LANSING, Mich.—Legislative leaders said Wednesday they are open to spending $30 million to help pay the water bills of Flint residents facing an emergency over a lead-contaminated water supply, though a top Democrat said the proposed state funding should be doubled.
Gov. Rick Snyder briefed city officials and pastors in Flint earlier in the day about his plan, which he will formally outline to the Republican-controlled Legislature next week in conjunction with his annual budget proposal. Details of the plan were first obtained by The Associated Press late Tuesday.
The aid would cover the estimated portion of residential customers’ utility bills for water that has been or will be used for drinking, cooking or bathing between April 2014—when the city’s water source was switched—and this spring. Customers would still be responsible for paying for water used for other purposes, such as to flush toilets or wash clothes.
Snyder has apologized for regulatory mistakes that caused Flint’s water to become tainted with lead from old pipes after the city started tapping the Flint River instead of Detroit’s water system in 2014. The switch was made in an effort to save money while the cash-strapped city was under state financial management.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint, said Snyder’s proposal was a step in the right direction. But he said the state should fully cover the water portion of customers’ water/sewer bills and double the amount to cover the costs to $60 million, because the state was “almost wholly culpable for this problem.”
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said “there’s a good argument to be made” for assisting with bills because government “at every level” failed the city’s water customers.
An estimated 21,000 residential customers continued paying their water/sewer bills since the switch occurred, while 9,000 customers have not, according to the Snyder administration.
The 21,000 paying customers, in addition to people who have since moved away, would get a credit for 65 percent of the water portion of their combined water/sewer bill. That’s the part of the bill that Snyder estimates is used for water that could be ingested or come into contact with skin.
The 9,000 residential customers in arrears would be put on a payment plan to catch up on sewer charges and 35 percent of their water fees, potentially over a period of years.
“I agree with Flint residents, that they should not have to pay for water they cannot drink,” Snyder said in a statement.
But Ananich criticized the plan, saying the percentage was “picked out of the air.” He said the full cost of the water “from the beginning” should be reimbursed.
“It’s another example of looking at this from an overly technical view as opposed to a human view,” he said.
He pointed to Flint’s water problems, including elevated levels of lead in some local children’s blood, increases in Legionnaires’ disease deaths, E. coli and carcinogenic disinfectant byproducts.
Businesses and other commercial customers would get a 20 percent credit for the water portion of their bill.
Sewer fees account for a little more than half of a typical Flint resident’s bill. So a household that pays $150 a month could get a $46 monthly credit, or about $1,100 for 24 months.
Snyder’s office estimates that the $30 million Consumption and Consumer Use Credit—available because of a one-time $575 million budget surplus—would cover a two-year period until this spring, when officials hope the water supply is declared safe to consume again without filters.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the lead problem in September, supports the plan.
“It’s hard to find moral justification in having (residents) pay for water that is not suitable for consumption nor, until recently, for bathing. This essentially refunds all the money associated with consumption or consumer use,” Edwards said.
It is unclear how quickly customers could start to be reimbursed for their water bills if the funding is approved.
The additional $30 million will be included in a supplemental bill for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and not the 2016-17 spending plan, state budget office spokesman Kurt Weiss said.
The governor and legislators have enacted $37 million in emergency Flint funding this budget year, including $3 million to help the Flint Utilities Department with unpaid bills.
Snyder is expected to propose other Flint-related funding in his budget plans next week.