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Detroit and the Failed Liberal Experiment

The city of Detroit appears to be on the verge of being taken over financially by the state of Michigan. As expected, liberals and labor unions are crying the usual fouls and predicting the usual calamities that will befall what was once the nation’s fourth largest city. One article I recently read insinuated that there was a racial motive behind the move. Specifically, should Detroit come under state control, this columnist points out, in addition to the other Michigan cities or school boards under state control now, more than half the state’s black population will be “under the control” of non-elected officials. Accordingly, one supposes that the plantation is not far behind.

The children over at the DailyKos describe this as “financial martial law.” In one of their recent rants, one of their labor “reporters,” Laura Clawson lays out some examples of how the law has been implemented in other Michigan cities. Like most liberals, she leaves out some very important facts along the way also. Yet to her and most liberals, these “examples” are presented as “facts” and are all negative because…well, they just think they are negative. Never mind that the real facts seem to intrude on their insulated worldview. At the end of the day, their arguments are revealed for what they truly are- nothing more than a cheerleading chant for public employee unions. Furthermore, their worldview is exposed for the hypocrisy that it is along the way.

Clawson uses examples from Michigan emergency managers in the cities of Muskegon Heights, Flint and Pontiac. Actually, in Muskegon Heights, the local school district was appointed an emergency manager. What prompted this action was the fact that the district was running a regular $9-12 million annual deficit. Upon taking over the district, the emergency manager appointed by the state essentially disbanded the school board. The first fact Clawson leaves out is the then-school administration had requested that the state appoint an emergency manager. She then goes on to state that he “fired” 158 teachers. Actually, it was less than that as the 158 figure included non-classroom support staff in the school district. Of course, the final straw was the privatization of the school system by creating, in effect, one large charter school run by Atlanta-based Mosaica, Inc.

Mosaica is not new to the Michigan educational system since they also operate six other schools in the state. Muskegon Heights’ per pupil spending was $15,100 which was well above the state average of $13,400. Mosaica, upon taking over the district, spends $9,280 per pupil. That is all well and good, but the more important question is what that original $15,100 per student bought the residents, taxpayers and students of Muskegon Heights. According to statistics from the Michigan Department of Education, on standardized tests Muskegon Heights was the worst performing school district in the state and had held that unfortunate position or near the bottom for some time previous to the take over. When the manager came in, he noticed that the district had spent over $80,000 over a 4 month period previous to the take over on substitute teachers. This then led to an investigation of the expenditures by the state and they specifically looked at 120 full time teacher’s sick and personal day usage. It was found to be seriously out of whack from state norms. For example, one teacher had taken 62 sick days in a 180-day school calendar year. Mosaica, to their credit, laid off or fired all the teachers but allowed them to reapply for a position within the district. Also, one of the problems with the finances was the fact that every teacher regardless of performance was guaranteed a 4.5% annual increase in pay as well as a cost of living adjustment across the board.

Clawson then goes on to cite the fact Mosaica was using teachers without state certifications which would be unlawful. Again, some facts are left out here. First, instead of having 158 teachers, there were about 80 under Mosaica. On February 12th of this year, Michigan newspapers discovered that Mosaica was using only eight teachers who lacked state certification. If Clawson was to accurately report this story instead of using it as her smoking gun to illustrate that Mosaica is the big bad for-profit educational factory, she would have realized that Mosaica had a mere 5-6 weeks from the time they took over the district until the time school opened in September. Mosaica, as stated earlier, tried to retain some of these “fired” teachers, but because the union was fighting the take over at the time, they had no such takers. And incidentally, some of these “firings” were voluntary resignations not from the district but from teaching altogether- a negotiated buy-out. In any case, by February 14th of this year- two days after the story was first reported- all eight Mosaica teachers had the state certification in hand. It appears the delay in certification was not from Mosaica or the teachers, but from the state itself. In fact, three teachers were certified to teach in other another state. Also, Mosaica had verified to state officials that all eight teachers had met the qualifications to be certified in Michigan; they merely lacked the piece of paper when the story was reported.

Most importantly, one has to look at the results thus far. Obviously, it has only been half a school year and the jury is still out. But thus far, parents and students have no complaints against the current school system. Most have adapted well to the change and one can suspect that they will feel even better when their taxes are not raised in the near future to fund a failing school system.

In Flint, the article states that the emergency manager “rammed through concessions” with the public worker unions. Actually, they negotiated agreements with six of the city’s eight public employee unions. Only the police and the local AFSCME union refused to go along. That is when the manager unilaterally made changes. That is the purpose of the emergency manager- to make the necessary changes without going through the tedium of negotiating the minute details of every collective bargaining agreement although their first course of action is to negotiate. Thus, this “ramming through” was necessitated by the union intransigence.

