In January 2016, I wrote about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. It is now fifteen months later, and while some progress has been made, it is not nearly enough, not nearly quick enough, and Flint remains a city in crisis. In fact, the city has only recently begun replacing its lead-tainted pipes.
The residents of Flint are still using bottled water to drink and for cooking. Until yesterday, 03 May, residents were helped by a program that paid 65% of their water bill, but that program has now ended, and residents must pay the full bill for water they cannot safely drink. Ironically, Flint has one of the highest water rates in the country. But along with the news that residents of Flint would be paying their full water bill now, came this news:
Some Flint Residents Could Face Foreclosure Over Unpaid Water Bills
The city warned more than 8,000 Flint homeowners that they could get slapped with tax liens if they’re more than six months behind on their water accounts. Failure to pay a tax lien could eventually result in foreclosure. Flint’s Interim Chief Financial Officer says it is important to note that the process involving the lien transfer to tax bills is routine and has been performed for years in accordance with the City ordinance adopted in 1964. Excuse me, but this is not your normal situation.
Flint residents paid on average $864 annually for water service. According to a study by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, Flint was one of three systems surveyed nationwide charging residents more than $800 annually. The Westland water system was the second most-expensive major water system in Michigan with an annual bill roughly $300 less than Flint. The lowest rates nationwide were found in Phoenix, where residents pay less than $85 per year for water service. Now I ask you, would you pay more than $800 per year for water you could not drink?
Although it’s not unheard of for a municipality to foreclose on a homeowner over unpaid taxes or utility bills, it’s somewhat shocking to think it could happen in a city that’s had famously toxic water since 2014. Even Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, disagrees with the decision:
“I must say, I agree with those who have spoken out against this process. I have met with our Interim City Attorney and Finance Director and they say the city is obligated by local ordinance to follow this procedure, and we must follow the law. As the Mayor of Flint and as a Flint resident, I understand the concerns that have been raised and I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.”
One resident, Melissa Mays, received the notice in the mail Friday stating that she must pay nearly $900 by May 19 to avoid a lien being placed on her property. “While I understand this is the way the law reads we are in a totally different situation,” said Mays.
U.S. Representative Dan Kildee also disagrees with the decision:
“Flint families should not have to pay for water that they still cannot drink, and they certainly should not lose their homes over this ongoing water crisis that was caused by the callous decisions of state government. It is unfortunate that Governor Snyder ended water credits for Flint families. I opposed this decision because Flint families deserve support from the state until there is confidence in the water system again.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality claims that the latest analysis showed the city system tested “below action levels of the federal Lead and Copper Rule and at levels comparable to cities with similar size and age of infrastructure in Michigan and across the nation.” Such results, however, don’t necessarily ensure that the water is safe. City residents continue to be advised not to drink the water unless it has been properly filtered, and many residents still refuse to use it for cooking or bathing, relying on bottled water instead.
It seems to me that, until the last of the contaminated pipes have been replaced, Flint residents should not have to pay for water they cannot drink, or at least should continue to be given the 65% credit. The city initially created this crisis by trying to save money. They have only themselves to blame for the fact that it is now costing them. I do not know what the solution is, but I do know that nobody should have to lose their home over an exorbitant water bill when they cannot safely drink the water.