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A puddle shows the reflection of Michigan National Guard Spc. John Rhodes as he wheeled cases of bottled water for residents outside at a fire station in Flint, Mich., last week. The lead contamination of Flint's drinking water is being investigated. (Brittany Greeson/The New York Times)

Imagine your outrage if you suddenly learned the water coming through the taps of your home, schools, churches and local restaurants was poisoning you and your children. Especially your children.

Imagine that happening because your city — Chattanooga, East Ridge, Red Bank, Collegedale, Fort Oglethorpe, Cleveland, pick one — was having such dire financial problems that our state government took over, appointing a special overseer. Imagine that you and your family have lead poisoning because that state overseer decided to save money by changing your city's water source from the Tennessee River to a less clean river or stream or well.

Then imagine the state — thinking to save still more money for a total of $100 a day — opted not to add a chemical to the water treatment system that would prevent lead from leaching out of the community's very old water pipes. Imagine complaining that your water is suddenly brown, smelly and makes you itch — but local and state officials tell you: "Relax the water is fine."

And imagine further that local pediatricians document rising lead levels in children here, but they, too, are rebuffed by state officials.

These nightmare imaginings are bleak realities of life in Flint, Michigan.

Flint is the city where General Motors once employed thousands and where the United Auto Workers gained near instant legitimacy after the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936 and 1937. After World War II, Flint became an automobile manufacturing powerhouse for GM's Buick and Chevrolet divisions, both of which were founded in Flint.

By the late 1980s, however, GM plants had closed and the city had fallen into a depression. Half of the population moved away. Today it is a city of about 100,000 poor and mostly black residents.

This week — some four years after the first of four state-appointed emergency managers were brought in to address the city's financial woes — those residents heard Rick Snyder, the state's Republican governor, acknowledge that his government had "failed" the city.

To say "failed" is kind. Lead poisoning is irreversible. It is especially dangerous to children, and Flint has about 8,000 children who now face life with varying degrees of state-induced brain damage because a Republican administration wanted to save $100 a day and then stonewalled — even mocked — residents and health officials who tried for months to tell them of worsening water and emerging health problems.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish? Certainly. Failed? Absolutely. But also negligent. Perhaps even criminally so.

Even when the problems did become public, state officials dithered — sending only about 20 people out to give away bottled water to a city of 100,000. It actually wasn't until national journalists began talking and writing about the dereliction of duties that Snyder called up the National Guard and sought Federal Emergency Management Agency help.

Democratic presidential candidates have called it a disgrace and sought more help.

Republican presidential candidates have largely blown it off — even to the point that Republican Matt Latimer, a Flint native and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, took them to task Thursday in a New York Times Op-Ed:

"Flint was not mentioned in the last Republican debate. Though Ben Carson, a Detroit native, on Tuesday blamed local Flint officials for the troubles," Latimer wrote. "Unless I missed them, no tweets in solidarity have been issued from other Republican contenders. 'That's not an issue that right now we've been focused on' was the best Marco Rubio could say. ..."

Latimer, noting that for years he's heard his party leaders speak of their commitment to minorities and the poor, wrote that the GOP missed in Flint the chance to prove it.

"I do not for a moment question the sincerity of those voices in the party who call for a new approach to persistent poverty or who seek to welcome African-Americans and others into the fold," he wrote. "I don't believe it's impossible for conservatives to help a place like Flint. But first you have to show up."

As for the Michigan governor and his administration's actions and inactions, the Kansas City Star on Wednesday may have said it best: "Michigan has committed a stunning act of government malpractice."

Aside from the tragedy of brain-damaged children and sickened adults — clearly the most important aspect of this chilling saga of missteps, misdeeds and missed opportunities — there's the simple question of fiscal conservatism. The state that sought to save $36,500 a year will surely now spend billions on intensive services and early childhood education, along with legal fees, settlements and the cost of rebuilding an entire city's water delivery system.

Michigan's conservative officials already are trying to pass it on to us — federal taxpayers. And then, no doubt, they will decry federal government spending. Perhaps that's what conservatives mean when they talk about states' rights.

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