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

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Republican leaders in the state government, for example, still maintain a Detroit-only approach to the city’s current fiscal problems by focusing on cutting costs and reducing services, which, as Remapping Debate has reported, are likely to make the structural problems worse.

And when it comes to making the kinds of changes that would require residents of the region to abandon the status quo, officials were not actually prepared to move forward. When asked whether she believed Macomb County was prepared to make any alterations to the current arrangement, Roy said, “I think there needs to be a natural change. I don’t think anybody’s going to have to make concessions.”

When asked about regional governance and tax base sharing, both State Rep. Heise of Oakland County and State Rep. Durhal of Detroit used the exact same language, saying that there was “no appetite” among their constituents for those proposals.

When asked about regional governance and tax base sharing, both Heise of Oakland County and Durhal of Detroit used the exact same language, saying that there was “no appetite” among their constituents for those proposals.

But, Remapping Debate asked, isn’t part of being a leader making the case for the policies that are needed, even if those policies require tough decisions?

“I have a responsibility to listen to my constituents,” Heise said. “I don’t have any responsibility to Detroit.”

To Buss and other advocates, that is not an example of far-sighted leadership. “We haven’t had leaders who are willing to look beyond their own selfish interests,” Buss said. “And I doubt we’ll get any of this done until we do.”

According to Dan Gilmartin, the executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, a silver lining in Detroit’s current crisis is that it has become more apparent that the fate of the region depends in large part on the City of Detroit. And if leaders do not take this as an opportunity to move forward, “it will be a tragedy.”

“If we recognize that we’re all on the same conveyor belt, that’s positive,” he said. “But we also need to recognize that the conveyor belt is running off a cliff.”

Who is going to pay for it?

Among urban policy experts, there is a broad understanding that in order for Detroit to overcome its structural problems and become a thriving city, massive public investment will be needed. But among officials at various levels of government, there is little willingness to reckon with the necessary costs. As reported in the box on page 2, proposals to right-size the city could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But right-sizing is only one example of the kind of large, capital investment that experts believe the city needs. According to Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, large amounts of investment will also be needed to “retool” Detroit’s industrial infrastructure and channel that capacity into productive industries.

But as with right-sizing, there is no plan in place to make those investments. Instead, there is an unwillingness to speak about where the money will come from. Among Democratic officials in the city and state governments, there is a decidedly incrementalist attitude towards the massive amount of investment that’s needed.

“We can’t expect some white knight to come in with a fat paycheck,” said Detroit City Councilmember Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. When asked whether the city should be planning proposals to generate that investment, Cockrel said, “We need to focus on the things that can be done.”

Democratic State Senator Bert Johnson said that he was currently concentrating on getting funding from the state that would allow Detroit to avoid an emergency manager. But when asked about the larger, long-term investments, he said, “We haven’t gotten to that point yet. There isn’t agreement about what should be done.”

State Republicans, for their part, insist that the state does not have the money to make those longer-term investments, despite a budget surplus of more than $400 million this year. According to State Representative Kurt Heise of Oakland County, “The state is not in a position to bail out Detroit.” Other state Republicans, including Governor Rick Snyder, did not respond to requests for comments.

Bradley believes that the necessary funding should come from the federal government. But at that level of government, too, there is a reticence about large scale funding. When City Councilmember JoAnn Watson presented the White House with a “Marshall Plan” modeled after the aid program that helped to rebuild Europe after World War II, she yielded  no concrete results.

According to a range of experts in the region, an incrementalist approach runs the risk of consigning Detroit to an unnecessarily bleak future indefinitely. “The scope of the problem demands some profound action,” said Wayne State University’s John Mogk. “I do not think this is a time to sit idly by and see what happens.”


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