Assessing a City’s Fiscal Future

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eBlog, 1/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider—again—the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to political stirrings in Atlantic City, New Jersey—where, notwithstanding the city’s state takeover, there appears to be rising aspirations with regard to the City Council’s next election.

Out Like Flint. When Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State speech a year ago, he addressed Flint’s water crisis by directly speaking to the city’s residents to say: “I am sorry, and I will fix it.” Today, one year later, as Gov. Snyder preps for his seventh annual address to state legislators, filtered and bottled remain the only safe way for its residents—any resolution of the health care crisis and threat caused by the state’s then-appointed Emergency Manager’s actions that led to such life-endangering contamination problems could be more than two years away from reaching every home. The city’s elected officials contend that Gov. Snyder has not secured sufficient funding to address the city’s problems, while the Governor’s office points to the state’s allocation of $234 million in aid and Congressional approval of $170 million in Flint-inspired funding from which the city may be able to tap tens of millions of dollars. In addition, a year-long Michigan Attorney General’s Office investigation into the Flint crisis has resulted in the filing of charges against 13 city and state workers and officials, including former state-imposed Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. (From April 2014 until the fall of 2015, while Flint was under state control via Gov. Snyder-appointed emergency managers, the city drew its water from the Flint River, but failed to treat it properly to prevent pipe corrosion, thus allowing lead to not only leach into the drinking water, but also damage the pipes themselves, creating a need for replacement.) It was just a year ago, in his annual address to the Michigan Legislature that Gov. Snyder devoted the first 20 minutes of address to outline the mistakes made in Flint—and his battle plan to overcome them, telling legislators: “There can be no excuse—when Michiganders turn on the tap, they expect and deserve clean, safe water…It’s that simple. It’s that straightforward. So that’s what we will deliver. To the families in Flint, it is my responsibility, my commitment, to deliver…I give you my commitment that Michigan will not let you down.”

Indeed, in that year, crews have replaced service lines in 780 homes so far, according to retired Brig. Gen. McDaniel, who heads the replacement program, who yesterday noted: “If we can do 6,000 homes per year, for the next three years, we should address the problem we have.” Under Gen. McDaniel’s timeline, however, completion and restoration of trust in governance will not be complete until late 2019 or early 2020—and, mayhap more worrisome, funding to pay for the work has not yet been secured.

For her part, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has constantly lobbied the state for more funding, but reports that the response from Gov. Snyder’s office has been disappointing: one of the reasons for the slow movement of her Fast Start replacement program, which was designed to target neighborhoods with seniors, homes with high lead readings, and high concentrations of children age 6 and under who are most vulnerable to lead exposure. Or, as she put it yesterday: “We should have had money right then…We had $500,000 to start…We’re in our third year of not being able to drink our water. Now where does that make sense in the United States of America? No place that I know of.”

Sen. Jim Ananich (D-Flint) reported he would, as a former teacher, give Gov. Snyder an “incomplete.” While crediting the state’s efforts to provide health services and monitoring, he said funding in general is lacking—and the provision of state aid has, at times, been bungled, noting an original state appropriation of $2 million intended to support families facing water shut-off for non-payment: “That plan included a stipulation that in order to get the money, 70 percent of customers, commercial and residential, have to be up to date on payments,” even though customers were being asked to pay for water they could not use safely, so that, as he put it: “To rectify a problem of undrinkable water, the fix is to make people pay or cut them off.” Sen. Ananich and Genesee County health officer Mark Valacak have praised the state’s immediate health efforts targeting Flint’s most vulnerable populations, its youngest children and pregnant women, but have stressed the need to create a database to track the impacts of residents’ exposure to contaminated water, so that there is a critical understanding of potential long-term human impacts—a request, in response to which, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services last Friday announced there would be a one-year $500,000 grant to Michigan State University for “long-term tracking of residents exposed to Flint water” between April 2014 and now. It would seem the state ought to–at the same time–undertake an effort to examine the impact on Flint’s assessed property values.

Nevertheless, Mayor Weaver and Flint City Councilman Eric Mays are concerned that the state’s efforts have not closely involved local residents, or, as Councilman Mays put it: “We know (Snyder) has another State of the State address coming up…and we’ll see if he spends as much time on this one talking about Flint as he did on that one…But I don’t believe he’s pushed the Legislature to do what they could do.”

Succession? Even in a city taken over by its garden state, there appears strong interest in who might be the next Mayor. Thus, in Atlantic City, Fareed Abdullah, a substitute teacher and former City Council candidate, has thrown his hat into the ring: he will face Council President Marty Small and Councilman Frank Gilliam in the June Democratic primary, where the winner will take on Republican Mayor Don Guardian. Mr. Abdullah reports: “I want to re-do Atlantic City…People feel left out. And we have to make sure that Atlantic City residents’ voices are heard, and that’s what I’m focused on.” He adds that his priorities include reducing taxes, creating jobs, making re-entry programs for those convicted of crimes and youth programs tied to science and technology, and improving police-community relations: “I want to work with private-sector companies throughout the country, and throughout the world really, to bring more businesses to Atlantic City, which in return would reduce our taxes because we will have more ratables…Building up small businesses and absolutely trying to realize that this is what has made Atlantic City great. The barber shops. The corner stores,” he said. “We don’t want people to forget there’s a whole culture in the barber shop.” (Mr. Abdullah has twice run unsuccessfully for City Council (in 2009 and 2013, just missing election by 72 votes in the most recent), after losing the first effort in no small part because of a 1997 cocaine possession conviction.

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