The Flint Water Bills: Is This The Most Outrageous Ethics Story Of The Year?

“What do you mean it’s brown and poisonous? Water is water! Pay up.”

This story out of Flint, Michigan is so wrong, so astoundingly and obviously unethical, such a satire of government ineptitude at its worst and bureaucratic soullessness at its most damning, that I literally didn’t believe that it could be anything but a momentary hiccup, and that it would be resolved by the state, the city, an elected leader with guts and the sense God gave a mollusk, within a day or two, after the voices of millions were heard screaming. “WHAT????”

I was wrong. You want to know why it is insane to place your freedom, health, livelihood and survival and that of your families in the hands of government? THIS is why. Exactly this.

Thousands of Flint, Michigan residents risk losing their homes if they don’t pay their overdue water bills  less than three years since the start of a prolonged, botched, water safety crisis that led to extremely dangerous levels of lead in the city’s water pipes. In a move that will stand through the ages as the epitome of shamelessness and gall,  the Flint government sent threatening letters to more than 8,000 residents warning them they will face a tax lien if they do not pay water and sewage bills they have avoided for six months or more. Residents have until May 19 to pay the delinquent bills, and after that, a process begins that could end with foreclosure on their homes. Flint sends these letters annually to property owners whose payments are at least six months late, but skipped this process in 2016, given that the water the residents weren’t paying for was only technically water at all. The better label was “poison.” This year’s letters cover two years of past-due balances.

After the full danger and disgrace of the water crisis was revealed , Michigan subsidized the city’s bills by providing Flint residents with a water credit.  Gov. Rick Snyder, who hardly has clean hands in this epic fiasco that goes all the way to Washington D.C. and the EPA,  ended the credits in February. Meanwhile, The water in Flint has is still not safe to drink or cook with, and many families buy bottled water  for everything.

“I must say, I agree with those who have spoken out against this process. I have met with our Interim City Attorney and Finance Director and they say the city is obligated by local ordinance to follow this procedure, and we must follow the law,” Flint’s pathetic Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement . “I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.”

Well that’s comforting! The mayor is trying to see if there is some way to avoid doing what she admits is unjust, unfair and moronic, which is a fair description for threatening people if they don’t pay for their non-use of poisoned water. Here’s a “way.” Mayor: don’t threaten the victims. Don’t send the letters. Make it clear that since this was the city’s fault (and the state’s, and a lot of incompetent state employees…), whatever needs to be done to mitigate the damage to the people of Flint, rather than, you know, magnify it. Don’t tell us that you agree with the critics of what you are doing and that it’s really terrible but you’re going to do it anyway.

City officials say they are in a tough situation and need the  two years of unpaid bills totaling more than $5 million dollars. “We’re in a tough spot (so this justifies us screwing you)” is not an ethical argument. Billing people for water they could not drink and would get sick if they did is not an ethical solution. The city government is trying to make its problem the problem of the victims in this disaster, and bleating, “We have no choice!”

It is obligated not only to cancel those water bills. It is obligated to refund the bills of the citizens who paid for water that was contaminated. How does the city then pay its bills? Gee, I don’t know: they are the alleged professionals at governing. But Flint can’t do it this way.

_______________________

Sources: TIME, New York Times

29 Comments

Filed under Environment, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, Incompetent Elected Officials, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership

29 responses to “The Flint Water Bills: Is This The Most Outrageous Ethics Story Of The Year?

  1. Steve

    I would say they can start closing the gap by refusing their paychecks since they are so incompetent at their jobs but I am sure they have a statute that says they have to take their pay so that wouldn’t work with these corrupt power hungry douche bags.

  2. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Unfortunately the statutes are usually written so that it takes court action to cancel a water bill or other municipal lien. The city isn’t going to sue itself, nor deny itself revenue, because then they would be in trouble delivering the services they are charged with delivering, or maybe even paying the pensions of retired workers. There is no easy way out, and maybe no ethical way out.

  3. Chris marschner

    I agree that the potable water component of the bill should be credited but the sewerage component is legitimate. I hate when elected officials say their hands are tied because of some law. They make the laws so they can change them.

    People should not be required to pay for something never recieved. However, they should not think that the entire bill should be ignored. Paying the portion of the bill unrelated to the contamination issue will give them a better leg to stand on when they rightfully challenge the potable water component.

  4. Rick M.

    Delivering a product that could potentially kill you and then charging for it when you refuse to use it. Great concept.

  5. Other Bill

    Class action law suit anyone? Sparty? Hasn’t the City of Flint been sued yet? Is there some sort of municipal immunity for city water departments? Anyone? Beuhler?

    • Spartan

      There are several lawsuits that have been filed, but I have only been following them through news reports.

  6. Other Bill

    I suspect the City is obligated to sue delinquent customers under the terms of its water works bonds or general obligation bonds.

    • Other Bill

      And if they’re in default of any bond deals, they probably can’t get financing on any new bond deals. Hasn’t the town been placed into a receivership like Detroit was yet?

      • Joe Fowler

        I would guess that the Department of Bankrupt Government Entities is still busy with Puerto Rico, Flint will just have to take a number and wait in the lobby with all of the Obamacare ‘exchanges’.

  7. iRock

    Flint water is undrinkable due to lead levels and I believe the city residents receive bottled water. Residence continue to use water to wash clothes, shower and flush their poo. Sewer fees are based on water usage. The residents owe the money… ethically.

    • The post is obviously not about the sewer bills, and no, the city has not been providing bottled water: that would be a legitimate charge, as long as it didn’t exceed what the residents would normally pay for drinkable water.

