LaMacchia: Infrastructure Issues in Flint Symptom of Larger Problem

The League's John LaMacchia (center, right) and fellow panelists.

The League’s John LaMacchia (center, right) and fellow panelists.

What’s happening in Flint, Detroit and other cities is a symptom of a larger problem. A problem where cities in Michigan are only allowed to fall with the economy but not to prosper as the economy grows. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t change the way the nation invests in communities.

This was a key message by the Michigan Municipal League’s John LaMacchia when speaking Thursday in Washington D.C. as part of Infrastructure Week 2016. The Infrastructure Week celebration organized by the National League of Cities and its partners is to raise awareness about the nation’s infrastructure needs. Cities construct and maintain the majority of our nation’s infrastructure and depend on a solid infrastructure network to provide safe and healthy communities, and grow their local economies.

The League's John LaMacchia is in Washington D.C. this week for the National League of Cities Infrastructure Week celebration. As part of his work, LaMacchia (center left) met with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (right).

The League’s John LaMacchia is in Washington D.C. this week for the National League of Cities Infrastructure Week celebration. As part of his work, LaMacchia (center left) met with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (right).

LaMacchia, assistant director of state affairs for the League, spoke as part of a panel discussion on “Securing Our Water Future: 21st Century Solutions for 21st Century Cities”. Other panelists were Council Member Matt Zone, City of Cleveland, Ohio, and National League of Cities 1st Vice President; Council Member Ron Nirenberg, City of San Antonio, Texas, and Chair, National League of Cities Energy and Environment Committee; Commissioner Heather Repenning, President Pro Tempore, Los Angeles Board of Public Works; Tyrone Jue, Senior Advisor on Environment to Mayor Ed Lee, City of San Francisco, California; Jonathan Trutt, Executive Director, West Coast Infrastructure Exchange; and Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and Executive Director, National League of Cities.

LaMacchia discussed the Flint water crisis and explained how the Flint issue is part of a much larger infrastructure problem in communities statewide.

Some of his key points included:

  • Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Gov. Rick Snyder agree Flint’s lead-tainted service lines need to be removed. But it will take at least $55 million to replace all the lead-tainted lines. Money for water infrastructure has been put into appropriations bills in the Michigan Legislature and U.S. Congress, but the bills are still making their way through those legislative bodies.
  • The service lines are just part of the problem. The rest of Flint’s water system, from aging water mains to other infrastructure, needs to be totally replaced. The city’s water system loses a large percentage of the water to leaks, one reason Flint has some of the highest water rates in the country. Again, the City of Flint will need help from the state and federal governments to modernize its water infrastructure, a process that is expected to cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • When we look at Michigan as a whole we have neglected to properly invest, maintain and right size our infrastructure.
    The league's John LaMacchia speaks on a panel during Infrastructure Week in Washington D.C. May 19, 2016.

    The League’s John LaMacchia speaks on a panel during Infrastructure Week in Washington D.C. May 19, 2016.

  • For nearly 30 years Michigan has been about 10 million people yet we have increased the amount of infrastructure in the state by roughly 50% and giving little thought to how we would maintain both the old and new infrastructure.
  • Time and time again we have built new water and sewer plants without capitalizing on the existing capacity of a nearby system.
  • This not only speaks to how we have been inefficient in managing infrastructure in Michigan but also how we have disinvested in our communities in general.
  • Why cities are important: Our goal at the Michigan Municipal League is to make Michigan communities places people want to be. Places that can attract a talented work force and businesses. Having placemaking strategies in all communities is important. But it’s hard to even think about creating great places when you’re fighting every day not to drown. How can you attract businesses and a work force if your roads are crumbling, bridges are in disrepair and you’re communities have slashed the number of police officers, firefighters, public works employees and more?
  • The numbers show that some states – particularly Michigan – do not understand the importance of cities as economic drivers. If they did they would be investing in cities. But unfortunately they are disinvesting in cities.
  • According to U.S. Census data all but one state showed growth in municipal general revenue between 2002 and 2012. View chart here.
  • Many want to blame this on a single state recession but the numbers tell a different story.
  • Why is this the case in Michigan – property values decrease in 2008 crash and the Michigan Constitution limits their ability to recover, PLUS revenue sharing to the tune of $7.5 billion over the last decade plus.

LaMacchia concluded explaining Michigan’s system for funding municipalities is fundamentally broken and unless it gets fixed we’re going to see more situations like what’s happening in Flint and Detroit occur in other communities.

Also earlier this week, NLC released a new report called, Paying for Local Infrastructure in a New Era of Federalism. Read a blog about the report by the League’s Summer Minnick.

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and 734-669-6317.

