Detroit Today …Your Town Tomorrow?

How fiscally sound is your local government?

Traditionally, news institutions never praise the work of other news outlets, especially competing ones.

Yet, the Detroit Free Press — specifically, business writers Nathan Bomey and John Gallegher — deserve recognition for having done an awesome job of number-crunching reporting to find out exactly how and when the economic mess happened.

They did what reporters in the old days had to do. They went through dusty archives, pulling out old ledgers and examined records written on paper long before digitalization.

Their massive report, “How Detroit Went Broke,” appeared in last Sunday’s newspaper, and filled more than four full pages. It was masterfully illustrated — but not glitzed-up — with easy-to-understand charts and graphs. This wasn’t the familiar Gannett circus clown-makeup approach.

This was real journalism — with crucial information as the star of the show; much of it in — horrors — tiny type.

Longtime readers of this column know I have often bashed the dailies for short-sightedness, and have had nothing but contempt for Gannett, the corporation that owns the Free Press and, which has for years, skimped on journalism in order to maximize what have usually been obscene profits.

But in recent months, this newspaper seems to have rediscovered its soul and remembered what journalism is for.

Almost certainly, you’ll be stunned by some of Gallegher and Bomey’s findings:

1. (Perhaps most surprising of all) Coleman Young turns out likely to be Detroit’s most fiscally responsible mayor.

Some might argue that this study doesn’t fault him enough for an aggressive style that — some say — helped push whites and jobs to flee the city. But it is clear that, more than any modern mayor, he was smart about money. Young made fiscal mistakes to be sure, but he cut costs, got rid of unnecessary frills and stabilized the budget. In fact, the city’s debt-to-revenue ratio hit an all-time low in his day.

2. Many of the actions that led to Detroit’s eventual breakdown — excessive borrowing and raising taxes instead of cutting the workforce — started under the white mayors who preceded Coleman Young, two of whom were racist; and one a later-convicted crook.

3. Dennis Archer, white suburbia’s favorite Detroit mayor, added more employees to the city payroll, even while the population continued to decline.

4. (And it may come as no real revelation to learn) The worst deal of all was done by Kwame Kilpatrick, who in 2005 borrowed $1.44 billion in a smoke-and-mirrors deal that he claimed would somehow eliminate the city’s unfunded pension liabilities.

Instead, it made things worse; that debt is now almost $3 billion. To its credit, the Free Press admitted how, back then, its editorial page wrongly attacked those who sensibly opposed the shell game.

There’s good reason to read thisFree Press report carefully if you live in or near Detroit — but perhaps even more reason to read it if you live elsewhere.

Sadly, at this point, it is too late to do much about Detroit except learn from it. The city is now in the hands of the emergency manager and the bankruptcy judge; the train has left the station, and it will be a year or more before Detroiters can take charge of their destiny again, with whatever scraps are left.

There is considerable evidence, however, that for Michigan’s older industrial cities, Detroit may just be the canary in the coal mine. If you live in Bay City or Saginaw, Port Huron, Flint or Jackson — can you assume your city’s pension funds are sound?

Reporters in every city should be looking at their situations now, breathing in a little dust, smudging their clothes and copying old numbers off old ledgers.

Had someone at either Detroit newspaper done this in 2000, the city might easily have been spared what it is going through now. The Free Press said that Dennis Archer told them he couldn’t make personnel cuts because that would have been politically hard.

After all, times were booming. Well, guess what: Doing politically unpopular things is what leaders are for — and what leadership is sometimes about.

“Philosophers have explained the world,” cranky old Karl Marx once said. “The point is to change it.”

Let’s start taking steps to change it.


Kudos, Supremes ...

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court struck an astonishing blow for fairness and equal justice under law.

In a near-unanimous decision, they ordered that all courts in the state provide interpreters for residents who have limited English-language skills. What’s more, Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., one of the most conservative justices, and Justice Bridget McCormack, perhaps the most liberal, appeared in a joint press conference to explain the decision.

Until now, some counties have provided interpreters; others didn’t. Young noted that this could have meant that, in some cases, courts might have asked a husband accused of spousal abuse to interpret for the wife accusing him.

Now, every county has until Dec. 11 to come up with a language access plan, and issue a local order to do so.

The order says counties may, if they wish, charge people who can afford to pay for translation services, though they aren’t required to. (It will be interesting to see how this plays out, though it would seem unfair to charge any defendant for his basic right to be heard, no matter what his or her income.)

During their press conferences, the justices also said there is far more collegiality and respect on the court than there used to be. If so, that makes a triple blessing. Michigan’s Supreme Court has been repeatedly criticized for its right-wing rulings, lack of bipartisanship and the failure of the justices to get along.

Five years ago, then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor and Justice Elizabeth Weaver were launching personal attacks on each other in public. However, both are gone now.

And anything that contributes to a sense of fairness and to our state’s highest court being less of a laughingstock has to be a plus. By the way, Justice McCormack told me that the real credit for the translation ruling should go to retired Justice Marilyn Kelly, who worked hard on this issue before leaving in January.

The lone dissenter, by the way, was Justice Stephen Markman, who bizarrely said the justices were coerced into this ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice.

That evidently referred to a letter the U.S. attorney general’s office sent last year calling on all state supreme courts to help assist persons whose English proficiency is limited.

Markman, who flamboyant Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger used to call “the worst of the worst,” said the new rule requiring interpreters was “both unnecessary and ill-advised.”

Unnecessary for him, maybe; by the way, to dispel the usual myth, English is not our “official” language. Neither the United States nor the State of Michigan has ever had one — nor should we.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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