The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is at the center of recovery efforts in Flint, where inadequately treated water caused lead pipes to leach lead, a neurotoxin, into the drinking supply, potentially poisoning thousands of children.
Mott President Ridgway White spoke with Bridge about the challenges facing the city and its residents. (Disclosure: Mott is a funder of The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Magazine)
Bridge: What is the C.S. Mott foundation’s role in Flint’s recovery?
White: We pledged over $100 million over a five-year period, We’ve probably awarded $25 million or so. Some of that is retooling of existing programs, like after-school programs and early education; others are things like doubling the number of community schools and double-up food bucks (which allows low-income families to get twice as much healthy food).
Bridge: Give us a status update on recovery efforts.
White: We’re beginning to unpeel the onion. You have to understand what the Flint water crisis is. It was an emergency health crisis, and it’s a crisis of confidence in government and its ability to provide basic services. When you don’t have basic services, a lot of things in society start to fall apart. Fortunately, the nonprofits have been here to reduce struggles in town; society hasn’t completely broken down.
Depending on who you talk to, we may be two and a half years into the crisis. You have the repercussions of the long-term crisis, the continuing crisis in confidence in government combined with a new (city) administration that is getting its bearings. You have a lot of money pledged by philanthropies, government and celebrities, but some of those dollars haven’t been implemented. We’re really in the messy part now.
Bridge: You mention a crisis in confidence in government. Part of that seems to revolve around the city of Flint’s inability to conduct routine business. Have foundations considered stepping in and funding city employee positions so there is greater capacity to get things done?
White: We initially thought we would give a lot of money to the city for capacity building. We haven’t ruled it out but we’re sort of rethinking that. The issue is, the water crisis has taken a city that had limited capacity and completely broken it. So how do you help build capacity when capacity has been so broken as a result of the crisis?
We put in $120,000 (to the city) to get an extra special water czar, but, then they can’t collect the trash. Property tax bills went out a week and a half before they were due – they typically come out three months early. If we give money, will they (city officials) cut the budget elsewhere, so our extra dollars aren’t helping all that much?
Bridge: You sound frustrated.
White: We have studies that show that 50 percent of the city will be owned (by the city) through tax foreclosure in less than five years. People aren’t paying their property taxes or their water bills. You try to forecast five years out and you say, “How will city operations work?” That’s why this is the messy part.
Bridge: Foundations have stepped up. Has state government done enough?
White: We’ve done the initial things, the things that foundations know how to do. I think we thought the resources from government were going to come in a little stronger than they did. The government has approved certain dollars, but it sometimes seems slow to be implemented. I credit them for trying. The early child initiatives the state approved for Flint, that’s like $54 million dollars for early childhood, that’s pretty significant. The state bringing in (a total so far of) $234 million, that’s a lot of money in a year, for a city that only has a few staff. How much can you spend in a year or two?
Bridge: How is Mott involved in those early childhood and school initiatives?
White: There are 8,177 kids in Flint ages 0-5, but only 1,700 or so are in quality (early childhood) programs. So we’ve taken the initiative to try to build a couple centers with wraparound services and outreach, to raise the standard throughout the city.
One of the biggest requests from the (Flint Community Schools) superintendent was for community school directors. This year we’ll have community school directors and health navigators in 11 schools to help connect families to resources. It helps the schools be less isolated, so they’re not just about the child, but the whole family.
Bridge: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the direction of efforts today?
White: I feel cautiously optimistic about the interventions for youth and about some of the health and nutrition work. I would say the story is still unfolding on our economic future. I’m more pessimistic about ability of the city to figure out its resources and fiscal sustainability, not because of our leadership, but just because of the system. Without having water bills paid, without property taxes, with increased foreclosure rates and decreased property values, you compile those things together with the legal entanglements over the water crisis that will be ongoing, and it’s messy.
When I first met the mayor, she said, ‘We’ve hit rock bottom,’ and I said, ‘Don’t say that.’ If you live here long enough, you hit rock bottom multiple times. What’s next? Civil unrest? Knock on wood, we’ve avoided that.
I was more optimistic at one point feeling that the water crisis would provide an opportunity to spur some advantaged tax law, perhaps a federal corporate income tax break to encourage companies to come here. But I don’t see anything that’s going to happen there. State revenue sharing policy change, in my opinion, is the solution; that (decrease in revenue sharing) and school of choice have caused more damage to Flint than anything else.
Bridge: How much is a total Flint fix going to cost?
White: If you’re talking about infrastructure, then it’s $1 billion. if you’re talking about basic resources for response for children, there could always be more, but it’s more worrying about years three, four, five, 10 than now.
The state’s come up with a lot. But will people remember the scars of the water crisis five years from now? Will the next administration continue to be held accountable? We’re in uncharted territory. I think the scars of the water crisis will be deep and lasting, no matter the amount of money.