Conventional wisdom has it that Flint's lead poisoning crisis is the result of austerity measures imposed on the city by a fiscally conservative state government. And indeed, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager in 2011 to help the city balance its books and avoid bankruptcy. But one of the real culprits may have been a misguided effort to stimulate the local economy through increased government spending.
The mess occurred because Flint decided to switch from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The KWA was planning to build an expensive pipeline from Lake Huron to the Genesee County area, where Flint is located. But the city's contract with DWSD ended before the new facility had come online, so Flint authorities senselessly opted to reopen in the interim a mothballed local facility that relied on the toxic Flint River for water.
Documents show Flint's emergency manager had reason to believe that renewing the city's 30-year contract with DWSD would lead to $26 million in annual savings. So why the switch to KWA?
Sources close to the situation say that Genesee County and Flint authorities saw the new pipeline and water treatment facility as a public infrastructure project that would create jobs for an area that never recovered after Michigan's auto industry fled to sunnier business climes. And neither Snyder nor state treasurer Andy Dillon would say "no." That's not austerity—more like a stimulus project gone wrong.