Lessons from Flint: Failure of a Culture

RarBy Dr. Raymond A. Rosenfeld, EMU Professor of Political Science

So much has been written about the Flint water fiasco that it is a challenge to understand how this public health crisis unfolded and what to make of it.  The simple truth is that it’s a significant disaster for the residents of Flint and a major setback for the State of Michigan!  I have spent a career studying local public policy and intergovernmental relations, and like many I find this situation hard to fathom.  I was pleasantly surprised to read the Final Report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force.  My own conclusion is that Michigan is in desperate need of a reset of our culture of government:

Emergency Managers – When the State Legislature passed the current Emergency Manager law and the Governor signed it, they did so in direct opposition to a citizen initiative that had overturned a previous version of this flawed legislation.  Using a legislative trick of adding an appropriation to the new law they purposively blocked any additional citizen actions!  Their hubris reflected a culture of disdain toward the citizens of the older urban areas of Michigan that were the targets of the law.  This is the same hubris that side-stepped months of Flint citizens’ pleas that their water was not safe!  This same emergency manager law failed to provide the EM with appropriate staff support, checks and balances, and accountability.  Lesson:  a culture of state government of hubris and disdain toward its citizens will ultimately backfire!

Small Government and Anti-Government Attitudes - For some time now it has been fashionable to bash government and government workers.  “Government is the problem,” said President Regan.  “The end of big government has come,” said President Clinton.  Government workers are lazy, overpaid, and protective of their jobs.  The private sector should be our model:  to run government like a business. 

Anti-government and small government policies have resulted in a decline in state support for the offices that bear responsibility for overseeing local water supplies.  Michigan has one of the lowest levels of support for these state regulatory responsibilities.  If the citizens of Michigan expect protection against the chance of water that will poison our children, we have to be willing to make the investment in government agencies that bear this responsibility.

Cuts to state government and negative attitudes toward state workers have weakened and demoralized the administrative and professional staff that has the responsibility for providing these safeguards.  Governor Snyder was quick to blame government bureaucrats for the Flint fiasco, but the Flint Commission concluded that his own staff in the Governor’s office was deaf to common sense citizen pleas!  Lesson: the myriad of responsibilities on government for safe and successful streets, nursing homes, food establishments, schools, prisons, and universities requires a reasonable state investment of taxes and a culture in government leadership that respects these public servants.

Local Government Policy – For several decades now, Michigan has had a decline in support for local governments and no comprehensive local government policy.  The state promised statutory local government revenue sharing that would augment locally generated revenue, but has largely reneged on this commitment since 2012.  This substantially reduces the ability of local governments to provide basic services.

Michigan’s current property tax laws, which are the primary source of local revenue, produce quick revenue losses in a declining economy, and very slow growth in a healthy economy.  This may be good for taxpayers, but it’s disastrous for local governments trying to provide basic services.

Michigan approved the creation and construction of an entirely new Karegnondi Water Authority in a region of the state where there is significant surplus capacity in the Detroit Water and Sewer Authority (now the Great Lakes Water Authority).  This lack of a vision of regional cooperation on the part of the State of Michigan ultimately led Flint to the Flint River for its drinking water when it had one of cleanest water supplies in the country.  Why build a new water system when the region is sitting on excess capacity?

The very need for an Emergency Manager in cities of Flint, Detroit, Inkster, Highland Park, Pontiac and other older urban areas reflects the results of state policy of abandonment of and dis-investment in our urban centers and their residents.   The Flint Water Advisory Task Force refers to this as an issue of environmental justice.  The end result of this lack of a coherent urban policy in the State of Michigan is that many local governments like Flint are dangerously weak; clearly the Flint Water Department was in no position to take on the responsibility for running its own water system!  Lesson:  Michigan can and must develop a policy that supports the healthy growth and sustainability of our older urban areas.

The True Nature of Intergovernmental Programs – The Safe Drinking Water Act was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to set national standards for drinking water.  State governments were delegated the responsibility for carrying out these standards.  This model of state implementation of federal standards is a common framework for many federal regulatory efforts such as air and water quality, nursing homes, and OSHA. 

At first glance federal agencies such as the EPA appear to be in the drivers seat, by far the most powerful partner in these intergovernmental relationships.  All they have to do is order states to act and state officials will jump!  This, however, is far from reality!  Federal agencies have limited leverage over states, particularly if a state is hostile to intervention.  The EPA is not staffed to directly and specifically oversee each action within a state.  If the EPA were to try to force state action, the resistance from the state agency and state politicians would be significant. 

In reality, only the state has the capacity to handle the myriad problems that might arise in local water departments.  If the culture of a state is one of resistance and intransigence, it will be difficult if not impossible for federal regulators to successfully intervene.  As a result, the intergovernmental model is one of cooperation.  If the state is not interested in cooperating, it will be difficult for the feds to succeed.  Lesson:  the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the political leadership of the state need to see the EPA as a partner in protecting local water supplies rather than an adversary. 

Conclusion – Michigan needs leadership committed to a major culture change in state government.  Elected leaders need to show respect for all citizens’ rights!  We need to support government agencies that have responsibility for protecting the public health and safety.  The State of Michigan must develop an urban policy that supports sustainable, healthy, vibrant cities.  We should strive to foster a culture of cooperation in Lansing between federal regulatory efforts and state responsibilities.

Raymond Rosenfeld is professor of Political Science and director of the department's internship programs. He is a specialist in public policy with a content focus on local economic development.

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