Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus
“We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.” – City of Detroit’s motto.
Those words were written in 1805 to memorialize a Detroit school burned to the ground. 208 years later, Detroit still hopes for divine intervention, this time from the Michigan capitol.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s proclamation of a “financial emergency” in Detroit was the culmination of a decades-long municipal car wreck. Between 2000 and 2010, the city lost 237,500 inhabitants — an estimated 1/4th of the population. One in 20 homes were foreclosed upon during the height of the recession. The city remains $327 million in the red with $14.9 billion in unfunded city pension plans. By comparison, the entire state of Michigan’s biennial budget is $49 billion.
While Detroit has been slowly crashing into a wall of economic reality, a busload of corrupt and incompetent city officials have rubber-necked their way past the myriad of issues confronting the city. In the last decade, Detroit saw 131 convictions of government officials, a number defined by the reign of ousted Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Even the federal government last year withheld millions in grants from Detroit over concerns of corruption. The city’s reaction? We’re not as bad as Chicago when it comes to corruption, so what’s the big deal?
Synder’s appointment of an “emergency manager” to oversee the Detroit budget and pension plans has elicited howls of protests from the usual suspects:
“[Emergency managers] can unilaterally tear up union contracts, take over pension funds, make and repeal laws, sell public assets, the list goes on,” he said in an earlier interview with The Huffington Post. “Imposition of the EM must be understood in the context of the many other methods conservatives are using today to suppress democracy –- especially among people of color and people in poverty.”
But the decision to go the EM route has also gained critics on the Right, with one National Review writer declaring Snyder’s decision, in hyperbolic form, a “uniquely American way to dictatorship.”
The Emergency Manager legislation has gone through a number of iterations over the years, including one version, Public Act 4, that was opposed by the unions and defeated on the ballot last November. PA 4 would have allowed EMs to effectively run cities, with their authority superseding that of city officials. Instead, with PA 4 defeated, Snyder is falling back on the format of an older PA – one that while still not allowing EMs to be fired by the city, doesn’t grant them the power to abrogate collective bargaining or dissolve local governments.
Despite the fact that no one will be declared dictator, or even Pontifex Maximus, Snyder’s decision has prompted Detroit’s City Council to fight tooth-and-nail against any EM, filing an appeal against the state. One official who isn’t planning on fighting Lansing is surprisingly Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing. Like the rest of the city government, Bing isn’t happy about Snyder’s power play, but unlike the rest, Bing is willing to work with any EM. Speaking at a City Hall press conference, Bing stated that “we need to stop BSing ourselves,” a quote perhaps applicable to more than just an acknowledgment that an emergency manager would be imposed on Detroit whether they liked it or not.
An emergency manager invites micro concerns – with 83 cents of every Detroit police and fire payroll dollar being spent on pensions by 2017, what use is an EM without the ability to unilateral restructure pension and/or contracts? But the macro concerns of the decision are far more troubling. How do you save a city that won’t save itself?
H.L. Menchken famously declared that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Detroit has certainly being getting it “good and hard” for decades, and like an S&M enthusiast whose forgotten their safe-word, doesn’t know how to stop. Bankruptcy may be an option, but it doesn’t address the billions in underfunded liabilities. And considering all bankruptcy would do is force Detroit and its creditors to negotiate, there’s not much more that an EM would do for the situation except provide a political scapegoat for the necessary hard choices to come. It should be little wonder that Mayor Dave Bing isn’t fighting Snyder’s executive decision – he’s probably relieved someone else will being taking the slings and arrows (in Detroit; statewide, the move is very popular).
Yet what happens after the dust settles? Even if Snyder’s EM hacks Detroit’s budget into the black, will the political machinery or populace live with the decisions? Or, having avoided any connection to the policies implemented to take Detroit on the long road to fiscal solvency, will the business of City Hall simply revert to usual?
Snyder’s technocrat lean may be well-intended, but in the case of Detroit, is only delaying the city and its voters coming to terms with their decisions. Although on the plus side, Snyder’s move is the first job created in Detroit in years.