It is in Pontiac, Michigan where Clawson points out some of the negatives of the emergency manager. Pontiac is on their third emergency manager. Ironically, the first two were appointed by then-Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm despite local opposition to the move in 2009. It is true that they have privatized the public works department which has saved the city over $516,000 a year. Five different private companies now perform the services formerly done by the city- everything from snow removal/plowing to fixing potholes to fixing street lights. This move cost about 300 city employees their jobs, most of which were voluntary resignations or retirement buy-outs. In this area, what did the residents of Pontiac get? More timely snow removal and preventive maintenance on street lights for starters. In fact, when under city control, active street lights in Pontiac were last “maintained” some 10 years ago.

Liberals make it sound as if this emergency manager placed the residents of Pontiac at risk of burning in their homes since the fire department was abolished. Actually, the fire department was consolidated with nearby Waterford Township saving the city $3 million annually. The water and sewer department was also privatized and sold off for $55 million which went a long way to erasing the city’s debt. Formerly, there were three economic development agencies operated by the city Pontiac which sometimes were at odds with one another. They were consolidated into one entity with large input from what remained of the Pontiac business community. The result has been over $28 million in commercial investment in downtown Pontiac alone. When the elected officials of Pontiac ran the show, the city was represented by 15 law firms. Today, they are represented by one. Before, city employees were governed by 87 health care plans. Today, there is one health care plan AND premiums have decreased 20%.

Perhaps most importantly, Clawson points out that the Pontiac police department was eliminated and contracted out to the Oakland County sheriff’s office. Having county sheriffs perform the duties of local police in both urban and rural areas is nothing new and certainly not unique to Pontiac. In fact, the Oakland County sheriff’s department regularly performs police duties in four other towns besides Pontiac. Annual expenditures on police services exceeded $15 million annually when Pontiac ran the show. Today, those same services are obtained for $10.2 million. Additionally, Oakland County has dedicated 74 officers to Pontiac, the same number of active officers that was on the Pontiac Police force. When one adds in deputy officers used for community patrols and outreach, Oakland County is actually providing more manpower in Pontiac for less money. This fact says it all: prior to the takeover by the state, the average response time on a 9-1-1 call was about 55 minutes. With Oakland County providing those services now, the response time is under 10 minutes. Also, arrest and convictions are up and the business community has noticed less drug trafficking in the city which might partly explain that $28 million in commercial investment.

Liberals view this all as a Republican power grab. That is, they accuse the GOP of taking over local government because they cannot win at the ballot box in these areas. First of all, I do not know how many cities or school districts the state of Michigan has, but I do know that emergency managers are at work in only six cities or school districts. Detroit would simply make the seventh and the largest. Second, I also know that of these six entities, emergency managers were appointed by former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm in half, or three, of the instances. I also know that in at least one instance, the local entity actually asked the state to step in and they obliged.

Liberals also illustrate their hypocrisy here. They are all against a state coming in and taking over a failing city or failing school district and call it undemocratic. Yet by the same token, they are all for the federal government ramming one-size-fits-all government mandates and regulations and requirements down the collective throats of every state government, or suborning states to the national government. Worse yet, most of these regulations and mandates are drawn up by unelected bureaucrats far removed from state governments sitting in offices in Washington DC. So if I get this right, the federal government can dictate to states, but states cannot dictate to cities lest they run afoul of some perverted weird interpretation of democracy. In case the naysayers forget, the law that allows the appointment of emergency managers was legislatively approved (certainly a democratic act) and that there are considerable checks and balances before an emergency manager is appointed in Michigan. Governor Rick Snyder is no more running amok in this area than Jennifer Granholm did previous to his tenure. What may perturb liberals is the fact that under Snyder, results are actually being obtained. Pontiac, for example, came very close to a balanced budget and the manager hopes that balance will be achieved within the next two years.

But most importantly, what really hurts the liberal argument is the history and the results. This tactic is proving that the liberal view of taxing and spending and bowing down and kissing the collective butts of public worker unions is a recipe for fiscal disaster. As early as 2005- well before the housing market debacle and all that followed- an independent auditor discovered that Detroit was legally under reporting pension liabilities by $7.2 billion. Yet, the Democratic leadership of Detroit and Michigan did nothing other than to change the law and have that $7.2 billion put on the books. Detroit was nowhere closer to sanity and solvency. The great liberal metropolitan experiment has been exposed as a failure and that is what most upsets liberals. Whether it is New York City in 1975 or Cleveland more recently, or even Providence or Philadelphia and Detroit today, they had their turn at leadership and they failed. Today, the best thing about Detroit is the Red Wings.

Also, I have no doubt that this emergency management system is not a cure all and what may work in Muskegon Heights schools may not work in nearby Muskegon schools let alone Detroit. What may work in Pontiac may not work in Detroit. What may work in Michigan may not work in another state. Likely, there will be failures by emergency managers along the way also. But to assert that this is a power grab is ludicrous and then to attach a racial motive to it only cheapens it further. Detroit has two choices: emergency fiscal management or bankruptcy. In either case, the public worker unions will be weakened which is not such a bad thing. No matter what, the years of mismanagement and bowing to the public worker unions is over. Their policy of crossing fingers and hoping things will get better and of excuses for their demise is a thing of the past. It is time to let professionals do what they do best and have the elected butt kissers move aside.

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