- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A report released Friday suggests that Flint residents’ pricey water bills could double in the next five years due to several factors, even though the state has pledged aid amid the city’s ongoing lead-tainted water crisis.

The analysis, which was submitted to a governor-created committee working to address the crisis, warns that the average residential bill of nearly $54 a month may rise to $110 - not counting sewer charges - “absent any action to increase funding or decrease costs.” The typical residential water bill has doubled since 2009 and is far higher than in other regional cities of Flint’s size.

Cost savings were a factor in the city’s fateful switch in 2014 from the metropolitan Detroit utility system to a temporary water source, the Flint River, until it could connect to a new pipeline. Flint was under state management then, and environmental regulators mistakenly told the city not to add a chemical to prevent lead from leaching out of old pipes.

The study says bills are so high because Flint went many years without any rate increases - later resulting in large hikes - and its aging infrastructure was built for 200,000 people but now serves about half that due to population loss. It says Flint also has a withering industrial base and has “effectively been paying for two water sources,” purchasing from Detroit again while waiting for the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to be built and still maintaining its own plant as a backup.

“I hope everyone comes out of here understanding that there’s a serious problem that needs to be resolved,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said at the conclusion of the panel’s meeting in Flint.

The analysis was conducted for the Michigan Department of Treasury by Charlotte, North Carolina-based Raftelis Financial Consultants Inc. It says current rates are not sufficient to fund the water utility, and the gap will widen unless action is taken such as reducing costs or partially subsidizing them with state and federal funding.

“It’s a big system that’s not well-maintained,” said state Treasurer Nick Khouri. He said just 50 to 60 percent of the water bought by the city is actually billed to customers because of high rates of leakage from aging water mains and theft. Other issues are that Flint transfers more utility money to other city funds than normal and - because of lost customers and declining average consumption - those remaining are left with higher bills to cover fixed costs.

Also Friday, a federal judge in Detroit heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by residents and civil rights groups who want the state and city to move more quickly in bringing clean drinking water to homes.

Long term, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has committed to replacing thousands of lead service lines that connect mains to homes and businesses.

The state has allocated at least $2 million for the initiative, and the Republican governor- who has apologized for his administration’s failures related to the water emergency - is asking lawmakers for $25 million more.

The state previously approved $30 million to cover roughly two-thirds of the water portion of residential water/sewer bills by providing a credit for use from April 2014 until the water is declared safe to drink again without a filter. Residents have been using faucet filters and bottled water while enduring the monthslong emergency.

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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