League CEO Dan Gilmartin to Speak at Congressional Briefing on Flint Water Crisis

Dan Gilmartin is interviewed during the NLC Congressional City Conference in Washington D.C. this week.

Dan Gilmartin is interviewed during the NLC Congressional City Conference in Washington D.C. this week.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Michigan Municipal League CEO and Executive Director Dan Gilmartin will participate in a Congressional Capitol Briefing Wednesday in Washington D.C. and talk about national infrastructure issues and the Flint water crisis.

Gilmartin will be part of a panel that will inform members of Congress about the most pressing infrastructure issues facing cities today. They also will delve into whether federal policies are keeping pace with local efforts to reevaluate and reconfigure infrastructure for the next generation. More than 200 members of Congress and congressional staff are expected to attend the event taking place 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 9, 2016, at the Capitol Visitors Center Auditorium. The briefing is part of the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference happening this week.

Through his work with communities, Gilmartin is recognized as a national leader in the fields of urban revitalization, placemaking, local government reform, and transportation policy.  Model D Media has referred to him as “an urban thinker with an eye for the small, oft-unnoticed changes that can make ‘places’ out of streets and buildings.”  Dan serves as a member of the Michigan Future, Inc. Leadership Council and on the Placemaking Leadership Council.

Joining Gilmartin on the panel will be other local experts who will discuss the water crisis in Flint and what it means for federal-state-local relations nation-wide; contrasting state and local perspectives on accountability in the transit funding process; competing public and private interests in the broadband market; and differing federal and local points of view on infrastructure finance.

Other speakers include Mayor Mark Stodola, of Little Rock, Arkansas; Councilmember Greg Evans, of Eugene Oregon; and Councilmember Andy Huckaba, of Lenexa, Kansas.

NLC is the nation’s largest and most representative membership and advocacy organization for city officials, comprised of more than 19,000 cities, towns, and villages representing more than 218 million Americans.

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org.

Michigan Local Government Leaders Discuss Flint Water Crisis with EPA in D.C.

Flint Vehicle City SignThe Flint water crisis was on top of mind for a group of Michigan local government leaders who had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy Monday afternoon (March 7, 2016) in Washington D.C.

A contingent of Michigan local government leaders met with the Administrator and Mark Rupp, EPA deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental relations, while in Washington D.C. this week for the National League of Cities Congressional Cities Conference 2016. The Michigan contingent was led by League President and Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly; and League Vice President and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. Also attending the meeting were Carolyn Berndt, the NLC’s program director for sustainability and federal advocacy; Flint City Council President Kerry Nelson; Flint City Councilmember Jacqueline Poplar; League CEO and Executive Director Dan Gilmartin; Summer Minnick, the League’s director of external relations and federal affairs; and Chris Hackbarth, the League’s director of state affairs.

A birds-eye view from Flint's amazing Farmer's Market.

A birds-eye view from Flint’s amazing Farmer’s Market.

As most are well aware, Flint is in the international spotlight after elevated blood lead levels were discovered in some Flint children after its water source was switched to the Flint River. It had been purchasing Lake Huron water from the Detroit Water and Sewer System (DWSD). The decision to switch to the Flint River was made while the city was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager. At the time of the switch state regulators never required that the river water be treated to make it less corrosive, causing lead from plumbing and pipes to leach into the water supply. Even though the city reconnected to the DWSD in October, local and state officials continue to warn the public about the ongoing problem, are continuing to distribute bottled water and filters, and are encouraging pregnant women and young children against using the water unless it has been tested because lead levels in some cases continue to exceed what can be handled by the filters.

The Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees is bringing together a group of technical experts, public works administrators, city managers and local elected officials to discuss response strategies in the wake of the Flint crisis. This task force will discuss the overall link between the current crisis in Flint and Michigan’s broken municipal finance system. They will also develop a response strategy for all of our members to utilize when a resident or the media has questions about the safety of drinking water in their community.

Downtown Flint during the 2013 Back to the Bricks event.

Downtown Flint during the 2013 Back to the Bricks event.

The League believes that the issues we have seen in Flint, Detroit and other cities is a symptom of a larger problem. This isn’t just about replacing the lead pipes in Flint and saying “all fixed.” Certainly there is an immediacy to that issue that needs to be addressed and solved. But even with new pipes there are much broader issues that needs to be addressed. We must fundamentally change the way government operates. We should allow local government to maximize their opportunities to invest in themselves, control costs, and provide services deserving of a 21 century community. Until we allow this flexibility Flint and many other cities in Michigan and across this country will be limited in their ability to provide the foundation for a strong, thriving, diverse community.

As part of the meeting with EPA and Michigan officials vowed to work together to assist Flint and ensure something like this never happens again.

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org.