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Posted on Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 3:41 p.m.

Snyder should appoint emergency manager for Detroit if city leaders don't act to fix crisis

By Guest Column


Tom Watkins

Watching the slow motion financial unraveling in Detroit brings to mind this old saying, "When you show people death they will accept serious injury."

As Mayor Bing acknowledged, Detroit is in a financial "crisis" due to the failure of elected leaders to act and lead over multiple years.

If you have a hole in your roof pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out.

The mayor and City Council must act and lead or the governor must appoint an emergency manager that will.

City officials have known about the problems of declining tax base and rising and unsustainable health care and pension costs for years and have failed to take action to address these structural fiscal issues.

If the governor enacts the Emergency Manager law it is not a power grab by the state. To the contrary, it is responsible leadership.

Local elected officials and unions must come together to fix the structural budget problems in Detroit (and other local units of government as well)--- or the governor should do so.


Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, shown at a news conference, on Wednesday urged municipal unions to accept wage cuts and Michigan leaders to pay the city millions stemming from a decade-old tax agreement, saying Detroit needs the money to avoid an emergency financial takeover.

AP Photo | Detroit News, Daniel Mears

The tough Emergency Manager law provides the tools to exert necessary change -- change that local elected officials were unable or unwilling to make.

Consider telling your teenager to clean their room. If they don't, the consequence is that they won't be using the family car to go out on Friday night. If your teen does not clean their room, Friday night rolls around and you allow them to go out anyway, even filling the gas tank and giving them $50 spending money, do you really think they took your threat seriously? Of course not.

This is similar to the situation under the prior Emergency Financial Manager law. All bark and no bite. There must be consequences for failing to act responsibly.

Irresponsible local school districts and municipalities have been over spending their budgets for years, making financial promises they don't have the funds to honor. All the while the state threatened them with reprisals -- never following through.

Guess what? Superintendents, school boards, city managers, mayors and city councils learned there were no consequences for their inactions and in some cases misdeeds, so they continued their pretending and spending ways. No surprise.

Gov. Snyder and the Legislature have provided the needed teeth, or consequences for local elected officials that over the years have failed to act in a responsible manner. Don't clean your room -- there WILL be consequences.

To say this law strips local officials of their authority is absurd. These local officials have not performed their responsibilities for years, thumbing their noses at the taxpayers and their constitutional responsibilities.

Early in my tenure as state school superintendent (2001-2005), I met with Inkster school officials who had been running deficits, (fiscally AND academically) and refusing to provide a sensible plan to address the deficit. I had no interest in running a local school, however, if the school board and superintendent would not clean up the mess, I told them I would.

They did not and with the support of then-Gov. Engler and the Legislative leadership, the governor appointed the first emergency financial manager (EFM) for a local school district.

Gov. Granholm subsequently extended the emergency financial manager's tenure -- because the historical mess was yet to be cleaned up.

I also foreshadowed the brewing crisis of unsustainable health and pension plans in this report:

As a state we cannot pretend to enact needed change. Real change, requires REAL change.

The bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler are examples of what happens when leaders fail to act.

Are the consequences of an emergency manager a touch draconian? The law allows for the potential to strip power from locally elected leaders and scrapping union contracts. Absolutely it is.

These powers should ONLY be used if/when all else fails. The troubling fact is -- all else has failed for far too long. Yet, if elected officials do their jobs, these consequences would never come to pass.

Gov. Snyder and the Legislature were right to provide teeth to the new law and ask the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of this law as “expeditiously as possible.”

Without consequences local municipalities and school districts “rooms” would never be clean.

So, Detroit -- what will it be -- death or serious injury? It is a local decision.

Tom Watkins is a former state school superintendent and a recipient of the 2011 Detroit Regional Chamber Leadership Detroit Lifetime Achievement Award. He represented Detroit in reforming Wayne County as a charter commissioner in the 1980s. He can be reached at



Sat, Nov 19, 2011 : 11:28 p.m.

Who is Tom Watkins. And why does continue to let him keep dishing out this Republican propaganda? If I see one more Watkins editorial, I will discontinue my subscription.

Monica R-W

Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 8:26 p.m.

Serious, why is if a Emergency Manager is appointed to Detroit any of Tom Watkins business? OH...he is a member of the Regional Chamber that can't WAIT to get ahold of Detroit's assets like their land, water and salt that sits under the land, to buy a fire-sale prices. Yeap, that's it.


Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 6:24 p.m.

It's easy for dysfunctional Michiganders to bash Detroit. The city has been the victim of real estate redlining for decades. Otherwise, why was Livonia, for example, 98% white in year 2000? The city has been the victim of declining population, and thus, taxes, to the tune of 25% since year 2000. Detroit's elected officials are no more dysfunctional than Snyder and his Republican amateur legislature who are doing everything they can to destroy the middle class in Michigan. And the operative word in the EM issue is: "elected." No elected official should be removed at the whim of an irresponsible Emergency Manager. Irresponsible to the electorate, that is. No, Mr. Watkins, the EM on steroids, to quote a Republican amateur representative, is not helping Detroit, just as previous EMs didn't "fix" Detroit in the past. The 2011 EM is meant to rape Detroit, skimming far worse than Kwame ever did. Look at New York, where the "public" park being occupied is privately owned and operated? That's what the governor and state treasurer want to do to Michigan: sell its schools, its parks, its treasure, for one-time gain and forever loss, through no-bid or low-bid contracts to their favored corporations.


Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 4 p.m.

Taxation without representation.


Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 4:22 p.m.

That's the way I feel every time I pay non-resident income tax to the City of Detroit.....I assume that is what you meant.


Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 11:24 a.m.

Which would you prefer: an Emergency Financial Manager or a Bankruptcy Judge? At this point, it looks like those are the only two solutions to the problem.


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 11:45 p.m.

Down with the one percent! Up with the Ninety-nine!


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 10:43 p.m.

I think that Snyder needs to appoint an emergency manager for the city of Detroit and GET RID OF THEM ALL from the superintendents, school board, city manager, mayor and city council.Things have not worked well in Detroit for a long time Corruption must be rooted out at the root and prevented from ever growing back again

Ron Granger

Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 10:32 p.m.

Ripley: "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

Ron Granger

Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 10:29 p.m.

The on-going fiasco known as Detroit is the business of every taxpayer across the nation - because we *all* support and subsidize that city. I don't agree with a lot of what Snyder has proposed with the emergency manager law, and I don't like to validate it, but Detroit needs a heavy hand. The Mayor does not have the tools to fix corruption this deep, and the past legacies. Like the enablers of Kilpatrick, who somehow kept their jobs. Detroit is a disaster that needs serious fixin'.


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 9:46 p.m.

'At least the trains ran on time' is a facetious validation of authoritarianism, not an honest one...


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 9:07 p.m.

The Emergency Manager law is the most un-American legislation passed in the state of Michigan in our lifetime. How strange to imagine that so much of what we hold sacred - voting for our public officials and controlling our own communities through the democratic process - can vanish overnight because an extremist One Percenter and his rich cronies have willed it so. We must undo this aberration that is so toxic to democracy.

Charlie Brown's Ghost

Sat, Nov 19, 2011 : 3:08 a.m.

Give it up with the "one percenter" junk. It's becoming a more tired and overused word than "synergy." The law doesn't go afoul of the Michigan Constitution, and since powers such as this were given to the states, then it IS American.


Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 1:41 p.m.

Floyd, propose an alternative then instead of complaining.


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 9:06 p.m.

Whoa, whoa, whoa...stop the clock! That's all I got.