By John Wisely
Flint residents paid the highest water rates in America even as their water was tainted with lead, according to a national study released Tuesday by the public interest group Food and Water Watch.
A survey of the 500 largest water systems in the country, conducted last year, found that on average, Flint residents paid about $864 a year for water service, nearly double the national average and about three-and-a-half times as much as Detroiters pay. The figure is based on an annual household consumption of 60,000 gallons.
"It far exceeds what the United Nations designates as affordable for water and sewer service," said Mary Grant, one of the study's authors. The United Nations recommends that water and sewer service shouldn't exceed 3% of a household income. In Flint, the charges totaled about 7%, Grant said.
A Flint lawyer who sued to reduce the rates says they are high in part because city officials and state-appointed emergency managers have tapped water and sewer money for other needs.
"They've been using that money improperly for years to fund the general operations of the city," said Valdemar L. Washington, who has been battling the rate increases in court since 2012. The city's sewer fund had a balance of $36 million in 2006 but was running a $23-million deficit by 2012, Washington said.
The city didn't respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit claims.
The high rates were a reason Flint joined the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which was pitched as a means to control rate increases.The 2013 decision to leave the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for Karegnondi prompted the temporary switch to the Flint River as a water source in 2014.
The city, which was under a series of emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, never added corrosion controls to the river water. As a result, lead began to leach out of pipes and fixtures, poisoning water users and creating a state of emergency that has brought international attention to Flint's troubles.
Washington sued twice to reduce the rates, which he says were raised in violation of city ordinances. Last year, a judge agreed with him and ordered the city to reduce the rates 35%, though Washington disputes how much they've been lowered.
The city charges customers for the water they use and for a separate connection fee to be on the water system. Washington said the ruling was meant to apply to both, but the city has reduced only the water charge.
The water rates used in the Food and Water Watch study were calculated in January 2015, before the judge ordered the reduction.
Washington said he lives in Flint with his wife, and that his water and sewer bills average $180 a month with just two people in the house. His lawsuit, filed on behalf of some Flint residents, is on hold while the Michigan Court of Appeals decides whether governmental immunity protects the city in the suit.
Flint has complained for years that the Detroit system charged too much for the water. But the City of Flint marks up the price Detroit charges before billing residents and business owners.
According to the Food and Water Watch Survey, Flint residents were paying far more for water than customers in other Michigan systems. According to the study, Detroiters pay, on average, $249 per year for water. Livonia residents pay $291, Dearborn customers pay $251 and Sterling Heights pay $165.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press