MacIver News Service | May 20, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. — America’s drinking water “crisis” didn’t just pop over night.
Yet, Democrats on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would lead you to believe that their conservative colleagues are to blame for Milwaukee’s lead problems. More so, they believe taxpayers from Superior to Kenosha should have to pick up the tab for Milwaukee’s failure to prioritize a basic local government function: Providing clean drinking water to its citizens.
“This crisis isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to get worse,” state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) admonished the committee’s Republican majority members last week.
While no one denies the dangers of lead in drinking water and that children in Milwaukee and other U.S. communities have been poisoned by unacceptable lead concentrations, what also cannot be denied is the fact that Democrats — and socialists — have been in control of Milwaukee for the better part of a century. And those city leaders could have made replacing lead laterals, the lines that connect the public water main to some 70,000 homes, a top priority years ago.
“One reason the Flint disaster should not have happened is that drinking water experts have known all about these problems, generically for a long time,” according to the Society of Environmental Journalists. “As far back as 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued something called a Lead and Copper Rule using the authority Congress gave it under the Safe Drinking Water Act … In another set of amendments in 1996, Congress tried to ratchet up pressure to solve the problem. Those amendments banned lead materials in water systems.”
Five years after Flint, Milwaukee city officials are scurrying to catch up in the heat of public pressure, scandal, and increased scrutiny.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office and the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation are investigating the city Health Department’s lead abatement programs. In January 2018, Bevan Baker, Milwaukee’s health commissioner, resigned a day before word came down about the department’s myriad failures to attack the lead pipe problem.
Baker, it should be noted, was appointed to the commissioner post in 2004, when Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, began his mayoral tenure. Activists have demanded Barrett follow Baker out the door.
The city in 2017 rolled out a lead service line mandate, but replacement is an expensive prospect.
So is streetcar building.
The first phase of The Hop, Barrett’s downtown streetcar fantasy come to life, cost $128 million, about $70 million from federal funding sources, and $59 million from local taxing districts created on upfront loans.
Now, Barrett and the streetcar lobby want to build a 0.4-mile expansion north from West St. Paul Avenue on north Phillips Avenue, west along the proposed Vel R. Phillips Plaza, and continuing south on North Fifth Street back to St. Paul Avenue. Last week, the city Redevelopment Authority Board signed off on Barrett’s $47 million financing plan for the expansion, which streetcar backers want to have built just in time for the July 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Alderman Bob Donovan, a vocal critic of The Hop, said Barrett has put his streetcar infatuation above the basic safe drinking-water needs of the city.
“They all say it’s a priority, but put your money where your mouth is,” Donovan told MacIver News Service last week on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN. The reality is, for whatever reason, the mayor’s priority is this streetcar, and I just don’t get it. It’s just mind-boggling to me …”
Milwaukee Democrats in the Legislature are pointing the finger of blame at Republicans for rejecting a provision in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget blueprint calling for $40 million in borrowing to replace lead service lines in communities statewide.
“Poisoned children should be a Wisconsin issue, because if we don’t pay for remediation of lead, we’re going to pay in other ways,” said finance committee member Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee).
Committee Republicans voted for $17 million in clean water projects sought by a Democratic governor who has declared 2019 “the year of clean drinking water.”
And the Republican-controlled Legislature in the last session passed lead line remediation legislation lauded by the Environmental Defense Fund. Former Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican so often vilified by environmental extremists, signed the legislation “that takes an important step to replacing the 240,000 lead service lines in communities across the state.” The law allows municipalities and water utilities to provide financial assistance to property owners to replace lead lines on private property, often a cost-prohibitive improvement project for many property owners.
GOP lawmakers last week pointed to the legislation, in defending the barrage of criticism from Democrats on the budget committee.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) did the nearly unthinkable: he praised the ultra-liberal city of Madison for doing a “great job … getting rid of lead laterals on their own, without a mandate from the state.”
.@repvos applauds the @CityofMadison for replacing all privately owned lead lateral pipes on its own, and wonders why @CityofMKE needs a handout from state taxpayers to do the same. #WIbudget #WIright pic.twitter.com/TRskGv3WGY
— MacIver News Service (@NewsMacIver) May 17, 2019
The city in 2001 decided to replace its lead pipes. Actually, the city began using copper pipes instead of lead in the 1920s, but thousands of lead lines remained in Madison’s downtown, near the state Capitol.
Replacement was costly, and the move was controversial. Property owners had to replace lead pipes in their homes, the final destination for drinking water.
For nearly 6,000 property owners, it meant about a $1,300 plumbing bill. Madison reimbursed half of that cost. “It took the city 11 years and $15.5 million in all to remove 8,000 lead water pipes,” NPR reported in 2016. “But that decision put the city ahead of the curve — allowing it to avoid the lead water contamination that is plaguing cities like Flint, Mich., now.”
Sue Bauman, Madison mayor at the time, said the city made the right decision.
“It was a forever solution, and if you looked at the cost of adding chemicals to the water, to the water supply forever compared with the one-time cost of replacing over time, you were better off,” she told NPR.
“The very fact that Madison made that decision without a mandate, without the state of Wisconsin saying we have to pay for it, is a prime example of the legislation that we passed last session, which allows for local control to make those decisions where they have the ability to pay for up to half of the costs of replacing private citizens’ lead laterals,” Vos told Capitol Press Corps reporters last week.
Vos and state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, reminded members of the media that much of the lead problem is not at the government or water utility level, it’s in the pipes of private property owners.
Nygren said Evers’ $40 million borrowing plan is not a “real solution” to a complicated problem.
“First of all, it only would have solved 9 percent of the problem in Milwaukee dealing with lead laterals. In addition to that, if you already have lead pipes in your house, it doesn’t solve the problem,” the lawmaker said. “I think the worst things we could do as a government is mislead the citizens to think that the government’s got the solution.”
And the worst thing Milwaukee could do, Donovan said, is prioritize pet projects over basic necessities, like public safety and clean drinking water.
“If the downtown is considered the heart and soul of the city, then our neighborhoods ought to be considered its backbone. And just as the backbone can break under too much weight, so, too, the backbone of our neighborhoods are breaking under too much weight of neglect by an administration that has gone on far too long,” the alderman said. “I feel sorry for the residents of Milwaukee that, day in and day out, have to face crumbling roads and infrastructure, have to face incredible challenges when it comes to public safety and the dysfunction that is allowed to continue in their neighborhoods.”