Getting Back in like Flint

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the lessons learned from Flint—lessons that were not unrelated to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S, history in Detroit.

Immunity for State & Municipal Employees: What Does it Mean in Flint? U.S. Judge Judith Levy, in her 101-page decision this week, held that Flint and Michigan employees can be sued over the city’s lead water contamination; however, she found that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the State of Michigan have governmental immunity. The ruling came in response to a suit brought by a resident of Flint, against Gov. Snyder and 13 other public officials. Judge Levy dismissed many of the counts; however, she concurred that Flint resident Shari Guerin, who had brought the suit against the city and the other public officials, had had both her and her child’s “bodily integrity” unknowingly exposed by the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water—levels of which the state was aware, but had hidden from the public. Indeed, the Judge wrote: “The conduct of many of the individual governmental defendants was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” Despite dismissing the charges against the Governor, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services—and the city’s water treatment plant operator, Judge Levy found that some key state leaders, including the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Health and Human Services Director could be sued in their individual capacities—and that Flint officials have no state governmental immunity, writing: “As this case highlights, the more governmental actors that are involved in causing a massive tort in Michigan, the less likely it is that state tort claims can proceed against the individual government actors given the way the state immunity statutes operate…Because the harm that befell plaintiffs was such a massive undertaking, and took so many government actors to cause, the perverse result is that none can be held responsible under state tort law.”

A Vicious Fiscal Whirlpool? For the city, the severe water contamination had not just physical fiscal implications, but also fiscal ones. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who was in danger of losing homes under tax foreclosure proceedings (Real property tax delinquency in the state entails a three-year forfeiture and foreclosure process)—proceedings which had been scheduled to commence last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium—a moratorium which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014. While that temporary reprieve is in question, confronting an unknown outcome before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which has monitored Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in two years ago last April—and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting; the outstanding water liens and inability to collect have further emptied the city’s coffers—even as, unsurprisingly, assessed property values  have become the latest fiscal hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis which was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

According to a recent Michigan State University study, “Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years, 2011-2015),” Flint has lost nearly 75 percent of its tax base—and of that base, assessed property valuations reeled to a 50 percent drop from $1.5 billion to $750 million.  Thus, unsurprisingly, more than 100 residents showed up at this week’s Council meeting—understandably upset that they face foreclosure even as they have been confronted by bills for drinking water, which they could neither drink, nor use in any way that might jeopardize the health and safety of their children. Those citizens received a temporary, one-year reprieve from the city—but the reprieve implies greater fiscal challenges to the city.

With liabilities high and revenues and property taxes struggling, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reports that Flint has trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and, due to federal grants, is hiring 33 more firefighters. The city is proceeding with a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown, seeking to create a central, historic space which could enhance the downtown—or, as the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint.”

But assessing the dimensions of this disaster, created in no small part under the state’s original takeover of the city via the appointment of the emergency manager who had made the fatal decisions to change the city’s sourcing of drinking water, also includes looking back to the critical governmental decisions—especially Flint’s opting to abandon reliance on the  Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and instead rely upon the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a regional water authority created as part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment—meaning Flint’s citizens will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps—or, as the Mayor put it: “Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good…It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to the KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.” Under the city’s 30-year agreement with the  30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual municipal bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. In addition, the agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system—or, as Mayor Weaver notes: “We have pipes going into the ground now (referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines).We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”

Mayor Weaver notes Flint has cut its $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; the city expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and the city continues to work with the Governor to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis. To try to become an economic magnet or hub, rather than a city to be avoided, the city is focused on a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre, creating a central, historic space which could draw folks to events, restaurants, and bars. As the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint…They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”

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