Detroit’s City Council votes not to cut their own budgets

Dec 14, 2011

Yesterday, Detroit City Council sent a clear signal to Governor Rick Snyder and the rest of the state. By their actions, they said “we need you to send in an Emergency Manager and strip us of all financial power. You have to do this, because we are psychologically incapable of seriously addressing our financial problems.”

They would indignantly deny what I just said, of course. Barely a week ago, they huddled around a microphone with Mayor Dave Bing, and defiantly agreed they didn’t need outside help.

Detroit’s leaders all said they could get the city’s house in order, and make the necessary cuts on their own. But as my long-dead fourth grade teacher liked to say, actions speak louder than words. And yesterday, the council gave a primal scream of irresponsibility.

Here’s what happened. Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, the most fiscally responsible of the bunch, formally proposed that the nine council members cut their massive office budgets, now $700,000 each, by 30 percent.

What’s more, he proposed they give up their taxpayer-supplied free cars, cell phones, and free parking. This suggestion made a whole lot of sense. Detroit is on the brink of financial collapse.

The auditing firm Ernst & Young says the city is going to run out of money in April. It’s not paying its bills on time now. The city deficit is growing by more than $400,000 a day.

What’s more, Detroit has at least $10 BILLION in unfunded long-term obligations. Yet it has one of the most expensive city councils in the country, whose members live cushy lives among people who are desperately poor. Taking this sizable cut wouldn‘t have saved the city a lot of money—4 or 5 million a year.

However, it would have sent a signal to Lansing that the lawmakers are at least aware of the gravity of the situation, and willing to do their part to try to overcome it. Yet the council indignantly rejected the idea.

Why, with the exception of Brown, surprisingly supported by JoAnn Watson, the city council  said they had already sacrificed enough. After all, they used to make more than $80,000 a year. Charles Pugh, who was a local TV anchor before getting elected council president two years ago, denounced the proposed cuts as “excessive.“

Councilman Kenneth Cockrel, who served as acting mayor for eight months after Kwame Kilpatrick moved on to jail, bizarrely denounced the proposal as “a race to the bottom.“

Incredibly, after voting against making this sacrifice themselves, the council was still talking about asking for more concessions from the unions, and are proposing to cut the mayor’s budget by a third.

Talk about just not getting it. Well, the odds are that they will get it in not too many more months, when an Emergency Manager arrives, and almost certainly, deeply cuts or eliminates their salaries, and takes all their power to spend money away.

This might have happened anyway, but yesterday, the council threw away both the moral high ground, and any obligation for the state to take them seriously as partners in this crisis.
In effect, they cried out to the governor, “save us from ourselves.” In all probability, he will.