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Column: Brownfield tax credits divert needed funds

Gloria Rivera

No city, township, county, village or school district in Michigan can afford to be ripped off. But the recent package of bills being pushed by Dan Gilbert does just that. It needs to be rejected by our representatives in Lansing.

The bills are designed to take public money from local people and put it into the pockets of developers. Their stated purpose is to develop “brownfields,” a term used by federal environmental authorities to describe abandoned sites contaminated by industry. The old Uniroyal site on the banks of the Detroit River right across from Belle Isle is a prime example.

Furthermore, the purpose of brownfield tax credits is for the cleanup, remediation, environmental assessments and inclusion of green components in a development project. There are many brownfields in Detroit, but even so, Gilbert and elected officials have redefined brownfield to mean just about any abandoned or “blighted property.” This definition does not take into account the connection between human health and the quality of water, air and soil. People who work with development of those sites would channel the income and sales tax stripped from the public directly into the developer’s pocket.

This means developers would be paid to control huge swaths of property while locals watch their budgets being robbed of much needed funds. What would regular working people get in return? Well, that’s one of many problems with these bills. Gilbert requested University of Michigan study the economic impact of these bills but now refuses to release the report. This act alone shows that there is a lack of transparency and accountability and should alarm anyone concerned about economic justice.

Such highhanded manipulation of local revenue would be malfeasance in the best of times, but with the state and many local governments straining to provide much needed services due to schemes just like this one, it boggles the mind that money would be funneled from the public to billionaires with no clear benefit. Schools from pre-kindergarten to universities are severely underfunded. Human services, roads, environmental issues, police departments, fire fighters — there is no public service that’s flush with enough cash to fork over to wealthy developers.

This move and the insane proposal to cut an even bigger hole in the state budget reveals a bigger problem: utter refusal by many elected officials to admit that tax dollars, public money is needed to keep society functioning. They defund programs, especially those that working people rely on, transportation, schools, childcare, clean water, and then scream about the way public services function. Wealthy people and corporations need to pay their share.

If Gilbert wants a soccer field or the largest building in Detroit, let him pay for it rather than strip public funds to support his private profit. In the meantime, the people elected to serve the state should reject the bills outright.

Gloria Rivera is a leader with Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit.