Concerns About Detroit's Plans for Emergency Manager

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Concerns About Detroit's Plans for Emergency Manager

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Spirit of Detroit. (Photo courtesy of

COMMENTARY | Detroit is $327 million in deficit and owes $14.9 billion. For months, Michigan officials have haggled with city leaders over placement of an emergency manager. In 2012, Detroit entered into consent agreement with the state, but a recent financial report card said it wasn't enough. The review team called for an emergency manager, and on March 1, Gov. Rick Snyder agreed. City officials have till March 11 to appeal, but emergency management is probably a done deal. Gov. Snyder outlined his expectations for the EM with The Detroit News. There are several concerns with emergency management that have been lost in the Detroit shuffle.

Emergency Management Repealed

After a long, oft-derailed struggle, a ballot initiative asked whether to keep Public Act 4 (the emergency manager law) in November 2012. Voters said no. However, Michigan legislators brought a new, tweaked version of the emergency manager bill into the lame-duck session and passed it en bloc with other last-minute legislation, says the AFL-CIO. Republican lawmakers used a similar ploy to block a citizens' veto of the "right to work" law. Legislators tagged an appropriation on to firewall the bill against another repeal. Spending bills, says the AFL-CIO, are typically shielded by law from referendum.

Emergency Management Oversteps Voter Voice

The state-appointed emergency manager acts alone, independent of any supervisory board. There's no system of checks and balances. He takes over from resident-elected boards, says Michigan Radio. He has sweeping dictatorial powers. An EM can arbitrarily hire and fire local government employees. He can revise contract obligations, change budgets, cut services, and initiate municipal bankruptcy. He does need state treasury approval to renegotiate or terminate labor contracts. With approval, he can sell or lease public assets and privatize public services.

Emergency Management Costs

EMs don't work pro bono. When state-appointed emergency managers are placed in financially struggling cities, those communities are expected to pay the EM's salary. How much is said salary? MLive says it ranges from $132,000 to $250,000. The figure is set by the state but paid by local communities. The emergency manager can hire any support staff (paid for by the municipality) he feels he may need, too. Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Roy Roberts got a new company car. WXYZ reports that in the same week Roberts cut school funds, the district bought him a new $40,000 Chevy Tahoe. Ironically, though cities foot the bills, they have no say about who's hired.

Emergency Manager Hiring Questions

For his Detroit emergency manager, Gov. Snyder says he wants someone who can get up to snuff with city logistics fast. But that person won't necessarily be a local. The Detroit News says though the governor hasn't revealed his EM pick, he's looking at candidates, and not just those in Detroit or Michigan. Snyder is canvassing nationwide for a potential EM. Candidates don't have age restrictions, either. Roberts was hired to manage DPS at 72.

Emergency Management Effectiveness Concerns

When DPS emergency manager Robert Bobb stepped down, MLive, in its series The Robert Bobb Legacy, reported that emergency management accomplished little in the school system. Michael Stampfler, former emergency manager for Pontiac, Michigan, took it one step further. The Detroit Free Press says Stampfler, from personal experience, called emergency management law "destined to fail." He said it doesn't plan for future economic development or include civic engagement, and that the flawed law leaves cities vulnerable to financial distress when the emergency manager leaves.

A Michigan native, Marilisa Sachteleben writes about issues in her state's most pivotal city of Detroit.

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