After his botched handling of the Flint water crisis, Governor Rick Snyder quickly became one of the least popular guys in the state of Michigan.
Snyder has faced harsh criticism for failing to prevent the crisis in its early stages, and many people even accuse him of being directly involved in the cover-up. A poll conducted in January found that 3 out of 4 Michigan residents disapproved of Snyder’s handling of the crisis, and thousands of people have signed petitions demanding Snyder’s resignation.
So it should come as no surprise that Michiganders got pretty upset when they heard that Snyder was spending taxpayer money on a team of lawyers to defend him against the slew of lawsuits he’s now facing.
Last month, a state Administrative Board agenda revealed that the governor has spent $1.2 million of taxpayer money retaining two high-powered law firms to represent him in all civil and criminal investigations stemming from the water supply disaster. The highest paid lawyer on Snyder’s legal team, an attorney named Eugene Driker, is billing the state $540/hour for his services. (If you’re wondering, the median billing rate for Michigan lawyers is around $250/hr.)
Snyder’s critics have been extremely critical of the legal contracts since they became public last month. Here’s what Jim Ananich, Minority Leader of the Michigan Senate, said when the contracts were first revealed:
“Paying more for high-priced lawyers than we are for school nurses or fully refunding victims is another kick in the teeth to taxpayers and my community. Our priority should be sending every resource we can to removing pipes and protecting kids, not covering legal fees.”
Back in 2013, Michigan state officials decided to switch the water supply in the city of Flint — a once-thriving industrial city home to some 100,000 residents — from the Detroit Public Water system to the Flint River.
The move was designed to save money, but there was only one problem: a 2011 study had found that making Flint River water safe for drinking would require treating it with an anti-corrosion agent at a cost of $100/day. State officials decided that this treatment was too expensive, so they ignored the researchers’ advice (as well as a federal law requiring this anti-corrosion treatment) and started pumping untreated river water into Flint’s pipes.
It was a disastrous decision. The untreated water quickly leached away at the protective inner-coating of the pipes, leaving the lead underneath exposed. A year or so after the switch was made, doctors in Flint began to raise the alarm after seeing a drastic spike in the number of children who had dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. In late 2015, Flint switched back to the Detroit water supply, but by that time much of the damage had already been done.
The percentage of young children (age 5 and under) with elevated levels of lead nearly doubled during the time that Flint was sourcing its water from the local river. In some of Flint’s poorest neighborhoods, the percentage more than tripled.
Many people in Michigan have called the Flint water crisis a manufactured disaster because of the direct role played by government officials, both in terms of causing the crisis and trying to cover it up.
It’s hard to argue that the anger felt by Michigan residents is unjustified. Besides the $1.2 million in legal fees, the cost of actually fixing Flint’s damaged pipes could be as high as $1.5 billion, according to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.
Even using the most conservative of estimates, the Flint water crisis will likely end up costing Michigan taxpayers upwards of $100 million when all is said done (including legal fees, pipe repairs, lawsuit settlements and the bevy of other costs associated with the crisis).
When you consider the fact that the entire crisis could have been prevented for just $100/day ($36,500/year), you can start to understand why Michigan residents are so infuriated with their elected officials.