      Your sole valid point, and it is a good argument, is that the residents could legitimately charged for water use based on what they actually used—but the water service is still substandard, the dangers were real, and the inconvenience caused by the substandard water should be recognized in the billing.

      • iRock

        It appears Michigan is/was distributing bottled water to Flint residents from 9 distribution sites (at least for April 2017). Bottled water distribution started well after the leaded water began so water bills prior to providing the bottled is unethical. After the state began providing bottled water, the water bills should be ethical. The State now says that lead levels are below Federal limits. “All of Flint’s water distribution centers will remain open, at least for another month”
        http://michiganradio.org/post/all-flints-water-distribution-centers-will-remain-open-least-another-month

        The City of Flint sends customers a combined water/sewer bill. Not paying the water bill mean the sewer bill is also unpaid; they’re itemized but inseparable in the payment or maybe not. I suppose residents could explicitly pay one and not the other.
        •Water – metered (likely charge for processed water)
        •Water – service charge (likely charge for distribution system)
        •Sewer – based on metered water (likely charge for processing waste water)
        •Sewer – service charge (likely charge for collection system)

        I would be distrustful of any published data on the water quality regardless of the source and would install a filter at my home.

        • (This is great stuff.)

          Interestingly, an expert who explained on his site why bathing in lead contaminated water is safe wrote,
          “In the last 25 years, I have only recommended that children not bathe in lead-contaminated water one time: for a case in Flint that was unusually bad where lead in water averaged over 2000 parts per billion for over 25 minutes of flushing. In the vast, vast majority of cases, there would not be a significant health concern from lead exposure due to bathing or showering in potable water.”

          The combining or water and sewer bills under these circumstances is at least incompetent, and law suits are inevitable. Combine one service which is as promised and another that is not what was promised so no partitioning is possible? A lawyer doing that is risking discipline.

          • iRock

            Ethical exit for Flint water customers:

            •Pay the sewer charges
            •Escrow the leaded water charges
            •File tort against Flint to abate leaded water charges
            •Michigan small claims court limit is $5,000
            •Motion the judge to stay water bill collections pending the law suit results.

            I believe most municipalities issue the combined bill, but water and sewer are itemized. Ignoring the water/sewer bill is not a viable option.

            Lead is not absorbed through skin but in a shower you breath the water mist and lead is absorbed in lungs. I don’t know if Flint residents were advised to avoid showers in favor of baths.

  8. John Billingsley

    To paraphrase Tom Lehrer,
    “Lots of things in Flint that you can drink,
    But stay away from the kitchen sink!”

  9. Any time a single party runs a political entity without opposition you get this sort of mess. Republicans have run Texas for so long, they are trying to sell us our roads twice, and lease them to foreign private companies. Cronyism at best, corruption at the worst.

    • Other Bill

      Who knows, SW, Flint might have been better off if they’d sold their water plant to a private company. Could it have been any worse?

      • dragin_dragon

        It sure could! How about building a road between Seguin (sort of. Actually about 10 miles out of Seguin, which is roughly 30miles from San Antonio), turning it into a toll road, billing it as a traffic reducing aid for SAN ANTONIO, and then selling it to the Chinese!.

        • dragin_dragon

          This toll road, by the way, runs between Seguin and Georgetown, with an exit (1) for Austin. Welcome to Texas politics.

          • …and that toll road is bankrupt. Seems they built a road no one wanted to use.

            I drove it once, when it was free and because it allowed you to legally drive 85 mph. It took me just as long to get to Georgetown as if I had gone thru Austin… with traffic. Talk about the long way around!

            • Other Bill

              Yes, the infrastructure play is very popular with investment bankers all over the world. Sell airports to the Saudi investment arms, etc. Just another Goldman Sachs shell game. But water companies can be regulated by utilities commissions and run by private entities. We have any number of them here in Arizona.

  10. Wayne

    Flint should be bulldozed and made into a parking lot or an airport. It’s the only thing that Michael Moore has been right about.

  11. I think…. That there is an ick factor here, which might have bumped you to the wrong side of this, Jack….

    Flint is saying that they’ve been pumping fluid poision into people’s homes for two years, and that people have been USING it for something, obviously not cooking or drinking, but something. And the city has incurred costs in pumping that fluid into the homes of the people who used it.

    Look, at the end of the day, “the government” doesn’t own anything. Oh yes, it acts like it does, but really the taxpayers own everything, and are responsible for everything, whether they can get use out of it or not. If Flint residents get a free pass on water, their municipal taxes will have to increase to cover the difference. Despite the disgusting amount of ick involved in charging the water rate to residents, that rate is tied to usage, which will by definition be more equitable than any property tax levy.

    • There is an ick factor component, but also a responsibility factor. The service being charged for was not what was promised. At very least, it should be discounted. The “We have no choice” rationalization is BS.

      • I don’t disagree, in theory, especially if the Flint water provider was a private business. But it isn’t… and so any “discount” is a fig leaf, the same pool of people are still on the hook for the bill, one way or the other.

        That said, we agree that “we have no choice” was complete and utter tripe. I’d find it refreshing for a politician to have the fortitude to say some variation of what I’ve already said.

  12. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    In my suburban incorporated city, we get two bills each month: one for water and one for sewage. So theoretically — were I to be dissatisfied with the quality of my water — I could refuse to pay the water bill and still pay for sewage. The only big catch is that if you don’t pay either bill in a timely fashion the water company (one holding corporation, two subsidiaries) will to turn off your water, because the simply cannot separate a single home from the sewage system.

    Maybe I should have continued my annual contribution to the local clean water non-profit…

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