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Detroiters should have a say on whether their school tax money gets used on sports stadiums

Jul 12, 2017

Let me start out by saying that Robert Davis, usually referred to as a Highland Park activist, is a man easy to despise. He has won a reputation as a gadfly who is constantly filing lawsuits demanding transparency in government and attacking corruption.

Some see him as a crusading knight in shining armor and others as a relentless self-promoter trying to make a name and have us forget his past.

Davis is in the news more or less constantly. But we should never forget that less than three years ago, he was sentenced to federal prison for embezzling almost $200,000 from the financially destitute Highland Park schools.

He blew it on cars and fancy clothes, etc. for himself. Meanwhile, the school district was collapsing. Davis served 10 months behind bars -- not long enough, in my judgment -- and has now reinvented himself as a crusader for justice.

Even while in prison, he began filing lawsuits against various governments. These are sometimes described as “nuisance” lawsuits without merit, and some have been.

But there’s an old saying that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And whatever his personal failings, Davis has now filed a lawsuit worth thinking about.

Davis has now filed a lawsuit worth thinking about.

He and D. Etta Wilcoxon, a perennial candidate for many offices, are suing what is now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the National Basketball Association and Olympia Entertainment over a fascinating issue.

Many voters may not know this, but Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority wants to use $34.5 million in property tax money intended for the schools to help finance the Detroit Pistons’ move back downtown to the Little Caesars Arena now under construction.

Hundreds of millions in other public money already has been spent on this arena, which will be owned by the Ilitch family. The city will get no money at all from it, not even a penny from parking or concession revenue.

But Detroit’s leaders felt the investment of tax dollars is worth it just to keep two major league teams in town. Now, most economists don’t believe stadiums do much for local economies. Allan Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, says a city would be better off dropping cash from a helicopter than investing it in a new stadium.

Davis and Wilcoxon say that taking money from the schools is especially outrageous. They aren’t trying to totally block the use of that money, which would be used to issue bonds for the stadium. They are simply saying Detroit residents should get to vote in November on whether to use school money this way.

They argue that if the voters deny these two billionaires this $34 million, “this won’t stop them from coming downtown” since the arena is already mostly built.

They may have a sound legal argument, since the Michigan Revised School Code says such tax money cannot be used for another purpose “without the consent of a majority of the school electors of the district voting on the question.”

As we all now know, Detroit Public Schools aren’t exactly rolling in money. Some buildings aren’t even properly heated. Allowing the voters to have a say on whether money meant for the schools should go to a sports arena instead seems only fair to me.

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