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Published: Friday, 12/16/2011

COMMENTARY

Detroit council enjoys the good life while city struggles

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- The city is bleeding money, and according to the accounting firm Ernst & Young, will run out of cash by April. That, however, is just the outskirts of the volcano.

Once-mighty Detroit has billions of dollars in unfunded pension and other liabilities. The city admits it isn't paying its bills on time.

The population of about 712,000 is barely a third of what it once was. Over the past decade, it declined by an average of 24,000 a year, as people who wanted a better life headed for the exits.

Those who are left are largely poor and unskilled. Nearly half the city's adults are functionally illiterate. Mayor Dave Bing estimated last spring that the true unemployment rate is "40 to 45 percent."

More and more experts think a state-appointed emergency manager is close to inevitable. City officials, however, swear that they can and will solve Detroit's problems on their own.

But does that mean that Motown's City Council members are willing to give up some of their cushy perks, including vast office expenses, city cars, cell phones, and free parking?

Not on your life.

They think they've sacrificed enough. When one of them proposed that they set a good example, the idea was indignantly voted down.

"Let us not engage in a race to the bottom," intoned Councilman Ken Cockrel, who served as acting mayor for eight months after Kwame Kilpatrick went to jail.

The proposed cuts were "excessive," snorted Council President Charles Pugh, a former TV anchor who has a history of personal financial problems and fighting eviction notices.

Earlier this week, Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown thought the nine-member council should cut its expenses because massive layoffs of city workers are inevitable and the city is sure to ask remaining workers for pay and benefit concessions. So he formally proposed council members voluntarily cut their own budgets by 30 percent.

Despite an earlier modest cut, council members are still among the best paid in the nation. Each makes $73,181 a year, except the council president, who gets $76,911.

The real expense, however is in their large office budgets. Each council member gets more than $700,000 a year to hire employees and set up an office. Why they need such an elaborate staff isn't immediately clear; all are elected at large and have no executive responsibility.

With the city facing financial catastrophe, Mr. Brown, a former policeman, suggested his colleagues would do well to significantly cut their own budgets.

Unions that represent city workers are also being asked to take massive health-care cuts. There's a separate proposal to cut the mayor's budget by a third. So Councilman Brown reasoned that he and his colleagues should share in the sacrifice.

Longtime council member JoAnn Watson supported him. But nobody else did. To an outsider, this might seem hard to believe.

City Council may be on the point of losing all its power and relevance. The governor has begun a preliminary financial review of the city's books, something that is seen as a likely first step toward an emergency manager being appointed. The cuts Mr. Brown suggested wouldn't save the city vast sums, just $4 million or so.

But the cuts would send a signal that council members are putting their money where their mouths are. Just days before, Mr. Pugh had defiantly posted, in all capital letters, on his Facebook page: We don't need an emergency manager.

"Detroit needs to be run by Detroiters," Mayor Bing said at a news conference this month, with council members and city union leaders huddled around him.

"We can solve this on our own," he said, as council members nodded in agreement. Last month, Mr. Pugh said: "We are going to make cuts that some are going to see as Draconian, and it will be tough medicine … No department is a sacred cow."

No department, that is, except for Mr. Pugh's. Freshman council member Andre Spivey was more blatant.

"The truth of the matter is that if [Lansing] is going to come, they are going to come," he said. Until then, he doesn't want to sacrifice his perks.

In all probability, an emergency manager is going to come on board through an appointment, and if council is unable or unwilling to understand shared sacrifice now, they almost certainly will then.

Odds are that any emergency manager will cut or eliminate their salaries, get rid of their cars, and possibly their well-appointed staffs. Plus, council will lose any ability to determine how money is spent.

This might have happened no matter what council did.

But it seems clear that by arrogantly refusing to share in the sacrifice they have asked others to make, council members threw away the moral high ground and any chance that Michigan officials would take them seriously as potential partners to solve the crisis.

Their actions amounted to a primal scream of irresponsibility. They seemed to be telling Gov. Rick Snyder: "Save us from ourselves."

In all probability, he will.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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