Michigan residents plagued by Flint water crisis face mounting bills for water they're afraid to use

The city threatened thousands of residents with possible property liens or foreclosure if they fail to pay.
Flint Water
Posted at 8:48 AM, May 23, 2024

Earlier this month, the city of Flint, Michigan, quietly mailed out several thousand notices to their water customers with overdue bills, threatening to place liens on their property and exposing homeowners to the possibility of foreclosure if they fail to pay.

Anita Johnson is one of at least 9,000 customers the city says are more than six months behind on their bills. She and others who live here still don’t trust the water a decade after city and state officials made a drastic decision meant to save the Flint water system money.

Instead, toxic water that flowed into people’s homes left a wake of lawsuits, an exodus of its tax base, and cost the ultimate price — at least a dozen residents dead and countless others poisoned.

For many in Flint, including Johnson, that’s meant 10 years of buying bottled water. Ten years of living in fear when using tap water to shower, cook, and wash hands. And years of being charged for it.

Johnson is perplexed by the cost of her water, since it’s mostly just her at home. She let us review years of bills showing charges — not including penalties — that range anywhere from $78 to $110 a month for water she says she still doesn’t trust to drink. She says she pays another $80 a month for bottled water. Living on a fixed income, she says she pays what she can here and there, but is still behind $1,959.

Now, she says she fears she could lose her home of 22 years.

“It was another slap in the face,” she said. “We're constantly getting stepped on.”

Mounting bills, mounting debts

There are around 28,000 residential water customers in Flint. Because the city hasn’t shared how many business hookups there are, it’s hard to say exactly what portion the 9,000 customers with delinquent accounts make of the total in Flint. But, it’s clear it’s a lot.

The city says it’s owed a total of $17.6 million. Because of the water crisis and then the pandemic, the city for the most part has let the tab accumulate for years.

Now, Johnson and others say they don’t have a way to climb out from under the mounting bills.

Scripps News talked to dozens of residents who received the lien notices. Some, we found, still hadn’t had their service lines checked to see if corroded pipes, at risk of leaching poison into their tap water, were still connected to their home. Others showed us notices they received stemming from inactive accounts from previous property owners.

Swahetti Lewis, 55 who grew up in Flint, says he got a lien notice and owes $945. Scripps News met him as he was asking about his bill at the city finance department, just down the hall from the mayor’s office.

“Why are we paying all of these high-priced bills and we can’t even use the water?” he said.

The father of 2-year-old and 4-year-old sons told us the city shut off his water the previous day. He said he had to pawn off belongings to get money to try to get his water turned back on.

“It’s hitting us the hardest down here,” he said. “I mean, they put their feet on our necks.”

Person in a medical mask and gloves holds up a bottle of water to check it for clarity

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No response again from the mayor

This is not the first time there have been mass mailings threatening liens in Flint’s post-water-crisis world. In 2017, the city sent 8,002 notices to customers in arrears. Back then, considerably less — $5.8 million — was owed, and despite pressure from the state to collect these debts, both city council and the mayor at the time said no.

When Scripps News first learned of this month’s mass mailing, we tried to get answers from the mayor’s office over days of phone calls and emails. But no one there would even acknowledge that thousands of lien letters had even been sent out.

Then, the day Scripps News arrived in Flint last week, the mayor announced in a prepared statement that he was changing course.

The city released a statement, saying, “Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley has made the decision to not place property liens on active water accounts” and that “this administration believes that water is a human right ... .”

Even after the statement’s release, the mayor’s office refused to make Neeley available to sit down with Scripps News, just as his office has rebuffed many requests over our yearlong investigations.

In the statement, the city acknowledged the tremendous financial hardship collecting the past due bills would be. Grants to blunt the hardship were available, but Flint failed to apply for any of some $25 million in funds the state set aside for its water affordability program, Scripps has learned.

A city official over the water department said in a public meeting his department doesn’t have a dedicated grant writer.

Frustration reaches Washington

This presumably short-lived attempt to collect this growing debt by lien threats came on the heels of state pressure to get Flint’s water system finances in order. It also comes after an ongoing Scripps News investigation that last month found the city had run through $100 million in state and federal funds to find and replace toxic pipes that carry drinking water into people’s homes without finishing the job.

Now, Scripps News has learned, over the last year, the city failed to apply for additional federal funds the state of Michigan secured specifically to rid water systems of dangerous service lines. Nearly $62 million was up for grabs.

That doesn’t sit well with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint resident who has represented the area even before the crisis 10 years ago.

“I get frustrated because we try to do our part to make the money available, but I can't just drive a Brink's truck full of money to the city of Flint,” he told Scripps News.

The Congressman has helped deliver tens of millions of dollars to the city for ongoing health care needs for residents exposed to toxins and for water infrastructure.

What's frustrating to me as a member of Congress is to deliver, you know, $100 million-plus to the community and have them still arguing about how they're going to use it when neighbors can't get the remaining lead pipes fixed or the pump stations improved or whatever it might be,” he said. “That's not acceptable,” he said.

'Significant funding gaps'

The state again is pressuring the city to get its water finances in order.

In December, the State of Michigan notified the city it was in violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, in part for its inability to generate enough money to pay for its water system. The state found “significant deficiencies” in the Flint water system’s finances, management and operations, and distribution system, which it said “represent an immediate health risk to consumers of water.”

Though several critical improvements to the water system were made since the crisis began, all these years later the state still found insufficient staffing, outdated infrastructure and improper control measures to safeguard the drinking water.

The city hasn’t updated projected costs to complete all of its remaining water infrastructure needs, but it’s likely it will take hundreds of millions of dollars. Back in 2018, major gaps in funding were identified and are expected to just keep growing. Both the city and the state have told Scripps News they are currently looking for sources of funding.

More confusion and fear

Even with the mayor’s sudden about-face after the lien letters were sent out, people like Anita Johnson aren’t celebrating.

She trusts her local leaders about as much as she trusts her water.

So, the day after the mayor’s announcement to halt the liens, she called the water department to ask about her bill. Scripps News was there.

A customer service representative said the mayor’s announcement was news to her.

“If you got a notice of a water lien because of a delinquent water amount on your bill, yeah, it'll be placed as a lien if it’s unpaid,” the city worker told Johnson.

Flint’s Communications Director Caitie O’Neill later told Scripps News the city would work to clear up confusion at the water department, but couldn’t rule out liens in the future. The halt, she said, was only good until the end of this fiscal year. That’s the end of June.

The city will also be studying its options to make up for those unpaid water bills, O’Neill told us. That could include rate hikes.

Scripps News data reporter Amy Fan contributed to this story.

Through a series of reports since last May, Scripps News Investigates has found a decade later, the water crisis in Flint still isn’t over. We'll be following this story.

Email investigative producer and National Correspondent with questions or tips.