Death of a city

City of Detroit

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.














3 thoughts on “Death of a city

  1. Bill
    The major problems in our city our crime and reginal transportation system that works. There many 10-12$ an our jobs out in the suburbs, that Detroiter could fill if they could get to them.

    Insurance is so high that getting a car is out of reach for the young people in the city.

    If they do drive without insurance, they get pulled over in the suburbs.

    What do mean when a city dies? People will still be here. Do you mean riots and civil disobedience?

  2. So, what do we do Bill? We now includes the greater metropolitan area because when Detroit Dies, eventually it has to affect the region. You cannot pay police and fire fighters $35,000 to $45,0000 dollars to perform the work that is expected of them to be employed in Detroit. You can’t pay teachers $45,000-$55,000 to teach in the Detroit Public Schools under the conditions that currently exist. You can’t pay blue collar municipal workers some where between minimum wage and $15 dollars per hour. It doesn’t cut it! Thanks to all of the real estate developers and land barons that made it convenient for folks to leave Detroit for the burbs which use to be outstanding agricultural industries that produced some of the finest produce and dairy products in the midwest. And lets not forget the politicians, including Coleman Young, (who went out of his way to anger the suburbs) who aided and abetted this flight by greedily and foolishly ignoring the development of an urban growth plan that would have kept rail transportation that used to run on Woodward Avenue. You don’t have an established middle class in Detroit and I doubt it will return in the immediate future because of the unsolvable social issues of crime and education that characterizes Detroit. Gilbert, Illitch, and Karmanos can’t do it alone.

  3. My brother just emailed me your article, “Death of a City.” It saddens us. We both spent many years in Detroit. My brother graduated from Mumford High School in the 60’s, but now lives elsewhere. Our parents and grandparents lived in Detroit. Despite living in the Philadelphia area for the last 20-some years, I am still a Detroiter at heart.

    I have a vision for Detroit which I would like to pass on to you. Maybe you’ll think it’s a worthy vision, or the start of a vision, and maybe you know someone who knows someone, etc. who would want to help make it happen. I’m an optimist.

    Background (this is the way I remember it, but it might not be completely accurate) – I remember visiting the big museum in Detroit as an elementary student at Bagley School and being moved by the painting that took up an entire wall. It was of men working. Something about the wrenches, hammers, sweat, intense, hardworking looks on the faces, made a deep impression. That’s how I, a child, saw Detroit. A place of hard word, industry, where real people made real things, important things that we all wanted and needed.

    Jan’s Vision for Detorit:

    Use the style of the “new” Detroit car commercials to make a virtual reality (similar to what you can “ride” at Universal Studios) of working through the ages. Use the “John Henry and railroad race”. Use the early assembly lines. Use modern robiotic assembly lines. Enable the rider to feel the sparks flying, the pressure to keep the line moving, the physical dangers (pre OSHA of course). Show the women on the line during the war years. Show pride in hardwork, pride in success, pride in America. (Maybe even pride in the Big 3.)

    Do a similar virtual reality ride for the Detroit Zoo. I believe today’s kids would rather take a pretend grand ride through a virtual reality zoo where exciting things can happen than the reality-based trip to a real life zoo with sleepy lions and tigers. But tie the ride to the real zoo. Get the kids excited about the animals and then give them a chance to see the real animal. Be the first zoo in the world to do this.

    Hype the MoTown history. Again, use high tech big screen movies, maybe virtual reality here too. Get performers to randomly vist so every visitor to Detroit believes he/she might get a glimpse of a “great one” dining at a local restaurant or in a hotel lobby.

    Detroit has lots going for it. It has a river. It has Belle Isle with fountains and albino deer. It has a “foreign” country just across the way that you can visit for dinner and then come back to the good old USA. It has an interesting French and Indian history. (My mom was still finding arrowheads as a child and we have a family story of an Indian walking into the house and peering at the baby in a cradle, then turning and walking out.) Does Detroit still have Boblo, that great amusement park that you had to take a leisurely boat ride to get to (with a dance floor no less)? These could be wonderful tourist draws.

    Make Detroit a great, high tech, tourist spot. Get international visitors as well as tourists from the US. Detroit has a good airport with quick access to the city. No other city has such a strong assembly line history. I remember, in the 70’s, hearing a commercial on the radio for “diet steel.” How many other cities do you suppose played such a commercial? Detroit is a one-of-a-kind. Embrace technology. Capitalize on what Detroit has that no other city in the world has. This would create lots of service jobs, but what if Detroit also became a leader in cutting edge hi tech entertainment. If Detroit were a big user of advanced software & hardware for its virtual reality museums, it could become The Place for its designers and developers. Get the engineers back. Create & build again, as well as serve.

    I know this is a rather rambling email, but I’ve been thinking about this for several years, without ever writing anything down. I’ve even kept expecting to see a money man start to fund such things. After all, if I’ve thought about it, many others must have also. Maybe it’s yet to come. Maybe something even better will come.

    I don’t give up hope,

    Jan Dinnella

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