Commentary: New wrinkle in the Detroit Consent Agreement process

May 18, 2012

When I was growing up back in the nineteen-sixties, there was a famous saying about the economic health of Michigan’s largest city:   When the nation catches cold, Detroit gets pneumonia.

That meant the effects of even the slightest economic downturn were magnified in the Motor City. Why? Well, the easiest big expense to put off is usually a new car.

You have to buy food and make your house payment, but if you lose your job, or the plant cuts back on overtime, you can generally put off replacing your current Tin Lizzie for another year.

All it took was a few million people to do that, and it was layoff time on the assembly lines, and Detroit felt that quickly.

Well, when that happens today, there is some consolation: Foreign-owned automakers feel the pain even more. Sadly, most cars sold in this country today are no longer made by the not-so-big-anymore-three.

But there’s a new way of looking at our state’s economy these days, which is that when Detroit does catch pneumonia, for whatever reason, the rest of our state is also guaranteed to get pretty sick.

We’re all in this together. If you live in Copper Harbor or even Grand Rapids, it may be hard to accept that Detroit’s problems are your problems. There are people in Grosse Pointe who behave as they could ignore the agony of the large city on their border.

But that’s nonsense. Detroit’s agonies affect us all, in part  because they affect the state’s image and ability to attract badly needed high-tech industry to our state.

The inconvenient truth is that knowing that Michigan’s largest city is a desperate, dying slum that may well implode or explode is a great incentive to move out or stay away from anywhere in this state.

Detroit’s troubles have been accelerating lately. Barely six weeks ago, the city was about to totally run out of cash to pay its bills. Then, the authorities seemed to have found an at least temporary solution: The so-called consent agreement that set up a financial advisory board and created a couple powerful new positions to try to get the city back on track to financial solvency.

The consent agreement was seen as a way for city and the state to avoid both bankruptcy and an Emergency Manager. For a time, many people were guardedly optimistic. Well, now things appear again to be falling apart. The necessary appointments are running behind schedule. And, once again, city leaders seem to be at war with themselves.

Now it turns out that the Detroit Corporation Counsel, or chief lawyer, one Krystal Crittendon, wrote a letter to the state declaring the consent agreement “void and unenforceable,‘ because the state owes the city money for revenue sharing and for a water bill.

The state disputes that. Mayor Dave Bing then said he did not “authorize or entirely agree with,” his lawyer’s letter. But City Council members are saying Bing is lying, and knew and approved of what the corporation counsel was doing.

Well, about the only thing that’s clear is that the so-called consent agreement isn’t working, because it requires adults working together in partnership and good faith. What Governor Snyder needs to do now, after a decent interval, is plan what to do next.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.