Want to stop the emergency manager?

Step up with the ideas to make things happen — or get out of the way

Yes, you read that right.

Last week hundreds of people marched in Ann Arbor to protest the emergency manager law — and the man behind it, Gov. Rick Snyder. They got as close as they could to the governor's home in a ritzy gated community. They chanted "We are the People's Army," and "This is what Democracy looks like," and similar things. 

They had every right to do that. The governor himself said so. But frankly, they didn't accomplish anything.

Nor did they say what the state should do instead of eventually appointing an emergency manager to run Detroit.

Nor have any other of the law's many critics come up with any alternative strategy that makes any rational sense. "Giving the elected leaders a chance to fix it," just doesn't cut it. They've had years and years to do so, and none of them are offering any plan now.

Nor do they have a clue how to address the long-term problems, which include $12 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Sure, the state could come up with money to help Detroit close its current budget deficit, as long as Detroit fires enough workers and further weakens essential services, including police and fire.

But what about the next crisis a few months from now? What about the billions and billions in pension and other liabilities for which no money is set aside? How will the city ever be able to pay?

How will the remaining 700,000 mostly dirt-poor Detroiters get themselves out from under this mountain of debt, while maintaining some minimal standard of city services?

They can't. They never will, simple as that.

So here's a rational suggestion for how to fix Detroit's problems, and give Motown a decent long-term chance to succeed. The state should take its lead from what Washington did to save General Motors and Chrysler. Detroit needs to be taken over, restructured, helped through a "soft landing" that is likely going to include bankruptcy.

And last, but not least, Detroit needs to be guided through a merger — an arranged marriage if you will — to help keep her stable.

That's what the government did for Chrysler, marrying it off to Fiat, and because of that the all-but-dead automaker is alive and prosperous and growing stronger by the day.

This analogy isn't perfect, but there's a lot that applies. Here's what should now happen to Detroit: Nobody doubts that when the financial review team finishes its work, probably around the end of next month, it will confirm that things are a total mess.

The team could then recommend either that the city seek a consent agreement, under which Mayor Dave Bing and the council would take on new powers to fix the city's finances.

Or it could recommend the appointment of an emergency manager. The governor says that he hopes this could be done with a consent agreement. Normally, I would agree. But not this time.

The problems are just too mammoth and overwhelming. They are results, to some extent, of the city being stiffed by the suburbs and the state and the generations who used the city and abandoned it.

But they are also the result of years and years of criminal behavior and utter irresponsibility on the part of the politicians who ran Detroit, borrowed billions that they expected future generations to pay, and just kept kicking an ever-growing can down the road.

Fred Leeb, a turnabout expert who was briefly the emergency manager in Pontiac, says Detroit has "hit the wall."

Detroit's "leaders must make drastic cuts in costs now, yes, but they must also develop and implement new far-reaching but practical strategies," he said. Borrowing more money is not the answer, he says,  adding that "every day that goes by without this positive process working at full speed is a day that speeds up the downward spiral for the city of Detroit." And without a healthy city, Michigan is never going to be able to attract new investment and business either.

So here's my solution:

Following the financial review team's report, the governor should move to appoint an emergency manager as soon as possible

The emergency manager then needs, as a first step, to figure out Detroit's true financial state as soon as possible, stabilize things — and then present a plan to return to solvency with an eye toward growth.

The best way to do that may well be a so-called "soft bankruptcy." The state helps guide Detroit through this as easily as possible — maybe by separating everything into two municipal corporations — "Good Detroit" and "Bad Detroit."

We help the good stuff get stronger and in a position to survive. The bad stuff is sold off, closed out, liquidated, disposed of.

Detroit starts fresh and clean. Yes, the creditors take a haircut, and Michigan's credit rating will be hurt for a while. This is strong medicine, but in the not-so-long run, everything should be better off.

But now for the final chapter: Gov. Snyder should then ask the Legislature to take the city and combine it with the county.

That would be perfectly legal. Cities and counties are the creatures of the state, which can create and dissolve them.

Nobody would like this, at first. Nobody likes change. Naturally, politicians everywhere will fight losing their jobs.

Many Detroiters will oppose being ruled once again by a white majority electorate. Many Wayne County white voters will hate having to be more responsible, economically and otherwise, for helping save a troubled and poor urban area.

But everybody's futures are at stake here.

The fact of the matter is that we are all Detroit.

Bloomfield Hills is Detroit, and so is Highland Park, Huntington Woods, Harper Woods, Warren, all of it; all of us.

Ideally, the three-county area ought to bear a great deal of responsibility for everything within it, and ways should be found to make that happen — the regional rapid bus idea is a good start.

But merging Detroit and Wayne County is essential if Detroit is to have a future. We are in this together. Most of us disagree with at least some of Gov. Snyder's positions — I certainly do.

But he has shown himself to be pragmatic, to be willing to try to figure out solutions, and to have political courage.

The rest of us need to try to work with him. For if we do nothing except run around blindly protesting the emergency manager idea, things will end up even worse than they are now, and soon.

Footnote: Yes, I am aware there are efforts to get something on the ballot this November to repeal the current Emergency Manager statute, and that if enough signatures are ever submitted, the law will be suspended till the vote is taken.

But this means very little. Odds are that if that happens, the Legislature will immediately pass another similar emergency manager law, and if not, the old emergency financial manager law would go back into effect. And even if that weren't the case ...

What do you think would happen when Detroit defaults on its debts and can't pay its bills? Nobody knows, but the state would probably be forced to take the city over in some form, anyway.

For many, many years, everybody did stop thinking about tomorrow. Now, we can't do that anymore. The choices for Detroit are drastic, painful and humiliating measures with the eventual prospect of a better future. Or what amounts to total collapse.

Think about it.

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