The Flint Water Crisis and the Era of Urban Austerity

By Carolyn Loh (Wayne State University)

When I first read about the problems with Flint’s water system, I was shocked and angry, but I can’t say I was completely surprised. The Flint water case illustrates the dangers of treating declining and fiscally burdened cities as local problems to be solved at the local level. The Flint water crisis is just the most severe example of the impossibility of providing adequate city services in a policy atmosphere of austerity

Many states have neglected their most economically disadvantaged central cities, but Michigan’s situation is more extreme than most. Michigan municipalities are constrained in their ability to raise revenues due to a ballot initiative in the 1980s. This contributed to a fiscal crisis in many Michigan cities that were losing population and tax base. In addition, Michigan’s mechanism for taking over fiscally stressed local governments (of which there are many) is one of the most powerful in the country. The governor may appoint an emergency manager who assumes all of the decision-making power of local elected officials and may hire and fire city employees, sell city property, and renegotiate union contracts. The EM answers only to the governor, not to any local constituents. When the governor appoints an EM, local citizens are disenfranchised. As a citizen, it is difficult to make your concerns heard about, for example, the safety of the water supply, when local elected officials have been moved to the side.

If you think Flint, Battle Creek, Detroit, and other disadvantaged cities are in fiscal trouble just because of local mismanagement (and to be sure, many of these cities have had problematic mayors), an EM looks like a good solution. He or she can come in, balance the books, and set the city on a fiscally responsible path. But in reality, the combination of changes in the global manufacturing economy, a decline in federal and state transfer payments to local governments, suburbanization, and an economic paradigm that emphasizes a pared-down role for government all mean that cities like Flint can’t turn things around on their own. Many of the cities that have recently come under the control of emergency managers have a long history of coming under state receivership: none of the EMs, past or present, despite their extraordinary powers, could craft a long-term fiscal solution at the local level for these declining cities. This indicates that solutions must be cooperative, between city government, state government, and residents and other stakeholders, to be sustainable.

Going forward, what do fiscally and demographically challenged cities need to ensure that there are not more crises of service provision like Flint’s? State-level technical assistance—not receivership—and funding around local infrastructure provision and efficient land use would help. And when investing in these cities, it is so important to look at the comprehensive plan, which, at least in Flint, is a terrific plan created with an enormous amount of robust citizen input (paid for by a HUD grant augmented by local foundation money, it won the 2014 Michigan Association of Planning Excellence in Community Engagement Award). Where have the residents said they want to invest, knowing that resources are not infinite? How can we ensure that we’re still keeping people safe in parts of the city that are largely abandoned? The Flint Plan has taken on these questions and presents a vision for a less densely populated city, but one with a high quality of life. The key here is the public participation process that the planning profession insists on—these have to be decisions that city residents make, not ones that are imposed upon them from above. This combination of state help and leadership to ensure adequate service levels, and local decision-making around land use and infrastructure investment, would go a long way to ensure that what happened in Flint does not happen in other fiscally distressed cities.


Carolyn G. Loh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. She studies planning practice, implementation, and local and regional land use decision-making. Email: cgloh@wayne.edu.

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