By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — In what is a rare sight at Three Rivers City Hall, city residents packed the commission chamber for Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, many of whom spoke out about their experiences with water quality and water bills during the public comment section.
The show of residents was due mainly to a local group, the Three Rivers Clean Water Campaign, who planned to have city residents speak to the city commission to express their concerns about city water, announced in a press release last week reported on by the Commercial-News.
Around a dozen residents commented during the public comment section of the meeting, which took approximately 52 minutes between resident comments and comments from city officials following. Some in the audience held signs showing how much they pay for bottled water on top of their regular water bill costs.
One resident, who recently moved into the city from the Coney Island area in New York, said he had been to a number of places around the country and drank a lot of water in his travels, but that when he got into Three Rivers, he said the water “tasted funny.”
“Before I even knew there was lead in the water, I had decided something was wrong and had to stop consuming it and using it. At the end of the day, if I had no inclination of what is in the water, and I still feel it’s that much of a problem that I’m literally threatened to even drink it, something’s wrong,” he said. “Now, I know it’s not going to be easy with whatever plumbing or whatnot that’s the problem, but what we solve now is going to solve things for future generations. I hope we can come to an agreement that there would be something that would fix this problem over time at least.”
Vernis Mims, who finished runner-up in November’s mayoral election to Tom Lowry, said he, like many people, has had to buy bottled water monthly because of the water quality in the city. He said in the next 20 years, “generations and generations” could be affected by the issues with water quality, and requested there be more “transparency” from the city commission when it comes to the issue.
“We just want a little bit of transparency. We just want to know what’s coming. We want to be able to see it, we want to be involved in the process. I don’t feel like that’s too much to ask for the people of the city that voted you guys in. We want to be able to know our elected officials have our best in mind at all times,” Mims said. “We learned from Flint; we don’t want to be the next Flint. Even on a minute scale, we don’t want to be the next Flint.”
Gina Foster told commissioners in her comments she has experienced brown and “nasty”-tasting water for a long time, and asked what commissioners were going to do about the water.
“It is not fair for us to have to pay for water we can’t use 100 percent,” Foster said, noting that she pays $600 in six months on bottled water. “This is extra money I have to pay on an increased water bill and sewer. I want to know, as we re-elected y’all, what y’all are going to do about it. … Living here, struggling, and thinking about my health, that’s all I can do. I’m not going to be around to see my grandkids. And that’s not fair, and you know it’s not fair. I expect y’all to try to do something about it, and if you can’t do something about it, step down.”
Jonathan Love, who is also a landlord in the city, focused on the water and sewer bills, questioning why there was a “multiplier” in his water bills where “the sewage matches the water,” citing the physical city water bills he brought to the meeting and read off of them during his comment, including an $807 and $798 total bill. He also advocated for a third party to audit the city’s finances related to the water bills being charged.
“What I would like to see is that denominator go away, you should only charge by the water you use and the sewage that you use, and they should never match,” Love said. “I’d like that denominator to be looked into, maybe by a third-party audit, maybe it should be chosen by Lansing. Let’s open the books and let’s see where our tax dollars go.”
Following the comments by the residents, Lowry explained the city’s side of the situation to those in attendance, reiterating mostly what he has stated in the past about the city’s water situation and what the city is currently doing to address replacement of lead water lines. He said that the water coming from the city’s wells is “very good,” and claimed most of the issues lie in the service pipes going to the houses from the road.
“The bottom line is it’s not all the water. The water as it comes out of the system is fine. It’s where those in houses that have the lead water lines to the house, those are the houses affected. It’s not every house,” Lowry said. “We test the water very stringently per state rules, and so does every water system in the state. Most people do not have a problem. You’re still welcome to get a filter, even if you don’t have a problem.”
Lowry noted there have been grants for testing service lines, which the city has taken advantage of and is in the process of performing to see which lines have lead in them. He said the city anticipates 1,000 households might have an issue with lead service lines, and the city has 20 years, based on an unfunded mandate from the state, to replace all the lead service lines they have.
“If, on average, every house is $5,000 [to replace lead service lines], and we have 1,000 houses, that’s $5 million. We don’t have $5 million extra to remediate all this,” Lowry said. “If it is $5 million, we’ll be lucky, because our estimates are upwards of $10 million just for the city alone.”
Lowry also noted the efforts the city has taken to find funding for replacing the lead service lines, including applying for a Drinking Water State Revolving Fund grant to replace 336 water lines to homes in areas of 14 different streets in the city. He asked residents to keep pressure on state and federal legislators to try to make more funds available for cities to replace their lead lines.
“The state reps and senators know that, but they have not put any committee work into it to give a penny to every single city and village in the state. They know it’s an issue, and they keep punting it to the next legislature,” Lowry said. “I’m not minimizing it, but please bring your heat and anger on the state reps and on the national reps, because that’s where the money’s going to come.”
He said the city fully intends to remediate the lead lines, but that they would more than likely do it in “piecemeal” on houses that test positive for lead. He also noted the free filters being given out to residents via the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency, and admitted it was “undecided” who is going to pay for another round of filters once the original ones need to be replaced.
In addition to those efforts, City Manager Joe Bippus also noted that the city has replaced lead service lines as they come across them in road construction projects in the city limits, a practice he said has been going on since the early 2000s.
Overall, Lowry told the audience the city has been “proactive” in trying to get things done with replacing lead service lines.
“We’re going to start replacing lead lines as we know them, before we get state and federal money,” Lowry said. “We can’t do everything, but we’re going to start because we’re worried about children and seniors drinking lead-polluted water. We don’t know where every one of them is, but when we find one, we’ll start replacing those lines. That’s proactive.”
One commenter noted in their public comment that Tuesday’s meeting was not livestreamed on Facebook, like it usually has been on the Three Rivers City Hall Facebook page for more than a year and a half since doing so was implemented by the city commission. Following the meeting, City Manager Joe Bippus told the Commercial-News the reason for the decision to not livestream the meeting was because of the presence of WWMT-TV covering the meeting, with a camera, for a story on their 11 p.m. newscast, which focused on the public comments about city water.
In other business…
- Commissioners approved in identical 5-1 votes special exception use permits for two new recreational marijuana shops in the city, at 745 S. U.S. 131 and 223 N. U.S. 131. First District Commissioner Pat Dane was the lone dissenter in each vote. During discussion, both Dane and Third District Commissioner Chris Abel commented on the number of marijuana stores in the city there would be if approved, which would become eight with the approval of the two new stores, with Abel suggesting another moratorium on marijuana retail applications be put in place if the two were approved, adding that he would not vote in favor of another such application in the future.
- Commissioners approved a $21,918 purchase order to Hydro Corp for the completion of an in-home distribution system material inventory (DSMI) for 190 homes to determine the material of their water service lines. Department of Public Services Director Amy Roth told commissioners the purchase order came about due to B&B Environmental, who was handling the inspections, not being able to uphold their end of their contract with the city to perform the work due to rising costs on their end. The deadline to complete the DSMI is in July 2024.
- Commissioners approved an $18,827.55 transfer from the sewer fund balance to authorize a change order with West Michigan International for DOT vehicle repairs.
- Three Rivers Police Det. Sam Smallcombe was pinned and sworn in during a ceremony at the start of Tuesday’s meeting celebrating his promotion to deputy police chief.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or email@example.com.