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Flint water, DPS crises dominate this year's "Big 4" conversation

Jan 19, 2016

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson questioned the framing of the Flint water crisis, and sparred with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan over the Detroit Public Schools.
Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Metro Detroit’s “big four” leaders got together for their annual public chat before the Detroit Economic Club at the North American International Auto Show Tuesday.

This year, two big topics dominated the conversation: the Flint water crisis, and the impending financial collapse of Detroit Public Schools.

Each of the leaders — Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan — said Gov. Snyder had mishandled the state’s response to Flint’s drinking water contamination.

But all four declined to call for the governor to resign over the issue. Nor would they call for Darnell Earley’s resignation right now.

Earley was Flint’s emergency manager when the city switched to the Flint River as its drinking water source (though the decision to switch was made by a previous emergency manager). He now holds the same position at DPS.

However, Evans did say that if it’s revealed that Earley was aware of the dangers posed by the switch, he would “absolutely have to go.”

“I mean, that’s the sword you fall on. And bleed profusely,” Evans added.

Patterson raised a few eyebrows when he appeared to question the severity of the Flint water situation, citing former state lawmaker and political commentator Bill Ballenger, a Flint resident who has publicly stated that the crisis is “overblown” and possibly a “hoax.”

“I don’t think we should be using words like ‘Flint’s been poisoned,’ because I don’t think that’s accurate,” said Patterson, who later sent out a statement saying he doesn’t agree with Ballenger’s view and was just noting there are “other viewpoints on the subject.”

Patterson also sparred with Duggan over who’s to blame for the DPS situation. The district will likely run out of cash before the end of the school year, and faces a total $3.5 billion debt burden.

Duggan said the school district needs to “get out of emergency management altogether,” because four state-appointed emergency managers ran up the debt with short-term borrowing.

Patterson said it was unfair to blame the state, though, because the city and school board had “screwed it up to begin with.”

“It could have been a billion dollars in debt. Two billion, the way they were going,” Patterson said. “I don’t blame the state for trying to do something.”

Duggan was incredulous. “They run up $700 million of deficit, because they say we can run it better, and your answer is ‘Aww, you guys would probably have been just as bad? That’s your answer?’” he shot back.

Patterson also pronounced Gov. Snyder’s plan for a bankruptcy-style DPS restructuring “DOA” in Lansing, because it would likely siphon money from school districts around the state to pay off old debts.

Duggan said he was talking with state lawmakers to drum up support for a DPS rescue package.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel worried about what these crises mean for the state’s roads.

He says Lansing’s 2015 road fix already lacked concrete funding measures, and now the state is likely on the hook for more big expenses.

“Take a look at what’s happening with the crisis in Flint, and now the issues dealing with Detroit Public Schools. Where’s all this money coming from? I mean, how are we actually going to be able to pay for all these fixes?” Hackel asked.

The leaders did range into other topics, including the resurgent auto industry, and President Obama’s visit to Detroit Wednesday.

Duggan said he’ll meet with Obama, but declined to share what he hopes to get out of the meeting. “I’m going to ask President Obama for it tomorrow, so I really don’t want to announce it today,” he said.