Trade unions: Community benefits plan is ‘jobs killer’

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The debate over community benefits has reignited with a grassroots push for a November ballot measure some trade unions fear would be a “jobs killer.”

In response to the initiative, a group workers and building trade union leaders held a Tuesday news conference outside City Hall, arguing the plan is “vague” and “confusing” and would harm Detroit.

“The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights strongly supports a community benefit agreement. But this so-called benefit agreement, we do not,” said Mike Jackson, executive secretary-treasurer of the group. “This will do nothing but harm businesses, residents and the city as a whole.”

The ordinance, submitted by Rise Together Detroit under the name Committee for Community Benefits, would require developers who get tax breaks in Detroit to guarantee jobs for local residents, and commit to other forms of community investments. The plan mirrors a draft ordinance previously introduced by Council President Brenda Jones.

The citizens group in mid-June turned in more than 5,450 petition signatures — which exceeds the required 4,054 — to have the Community Benefits Agreement initiative put before voters. The petitions were validated by the Detroit City Clerk.

But a week ago, a group called the Committee for Detroit Jobs filed a challenge to the validity of some of the signatures. The clerk’s office is reviewing the objections, officials say.

If the signatures stand, the Detroit Elections Commission will determine whether the measure will go on the ballot, Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell said.

But that won’t limit any separate moves by the Detroit City Council, which has long debated an ordinance that would provide certain guarantees and neighborhood protections with large-scale developments in the city.

“They have a lot of options in front of them,” said Hollowell, who also serves on the elections commission. “Even if the current petition is approved and goes on the ballot, City Council has the authority to put its own measure on the (November) ballot.”

If two separate — and substantially similar — ballot initiatives on community benefits make the ballot, the proposal with the highest number of votes would prevail, Hollowell said.

The council, he said, could also take no action or pass its own community benefits ordinance. Under City Charter, the council also has the option of enacting within 60 days the ordinance that the group has proposed for the November ballot.

Councilman Scott Benson said he’s been working for the past year and a half, with support from Jones, on an alternative community benefits plan. The version is not yet complete but will include specifics on engagement, enforcement, accountability and timelines, he said.

The ordinance would apply to development projects with a public and/or private investment of more than $15 million during construction and for projects seeking a tax break from the city of $300,000 or more.

The coalition said it’s taking action because the council has debated the issue for the past two years to no avail.

During public comment at Tuesday’s council session, former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of the group pressing for the ballot measure, urged council members to sign off on the plan.

“We’re tired of the lack of action,” said Tlaib, one of many who spoke about the issue during the meeting.

The Duggan administration and council have had differing views on the topic.

In a provided statement, Charlie Beckham, group executive for the Department of Neighborhoods, said the ballot proposal, as drafted, “will drive away jobs” from the city and “for that reason we oppose it.”

Beckham said Mayor Mike Duggan is a “strong supporter” of community benefits, noting that since taking office in 2014, the administration, in partnership with the council, has negotiated 13 major deals with enforceable, contractual community benefits agreements.

Jones, in a recent public letter on the issue, said she’s worked for years with neighborhood groups, unions and others and isn’t surprised by the grassroots effort to bring an ordinance to voters. Jones noted she hasn’t had a role in the petition drive.

“The fact that Detroiters collected over 5,000 signatures across the city to place an initiative on the ballot speaks volumes,” she wrote.