The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Flint Crisis – Only In Michigan?

Tap water in Flint, MI.  Source: michiganradio.org

Let’s talk about Flint, Michigan.

By now, you’ve probably gotten a good understanding of how the crisis started and developed.  In an effort to save money, the nearly-bankrupt city, under the direction of state-appointed emergency managers, shifted the water supply from Detroit sources to the local Flint River in April 2014.  But they did so without the appropriate chemical treatment to prevent lead from leaching into the water from lead piping.  Despite nearly immediate protests from residents after the switch, complaining about the taste and color of the water, Flint officials and the emergency manager maintained that the city’s water was safe.  However, a General Motors plant suspended its use of Flint water, in October 2014, saying the water was corrosive to auto parts.  Continued testing of the water was done by residents and outside public health officials throughout 2015 and consistently showed elevated levels of lead, but state officials seemed to take the position that Flint residents were using fears about the water as a political foil against a Republican governor and an unpopular state emergency manager act.  After 18 months, Flint returns to Detroit water in October 2015, but does not add corrosion-preventing chemicals until December.  The city and state then declare an emergency, and ask the federal government for the same.

It’s not a happy story.

I’ve been to Flint a few times.  I can’t say I’ve become very familiar with it.  My parents live in Saginaw, about 30 minutes north of Flint.  But I do know that, among Michigan cities, Flint has about the same reputation in the state that has dogged Detroit nationally for decades — auto industry dependent, economically deprived, poverty-stricken, crime-ridden.  Even in its present condition, Detroit enjoys the position of being Michigan’s largest city and metro, the state’s largest regional economy, and with that it can command attention.  Flint is not able to do that.

That’s why I’m not surprised that this tragedy took place in Flint.  In fact, it could’ve happened in any midsized post-industrial Midwest city, perhaps the most forgotten of any city type in America.

But I do think this is fundamentally a Michigan problem.

To say that Michigan is not a state of particularly gleaming cities is an understatement.  Besides Detroit and Flint, cities like Pontiac, Saginaw, Ypsilanti and even the state capital Lansing were impacted by the domination of the auto industry.  There were other cities, like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Jackson and Muskegon that escaped auto industry dependency but were very industrial in their economic orientation.

Michigan is also a state with its share of political, cultural and social fault lines.  It could be said that Michigan has long been split in three ways — north vs. south, east vs. west, and urban vs. rural.  The north-south split pits the state’s large industrial cities in the south against the recreation-focused “Pure Michigan” locations largely in the north of the state.  The east-west split pits the auto-industry-impacted cities of the east, led by Detroit, against the non-auto-industry-but-no-less-industrial cities of the west, led by Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.  And then the urban-rural split is in many respects another iteration of the north-south divide.  These fault lines were masked as the state enjoyed its mid-twentieth century growth, but come to the fore in less optimal conditions.

In a state whose economic essence was tied for so long to industries that prized mobility, it’s not surprising that it adopted suburban-focused policies far earlier than some states, and may resist urban-focused policies more than others.  Michigan adopted the Charter Township Act of 1947 just as the spread of suburbia was beginning nationwide.  The Act provided protection to unincorporated areas seeking to avoid annexation to nearby cities.  The Act allowed townships with at least 2,000 residents to incorporate with a quasi-city charter township designation, allowing them to establish municipal services like police and fire forces.  This in effect capped city annexation and expansion in Michigan, meaning that Michigan cities perhaps lost out on property and sales tax revenue via annexation slightly earlier than other cities.  Accelerated suburban incorporation in Michigan may have accelerated city decline.

Then there’s the much more recent emergency manager laws enacted in Michigan, first enacted in 1988, amended in 1990 and replaced by a new act in 2011.  The acts have been viewed by many as a double-edged sword; they focus state attention on troubling municipal budgets, but come with fears that they usurp local authority.  Since Governor Rick Snyder came into office in 2011, the usage of emergency manager law has increased significantly throughout the state, with even more emphasis on cost-cutting measures to balance local budgets.  Flint was under emergency manager control from 2011 to April 2015.

An alternating combination of neglect and disdain — that’s how one might describe the political and cultural environment Michigan cities like Flint have been operating in for decades.

Today Flint is challenged with coming up with the funds to repair its water system infrastructure.  No firm estimates are out yet, but numbers floating in the media now suggest that Flint could be tasked with finding $1.5 billion to fix its old system.  How will that happen?  Who will pay up?  Is this an existential threat to the city that birthed General Motors?

To me, midsized cities, especially those in the Midwest, are particularly vulnerable to threats that other cities are able to endure.  I’ve categorized potential prospects for them in the past, but the fact remains that today’s global economy puts large cities at the top of the hierarchy and smaller cities are being left behind.  New York has been able to withstand and recover from Sandy; New Orleans has survived Katrina.  But how can much smaller cities, already threatened, withstand such trauma?

When Detroit went through its bankruptcy existential crisis a couple years ago, two things propelled its recovery.  One was the recognition that as the state’s largest city and center of a metro that contains half the state’s population, it was indeed “too big to fail.”  The second was a herculean effort by the city’s philanthropic community, a legacy from its better days, to mobilize resources that made an expedited exit from bankruptcy possible.  It remains to be seen how critical Flint is in most Michigander’s eyes.

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