The following essay was written by Dr. Ben Pauli, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Social Science in the Department of Liberal Studies at Kettering University in Flint.
In a special meeting on May 17, the Flint City Council voted to approve a one-year moratorium on the city’s practice of putting tax liens on properties for overdue water bills. A strong showing of residents spoke in favor of the moratorium.
I was one of those residents. I pointed out that before there was a water quality crisis in Flint, there was a water affordability crisis and that many residents continue to find it difficult or impossible to pay their water bills. I also pointed out that as the quality of the water deteriorated, nonpayment of water bills became, for some residents, a form of protest against the idea that they should pay for a product unfit for human consumption.
On Tuesday afternoon, I witnessed the Council’s resolution summarily and unanimously overturned by an unelected board, the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), a body comprised exclusively of members appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
The RTAB’s stated rationale was that the city cannot afford a moratorium now that the Council has delayed voting on a long-term contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority that would reduce the city’s water rates and eliminate Karegondi Water Authority bond payments. But, whatever the special circumstances created by the contract issue, the underlying logic is familiar to us by now: when the city is strapped for cash, it has to be able to force delinquent “customers” to pay up. Even if it means threatening to take their homes away. Even if it means, in the case of water shutoffs, depriving them of a substance necessary for human life.
Of course, we know that the city is in a tough financial spot and that this sometimes calls for tough and unpleasant choices. We also know that all governments make use of threats and coercion to force people to do what they would not otherwise do.
But even if we accept that the government is justified in exercising force in some contexts, we rightly place limits on the extent of government coercion we are willing to tolerate. These limits are some of the most sacred artifacts of human civilization. They are not just constraints on how the government operates, they are expressions of a moral vision of society. They institutionalize our beliefs about how human beings ought to be treated.
No matter how desperate it gets for revenue, for example, the City of Flint cannot rob residents willy-nilly at gunpoint. Such a practice would clearly, and rightly, be out of bounds. Taking people’s homes and shutting off their water should be placed in the same category. That this would create fiscal challenges for the city is undeniable and we should be ready and willing to initiate a conversation about how best to address those challenges. But there are certain challenges that we as a society decide to live with because the more expeditious alternative would violate our principles.
In demanding a moratorium, residents and their elected officials were not just saying that they don’t want to pay exorbitant water bills in the middle of a water crisis (a reasonable enough demand in itself). They were making a statement about what kind of society they want to live in. What was most demoralizing about the Receivership Transition Advisory Board’s vote was the feeling that this most fundamental of matters is not for us to decide. RTAB’s decision serves as a rude reminder that as long as the city remains under the emergency manager law we as residents will not get to set the terms of our social lives.