EMT for the 313

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?

The Roosevelt Warehouse or Detroit School Book Depository. A fire in 1987 did some damage to the building but was abandoned despite most of the inventory being usable. No effort to recover science and sports equipment, scissors, crayons, and books was ever made and now all sit on the floor in ruin

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.

The United Artists Theater. The theater is actually part of an 18-story high rise built in 1928. The historic building was such an embarrassment that the exterior was refurbished before the Super Bowl in 2006. The interior remains as seen.

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?

The Lee Plaza Hotel lobby. The Lee Plaza is on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

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.

9 thoughts on “EMT for the 313

  1. I really don’t see a way out for Detroit. Unemployment locally was something like 17.5% last time I looked. Some of the surrounding communities are doing better but Detroit’s infrastructure was really built for another time.

    The big problem is the old adage you need to spend money to make money. Detroit needs massive reinvestment to make its local services and infrastructure appropriate to the modern economy as well as to clear away blight and compensate people for eminent domain seizure and transfer to a more sustainable size. But this isn’t possible with the existing tax base. Even a bankruptcy probably won’t do a lot; there won’t be enough of a tax base to build anything on or to clear away the debris of a bygone era.

    Unless someone is willing to invest a lot of money there really isn’t a way out. And why someone would be willing to invest a lot of money when there are more profitable alternative investments elsewhere is beyond me.

  2. Suppose the City condemned all blighted lands, paid pennies for it, and gave it away to developers. Who would WANT it? It’s not the ruined building that’s the problem, that can be bulldozed. It’s the ruined attitudes of all the people who stand in your way: local government and unions who think they know better than you what add-ons business can afford; environmentalists who want no impact; historians who want everything preserved unchanged; Black race-baiters looking for shake-downs . . . look at our own University Avenue light rail and see how the city and union construction workers have treated the businesses along that route, and realize we have it GOOD compared to Detroit. Emery may well be right: Detroit is doomed.

    Unless there’s a rescue. Hey, I know, let’s extend the high-speed rail line from St. Paul through Chicago to Detroit. Plus, raise taxes on Rich Minnesotans to up welfare payments. That worked so well for Minneapolis, St. Paul could really make the big-time!

  3. Detroit has been circling the drain for a long time, supported for years by special laws that were available to Michigan cities of more than 1.5 million, then 1 million. But that didn’t save Detroit, all it did was grease the track to a descent into Hell.

    All the functional folks who had options left long ago, and dysfunctional have been increasing to the point where they are now at least the voting majority in that city. So yes, the city can’t be saved and is the functional equivalent of a psychotic who’s not taking his meds and needs to be committed.

  4. Those pictures you posted show some of the destruction, but tell only a small portion of the story. I’m not sure how well this link will translate, but if you noodle around google street view in Detroit’s neighborhoods, you will be surprised at the destruction, even if you are expecting a lot. There are large swaths of blocks missing 3 out of every 4 houses. Those that are not removed completely are burned out, dilapidated or at a minimum, boarded up. Many of these look like they have an almost rural character. Houses sitting i fields. It is eery, it is scary and it is very sad. Those houses used to have families, kids and all that went along with it. Now, if they hold people at all, they hold vagrants and squatters, otherwise just animals. It is terrible.

  5. PJ makes a great point. The best cure for blighted properties in Frogtown is to wait for a Westerly wind, then drop a match on Lexington and let it burn all the way to 35E. The miles of newly cleared space could be rebuilt to modern zoning standards and modern construction codes, which isn’t affordable done piecemeal infilling existing blighted blocks. Sounds as if Detroit could use the same medicine.

    Question is: how many years ahead of St. Paul is Detroit? And are we headed toward their peril, or away from it?

  6. Detroit is what happens when there are more takers voting than producers.

    The takers will always vote for people promising more shit to take, even if they themselves are taking more shit than they toss out for the dogs to fight over.

    Detroit should be re-named Democrat City.

  7. Any speculation on who, what, and what qualifications this emergency manager will be required to have? And then, what guidelines she/he will have to operate under?

    The selection process and end result will be quite instructive.

  8. If the NoKos are determined to lob a nuke at us, perhaps we could slip them the coordinates for the Motor City.

  9. Pingback: Blight of Day | Shot in the Dark

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