29 Jan 2016

Lessons Learned from Flint, Michigan


Senior Lecturer John Macomber considers the lessons learned from the tragic situation in Flint, Michigan, where the city’s water supply has been poisoned with lead. How can future disasters like this be prevented? Macomber provides some answers.

The water situation in Flint is tragic, and there is plenty of blame to go around. So far, most analysis has focused on the personalities and details of this apparently isolated situation in this city of 100,000. But Flint is not an isolated situation; there are dozens if not scores of municipalities in the United States where industry has departed, where the state house and legislators have looked the other way, where populations of poor and minority residents remain, where public pension obligations are large…and where there is increasing pressure to cut corners on infrastructure provision and maintenance. The result, as in Flint, is as morally repugnant as it is fiscally expensive.

What long-view actions can be taken by other states to avoid this situation in their declining cities? Here are three ideas that have worked elsewhere.

First, think of urban agglomerations as related financially for tax and investment purposes. For example, northwest Ohio is healthier in part since some cities and surrounding towns benefit from revenue and cost sharing, unlike Detroit and environs, where the well-to-do suburbs fiscally abandoned the poor core.

A second forward-thinking approach is to facilitate relocation and job retraining. It does not do people much good if their skills leave them marooned in a shrinking town after everyone else has moved on to other venues. Alabama, for instance, has an extensive state-funded workforce development program so that residents can get new jobs as agriculture departs from the state.

Finally, although it seems obvious, it’s a lot cheaper to keep water and other systems maintained in real time than to let them decay and then pay more to fix them later. Sometimes this can be accomplished with the partial privatization of service. About 15 percent of Americans currently receive water from private operators like American Water. These arrangements are often criticized as leading to higher water fees than the public equivalent. But if a private company wants to stay in business, it needs to keep pipes, pumps, and filters in shape – and meet objective water quality metrics. Arguably that’s a justification for higher fees now to avoid system collapse later. If the public water services can’t get adequate annual maintenance funds from their legislatures, maybe a longer term commercial contract makes sense.

There are more Flints on the horizon. Not all of the residents in these places have to suffer the same slow agonizing fate. The time has come to turn to some forward-looking civic expenditures rather than leave small cities to their own devices – especially in locations where jobs have departed and are not coming back.

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