Time for a Shotgun Wedding Between Detroit and Wayne County

I see dysfunctional city politics as more of a symptom of fiscal distress than the origin. Cities facing insurmountable fiscal challenges tend to make terrible choices under that kind of pressure. When all the least-bad solutions are extremely politically unpopular, it’s going to be impossible for politicians supporting those ideas to get elected, and bonkers Hail Mary ideas will carry the day. Just look at what’s happening in Scranton and Allentown.

So while I agree with Rich Wilkins that ideally the Detroit electorate would just elect politicians with the right ideas to solve the city’s problems, I think it’s going to be basically impossible for the city political economy to produce that outcome.

That’s not to say I think Rick Snyder’s ideas are necessarily the right ideas, just that no matter what the right ideas are, they’re going to involve soaking a whole range of politically powerful stakeholders. Snyder will have his own ideas about who needs to take a haircut, and Democrats will have their own ideas, but the reality is that everybody needs to take a haircut, and nobody is going to win an election running on a Pain For Us All platform. You win elections running on a Pain For Those Other People platform.

Before sending in a state emergency manager though, I’d like to see the state give a broader local electorate a few chances at fixing the problems democratically. I’m talking about a shotgun wedding merging the city of Detroit with Wayne County. If Detroit’s voters can’t produce a real recovery plan, let Wayne County’s voters try before the state comes in. At least at the County level you’ll have a little more political party competition, everyone making the choices will still be an immediate stakeholder in the outcome, and this will open up the option of spreading the tax burden more equitably between the city and its suburbs.

This is also my preferred solution in PA. That fact that almost nobody ever gets out of Act 47 tells you that approach doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work for obvious reasons – PA’s municipal finance policies gut central cities of revenue over time. Only County-sized tax bases are going to fix the problem. Rather than trifling with Act 47 and pretending these problems have originated in the cities themselves, PA should force Counties to absorb the fiscal responsibility for any distressed cities and towns within their borders – paying for city services out of the County tax base, and restructuring service delivery and renegotiating contracts as necessary.


  1. I think it is a fair idea, but the long pole in the tent is going to be the contracts. Asking a county to assume the conditions of a deal they had nothing to do with is a recipe for years long court fights. Maybe the answer is to develop some sort of average wage where contracts in Detroit are abrogated and reset at the county standard.

    I don’t think bad governance is a symptom of bad economic times. It is often a side effect in many “company towns”. More likely, when the money from property and other taxes was good, Detroit politicians got accustomed to easily and sloppily “rewarding stakeholders.” When the money began running short, politicians spend the seed corn to maintain the “benefit level.” Now we’re out of seed corn and the city has figured out there’s nothing left, but political behavior remains the same.

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