowd in the Dome, behind City Hall. Neeley delivered a litany of accomplishments. Neeley, along with Director of Public Works (DPW) Director Mike Brown and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Rob Widigan explained the accomplishments and future plans to tackle these critical areas.

$220 million from the State will relieve threat to city coffers

“We’ve changed the game inside the city of Flint,” Neeley said, referring to $220 million from the State of Michigan budget towards city employees pension fund that was quickly bankrupting the city. Neeley referred to the underfunded pension fund as “the ‘grim reaper ‘over the city of Flint.”

With the additional $220 million from the State Treasury,  the city will be able to allow critical city services to continue, Neeley explained. Without the infusion of State funds many critical services would be affected because the city would be required to pour funds into the mandated pension payment. CFO Widigan explained that the city has “a moral” and “a constitutional mandate to fulfill our promise to retirees,” as reported by East Village Magazine in an Aug. 8, 2022 article.

Flint’s pension funding has been a problem for more than fifteen years, Widigan began.  “The $220 million will move the city from crisis to recovery,” he said.  This has been made possible “through prayer, planning and partnership,” he added, explaining a “structural deficit” is when a city spends more than it brings in in taxes.

Displayed on a screen behind Widigan was the projected “structural deficit” numbers Flint would have endured if not for the $220 million from the State. In 2019 the revenue was $56 million with $52 million in expenses rising to $58 million in revenue to $71.1 million in 2022.

Projected for 2024 was $56 million in revenue and $76 million in expenses. “The Emergency Managers (EM) kicked the can down the road and they made no attempt to address this issue for the residents,” Widigan asserted, referring to the city’s period of state fiscal control by four emergency managers over seven years including the water crisis era.

Initially the state budget called for $170 million to fund Flint’s growing pension budget,  but state legislators worked to add $50 million. bringing the total to $220 million. The added $50 million is specifically designated for all municipalities in Genesee County, including Flint, to help them reach a 60 per cent funded ratio. Previously Flint’s pension budget was funded at 26 per cent.

The influx of the $220 million from the State will lower Flint’s annual pension payment to $18 million from $32 million annual payment.

Pipe replacement “90 percent finished”

According to the city’s website 28,500 lines originally needed to be replaced and 27,000 have been completed. Neeley said the lead line replacement is 90 per cent complete. “There are crews on the ground now working to replace lead lines.” LGC Global of Detroit has contracted with the city of Flint for $17.8 million to complete the lead line replacements and restorations.

Lead line replacements and restorations began in 2016, two years after the Flint Water Crisis emerged.   A line of contractors have been involved with lead line replacement in the ensuing years,  including Rowe Engineering beginning in 2016, Rowe was replaced by retired National Guard General Michael McDaniel in 2017. Finally,  the embattled AECOM was contracted at the end of 2017. According to DPW Director Brown restorations are set to begin this week, September 26.

The city’s website claims the lead level is at 7 ppb (parts per billion) far below the acceptable federal level of 15 ppb. A full progress report on the Flint water can be viewed at this link: www.cityofflint.com/progressreport.

DPW Director Brown explained that the testing of water that is presently being conducted by the city is only on unreplaced lines, lines that are still lead, not copper. “If you have copper lines they’re not being tested,”  he said, adding that both businesses and households are being tested.

Secondary water line sources Flint Water Department from Lake Huron

Touting the completion of a secondary water line,  Brown noted the recent GLWA (Great Lakes Water Authority) water line break necessitated the Flint Water Department to use the newly completed water line. The new secondary water line pulls water from Genesee County Drain Commission, which gets it from Lake Huron.

The Mayor presented a video, also available on the city’s website, which depicts the process of how Flint receives water from Lake Huron. The video can be viewed at this link.(www.cityofflint.com/no-boil-water-advisory-for-city-of-flint-thanks-to-secondary-water-source)

Flint’s secondary water line was approved back in 2018 by EGLE and the EPA. The approval of the contract was embattled between city administration officials and city council until 2021. The completed secondary line involves nearly seven miles of pipe in northeastern Genesee County, from Frances Road to the new Chemical Feed Building on the Flint Water Plant campus at 4500 N. Dort Hwy.

