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Detroit and Flint, sister cities in misery

Some say Michigan's controversial emergency manager law has targeted poor black cities, complicating already bad situations.
A Flint River sign is seen in Flint, Mich., Dec. 16, 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
A Flint River sign is seen in Flint, Mich., Dec. 16, 2015.

Black children in Flint are being poisoned in their homes by toxic drinking water. Black children in Detroit are being poisoned in their public schools by mold spores in the air and fecal matter on the floors.

These sister cities, about an hour apart, have more than just catastrophic health and environmental crises in common. They share the distinction of being among a handful of Michigan cities – mostly poor and black— that have had their local governments taken over by the state via a controversial Emergency Financial Manager law.

The law was crafted to help keep struggling cities out of bankruptcy and to buoy them from financial collapse. But as part of the process the state has stripped power from local elected officials— and subsequently from voters— and handed over almost unfettered control to state-appointed managers.

RELATED: Bad decisions, broken promises: A timeline of the Flint water crisis

The results, critics of the law say, have been mixed at best but catastrophic at worst. The current crises in Flint and Detroit serve as exhibits A and B, they say, in a much longer docket of missteps and crushed toes across the state.

“What Flint has done, tragically, is to expose the flaws in the emergency manager law. It shows what happens when you take Democracy away from people,” said Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan. “When they passed the law, did they know that it would have a particular impact on African Americans? Certainly the initial thrust of this inherently anti-Democratic law was primarily aimed at black people and poor people that were disproportionately affected.”

The Flint water crisis began in 2014 after a decision by state officials to switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, sending highly corrosive river water through the city’s already dilapidated water system. At the time the city was still under the state’s hand. Soon, residents began reporting discolored water that also had a strange smell. People began reporting serious health issues. Children started becoming sick. As early as last summer, internal Environmental Protection Agency memos obtained and released by the ACLU highlighted growing concerns about high levels of lead contamination in the water. One family’s tap water tested at levels nearly three times higher than what would be classified as hazardous waste.

This week as emails between government officials discussing the crisis have been made public, it appears that those officials often put politics and money above the welfare of residents.

“It shows what happens when you impose an autocracy that is driven by an agenda focused on austerity,” said Guyette, who helped to break the story of Flint’s water contamination long before it became national news. Guyette noted that initial government reports stated the switch to the Flint River would save the city $5 million.

RELATED: Snyder apologizes to the people of Flint

Class action lawsuits have been filed. Residents, organizers and politicians, including President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have condemned the state’s response, the latter even calling for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation. Celebrities and Good Samaritans from across the country have pledged money and bottled water to the city’s residents. 

"I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk," President Obama said of the situation in Flint during a visit to Detroit. Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint over the weekend, which triggered a federal emergency management response including bottled water, water filters and home test kits.

As Snyder grapples with the fallout, he conceded his failure in properly handling the matter when his office initially became aware of it nearly a year ago.

“Government failed you. Federal, state and local leaders by breaking the trust you place in us,” Snyder said during his State of the State address Tuesday. “You deserve better, you deserve accountability.”

“The fact that they were doing this to an African-American cities and the inherent racism that exists in society, made it easier to do, made it possible,” Guyette said.

According to the Michigan Department of Treasury there currently are no cities under emergency management, though a number of cities are still transitioning back to local control. There are three public school districts currently under emergency management, including Detroit Public Schools.

RELATED: Obama protects Clean Water Act from GOP effort

Flint’s former emergency manager is currently the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools.

The foul state of the city’s public schools has created a maelstrom, a second punch to the gut of the Snyder administration. On Wednesday teachers protesting the terrible conditions of the schools, including cockroach and rodent infestations, mold and human waste leak, staged a massive “sick out” forcing a majority of the city’s nearly 100 schools to close.

 The management of the school buildings is one thing. The management of the district’s finances has been another. After waves of school closings and layoffs, the city’s schools remain more than $3 billion in debt.

“We’re on our fourth emergency manager here,” Craig Thiel, a senior research associate for the Citizens Research Council told the New York Times. “They each seem to be borrowing from the same playbook: figure out a way to get through the current year, end the year without going insolvent, and then push costs onto the next year in the hopes that things will improve in some way. They’re dealing with these debts that should have been paid off years ago that have instead been put on future budgets.”

 Detroit’s school system was handed over to an emergency manager in 2009. But by the time Detroit fell under emergency management in 2013, nearly half of Michigan’s black population and about 10 percent of the state’s overall population lived under the control of emergency managers. Time and again economic and political interests seemed to have trumped the well-being or wishes of locals.

Many of the cities and school districts that have come under emergency management, dealing with heavy debts, ultimately borrowed money to balance their budgets, Guyette said. That increase in debt was coupled with substantial cuts in revenue sharing imposed by Gov. Snyder. At the same time, some emergency managers have sold off city assets to balance the books.

RELATED: Flint water crisis hits Time magazine

In the majority-black Benton Harbor, which fell under emergency management in 2010, the emergency manager merged the police and fire departments, fired a number of city employees and all but neutered the city commission by prohibiting them from doing anything more than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes and calling them to a close. In that city, the manager also restricted public access to a beloved waterfront park deeded “in perpetuity” by a wealthy benefactor nearly 100 years ago. Part of the public park had been turned into a private golf resort with an annual membership fee of $5,500 for a family. The annual per capita income of Benton Harbor is just around $10,000 a year.

“They sold off a beautiful public park and turned it into a private golf club that the people of Benton Harbor can’t afford to use,” Guyette said. “Like poor people don’t deserve a nice park overlooking Lake Michigan.” 

The state takeover in Benton Harbor was marked by controversy from the start, with allegations from local residents and politicians alike, saying then emergency manager Joe Harris ran roughshod over the city.

“He’s been operating in a dark room with a flashlight, making all types of decisions. And has thumbed his nose at the residents at large,” then-City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad, now the city’s mayor, said in 2012. 

There has been a constant call by activists and many African American residents to repeal the emergency manager law, calls that have ramped up since 2012 when Gov. Snyder and the legislature expanded the power of emergency managers.

 A repeal of the law remains highly unlikely as Gov. Snyder, a Republican, enjoys the wide support of a Republican-led legislature.

 It is still too early to estimate the cost of the Flint water contamination. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has said it could cost as much as $1.5 billion to repair the city’s damaged water distribution system. There will also likely be out of pocket expenses to residents for damaged water heaters, dishwashers and other household appliances contaminated by toxic water.

RELATED: Newly released emails cast Flint scandal in new light

But there are also other costs associated with high levels of lead exposure experienced by the people of Flint.

Evidence suggests that exposure to lead, particularly among children, can cause irreversible effects on health, IQ and behavioral problems.

“Even after the emergency manger leaves it’s not really a full return to democracy,” Guyette said. “Two things have happened under the law. One is that the emergency manger on the way out of the door issues final orders saying none of the previous orders issue by the emergency manger can be reversed until a year after receivership ends.”

Asked if ultimately these cities are any better off after an emergency manager leaves, Guyette said  the jury is still out.

“The question is, is it sustainable for them going forward?” he said. “In a short sighted attempt to save $5 million bucks it’s hard to even count up how much it’s going to cost the state and the people of Flint.”