For the past two years – and for many decades before that – the mayors of Detroit and members of the City Council frittered away opportunities to get government spending in line with declining revenue. Squandered were opportunities to identify new ways to do old jobs and to make a fresh determination of what services the city should and should not be providing.
The inability or unwillingness to reverse a series of policy and financial failures has brought the city to a point of no return. Metaphorically, the city is like a comotose patient on artifical life support. Its best days are beyond the best correcctive measures taken by the most astute emergency financial manger. It must mercifully be allowed to die a natural death.
The 11th hour attempts by Mayor Dave Bing and the hapless City Council to rescue the city from the brink of insolvency are laughable. The executive and legislative branches have been aimlessly posturing and talking about making draconian cuts to the runaway budget for as long as I can remember. That talking and posturing continues unabated today.
The council, for example, is foolishly considering cutting more than 500 police officers and firefighters in a city with some of the highest homicide and arson rates in the nation. Just that suggestion alone confirms that crime reduction is not the city’s top budget or policy priority. Cuts made here are not only dumb, but will put more resident in harm’s way.
Massive layoffs in other department won’t do much to stem the number of neighborhoods in extreme poverty. It will exacerbate the city’s failure to maintain the quality of basic services, i.e., street and sidewalk maintenance, streetlights, parks and recreation, waste collection, police and fire services and public transportation.
Outsourcing may have helped balance extraordinary losses with significant changes in the cost of delivering essential services. But city officials chose the path of least resistance and did nothing. Because the city’s ability to pay is now in question, even privatization, which was never seriously considered, may be off the table.
Actually, there is nothing in the repetroire of ideas being tossed around can save Detroit. The most critical element missing from the proposed formulas is “tax base.” And there’s little hope that any of the city’s tax revenue streams are likely to improve in the foreseeable future.
For starters, Detroit is heavily reliant on income taxes. City officials have thrown out for discussion the prospect of increasing income tax rates on residents — from 2.5 percent to 3 percent and nonresidents from 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent. Hiking it would only serve to further de-populate the city of its remaining productive workers and reduce this revenue stream to a mere drip.
The restoration of state revenue sharing is another pipe dream. For close to 10 years, city offiicals recklessly ignored warning signs from Lansing that a major reduction in revenue sharing was imminent and would be both costly and economically destabilizing.
Property tax revenue has been disappearing for years, both as a result of Detroit’s aging housing stock and abandonment. Derelict buildings on desolate streets are unsuitable and uninhabitable for new or existing residents.
The mayor and council preside over a government that absorbs much of the redevelopment bill through direct subsidies, tax abatements and tax-exempt financing and infrastructure. This urban redevelopment strategy is more attuned to short-term deal-making under which the city won’t see any tax benefits from incoming businesses or employees for years.
It’s time Detroiters, along with the state government, come to terms with the fact that the city can’t be saved. All social, economic and financial trends are on a downward spiral. Nothing in the city works. Most importantly, the tax base has all but evaporated. That means when the governor finally gets around to appointing an emergency financial manager, he or she will merely be a pallbearer for a once great city that died.