May 3rd Election - Commentary
11:41 am
Mon May 2, 2011

Testing Time

Everyone understands that our cities are going to have to make do with less help from Lansing. In fact, nearly every city, village and township  in Michigan has had a harder time the last few years.

Not only has revenue sharing been cut; declining property values and more foreclosures has meant less tax revenue.

Now, we are about to find out the answer to a crucial question:  Are the residents of hard-hit cities going to be willing to pay a little extra to keep up services and their quality of life?

Tomorrow, a number of cities around the state will ask their residents to do just that. Perhaps the most important of these elections is in Southfield, just north of Detroit in Oakland County, one of the many suburbs that exploded after the coming of the freeways.

Southfield’s gleaming office towers hold a daytime population of perhaps two hundred thousand. But at night, seventy-one thousand people call Southfield home. The city is one of well-kept split levels and ranch houses, with a lovely city center complex and one of Michigan’s newest and largest libraries.

Thirty years ago, Southfield was populated largely by young Jewish families. Today, it hasn’t lost its leafy character, but is now seventy percent African-American. Thanks largely to the recession, housing values have crashed, and so have sales tax receipts.

Mayor Brenda Lawrence and the other city leaders know they are on the point of a knife. They have to keep services up and crime down, or their city could topple into urban decay. They don’t say it aloud, but their biggest fear is that Southfield could become Detroit.

So tomorrow, they are asking voters to authorize a proposed city tax increase of almost five mills, which would raise perhaps thirteen million dollars. Nearly eleven million of that would go for police, fire, and EMS protection. The library would get almost two million, and a few hundred thousand would go to streets and parks.

The city has done everything it can to economize. Calls for police service are up thirty percent since 1990, yet Southfield has fewer police officers, and many fewer other city employees.

If the millage fails, Southfield officials say they’ll have to lay off half of all police, fire and emergency  responders in the city.

Which could easily be the kiss of death. One of the biggest supporters of the millage is a tiny, energetic lady named Euni Rose, a widow who now chairs of the library board. She told a recent city council meeting “I promised our police and firefighters that I would fight to my dying day to keep them here where they belong. Without them, we would not be a community.”  Euni isn’t rich, and lives on a fixed income.

But she told her the leaders of her community, “someone told me it’s not sexy to be responsible about money, it’s sexy to cut. We don’t need sexy. We need to be safe, we need to be alive and we need to pass this millage!”  Convincing her neighbors may be a challenge; many have lost jobs. But she’s not giving up.

How Southfield votes tomorrow may provide a clue to how the rest of us will deal with the new economic reality in which we live.