There’s a great deal of consternation these days about the poor handling of the Flint, Michigan water system. At the moment the focus is on who’s to blame. Careers will be trashed. Legal fees will go in to the millions. Lives of residents will be permanently altered for the worst. And an already struggling city will decline even more as a result of the drama.
Here’s the short version. Flint’s population and industries have been contracting for years. That left the city with too much public infrastructure to maintain with too little tax base. A “who cares?” attitude prevails from the state of Michigan that’s dominated by suburban and rural voters. They don’t want to be burdened with the residual population in Flint. So in the face of budget shortfalls the city explored and implemented cheaper techniques to manage the water system – with little oversight by ambivalent authorities. Unfortunately that resulted in contaminated water for the city. Ooooops.
In the end Flint will continue to contract. There’s just too much city and too few people. Parts of downtown Flint and its close in neighborhoods can be made financially viable. The rural areas outside of Flint also have a reasonable chance of financial stability. The scattershot low grade stuff smeared out across the middle distance? Not so much. Too many pipes and roads, too little revenue, not enough people.
So there’s a choice that needs to be made. The current pattern of de facto hopscotch devaluation and abandonment can continue in a way that leaves the entire city to hemorrhage cash and slowly rot. Or, the viable parts of its territory can be identified. Public services there can be brought up to a higher standard. At the same time the rest of the city could intentionally devolve to a more rural form with much less city infrastructure.
I’m not holding my breath. I just can’t imagine a political process that can handle that kind of rational decision making and implementation. In the end (many years from now) there will probably be some kind of legal settlement and pay out. The money will be spent trying to save all of Flint, and that attempt will fail.
If you believe your town is better than Flint because it’s managed better, has a comfortable middle class population with “better quality residents,” and more modern industries… you’d be surprised. Nearly every town in America has entirely too much infrastructure and no where near enough revenue to maintain it. And that cash cow tech company you have? They can pick up and leave town at any moment just like the auto makers did. Flint is just ahead of the curve. Tick tock.