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Snyder pitches $30 million for Flint water bill refunds

Chad Livengood, Jacob Carah and Jonathan Oosting, The Detroit News

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Feb. 3, 2016

Flint — Flint residents would get refunds on a portion of their water bills dating back to April 2014 under a $30 million proposal Gov. Rick Snyder announced Wednesday.

“One of the reasons for this announcement today is because of the great concern and attention to water bills, I concur that people should not have to pay for water they shouldn’t drink,” Snyder said Wednesday in Flint.

The Snyder administration estimates that water for drinking, bathing and cooking constitutes about 47 percent of the Flint water bills in question. The state funding would cover 65 percent of those water costs but would not help cover sewer payments.

The funding would enable the city of Flint to apply credits for customers on future bills. The governor will formally propose the spending plan on Feb. 10 as part of a supplemental funding bill for the current fiscal year.

“This doesn’t mean this is happening today. It needs to go through the normal appropriations process,” Snyder said.

Under the proposal, Michigan taxpayers would help pay for Flint water bills during a period in which the city was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged it failed to require the addition of corrosion control when the city switched to river water in April 2014. The harsh water leeched lead from aging pipes into the city’s water supply, creating a public health crisis.

Flint City Manager Natasha Henderson said Wednesday that the city’s water and sewer fund will only be solvent through the third quarter to maybe the fourth quarter. If the fund runs out of money, it would trigger a need possibly for another emergency manager, although state law allows for other options.

“These resources will help with that. With the $30 million supplemental, we have an additional $3 million set aside to help with city utilities and look at the loss from those arrears,” Snyder said.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver called the additional funding a “good second step” on the heels of a $28 million emergency aid bill Snyder signed last week to cover the escalating costs of providing Flint residents with bottled water, faucet filters, replacing water fountains in schools, daycare centers, nursing homes and hospitals and hiring school nurses, among other initiatives.

“But there’s still more to come,” Weaver said in a statement. “We will continue to talk and negotiate about what else we need because we know this will be helpful, but we need a lot more."

The issue of Flint residents being forced to pay for water that was deemed unsafe to drink came up Wednesday morning during a congressional hearing on Flint’s water crisis.

“Why are they even paying for money that they can’t even use?” U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked during a heated inquiry of Michigan’s top environmental official. “Are they paying those bills? Are you going to relieve them of that?”

Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, noted Snyder’s plan to credit the accounts of Flint residents for their drinking water.

“Everyone deserves water that is safe,” Creagh told Cummings.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he is open to paying for Flint water bills, a proposal that would require legislative approval during the annual budget process. The governor briefed Meekhof on the plan prior to Wednesday’s announcement, but the Senate Republican caucus has not yet discussed it.

“There’s a good argument to be made that if government has failed (residents) at every level, and is somehow involved in this, that maybe we should consider that,” Meekhof said.

But $30 million is not enough, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who said he has talked to Mayor Karen Weaver and believes it will take closer to $60 million to cover all usage and service charges on Flint water bills since April of 2014.

“I think that’s probably a more appropriate number,” Ananich said. “I appreciate the fact that the governor is realizing it’s unfair and that people shouldn’t be paying, but I think we have to work out and come to a conclusion what the exact cost is.”

Ananich also urged the governor to tap a $575 million state surplus and put the water funding into a supplemental spending bill, as opposed to the 2017 budget, which would not take effect until October.

“Let’s be realistic, because the story came out today and because of my comments, people are going to stop paying their bills, because they think “Oh, if the governor proposes it, I’m going to get a refund.’ If they wait until October the city will run out of money,” Ananich said. “It’s really important to do it now.”

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is investigating the Flint water crisis, voiced support Wednesday for the governor’s water bill proposal.

“It was unfair and immoral to force Flint residents to pay for drinking water that they cannot drink because it would damage their health,” Schuette said in a statement. “This proposal is a positive step forward to righting a wrong but we will have to watch the process to ensure it happens.”

Meanwhile in Flint on Wednesday, Snyder wanted to say to residents who want him to testify that he is cooperating with every investigation.

“This is a situation where we should understand the lessons and learn to make sure it never happens again,” Snyder said.

The governor also addressed the safety of Flint’s water, saying: “there is no timeline to say the water is safe, that will only be validated by third parties. Absolutely, there is no chronology. There is no date to say it’s this date — that will be based on water tests. We have hopes. We hope it’s sooner rather than later.”