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Business-backed plan to help Flint fills void government mostly cannot

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Leave it to the former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party to demand a grand jury investigation of Republican Governor Rick Snyder over his legal fees tied to the Flint water crisis.

Business has a better idea – lend its expertise, free of charge, to projects that promise to get Flint back on its feet after getting walloped by lead-tainted water and financial retrenchment.

The “Flint Sprint” was announced this week. It's an alliance between the city, nonprofits and corporate partners to improve the lives of residents there — and to do it quickly.

The sprint is targeting 20 projects to be tackled thru November. They include assessments of city phones and HR processes, high-definition cameras for police and support for social-service agencies. It’s all more evidence that government at all levels does not alone possess the capacity or expertise to address the aftershocks of the largest public-health crisis in Michigan post-war history.

This shouldn’t be what Deloitte’s Mark Davidoff calls “a one and done.” Why? Because Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis effectively put all of Michigan “on a world stage … and not in a good way. He says “we have a responsibility to Flint until it’s resolved.”

He’s right. The sprint projects, valued at roughly $5 million, are the latest example of a new, public-private model of collaboration here. One that's been evolving in Michigan since the global financial meltdown strained the ability of government to meet basic functions, especially in cash-strapped cities like Detroit and Flint.

In Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy, business and philanthropy collaborated with state government and the city’s emergency manager to craft the “grand bargain.” The resulting cash hoard of more than $800 million shielded the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection from liquidation and bolstered the pensions of city retirees.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, elected less than a year ago amid the water crisis, continues to build her own team. Philanthropic dollars, totaling at least $125 million, are flowing slower than big headlines suggest. Corporate support from General Motors and Flint native Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons, is not enough to meet the city’s needs.

Of the first 15 projects, six are intended to help the city repair or upgrade basic processes that were allowed to deteriorate during Flint’s financial decline. 

The projects identify needs in public safety and infrastructure, health and wellness, education and transportation, where business expertise and resources could be applied quickly.

This is an opportunity for Flint and its leadership in City Hall. Not because business will provide services free of charge, but because municipal operations mired in the last generation (or worse) can be revised and restructured to improve efficiency and stretch scarce resources.

Government doesn’t have a good track record of adequately reforming itself. Nor does it readily adopt new technology to speed revenue collection, customer service, or both. Business is prepared to move quickly, and pick up the tab in the process. Helping Flint’s recovery is important to Michigan’s reputation and the city’s health. That’s why it’s the right thing to do.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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