Residents of Flint, Michigan, have been paying the highest water bills in America for water they can't even drink because it's tainted with lead.
This month, they're finally getting some relief -- a discount on all bills going forward based on how much customers have paid since April 2014, when Flint disastrously switched its water source.
When Joy Murray logged into her online water account last week, she saw she'd been credited with $424. Since she hadn't paid a bill since December out of protest, the discount brought her balance down to $16.
Murray, who lives in Flint's College Cultural neighborhood, said she's glad to be getting a discount, but said she thinks it's a little odd Flint residents are getting only partial rebates on water that is still completely unsafe.
"The number one problem is we need clean water," Murray, 50, said in an interview. "The number two problem is we need affordable water."
In February, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved legislation creating a $30 million reimbursement plan for Flint water customers. "Flint residents should not have to pay for water they cannot drink," Snyder said at the time.
Residents can drink the water if they have a filter certified to remove lead, something Snyder has been encouraging people to do by drinking it himself.
The plan gives customers a lump-sum credit for 65 percent of what they've been billed for water usage since April 2014, plus 65 percent off on future water bills until testing shows the water is safe to drink. Since Flint water bills are split between usage and sewer service, and the credit only applies to the former, the discount should amount to less than 65 percent of the total cost for most customers.
Darryl Baird called the credit a slap in the face.
"It's ridiculous," said Baird, who lives in Flint's Woodcroft Estates neighborhood. "From a consumer standpoint, I know if I have a defective product I get a refund, not some discount."
Baird said he and his wife have a 9-month-old son who had a small amount of lead in his blood when they had him checked in December. The baby hadn't been drinking formula made with the water, but Baird figures the exposure probably came from breastmilk.
Pediatricians typically don't test kids for lead until their one-year checkup, but Flint residents have been urged to be extra vigilant. Blood tests can only detect lead within a few weeks of exposure; after that, the toxin hides in the bones.
Snyder's government admitted the water was unsafe to drink in October after a local pediatrician reported increased lead poisoning among Flint kids following the city's switch to the Flint River two years ago. State regulators told the city not to treat the water to prevent it from leaching lead from the city's aging pipes, so the lead went from the pipes into people's drinking water.
Childhood lead exposure can result in permanent brain damage and behavioral problems later in life. No amount of exposure is safe.
Several Flint residents told HuffPost they were confused about how their discount was calculated. Online accounts show billing histories that indicate how many units of water were used each month. Murray's credit amounted to more than $8 per unit since April 2014, whereas some neighbors got less.
One of Murray's neighbors, David Roach, decided to try to see what discount Mayor Karen Weaver got, since the online billing system lets people look up anyone's address.
"I thought I could maybe come up with the formula they were using, basically to verify that we are getting what we're supposed to get," Roach said.
It seemed that the mayor received more credit per unit than Roach and his neighbors, but the mayor's office told The Huffington Post that the discount is based on how much people paid, not how many units of water they used, and that per-unit costs can vary depending on the size of a home's water meter.
"It would be misleading to try to convert the amount of a person's credit to an average per unit because it is so highly individualized," a Weaver spokeswoman said in an email. The spokeswoman added that the address provided was charged more for water
Roach, 59, said he was satisfied by the answer and is glad to be getting a discount even if the process wasn't perfectly clear at first.
"I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth," he said.