- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

The Detroit Free Press. Oct. 8, 2015

Flint water crisis: An obscene failure of government.

There’s good news: The City of Flint could soon reconnect to the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, a water source that doesn’t leach lead from aging pipes into the municipal water supply.

And there’s bad news: Three Flint elementary schools have water with lead levels more than 15 parts per billion, which is the limit according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. At one school, Freeman Elementary, water tests found lead levels of 101 ppb. Add this to months of data showing elevated lead levels in homes across Flint, and a higher percentage of children with elevated blood-lead levels.

Lead poisoning causes behavioral and developmental problems in children. It is irreversible. Pregnant women and children are most vulnerable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no acceptable level of lead exposure.

And in at least three Flint schools, children have been drinking lead-contaminated water for up to 16 months.

Sixteen months, as Flint residents told the state again and again that their water wasn’t right. Sixteen months, as independent researchers meticulously documented rising lead levels in water and in the blood of Flint children. Sixteen months, as the state worked to disparage and discredit the work of respected scientists, even as its own data supported those findings.

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder appeared chastened.

He should.

Snyder appoints the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the agency charged with ensuring that drinking water throughout our state is safe.

In Flint, it failed.

Flint’s decisions first to join a new regional water authority, and then to pump water from the Flint River - ending a decades-long relationship with Detroit’s system - were made while Flint was under state oversight, during the tenure of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager charged with balancing Flint’s budget. That system is justified by the governor’s constitutional responsibility to attend to the health and wellness of all Michiganders.

In Flint, he failed.

This newspaper twice endorsed Snyder for governor, albeit with grave reservations. But because of the relative weakness of his opponents, the leadership he displayed in resolving Detroit’s protracted financial crisis and our hope that he would use his business acumen to ensure that government better served people, he narrowly won our endorsement.

Last year, in a detailed analysis of Snyder’s record, this editorial board expressed our dissatisfaction about Snyder’s first term: “The governor balanced the budget at the expense of cities and school districts. His disdain for politics is inappropriate in the state’s chief politician; his deficiencies as a deal-maker have sometimes resulted in terrible consequences for Michiganders.”

This, we wrote, was Snyder’s most profound flaw: “He has got to see people, not sums, as the bottom line of the state balance sheet.”

We wrote that he rarely exhibited strong, decisive leadership, that he must “grow into a more sure-footed, principled leader.” That we were fearful of what Snyder’s second term could hold.

Snyder defended the state’s decisions on Thursday, saying it had followed EPA and MDEQ testing protocols. The state did the minimum required, his responses implied. Why should it have to do more?

This is what Snyder does not understand. To lead a state, accountancy is not sufficient. To lead a state, a balanced budget is not sufficient. To lead a state, doing only what is required is not sufficient.

The modern vogue for paring services and cutting budgets is an insidious misunderstanding of the foundations of government. Fiscal conservationism is correct to suggest that government should recognize the value of a dollar. But it is absolutely incorrect when it considers the value of a dollar more significant than other values. A dollar saved at the expense of public safety. A dollar saved at the expense of Flint’s children. A dollar saved at the expense of the public trust. These are equations that can never balance.

At this math, Snyder has consistently failed.

When Flint began to pump river water, it opted not to add a chemical that would have created a film inside its aging service pipes, preventing lead from entering the water. MDEQ signed off on that plan. Snyder’s representatives have said both decisions were in progress before Flint’s emergency managers were appointed, belying the reality of an emergency manager’s broad authority in the city he or she is charged to lead.

That Flint has aging service lines with lead materials shouldn’t have been a surprise. That Flint would need to treat the water it pumped to ensure it could flow safely through those lines shouldn’t have been at issue.

Here is all we can surmise: Pumping Flint River water saved money. And that, as they say, was that.

Snyder says that his team will issue an “after action report,” with recommendations about how things could have been done differently. This is a necessary step and should be conducted by a team with sufficient independence from Snyder’s office - and the MDEQ - to reach impartial conclusions.

Snyder has asked the Michigan Legislature to contribute $6 million of the $12 million it will cost Flint to purchase its water from Detroit. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the city itself will cover the remaining costs. The transition could be complete within two weeks. We applaud the Mott Foundation for its contribution and urge the Legislature to approve its portion of the funds required without delay.

Snyder and other officials have said Flint will continue to work to replace lead service lines. This is necessary work. The state has devoted $1 million to pay for water filters for Flint residents, another helpful measure.

People. Not sums.

Thus endeth the lesson. It is one our government should not forget. It is one Flint’s children can’t forget.

___

The Lansing State Journal. Oct. 6, 2015

No rest for BWL, Peffley.

The door on the J. Peter Lark era at Lansing’s Board of Water & Light is finally closed. On Sept. 22, longtime BWL employee Dick Peffley, who had been serving as interim general manager since Lark was fired in January, was named permanent general manager of the state’s largest municipally owned utility.

Is Dick Peffley the right person to lead BWL into a future that requires rebuilding public trust damaged by poor response to the December 2013 ice storm and replacing the Eckert Power Station, set to go offline by 2020?

BWL commissioners clearly think so; the decision to hire him was unanimous. Peffley is a known commodity at BWL after nearly four decades. And he knows the challenges he faces.

