Drinking the water is one thing. Affording it is another.
While the immediate crisis of potability is handled, an increasing number of Flint residents are faced with a new crisis: taps that have been shut off for nonpayment. Flint, according to a 2017 survey by the national nonprofit Food & Water Watch, has the 10th highest water rates in the country.
In March, Michigan Radio reported that 1,100 Flint residents had had their water service cut off since January 2017. On May 17, MLive reported that the city has ramped up its shut-off program, cutting off 300 water service lines a week.
The city has instituted a trial reduced payment plan, mandating as of March 13 that residents pay 10 percent of their outstanding balance in addition to a $75 fee for turning the water off in the first place—and another $75 fee for turning it back on. They also have to stay current with their bills and continue paying on the past due amounts. Flint Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver's aide, Candice Mushatt, said the city is looking into strategies to help offset the costs of water bills and is also referring residents to local charities.
The trial payment period may be a carrot, but Flint Chief Financial Officer Hughey Newsome is also trying a stick: tax liens on homes with outstanding water balances. In other words, Newsome is willing to threaten people with being kicked out of their homes for nonpayment of water bills, regardless of inability to pay or the fact that Flint residents with lead service pipes still can't drink unfiltered tap water. Newsome was not available to comment in time for this article.
Fortunately for Flint homeowners, Genesee County Treasurer Deb Cherry won't be collecting on those liens. During a recent interview, Cherry said she won't enforce liens for water bills that weren't paid from 2014 to 2016 (when Flint's water was literally poisonous), and her office will also not enforce any water bill-based tax liens at all until the mayor's office declares the water emergency over.
According to the MLive report, Flint's water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of 2018. However, the report also says that Newsome stated the fund will be in the red in the next five years unless collection efforts are ramped up.
Residents, prisoners try for their day in court
Flint’s water crisis has also started making its way to the court system. In addition to the upcoming criminal trials of state officials, 13 federal lawsuits have been filed to date. Twelve closely related class-action suits have been consolidated into one class case, which is now before U.S. District Judge Judith Levy in Ann Arbor. According to co-lead interim class counsel Michael Pitt, the class actions run the gamut from claims arising from health issues caused by drinking lead-poisoned water—including more than 1,000 children who were exposed to dangerous levels of lead—to property losses possibly exceeding $1 billion. Defendants in the case, which include several city, state, and federal officials, filed motions to dismiss the suits earlier this month.
While the related class actions have started making their way through the system, one stand-alone suit filed in June aims to get justice for former inmates of the Genesee County Jail. They have accused administrators of denying inmates access to clean water during the crisis, and charging exorbitant prices for bottled water in the jail's commissary.
Conrad J. Benedetto, one of the lead attorneys in that case, said, “We filed this lawsuit to send a message to Genesee County officials and to other government officials across this country that the United States Constitution gives all citizens—even prisoners—certain fundamental rights that cannot be disregarded on a whim.”
Dawn Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you ‘d like to help support more stories like this through our freelance program, contribute here.