Where's the money? Accounting for $389 million from Flint water crisis is hazy

Published: Jan. 7, 2020 at 6:19 PM EST
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(1/7/2020) - Mayor Karen Weaver's plea to the governor on Jan. 5, 2016, was granted.

"We're looking for cash, we're looking for resources, we're looking for services, whatever we can get," Weaver said at the time.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder declared the water crisis is an emergency and freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in state resources for the city of Flint.

"We need to get financial resources so that we can fund that nutritional support, early childhood education, repairing and replacing those lead service lines," said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint. "And, I hope that this declaration of emergency opens the door for those resources."

Money did come flowing in from the state and federal governments, even celebrities and organizations from across the country. But four years later, the Weaver administration says it don't know where it all went.

"The state has the cash. They decided who to give the cash to. Not the city of Flint," said former Flint City Administrator Steve Branch.

ABC12 sat down with Branch before Mayor Weaver left office to ask about the state's website's summary of Flint Water Expenditure Tracking. It breaks down what state departments did with the taxpayer money that was set aside for Flint by the Legislature.

The Flint Emergency Appropriations and Expenditures spreadsheet shows a total of $389.6 million dedicated for Flint. A majority of that has already been spent.

"My first reaction was, it's kind of overwhelming when you look at the pages and pages and pages of this spreadsheet," Branch said.

He told ABC12 the city of Flint only received $75 million of that $398 million that they could allocate.

The spreadsheet shows how the money was spent. About $6 million went to change the drinking water source, another $25 million went to replacing lead service lines and another $42.7 million created water credits.

Water credits went to people who live in Flint and paid their water bill even when they couldn't drink or use the water.

As a former financial program project manager, Branch he has a lot of concerns looking at the data.

"On face value, it looks like everything is on the up and up and legit. But when you look into the details, you have questions. And that what we have: questions," Branch said.

ABC12's Ann Pierret went line by line through the 43-page report and found more than 100 lines on this spreadsheet that show money was dished out, but it's not clear who got it. It's the empty spaces raising red flags because it showed money went out, but the name of the contractor is left blank.

So, who got the money?

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said throughout the report, contractor and vendor information is excluded "in an effort to make the report more efficient and user friendly for all interested stakeholders."

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the State Budget Office that runs the site, added, "If you're looking at a specific contract, you can get that information and we can find it and get it to people. But, it's very difficult to collect it across all of the departments for this particular report we work on."

He told ABC12 they send an email every quarter to state agencies to get an update on how they're spending the money. There's even an outside audit that makes sure it checks out.

But, why not release specific information to the public?

"The problem with so much of it being done in the past; and you know, that administration is gone now, there could be a simple explanation for it," said State Sen. Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint. "But we don't know, I mean the public doesn't know. And, the taxpayers have a right to know."

Ananich claimed the Snyder administration used the website to dupe people into thinking more was being done for Flint's recovery than he said the former governor actually did.

"I mean, we've obviously put a lot of resources, many of which went to the places they were supposed to go. But, a lot of those dollars are being inflated to look like they did something," he said. "This is the point I made early on and throughout the time of Governor Snyder's term. This is a public health crisis, not a PR crisis for his reputation -- and that document, I think, further shows it was all about PR for them."

Ananich wants it to be more clear-cut and straightforward for the community to understand.

The State Budget Office says citizens can call to get specific information on contractors. ABC12 called just before 2 p.m. on a Monday and heard back a little more than 24 hours later with an answer.

But residents who lived through the water crisis said that's not good enough.

"We need to see plain and simple, like where did the money go. We don't want it in codes or anything like that, where did the money go?" one man said.

So, hundreds of millions of dollars and four years later, is Flint recovered from the water crisis?

"Our city is still in the process of fixing pipes, and if you ask any resident, almost to a person, is Flint fixed? They're going to tell you, 'No.' So, we still have a long way to go," Ananich said.

The State Budget Office isn't sure how much longer they'll be tracking spending for the crisis recovery, but said at least until all of the money is spent.

The website shows there's about $58 million left.

See "Related Links" on the right side or bottom of this story for more information on Flint water crisis spending.