. The culture must change at BWL. That was a resounding conclusion from the Community Review Team commissioned by Lansing’s mayor to review the utility’s response to the ice storm. By many accounts, progress is happening. In one move that shows Peffley recognizes the need for change, he canceled $75,000 worth of art the previous executive team had ordered for a new customer service center this spring. He instead had the walls decorated with historic photos and posters. The move saved about $60,000 of ratepayer money. The changes must go far beyond the cosmetic. Is the utility ready for the next disaster? Is there accountability at every level?

. The power being generated at the Eckert Power Station must be replaced. The coal-fired power station, which contributes the iconic smokestacks to the Lansing skyline, generates one-third of the utility’s power. As it reaches the end of its operational life, options are building a new plant, buying power elsewhere or investing in alternative or renewable energy sources. A Citizens Advisory Committee has been appointed and public meetings have been set. What comes next will depend on leadership from both Peffley and the board.

. BWL’s future as a municipally owned utility is in question. Mayor Virg Bernero has said he plans to study whether assets such as BWL and City Hall should be sold as part of a comprehensive review of the city’s assets and liabilities. It’s not surprising that Peffley and the BWL board would oppose such an idea. Self-preservation is a strong motivator.

Yet Peffley - and his team - can’t get caught up in fray. Leading BWL in the present and future is a huge job. Peffley has the institutional and industry experience to do it well. The best thing he can do is stay focused and lead with transparency and accountability.

___

The Traverse City Record-Eagle. Oct. 6, 2015.

Federal money nothing short of dams’ bailout.

It’s an offer they shouldn’t refuse.

Local officials should keep eight well-known words in mind when federal officials offer to shoulder the lion’s share of costs associated with the Boardman dam removal project: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

It’s a proverb with roots about 1,600 years old and constitutes some pretty tried-and-true advice for the group of officials who learned this week that they will be asked to make a relatively minimal commitment to the future of the Boardman River dams removal project in exchange for the cash infusion.

There’s no such thing as free money, but an offer U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials will float to local officials Wednesday night is as close to free as federal cash gets. The deal - as explained by Carl Platz, a project manager for the Corps - would supply an $8 million infusion to foot the bill for most, if not all, of the Boardman dam deconstruction project.

“We went from dead in the water to essentially having a vast majority of the funding commitment from federal sources,” Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes said Monday.

The cash would alleviate concerns that the overall plan to deconstruct three dams and modify a forth along the Boardman River, returning the stream to its natural state, could be derailed by either fundraising difficulties or owners reluctant to chip in for the next phase of the project - Grand Traverse County in the case of the Boardman dam.

The funding provided by the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency waives a standard requirement that federal funding for such projects be matched in a 65 to 35 percent split - the latter paid by local funding sources, Platz said.

But that’s where the strings come in.

Platz explained to Record-Eagle staff in a meeting Monday that the Corps wants officials from the City of Traverse City, Grand Traverse County and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians all to put in writing their commitment to completing the final two phases of the project - the Sabin dam deconstruction and modification of the Union Street dam.

The county owns both the Boardman and Sabin dams.

At least one Grand Traverse County commissioner, Alisa Kroupa, balked at the offer and voiced concerns about committing the county to a “financial liability” for the future Sabin dam removal project.

Those are concerns easily are boiled down to dollars and cents. Officials estimate deconstruction of the Boardman dam will cost about $8 million, a bill covered by a combination of the federal cash and grants already secured by local project managers. The federal agencies also committed to spend $2.7 million on the two remaining phases of the dam removal project.

The future financial liability the county would face for its 35 percent split of Sabin dam deconstruction - an estimated $2.7 million total project cost - amounts to about $950,000 barring any local grants or donations that would minimize the bill. And there’s no stipulation that the county foot the entire match alone.

Holding back a $10.7 million gift to save $950,000 simply doesn’t make sense.

___

The Port Huron Times Herald. Oct. 8, 2015.

McMorran decision is best for city and college.

We apologize for the cliché, but sometimes we need reminding that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not a healthy sign.

So it is with McMorran Place in downtown Port Huron.

Throughout recent memory, city administrators and City Council have searched for ways to make complex less of a millstone around the neck of city finances. Taxpayers have fumed about the “three M’s” - museums, marinas and McMorran - while taxes and utility bills increased.

The city and the McMorran Authority hired consultants and paid for studies. And the advice was the obvious. What you’re doing isn’t working. If you want McMorran to work, and if you want it to last, you need to do things differently.

Presciently, some of that advice - from consultants Brailsford and Dunlavey - recommended turning the junior arena into a field house. In that role, the junior arena - or pavilion as it is also known - could be used to attract a wider variety of activities to the complex during a larger part of the calendar.

That is precisely what St. Clair County Community College proposes to do with the building. And that is part of the reason that the McMorran Authority board voted Wednesday to recommend to the Port Huron City Council that it sell the junior arena to the college.

The larger part of the decision has to do with finances. Getting out from under the pavilion’s operating costs and capital needs will save the city and its taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the near term and millions over a few years.

Probably more significant is what it means for the college, for downtown and the community. What SC4 proposes would mean significant new traffic in downtown Port Huron for the benefit of stores, restaurants and other businesses. It would allow the college room to build its proposed medical education center, which is a huge investment in both the college and in high-demand career fields.

The Port Huron Minor Hockey Association’s proposal might do the first thing - cut city costs. In all other regards, it is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

City Council should follow the McMorran board’s recommendation and make the junior arena part of SC4.

___


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