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Flint City Council will talk behind closed doors Friday about judge's deadline on water contract

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The Flint City Council meets in executive session Friday to discuss its options now that a federal judge is ordering the council to decide on the city’s long-term source of drinking water by Monday.

It’s a decision that’s not only tethered to the city’s ongoing water troubles but to its contentious politics.

At the Flint water plant, just off Dort Highway, brick and concrete buildings spread over a few acres. They have sat largely unused since the city’s failed experiment in getting it’s tap water from the Flint River ended two years ago.

That water was not properly treated, creating serious problems including high levels of lead in the drinking water.  

Despite some improvement, protests over Flint’s drinking water persist.

Fixing Flint’s troubled water system is a slow process; made slower by disagreements between city officials, sparked by election year politics and a recall election targeting Flint’s mayor.

For the past two years, Flint has been getting its water on a temporary basis from Detroit’s water system, the Great Lakes Water Authority. 

Earlier this year, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver unveiled a plan to keep that water flowing from Detroit. A plan she touted again this week.

“It is my hope that we can soon move forward with implementing this recommendation so that we can concentrate our efforts on providing safe, reliable, affordable and tap drinkable water,” Weaver told an enthusiastic audience at her 2017 State of the City address.

The deal with Detroit’s water system would not only continue sending treated water to Flint, but would also free up millions of dollars in federal and state aid to repair Flint’s damaged water system.

But so far, Flint’s city council has refused to approve it.

City Councilman Scott Kincaid, who is running for mayor, says the new contract includes an annual 2% to 4% water rate hike, with other possible increases for Flint residents. Residents who are already paying some of the nation’s highest water bills. 

“If you’re going to have serious surgery, and you go to the doctor, you’re going to want a second opinion.   And that’s all we’re asking,” says Kincaid. “For the residents of Flint, to get a second opinion. So that their water rate increases don’t have to necessarily have to go up every year.”

In June, the state sued Flint in an attempt to force the city council to agree to the 30-year contract. A federal judge ordered the two sides into mediation.   

But this week, U.S. District Judge David Lawson’s patience apparently came to an end.  He called the city council’s “failure of leadership" "breathtaking," and ordered it to decide whether to sign the contract or not in the next few days. 

Flint’s latest water misstep comes as the city is entangled in an increasingly acrimonious recall election against Mayor Weaver.  And her leading challenger is City Councilman Kincaid, who is spearheading opposition to the contract.

Resident Florlisa Fowler would like the city’s residents themselves to get a chance to vote the water contract.

“We’re ultimately going to be the ones going to paying for this one way or another. With our health. With our pipes. Money out of our pocket,” Fowler says. “I honestly feel it would be a good idea to have the residents vote on this.”

But that’s unlikely to happen. 

Meanwhile, if the city council does not approve the long-term contract by Monday, decisions over Flint’s long-term water source could reside with a federal judge. 

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.
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