Editor’s Viewpoint: Intervention: The state edition
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and at least one state has interpreted that to mean taking over three of its cities and one school district to save them from themselves. Earlier this year, Michigan sent an emergency manager to Benton Harbor to help repair its distressed budget. The city’s general fund had an annual deficit of $1.4 million as of June. Now, only a few months later, the city has approved a budget expected to allow its general fund to break even by the end of its fiscal year. The emergency manager credited changes in insurance, staff reductions and other adjustments to solving Benton Harbor’s problems.
Benton Harbor is only the first of three financial interventions by the state. Michigan also has usurped the power of elected officials in two other cities, Ecorse and Pontiac, as well as those responsible for Detroit’s school system.
When first reading about Benton Harbor, I wondered how elected local officials could be deposed so easily. The answer is found in a 1990 state law, the Emergency Financial Manager Act, which allowed the state to review local governments’ finances. Then, earlier this year, Michigan passed another law that broadened the power of the emergency managers, including permitting them to end contracts, such as collective bargaining agreements.
Oh boy, you can see what’s coming next. The first lawsuit comes from the Sugar Law Center, which claims the state’s new legislation violated its own constitution. Its legal director says the law creates a new form of local government governed by an unelected official “who establishes local law by decree.” He also says the law is another way for the state to end collective bargaining.
Tom Wieczorek, director of the Washington-based International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management and a retired Michigan city manager, says the new law is designed as a better alternative to bankruptcy. In the end, he says, a bankruptcy means giving local rule to the court system.
So, there you have it. One side says the law is trying to prevent bankruptcy, while the other side says the law is unconstitutional and was driven by politics. However, if the lawsuit is upheld, that means that bankrupt communities will settle their problems in court. Now, there’s a lovely choice — between the lawyers and the politicians.
Whose hands would you rather be in?
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