How long will Flint’s water chief remain unpaid?

The man appointed in February as the water czar in charge of replacing Flint’s lead pipes has yet to receive a single paycheck for his work.

The stiffing, at least so far, of a person integral to making Flint’s water safe to drink is an example of the who’s-on-first dysfunction slowing recovery in this beleaguered city.

While more than a half billion dollars has been delivered or committed to efforts to help Flint recover from the water crisis, progress has been slow, particularly in replacement of the lead pipes that leached lead, a neurotoxin, into the drinking water supply of the city’s 100,000 residents, threatening the long-term health of children in particular.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver appointed Michael McDaniel, former brigadier general of the Michigan National Guard, to lead the Flint Action and Sustainability Team (FAST Start) in February to replace the damaged pipes.

When McDaniel was appointed, Flint officials hoped to replace all lead pipe service lines within 12 months. But six months later, service lines to only 33 homes out of an estimated 11,300 have been replaced.

The revelation that McDaniel has not received any pay for his work is yet another frustrating example of how difficult it is get things done in Flint today.

The cash-strapped city didn’t have money to pay McDaniel, so he worked for free until the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation stepped in. The Flint-based foundation awarded the city a $120,000 grant in June to pay McDaniel for work from May of this year through May 2017.

Related: Mott president on Flint: ‘We’re in the messy part now’

Kimberly Roberson, Flint program director at Mott, said the foundation funded McDaniel’s post because pipe replacement “was identified as the number one thing residents (wanted). So while we did not fund the replacement of lead service lines, we did fund the oversight. (McDaniel) is the gentleman who figured out how to do it in Lansing.”

Related: Beyond bottled water: Hugh checks, slow progress test patience in Flint

The city received an initial payment of $30,000 from Mott on July 13, money intended to cover the first months of McDaniel’s salary, according to a Mott spokesperson. McDaniel told Bridge last week, however, that he still hasn’t received a check. Flint city Chief of Staff Steve Branch confirmed Flint still hasn’t paid McDaniel.

A Mott spokesperson said the foundation was unaware that its grant had not yet been used by the city to pay McDaniel until informed by Bridge.

(Disclosure: Mott is a funder of The Center For Michigan, which includes Bridge)

The Flint City Council members initially balked as they debated the wisdom of a $120,000 salary for its water chief, even though Mott specifically earmarked the funds for that very purpose. Council finally approved payment a week ago.

But council approval, it turns out, is not the final hurdle.

McDaniel’s pay must now be approved by the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a five-person panel that oversees city spending as the city transitions from the control of a state-appointed emergency manager to local control. That board, which must sign off on city disbursements, doesn’t meet until Sept.10.

Which means that McDaniel, who worked pro bono from February to May, and has been promised a salary for his work since, will be lucky to get paid by Sept. 15.

“We’ve had a lot of hoops to get through to get him paid,” Branch said. “We just can’t keep doing business like that.”

Branch praised McDaniel’s (unpaid) performance to date, saying, “He brought a lot of needed project skills we didn’t have the capacity to handle.” .

Large philanthropies have delivered or committed at least $127 million so far in 2016. The vast majority of that money is dedicated to the long-term recovery needs of Flint residents and economic revitalization. Dozens of programs have popped up or expanded across the city, from after-school programs to nutrition resources for families.

But families still can’t drink the water coming from their taps unless they have filters; this more than two years into the crisis. That’s partly because of inadequate staffing levels in city government (say, for example, to pay the person overseeing lead pipe replacement) and partly because of bureaucracy.

As one exasperating example, Bridge reported last week that while the state has given $25 million to help fund new pipes, that money has been stuck in limbo because Lansing placed a $5,000-per-home limit on pipe replacement and Flint’s lowest bid for such work exceeds $6,000.

For his part, McDaniel said he assumes he’ll eventually get paid.

“That’s the plan,” McDaniel said. “At least my wife hopes so.”

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Tue, 08/30/2016 - 9:44am
Hey - You're report today says the limit is $500 per house for pipe removal, but your last report said $5,000. I'm guessing that the last one is correct? and the bids should be $6,000, not $600?
Ron French
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 10:17am
Yes, that was an editing error and it has been fixed in the article. Thank you for pointing it out. The correct figures: the state set a maximum per-home funding of $5,000 for pipe replacement, and the lowest bid came in at $6,000. Our apologies.
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 9:59am
"The state has given $25 million to help fund new pipes, that money has been stuck in limbo because Lansing placed a $500-per-home limit on pipe replacement and Flint’s lowest bid for such work exceeds $600." Please do us all a favor and contact our "esteemed" leaders in Lansing and see if you can get a rational response to this. Doubtful...... These folks love to put "limits" on everything. They pass a law that the Citizens (their employer) don't want, then add some chicken feed funding to it so their bosses can overturn the law. DEMOCRACY at its finest!
Ron French
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 10:19am
David, your point will remain the same but those figures are incorrect due to an editing error. Lansing placed a $5,000 per-home limit on pipe replacement, not $500; and the lowest bid came in at $6,000, not $600. The story has since been corrected. Thanks for reading.
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 12:21pm
The limit of $5,000 per replaced residential water service line in Flint makes a whole lot more sense if you know that the city of Lansing's Bureau of Water and Light (a municipal utility) has worked since 2004 to replace that city's lead service lines, spending an average of $3,100 each. Schools, day care centers, and neighborhoods where a child's blood lead level were the first areas targeted. Lansing expects to have replaced 100% of their lead service lines by mid-2017. The legislature wanted to provide a reasonable level of funding, not enable fly-by-night contractors to loot the treasury. Some of the "community benefits" clauses in Flint's bid requirements seem to have led the bidders to inflate their cost estimates. .
Wed, 08/31/2016 - 7:35pm
Thank God for Anna. I hope Mr. French is looking into the gap between Lansing's $3,100 average cost and Flint's lowest bid of $6,000. And perhaps he could look into the effect of the "community benefits" clauses. Just what is the story?
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 12:40pm
The limit was put in place after Flint spent $15,000 per line for the first 33 lines. That included a $2400 hook in fee charged by the city. Flint then solicited bids for the next phase of the project. Any wonder the bids came in higher than expected?
Barry Visel
Fri, 09/02/2016 - 4:35pm
Maybe I'm missing something, but weren't they already hooked up?
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 1:14pm
I guess all the 1%ers live in Michigan, and they want to make another profit of everyone else. If the likes of DeVoss and Marty Maroon the Ambassador Bridge guy, were drinking lead tainted water. The water repair job would already be done.
Gloria Woods
Sun, 09/04/2016 - 8:43am
It seems to me the difference between the Lansing figure of "$3100 average" vs $5-6000 for Flint could be explained somewhat by the fact Lansing started its project 12 years ago in much better circumstances. Mr, French could you look into the reasons and report back? Also, the story left me wondering how long the city's delay in approval was. How long has it been waiting for state approval? Thanks
Mon, 09/05/2016 - 10:18am
It appears layers of management needing to approve his salary is the delay. However, it didn't take layers of management approval to accept and take money from Mott. When the national news comes to do a follow up story on Flint, this embarrassment will be on Mayor Weaver and the city council. This is post Katrina all over again.