The Flint water crisis didn’t just happen. It’s been a story decades in the making.
Cities in America have been on the downswing for many years — deliberate policy on the federal and state level has favored suburbs, and also the preferences of the Boomer generation was to go in that direction too. So, people and money has slowly (or quickly in some cases) filtered out of the cities into suburbia. Also the shift of manufacturing out of America has hit the Midwest very hard (aka the “Rust Belt”). When your city is built for a certain amount of people and then you lose big chunks of your population, it’s hard to make the math work to maintain that infrastructure.
Anyway, that’s the story on the national level. In Michigan, too, cities and schools have been starved by a “Tea Party” mentality — before the Tea Party even existed. The state has balanced its budget every year, for decades, based on mathematical trickery and from taking funds away from local governments and schools. Proposal A shifted funding from a local level to a pool managed by the state, and that was just too much temptation not to raid. Proposal A also capped the amount of property taxes charged, which puts established cities at an advantage, and helps locations that are not yet built out — because the cap cuts deeper the longer that a house or condo stays within the same ownership.
So, federal policies and state policies have made it harder and harder for cities to function in Michigan. Flint, especially, after having lost much of its manufacturing base and then many of its people, was struggling.
Enter the Emergency Manager idea. These problems are systemic and have been building up for many years, and raising taxes is anathema to Republicans, so what do they do? It’s so much easier to fault local government, and come up with an end-around solution to put somebody else in charge who can “make the hard decisions”. Also you want an easy answer and term limits limit who will even be around to see the effects.
It’s nice to believe there are simple solutions to hard problems, and indeed the leaders of many of Michigan’s troubled cities were not great — Kwame Kilpatrick, enough said. But the problem of putting an unelected bureaucrat in charge of a city, a person who has no real ties to that city and doesn’t answer to anybody except leadership in Lansing (and is told to care only about the dollars and cents), is obvious.
The emergency managers in Flint did what they were told. They saved money. Art Reyes II outline just a few examples of what other emergency managers did in his essay “I Grew Up in Flint. Here’s Why Governor Snyder Must Resign.“.
But when the leader of your community is not answerable to your community, then terrible things can happen . And they keep happening because there’s no pressure to make them stop. Also, the statewide watchdogs who should have been watching were perhaps no longer thinking that protecting the people was their mission. Their mission and goals include both “protecting public health” and “expanding role in economic development”. Given what this Governor valued and who he appointed to power, it makes sense that they favored one over the other when they were in conflict.
So it’s fair to blame Governor Snyder. It’s him and his people who made the choices and ignored the warning signs in Flint. But that Flint even got to this place means blame belongs to long ago politicians and people in Lansing who continue to cycle in and out based on term limits, making short term decisions with long term consequences. Our infrastructure has been in need of repair for decades — just look at our roads. But one party’s philosophy hamstrings them from admitting that there just isn’t enough money in the bank to do what we need. And, make no mistake, the solution is to bring in more money. Delivering more and more tax cuts to businesses just starves our local governments and schools even more. Also, which companies will choose to locate here when we don’t have a healthy and educated workforce to meet their needs? The Republican Party-controlled state legislature has been eating the seed corn in Michigan for so long that there’s very little to plant for the future. But, hey, with term limits, that’s nobody’s problem. And gerrymandering means that even if you did recognize it as a problem, you don’t really have a chance of electing better public servants anyway.