Flint water crisis no reason to repeal EM law

Dan Calabrese

It’s no surprise that we’re already hearing voices demanding that Michigan’s emergency manager law be repealed, with the Flint water disaster as the rationale for why this needs to happen.

That would be a huge mistake.

The emergency manager law did not cause the Flint water crisis. People making bad decisions — including, but by no means limited to, the emergency manager — caused it. What’s more, people making bad fiscal decisions caused Flint to come under an emergency manager in the first place.

I understand the argument is that the Flint City Council did not make the decision to switch to Flint River water, and that it was not responsible for failing to install anti-corrosive technology in the water system. If that’s how you support the argument that in this case the emergency manager made some bad calls, then you’ve made a solid argument.

If you leap from there to the argument that there should no longer be emergency managers, you’re ignoring some important and very recent history.

Have you driven around Detroit lately? Seen the revival of Midtown? Seen the District Detroit project? If you’re really curious, you can see Detroit’s financials and look at all the debt that’s been wiped away. Or you can talk to the people brokering downtown real estate and find out how they’re actually getting interest from outside the state for the first time since before anyone can remember.

None of this happens unless Detroit goes through bankruptcy, and that doesn’t happen unless an emergency manager has the power to make that decision. The state tried for a year to work with the city through a consent agreement, only to run into resistance from the City Council to every conceivable reform. Detroit was looking at $18 billion in liabilities and had no viable plan to deal with it. Without Kevyn Orr making the call, that debt is still not dealt with, and Detroit remains a hopeless disaster instead of a city that’s finally showing some real promise.

It’s one thing to advocate local control, but there’s also something to be said for finding someone who will look out for the interests of local residents when local elected officials cannot or will not.

Emergency managers are not miracle workers, and certainly every problem in Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Hamtramck is not solved just because they had EMs. Ecorse has been through receivership multiple times, but no one can ride in on a horse and change a city’s tax base, demographics or political trends.

But emergency managers under the current law have the power to relieve cities of some of their worst financial obligations, which at least gives cities a chance if they can learn the lessons of their previous mistakes.

And that’s the real reason you hear calls for the repeal of the EM law, using Flint as the latest excuse. Emergency managers have the power to rip up contracts between cities and public employee unions, and that is one of the greatest threats imaginable to the Democratic Party. EMs cannot unilaterally alter pension agreements, but as we saw in Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy case, even those are not completely untouchable.

All of this threatens the core power of the Democratic Party, which is the real reason Democrats hate the EM law. Their idea of rescuing a city in financial distress is to get bailout money from the federal government, with no requirement whatsoever for city leaders to change their policies — and certainly not for unions to make any concessions whatsoever.

Emergency managers have to make better decisions than we saw in Flint, but until city councils stop mismanaging their way into financial desperation, emergency managers will continue to be necessary.

Dan Calabrese is a freelance writer based in Royal Oak.