Many outsiders look at the situation in Flint, Michigan with bewilderment. They ask, how can an American city essentially poison its own citizens with lead laced water? What kind of process leads to this type of outcome?
First, let’s track how Flint got to where it is. Once a thriving industrial power that belched opportunity from the smokestacks that dot the urban landscape, Flint began losing jobs (mostly auto based) in the 1970s when international competition challenged the status quo of American industry. In the decades that followed, job loss kicked into full gear, leading Flint to lose half its population- and its ability to maintain a solid quality-of-life for its remaining residents. Schools suffered. City services declined. Businesses moved out, people did too.
In short, the place went upside down.
This is the point in the story where it turns from an unfortunate tale of a (largely) post-industrial city to an indefensible account of a state government turning its back on one of its pillar communities.
Beginning in the late 1990s the State of Michigan began de-funding local governments across the state. A decades old revenue sharing partnership between the state and its local partners was raided to cover shortfalls in the state’s budget. The raid continues today, topping $7 billion in cumulative loss to all cities, villages and townships. According the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2002-2012 Michigan was the ONLY STATE IN THE U.S. to see total municipal general revenue decline (the state’s general revenue increased by about 30% during this period). Struggling cities like Flint were hit the hardest.
With declining revenue from property taxes that reflected lower values in the city and the state’s cutting revenue sharing, the city became a prime candidate for Michigan’s emergency manager law. The law allows the state of Michigan to replace the city’s elected leadership by appointing one person to make decisions on behalf of the entire municipality. The goal of the emergency manager is to balance the budget. He is answerable only to the state treasurer and ultimately, the governor.
A February guest editorial from Kary Moss in the Detroit Free Press describes the situation like this:
“Little has been said however about the law that made this possible, a law that gives a political appointee unfettered power to make decisions that will affect a community, without democratic accountability. This lack of check and balances on government is a civil rights issue.’
“The law does not require that an emergency manager have any expertise outside the financial arena and, to that end, allowed him to elevate the financial bottom line above all else. It enabled a revolving door of emergency managers in Flint with no ties to that community and yet unfettered power to make decisions that affect them. The suspension of democracy in these largely African-American communities makes this a civil rights issue.’
“We can now see the dire consequences. The absolute powers granted the emergency manager enabled him to stay the course in contravention of complaints about the water and adverse environmental reports, subverted the scientific processes, and led to the manipulation of that data to achieve the desired results.”
So here is a clearer picture of how poor decisions were made in Flint- 1) a once mighty city falls on hard times; 2) the state unilaterally obliterates its only remaining steady revenue option; 3) the state appoints an emergency manager to balance the books, apparently at any costs, and; 4) harmful decisions happen.
What we need to fix this problem in Michigan is a true urban policy that provides resources for infrastructure. We also need an actionable urban policy at the federal level. I’ve been provided an opportunity to do a congressional briefing on this topic in DC later this week, where I intend to go into greater detail on the facts of this matter. I’ll let you know how it goes.