Detroit is on the brink of ruin, but still not committed to transformation
There’s an uneasy, almost artificial sense of normalcy in Detroit right now. Following the approval of last month’s consent decree, the city's political life has returned to business as usual. Detroit was but a hair’s breadth from literally running out of cash. It still faces crushing debt, remains unable to efficiently provide basic services, and it taxes residents at some of the highest rates in Michigan. Yet, the sense of urgency to fix these glaring problems remains wanting.
At some point, Detroit must face that it is so hopelessly broken that it cannot be repaired with well-intentioned tinkering on the margins.
If ever there was a moment for Detroit to have its own Velvet Revolution, it is now. Yet, there is no call for our own Vaclav Havel to take the castle. We have no Vaclav Havel. A Gerry Cooney, maybe, but certainly no Vaclav Havel. Worse, we don’t have a populace interested in its own Havel Na Hrad moment.
Instead we get Joann Watson (just yesterday!) complaining that nominal cuts to City Council's budget should be matched by equal nominal cuts to the mayoral office budget because of some abstract and specious argument about co-equal branches of government.
"There is such a thing as division of power and since the federal government has stated that we are co-equal branches of government, it would be a sign of self-hatred for the City Council to cut itself 40% and only cut the mayor's budget 17%," Watson said yesterday during a City Council budget committee meeting.
For what it's worth, Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis argues that proposed cuts to the mayoral office budget are greater than 17% when consolidation of neighborhood city halls are factored in. Completely lost in the back-and-forth is whether or not any of the proposed cuts are prioritized to give taxpayers the greatest savings with the least impact on service delivery. Everyone is still arguing about who gets what imaginary pot of increasingly imaginary money.
Detroiters (metro Detroiters, if you will) are still too easily impressed when 70 Chrysler employees move into a new office. We’re too quick to believe that yet another fiscal panel can reshuffle the same grim numbers, and magically make the buses run on time while erasing a civic debt a half-century in the making.
Even common-sense ideas for streamlining service delivery, like City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown’s oft-repeated idea to merge the city’s recreation department with similar DPS-run programs, are met with bureaucratic pushback.
Basic solutions to start fixing the problems (i.e. fold Detroit’s Health Department into Wayne County, combine SMART and DDOT operations, disperse the inventory of city-owned land, etc.) remain ideas to be discussed rather than implemented. Just ask John Hantz and the folks mowing the lawn at Tiger Stadium about that city-owned land thing. At long last, if such obvious reforms remain too challenging, how can a plausible case be made for essential investments in education and infrastructure necessary to revive this city?
For all the collective disgust for Detroit’s dysfunction, in the end, and so unlike Havel’s Czech constituents, we still seem quite content to accept the lies about precious jewels and brighter tomorrows.
“It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us,” Havel told his countrymen 22 years ago in words that could be spoken today about Detroit. “On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it.”
Clearly, we aren’t ready to accept Detroit’s legacy is a sin we’ve committed against ourselves. Nor are we ready to really do anything about it.