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Published: Thursday, 7/24/2014


Lessons from Detroit

Detroit shines with the civic patriotism of its city workers and retirees, who have accepted major pension cuts to help revive the Motor City. Detroit shines with the civic patriotism of its city workers and retirees, who have accepted major pension cuts to help revive the Motor City.

Detroiters have a bad reputation these days. The city, nationally famous as a poster child for population loss, out-of-control crime, and urban dysfunction, is under emergency management and in bankruptcy. Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s flamboyantly corrupt former mayor, will be in federal prison for decades.

Yet city workers and retirees have stepped up. By overwhelming vote margins, they agreed to accept major cuts to the pensions they had counted on throughout their careers.

Granted, they had been told that if they refused, even worse settlements would be imposed on them. But they ignored calls to stage a defiant protest vote, and also drastically cut their health benefits, though they weren’t forced to do that.

This act of civic patriotism stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of the city’s creditors, who mostly have refused any compromises. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has shown more sympathy for the pensioners than for giant financial firms. The pensioners’ vote got the city over another hurdle in its efforts to emerge from bankruptcy this fall.

Yet Detroit’s troubles never seem to end. In the past few weeks, the city drew more unwanted national and global attention as Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began an aggressive program — now temporarily suspended — of shutting off water to thousands of residential customers who are two months or more behind in their payments.

Nobody doubts that bills must be paid and some adults must take more responsibility. Yet eyebrows were raised at the revelation that some of the biggest unpaid water bills are those of commercial customers, such as a golf course and major sports stadiums. There was no sign of the city moving to inconvenience them.

This has been one of the roughest patches in Motown’s history. Yet Detroit is facing its problems, and thousands of people are working hard to get their once-proud city back on its feet.

In too many other places, people feel that “it can’t happen here.” Think again.

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