Lloyd Waters: Detroit city ... a town going bust

January 20, 2013|By LLOYD WATERS

Do you remember the lines of the old Bobby Bare song?

“Home folks think I’m big in Detroit city,

From the letters that I write they think I’m fine,

But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars,

If only they could read between the lines,

I want to go home, I want to go home.”

A lot of people in Detroit must be singing those same words as they are leaving town.

In the last decade, the population of the city has plummeted 25 percent. In the 1950s, some 2 million people lived in Detroit. Today, a little more than 700,000 remain.

Detroit, once the wealthiest city in the country by per capita income and home of the good life, is now the second poorest major city in the nation. Many of the city’s population have taken flight for the suburbs thus reducing the revenue base.

Kevin Williamson, a National Review contributor, reported that “revenues declined by more than $100 million between 2007 and 2011.”

Imagine a decaying city with a diminishing population and today’s expenditures based on yesterday’s promises and tax revenues. Sounds like a very big problem to me.

Detroit is some $13 billion in debt with few alternatives to pay its bills. The 713,000 remaining citizens are responsible for this debt and an annual deficit of $200 million.

The New York Times reported that Detroit residents often encounter streetlights that fail and transportation buses that run late. And if a police officer responds to a call, residents are fortunate to see one arrive.

Employee unions are wailing loud against any cuts in salaries, pensions or staff. The mayor and council have not been responsive to the fiscal realities, and the city has been threatened by the appointment of an “emergency manager” by the Republican governor.

An advisory board has been created to help oversee a financial plan of action. If the mayor and council fail to address the problems, the state will assume total control and oversight of all Detroit’s finances.

Sounds a little like the dilemma in Greece, doesn’t it? How would you fix the problem?

If you are on the left — or liberal — side of the aisle, raising taxes probably would be part of your strategy. By raising taxes, many believe they can pay off the debt and continue the spending as they have in the past.

A similar strategy is under way at the federal level. More revenue is needed to pay down the debt goes the thinking, so your taxes are going to increase.   

Not much conversation yet in Detroit or in our country about the money we are spending and wasting each and every day.

I often wonder why we don’t eliminate “wasteful” spending first and work our way down the economic steps of the ladder. Too complicated, I suppose, for those politicians who help create the problems in the first place. 

They embrace popularity over efficiency.

Some folks believe the great debate is only about wealth distribution. I suspect, at the end of the day, it will be more about policies and processes that feed economic development or failures than that issue alone.

The problems, from my perspective, are far more extreme and complex. Political decisions and their results can take us to many places.

In Detroit, there have been few, if any, political responses to the large exodus of residents and the resulting reduction in tax revenues.

How do you keep taxpayers from leaving dilapidated cities and depriving those cities of anticipated tax revenues? You don’t.

Politicians want to keep doing business the same as always. But reality, in the end, will dictate many unpopular changes.

Like Bare’s song, a lot of those Detroit citizens are singing the chorus, “I want to go home.”

I really can’t blame them much for leaving.

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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