Snyder urges Detroit’s leaders to enter into a consent agreement

Dec 8, 2011

Native Detroiter Harry Morgan died yesterday. What makes me feel old is that while the rest of the world remembers him fondly for his role in MASH, I think of him as Officer Bill Gannon from Dragnet.

That was the show made famous by the iconic line “Just the facts, ma’am.‘ Which, by the way, nobody ever actually said on the show, any more than Humphrey Bogart said “Play it Again, Sam,” in Casablanca. Those are enduring cultural myths.

There’s another, more dangerous myth out there in Detroit today, a myth apparently shared by the mayor and city council.

That myth is that business as usual will somehow work, that they can solve their crisis without extraordinary measures.

Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder sent Detroit an unmistakable message. Clean up your act, or we will have to do it for you. He told the city’s leaders they needed to negotiate what is called a “consent agreement.” That means something like making themselves a voluntary emergency manager committee.

Under a consent agreement, city officials would negotiate with the state to come up with a deficit reduction and financial restructuring plan that, as things stand, would have to be harsh.

That means huge budget cuts, vast trimming of services, and new, leaner and meaner contracts imposed on city unions.

Basically, the governor said, please do this, or I’ll be forced to do it for you, by taking your power away and appointing an emergency manager. But the mayor apparently is rejecting that.

He had his spokesman say that he doesn’t need an agreement, that he is working hard with the council and unions to solve the problem without any kind of special agreement.

Council members rejected the governor’s advice as well. Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who seems especially out of touch with economic reality, said she saw a consent agreement as “nothing but a slippery slope to an emergency manager.”

Actually, the opposite is true. We aren’t talking about a simple budget deficit here, though Detroit has a large one, which is growing every day.

We’re talking about billions -- maybe as much as fourteen billion -- in debt and unfunded liabilities, and a city credit rating equal to that of a drunk lying in the gutter.

We’re talking more than half a billion in debt service costs alone, and a documented history of mismanaging federal, state and local funds. Basically, Detroit is a dying debt-a-holic that is still protesting “I can stop any time.”

My guess is that Mayor Bing understands all this. I think he knows the city can’t right itself, and also knows how unpopular either a consent agreement or an emergency manager would be. My guess is he doesn’t see any way to avoid a manager, but doesn’t want to take the blame. So, he and the council are going to end up making the governor make the tough decision and suffer the public wrath.

Unless the law is suspended first, there is now little doubt that Detroit will get an emergency manager in the next few months.

From Mayor Bing’s standpoint, making the governor take the blame may be good politics. But it isn’t good government.

We’re all in this together, and need to share in fixing the mess,  and worry less about fixing the blame.