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Monday, October 20, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 4/8/2006

Little bang, big bucks

MAD at your own city council? Consider Detroit's and you'll feel a little better. The city of Detroit is in dire straits financially these days, but somehow the news doesn't seem to have reached council members and their bloated bureaucracy.

Estimates of the city budget deficit are as high as $400 million. The city's population, less than half what it was 50 years ago, is still fleeing at the rate of 1,000 people a month.

Joe Harris, who recently completed 10 years as the city's auditor general, says that barring a miracle, it is just a matter of time - a few years, at best - before the city goes into receivership and has to be taken over by the state. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, not known for frugality, has slashed his own budget by 40 percent.

But in a stubborn denial of reality, Detroit City Council is asking for a 23 percent budget increase. The nine councilmen say they need that money, bad. Why? They have to pay for increased pensions and health care costs for their own bloated staffs.

And do they have staff. There are 104 staff members who look after the care and feeding of the council. On top of that, council members get a whole lot of money - $705,000 each! - to hire more personal staffers of their own.

"As long as you don't go crazy and do something illegal, you can spend that money as you see fit," Council President Kenneth Cockrel, Jr., said.

Asked about possibly cutting expenses, Mr. Cockrel defended the increase, saying, "We meet five days a week, and are very much a full-time council."

Make that, a full-time weak council. All serve at large, and none has the power to call up a department director, say, and order him to fix the streetlight in front of a citizen's house.

What they do have the power to do is screw things up. Earlier this year, the council nearly put the Detroit Zoo out of business after one councilwoman, fresh from a bar fight, held up plans to transfer the zoo to a private society. She said she thought General Motors should be asked to pay to support the elephants. The Detroit Zoo doesn't have elephants.

And Detroit doesn't have a monopoly on political stupidity either, so we ought to be cautious of laughing too hard at the elected representatives of our neighbors to the north.

Most cities have a few elected officials who are flirting with the hall of shame. But if Detroit doesn't have the best council money can buy, it certainly has the most expensive one.

As calculated by the Detroit News last week, New York's city council costs residents $6.18 a citizen. Chicagoans pay $6.49. Detroit, the nation's poorest big city, has a council that costs every citizen $17.33.

That will go up, of course, after they vote themselves a raise.

The old saying is "you get what you pay for." Detroit should be so lucky.



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