Detroit’s woes can be eased, but region's officials avert their eyes

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

A regional tax policy could take the form of tax base sharing, in which all of the municipalities would contribute a percentage of the revenue from taxes on new growth. In that way, growth anywhere in the region would benefit the entire region.

“We know that economies are regional and not divided by municipal boundaries. We need to be competing as a region, not against each other.” — John Mogk, Wayne State University

Regional tax policy, some have suggested, would recognize the fact that Detroit’s current tax rates derive in part from the costs of functioning as the region’s hub — to the benefit of surrounding suburbs — and also in part from serving as the home of a disproportionately high percentage of the region’s poorer citizens. The proposed solution: a regional sales tax that would reallocate costs more equitably and, Orfield said, potentially allow the city to reduce its income or property tax rates.

Tax base sharing continues to meet with resistance from the suburbs, who believe they should not be forced to “subsidize” the city with their tax dollars. “Why should I pay for the city’s mistakes?” Patterson asked. “Tax base sharing is anathema to me.”

Orfield also said that a much more aggressive housing policy is needed to integrate the region residentially. “The segregation you see there now is just choking it,” he said. “The old segregation barriers are still in place to an extent. If you’re going to have real regionalism, you need to give people the opportunity to move freely between municipalities.”

Finally, experts said that improving the regional transportation system would be essential to future economic growth. “Most of the people in Detroit who are working have jobs in the suburbs, but very few of them have cars” said Ponsella Hardaway, executive director of the MOSES Project, a community advocacy organization. “We need to be able to get people to where the jobs are. And parts of Detroit depend on suburban residents coming into the city, as well. It’s crucial that we facilitate mobility around the region.”

The region’s current transportation system in famously fragmented and dysfunctional, with Detroit running its own bus service and the suburbs another. But proposals to integrate the regions transportation system also continue to run into resistance. John Scott, the elected chairperson of SEMCOG, said that he “is still having trouble understanding why everyone wants a regional transportation system.”

Scott, who is the Oakland County Commissioner, said that most of the people in his county “wouldn’t use it anyway, because they’d rather drive.”


Where are the leaders?

Past attempts to integrate the Detroit metro region have failed, fueled by segregation, racial politics and mutually exclusive narratives about the city’s decline. Those narratives have also carried up to the state level, where much of the necessary policy changes would need to take place.

Recent years have seen a shift in rhetoric, however. Republican Governor Rick Snyder has repeatedly said that the state will not be able to succeed unless Detroit succeeds. And some officials in the city have also embraced regionalism, at least in theory.

“If everybody is getting along now, then why can’t you get a regional transportation system done?” asked Ponsella Hardaway of the MOSES Project. “Why don’t we have a plan?”

In dozens of interviews with a range of officials at various levels of government, Remapping Debate asked how they had translated their expressed support for regionalism into concrete policy change. Few specifics were forthcoming.

Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Mayor Bing, said that “there has been a lot of progress in this administration. You see a new level of cooperation now.”

Melissa Roy, the assistant executive for suburban Macomb County, agreed. “I think we are seeing a shift,” she said. “We consider our partnership with Detroit to be very strong.”

Those sentiments were echoed at the state level, as well. Democratic State Representative Fred Durhal, Jr., who represents part of Detroit, said that “there is a broad recognition that are all going to have to work together to succeed,” and Republican State Representative Kurt Heise, who represents part of Oakland County, said that “there are many examples of regional cooperation already. We have demonstrated that we have a commitment to cooperation.”

According to several experts, however, the rhetoric does not match the reality, and the scope of regional cooperation taking place is modest in relation to the fragmentation of the metro area and the barriers to growth that exist.

“If everybody is getting along now, then why can’t you get a regional transportation system done?” Hardaway said. “Why don’t we have a plan?”

Orfield agreed. “It’s promising that people are beginning to talk that way,” he said, “but I’m withholding praise until I see any significant results.”

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