Detroit’s fiscal frenzy gets crazier by the day.
Last week, Mayor Dave Bing presented to the City Council a hyped-up short-term, cash flow problem proposal that no one believes will save $40 million, or come close to averting the naming of an emergency fianancial manger.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder named a high profile team of Detroiters and Lansing officials to conduct what amounts to a séance to evoke the lost spirit of fiscal accountability.
Expectations were never high for Mayor Bing, who hasn’t make a substantative move to bring costs in line since he’s been in office. Even he knows massive layoffs and drastic cuts in essential services must occur unless employee unions help balance the budget through a wage freeze, pay cut and fringe concessions.
But the mayor’s meager cost-cutting measures are merely stopgap. They don’t come close to solving the city’s budget problems. The administration’s business as usual strategy means gaps between revenues and expenditures will ultimately have to be addressed by an EFM somewhere in the future. Detroiters, however, should be outraged at the council’s defiant resistance to bring its costs in line.
Members rejected Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown’s proposal to give up city-owned cars with free gas maintenance and insurance and cell phones. They also dismissed a 70-30 split on health insurance, an end to furlough days and a 10 percent wage cut. The council opted to continue the gluttonous feeding at the public trough at a time when city coffers are badly stretched, the tax base depleted, all service delivery systems are in shambles and a state takeover imminent. Their action, or lack thereof, makes a mockery of political responsibility.
Since 1974, the budget of the City Council has jumped from just over $1 million to more than $13 million – even as the city’s population disappeared. Budgets of the council have grown faster than almost all city departments that provide essential services.
The council staff has also increased exponentially. It’s hard to find evidence, however, that the staff has been used to very good effect. Constituent services are pretty much an oxymoron.
It is commonly understood that the primary mission of staffers is to increase the electability of their respective councilpersons. In other words, the council views its major responsibility as perpetuating itself, not acting in the public interest.
The council missed an opportunity to gain credibility and establish justification for even tougher cuts that, by necessity, are inevitably just down the road. Not seriously curbing its voracious spending habits and not showing fiscal discipline, the council can’t be trusted to set real budget priorities or to implement bold initiatives required by the budget crisis.
Real budget balancing means reducing outlays for inflated salaries and wasteful programs that make little contribution to an efficient, effective government or a strong economy at all levels of government. The council has never, and likely never will, make a convincing case to employees that they are leading by example.
Generating budget savings doesn’t always mean taking on the unions or sacrificing public employees or the residents who need them to service their neighborhoods. Ultimately, the solution must include selling major city assets and putting costly public services out to competitive bid. But neither the mayor nor the council has shown any grit for a more reasonable long-term plan that includes a sweeping remake of the bureaucracy.
There still are a couple of ways to roll back the thoughtless pig-out by the council. It is, of course, immediately vulnerable to the whimsical ax of an EFM. Absent that, the best defense against greedy, overpaid elected officials is to remove them from office at the first opportunity.