How do you know when the sky really is falling?
In Detroit, where imminent disaster is the permanent forecast, you can't evacuate every time a few nimbus clouds appear on the horizon. Maybe that's why council members and would-be mayors from Lisa Howze to Mike Duggan are still making the case that Detroit's problems can be fixed through the traditional political process.
Councilwoman JoAnn Watson asserted the city's fiscal stability at a recent meeting. "The sky's not falling," she said, with the practiced certainty of a Detroit career politician who has witnessed many more crises than solutions: She has experience here that expensive consultants from Boston and D.C. cannot match, when she pronounces her verdict. "There's no crisis."
The consultants are looking at numbers; Watson's looking at history. A rich and turbulent decade or more of structural deficits and rejiggered obligations; of wheeling and dealing the bond markets, philanthropies and feds; of pleading Detroit's case with some success.
From a certain jaundiced view, all this business about the sky falling amounts to unwanted interference with the status quo — a system that to some will never be certifiably "in crisis" until the paychecks stop.
A business magazine this month asks a rhetorical question: Can Detroit Be Saved? Whether that's a question about finances, geography or self-determination is unclear.
The sky has been falling for years now, without creating a local consensus or a heightened sense of urgency to unite the city's leaders into concerted action, and acting on the consent decree they signed.
But instead of vigorously investigating the city's liabilities and confronting them, a year has gone by with little action and plenty of name-calling.
There's no incentive for city officials to buy into the emergency manager: The appointment of an EM triggers an immediate suspension of their pay, subject to cooperative behavior and negotiation.
Eric Scorsone, the Michigan State professor who crafted much of the new financial emergency manager law, sees the city heading inevitably toward municipal bankruptcy, because even an emergency manager lacks the power to restructure the city's unfunded pension obligations.
As an architect of the law, he recognizes its limitations, including a spotty history of success among Michigan cities.
And yet, the law represents a step toward a solution. Action rather than reaction.
Calling the consent decree "an unprecedented right-wing gangster move," as JoAnn Watson once did, is passionate but pointless. Detroit residents mostly know that.
The lack of protest this week — as the City Council filed its appeal to the governor's emergency declaration — hints that the city has spent its emotional capital on this issue. A freeway slowdown and a couple of dozen protesters in Lansing attest to exhaustion, not any lingering passion for home rule.
How do you know when the sky is falling?
In Detroit, that's when the shouting (mostly) stops.
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (313) 222-2032.
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