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Major foundations giving Flint $125 million

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Ridgway White, President of the C.S. Mott Foundation, looks out at downtown Flint from his 12th floor office

Ten major charitable foundations plan to spend nearly $125 million to help the city of Flint.

Today’s announcement touches on practically every aspect of life in the Vehicle City, from education to the economy; from providing health care to making sure the city’s water is safe to drink.

The money is coming from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, FlintNOW Foundation, Ford Foundation, The Hagerman Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, Skillman Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  Organizers hope to attract more support from additional groups in the future.

The lion’s share of the money is coming from the C.S. Mott Foundation, which is committing up to $50 million over the first year and up to $100 million total over five years, with grants across all six priority areas, as well as investments in K-12 education.

“This money is really focused on providing a sense of hope for the citizens of Flint. Providing them with a reason to stay in Flint,” says Ridgway White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

White says foundation money is intended to augment, not replace, state and federal government spending to fix Flint’s lead tainted tap water system. He says it is important government takes the lead on such things as removing damaged service lines.   

By contrast, the foundations are focusing on helping the citizens of Flint move beyond the crisis.

Some of the foundations’ funds will support experts who will work to ensure that the community will benefit from a 21st century approach to the efficient, integrated management of drinking water, storm water and waste water.

Money will also be spent on meeting the health needs of Flint residents exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. There will be a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $5 million on donations made to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund through December 31, 2016. It’s intended to provide support over the next 20 years for interventions that will help Flint children overcome the effects of lead exposure. It’s estimated that such long-term interventions will require at least $100 million in support.

The foundations are also directing money to support early childhood education. Head Start and other early education programs are seen as critically important for children under the age of six who were exposed to lead-tainted drinking water.   

Genesee Intermediate School District superintendent Lisa Hagel says the money will help pay for a new facility that will serve as a laboratory for all early childhood education programs in the county. 

“We’ll really up the bar … for early childhood education,” says Hagel. 

She hopes the new facility will be ready to open in 2017.

The foundations are also planning on putting money into Flint’s economic needs.  

Flint’s economy struggled for decades before the water crisis. The foundations say they want to start a new economic future for the city and region, supporting job training and entrepreneurship, and building on Flint’s cultural and creative heritage.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver issued a statement saying the foundations’ announcement will make a “significant difference” in getting the city “on the road to recovery.”

“If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud that’s been hanging over the city of Flint because of this man-made water disaster, it’s that this crisis has brought so many people and organizations together. People from all over the country have been stepping up to help us as we work to recover,” Weaver concluded.

The Flint water crisis was created by the ill-fated decision to switch the city’s tap water to the Flint River.   After the switch from Detroit water in April, 2014, Flint residents noticed their drinking water was cloudy, foul smelling and tasting. The city’s water system suffered a series of E. coli outbreaks. People complained about skin rashes and hair loss after bathing in the water. The city was eventually sited for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act after high levels of Total Trihalomethenes or TTHM were discovered.

Last summer, tests showed lead levels in the drinking water in some Flint homes were above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Recent follow up tests showed some improvement.   

Last year, researchers at Hurley Medical Center discovered elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children. 

Last fall, the Mott Foundation committed $4 million to switch the city of Flint back to the Detroit water system. The switch took place in October.    

The C.S. Mott Foundation’s Ridgway White says discussions of the foundations’ effort started in January, in the wake of the city and state declarations of emergency.  

He expects more charitable foundations and other will contribute in the future.

“A lot of people are saying across the country, there’s been fatigue about water,” says White. "Well, they’re not living every day with the water and having to drink it … not be able to drink it.  That’s true fatigue.”

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.