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Flint’s Filthy Water and Governor Snyder

The human tragedy of Flint, Michigan is agonizing. Thousands of children have been subjected to lead and other chemical poisoning, not to mention adults, just to save a few dollars in a process driven by raw politics and underlying racism. 

Michigan, mostly personified by Governor Snyder many months ago imposed a dictator on Flint, just as it had done in Detroit and twelve other cities, towns and counties and five school districts. These government bodies had fallen on hard times and had severe budgetary woes. However, these are not the first local governments to experience financial shortfalls. There were tried and true ways to help them out. The state could have provided emergency funding and worked with the local government, just as occurred with some Northeastern local and state governments decades ago. The emergency manager concept is something different. It replaces local government rather than negotiating with it. It tells the people of the city, town, county or school district that they are not capable of electing officials that can govern responsibly.

Specifically, the governor and legislature, controlled by a party that is overwhelmingly white, rural (Obama won only 20 of 83 counties, but almost 55% of the vote) and relatively well off, has decided that a number of local governments that are heavily weighted toward African American, urban and low-income representatives that they are incapable of participating on representative democracy. Through 2014, 52% of Michigan’s African American residents lived under emergency financial managers, while only 2% of white Michiganders did

The governor, a former “venture capitalist” who somehow convinced voters that this was a good credential rather than a disqualifying one, immediately got an existing emergency manager law vastly expanded when he was elected in 2011. The law was rescinded by initiative (72% voting to rescind) but reenacted the next year. That is when the ax started falling on local governments.

It is indeed true that these local governments had fallen on hard times. And there was certainly a level of mismanagement and even graft that could be cited by state officials and often was. However, graft and mismanagement are hardly limited to Black politicians. No, the real reason for their fiscal woes was the monumental economic disaster that gripped the nation after the financial crisis in 2008. These communities were among the hardest hit because they were most susceptible to the core effects of the crisis. For example, it has been estimated that more than 70% of the mortgages written in Detroit in the pre-crisis years were subprime. 

This real-estate disaster destabilized the financial bases of these local governments by ravaging the property tax base. The tax effect of real estate value decline is always delayed as the property of those who have the wherewithal to pay gets revalued over a period of years, diminishing revenues beyond the technical end of the recession. Ultimately, these local governments suffered at the hands of the banks far, far more than they did from mismanagement or graft.

That is not how Snyder and his people saw it. They failed to understand that the vast majority of these local governments had suffered from waves of economic problems, particularly susceptible to the decline of the American manufacturing sector and the auto industry. Additionally, the political leaders, particularly at the state level, had for decades promoted the concentration of African American and other communities of color in Detroit proper and in pockets surrounding Detroit through transportation and other policies. These pockets became politically disturbing to Snyder and his cohorts because they were centers of public union activism that worked against their political policies.

Snyder was elected as a proponent of austerity, to bring those profligate and shiftless areas of the state to heel so that the rest of the state would not have to pay for their deficiencies. He was a businessman, and those skills were prized by the state electorate. The problem was that government is not a business. His administration, through the dictatorship of the emergency financial manager for Flint, decided that they were better served by going off the Detroit Water and Sewerage System and securing their own sources of water, Michigan being in the midst of the largest freshwater supply in the world, after all. 

Importantly, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department provides service to almost half of the population of Michigan, not just the city. The governor has always sought to limit it, through privatization or reorganization. It has been thought that the opposition to the governor of public employee unions that represent the department workers is a reason.

Ultimately, the state was committed to take over Flint and in particular to pull its water system away from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department. It was fixated on the idea that the state could not afford to provide assistance to Flint or the other local governments it had taken over. Obviously, the state could afford to provide plenty of assistance, it just chose not to. Why should it be a surprise that the state would order the cessation of the purchase of water from the city and to source it from the Flint River instead to save $12 million per year while a separate system to access lake water was built. The pressure to get it done must have been enormous. Corners were undoubtedly cut in service of the governor. The proof is in the result: massive damage to the people of Flint because of haphazard oversight by state agencies. The governor has pointed fingers at his administration, but the bureaucracy was serving his policy.

Should the governor resign? With the health of thousands seriously affected because of politics, venality and conscious or sub-conscious racism, resignation should only be the beginning.