Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Snyder has "top candidate" for Emergency Manager in mind; consolidation of power will likely lead to cuts and asset sales that the mayor and city council sought to avoid.
The other shoe has dropped: the Detroit city government will be forced to cede its authority to an emergency manager chosen by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.
"I believe it's important to declare the city of Detroit in financial emergency," Snyder announced at a midday press conference on Friday, in front of the banner, "Detroit Can't Wait." The EM will assume the suspended powers of the mayor and city council, and will take unilateral control of municipal finances, union contracts, pension systems, and more.
The consolidation of power will likely lead to cuts and asset sales that the mayor and city council had sought to avoid, which could include the privatization of most of the city's water supply or the sale of Belle Isle Park. The EM also has the power to declare the city bankrupt, though that option seems unlikely.
The process has racial and political overtones. Detroit is over 80 percent black and its city government is controlled by Democrats; the Michigan statehouse is largely white and firmly in Republican control. If an EM is appointed in nearby Inkster (pop. 25,000, currently under a "consent agreement" with the state), as Chris Savage has pointed out, more than half of Michigan's 1.4 million African Americans will be governed by unelected officials.
Snyder's decision follows last week's devastating report from a state review team that Detroit is unable to address its long-term financial problems. The Motor City, the investigation found, has $14.9 billion in long-term debt and pension obligations, and its general fund has not shown a surplus since 2004. The review team unanimously recommended state intervention.
Members of the Detroit City Council are considering suing to fight Snyder's appointment, and they have ten days to appeal the decision. Some Detroit mayoral candidates have also contested the report, saying the figures are misleading and exaggerate the depth of the problem. Neither the mayor nor any members of the city council attended Friday's press conference.
For the past decade, as the city of Detroit struggled to balance the books, the specter of a state takeover -- and the accompanying loss of self-governance -- has loomed nearer. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, along with other city leaders, has repeatedly implored Governor Snyder to let the city handle its own crisis. The president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP also voiced opposition to the takeover, saying that it was unrealistic to think that an emergency manager could, in a projected stint of 18 to 24 months, solve problems that have developed over a half-century and longer.
Fifty years ago, Detroit was the fifth-largest city in the United States. Like many manufacturing centers, it was hit hard by the loss of industry, white flight and declining property values. But in the first decade of the millennium, as many American cities rebounded from or stalled the decline of the late 20th century, Detroit lost a quarter of its population, further exacerbating its budget crisis.
According to Governor Snyder, the situation is now beyond the reach of city politicians. "There is no city that is more financially challenged in the entire United States," Snyder said. The governor mentioned that he had a "top candidate" for the job of emergency manager but would not offer details on that person's background.
The policy of appointing emergency managers has been highly controversial. On Election Day, Michiganders voted to repeal the state's most recent emergency manager law; 52 days later, Snyder signed a new EM law passed by the lame-duck legislature.
Several cities in Michigan, including Flint and Pontiac, have undergone multiple distinct periods of emergency management. Supporters of the policy say this recidivism demonstrates the ineptitude of city governments; opponents believe that short-sighted EM policies, with their focus on quickly eliminating debt, cripple city infrastructure and services in the long-term, leaving communities poorly prepared to recover.
Five other cities in Michigan are also under state control. Detroit will be the largest city in the country to lose the ability to govern itself.
Top image: Rebecca Cook/Reuters.