27 March 2012

Detroit's Financial Agreement A Major Focus

Story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

If the months-long review of Detroit's finances was just a pretense to "take over" the city, Monday could have been the day the shroud dropped and everyone's true intentions were known.

The financial review team had a deadline, after which it could have simply recommended an all-powerful emergency manager, and the Michigan government could have spent the rest of this week figuring out who he wanted in the job.

But the review team continued to push a negotiated agreement with city leaders instead -- and that, for now, must be the prime focus of everyone involved.

Get an agreement worked out. Get it in place. And start fixing a city so dysfunctional that even its wild over-spending has not been able to maintain the most basic services.

The review team says it has a 10-day window for an agreement to still take shape. Shame on everyone involved if they do not do what is necessary to meet that deadline.

It's doable, though, if everyone fixates on real solutions to Detroit's problems, rather than posturing over power and control.

Detroit's path forward has three steps: balance the budget, shore up service delivery, and grow.

For his end of it, the state government needs to make sure the state lives up to its obligation to invest in cities, all of which have seen steep declines over the past decade. He should also be focused on big-picture municipal finance questions -- such as how to help shoulder the crushing burden of existing pension and retiree health care costs, and reform of the way cities finance themselves through taxes.

He cannot help Detroit without committing at least some new resources; and he should be thinking of Detroit as just one of dozens of cities that are, or are about to, face the same financial issues.

For their part, city leaders need to be realistic about what a consent agreement with the state means. If there were any real possibility that the mayor or council could make the necessary radical changes in Detroit, the city wouldn't be in the shape it's in. So wrestling with the governor over who should control the city's finances is asking for unearned faith.

It is worth noting that in the past, Detroit has entered into agreements with the federal government to fix issues in the water department and the police department. Neither task was dispatched quickly. The governor is right to insist, in this instance, that the state have the power to force the financial fixes that city leaders have avoided.

City officials should be more focused on their input into the plans for better service delivery, and the growth that will be necessary to ensure Detroit does not continue to struggle financially.

Time is short, but things seem headed in the right direction, at least for now.

If everyone focuses on making Detroit better for Detroiters -- who suffer each day from the city's current mismanagement -- a reasonable solution is still well within reach.

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