The city of Flint’s main source of water is through GLWA. In 2017 the city council approved, by a 5-4 vote, a 30-year contract to purchase water through GLWA, until the year 2047. The GCDC provides a secondary water source to the city through the newly completed secondary water line. Both GLWA and GCDC’s initial source of water is Lake Huron.

ARPA funds are “a game changer” for Flint – Mayor Neeley

Neeley touted the federal ARPA funds are a “game changer” for Flint. He announced community input from residents is being considered as a spending plan developed for the ARPA funds.

The federal government announced in April 2021 that Flint, along with many other municipalities across the country, would received $94.7 million in stimulus funds. The city of Flint has received more than $47 million in two payments since 2021 and has set out to allocate how those funds should be spent.

In January 2022 city council approved a one-year, $1.150 million contract with Detroit compliance firm, Ernst & Young. Ernst & Young will assist the city in assuring it meets the criteria for using the ARP funds. Guidelines have been detailed by the federal government but leave some room for interpretation.

In June 2022 the Mayor’s plan for how to use the money was presented to City Council. The Mayor’s plan calls for $16 million ARPA funds to be used for blight removal with an additional $8 million coming from Genesee County coffers.

According to Michael Freeman, CEO of Genesee County Land Bank, additional funds for blight elimination will be leveraged from philanthropists/foundations, state, federal and land bank contributions  amounting to $45 million towards blight elimination. Freeman spoke with EVM after the press conference by text message.

The Mayor’s ARPA spending plan includes, according to CFO Widigan: $400,000 for equipment used in blight elimination, $2.7 million for premium pay for Flint’s essential workers, $450,000 for Community Help Center “to ensure water and food distribution.”

Widigan added that Hasselbring and Brennan Community centers will receive, in total, $1 million with an additional $750,000 in funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation. Hasselbring Center will receive $450,000 and the Brennan Center will receive $300,000 from C.S. Mott Foundation grant. Also, the water line replacement along Miller Road, in Flint’s Eighth Ward, will use $2.2 million from ARPA funding, Widigan announced.

The ARPA spending plan also calls for a $300 water credit for each Flint water customer. This credit would total $8.6 million of the ARPA’s $94 million funds. The credit must be approved by city council.

The complete ARPA spending plan can be viewed at www.cityofflint.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Flint-MI-ARPA-Presentation.pdf

New council president supports $300 water credit

EVM spoke with new city council president Dennis Pfieffer (Ward 8) after the press conference about the $300 water credit proposed by the mayor and still needing council’s approval.

“I don’t know where the council stands on it, but I am for it,”  Pfeiffer said.  “One thing that many are talking about is the rising cost of many necessary items including natural gas. This money is pandemic-related, the inflation is pandemic -related, so this will help the community.” He added, “I wish it was more.”

Council vice-president Allie Herkenroder (Ward 7) had been chairing city council meetings since City Councilperson Eric Mays (Ward 1) was removed by his council collegues as president earlier in 2022. At last week’s council meeting Herkenroder announced she is taking on a new job and will no longer be able to chair council meetings. Herkenroder will remain on the council and will remain vice-president. After her announcement the council elected Pfieffer as council president.

“I hope to bring a level of leadership to move the city forward. I’m humbled to serve, Pfieffer said.

Jackson, MS and Benton Harbor join the ranks of municipal water being poisoned

In a poignant moment, Neeley suggested that Flint has prayers, guidance and support to both Jackson, MS and Benton Harbor, MI who have recently experienced water infrastructure catastrophes. He recalled the progress in Flint’s water crisis but noted that it’s not complete yet.

Banner photo: CFO Rob Widigan (center), Mayor Sheldon Neeley (right) and DPW Director Mike Brown (left) on stage in the Dome at City Hall holding a press conference on Thursday, September 22.

EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at tomntravis@gmail.com

Author: Tom Travis

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