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Posted on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 8:56 a.m.

Time for major reform for Detroit and Wayne County

By Guest Column

What happens in Detroit/Wayne County impacts us all.

It was 32 years ago that Wayne County voters decided to “reform” Wayne County government.

Now Wayne County's largest city, Detroit, is teetering on bankruptcy with debt exceeding $20 billion. The Wayne County "severance" scandal continues to unfold with the FBI on the scene.

I recall the political brochure I created to promote my successful candidacy as one of 27 charter commissioners elected in 1980 to write a “constitution” for Michigan’s largest county. It read, in part, “When county government is hundreds of millions in debt and no one is in charge -- a change is needed.”


Tom Watkins

Today, sadly, Wayne County and Detroit are once again steeped in debt and no one seems to be in charge. Scandals pop up as quickly as a Whack-A-Mole game and have yet to be beaten down.

But there is hope, because scandal and crisis are terrible things to waste.As Governor Snyder likes to say, we should use the latest crisis rocking Detroit/Wayne County to “have a conversation” on ways to improve, reform and produce an efficient, responsive, and accountable government.

The status quo should not be an option. And the focus should not be confined to county government, not when its home city is even more in need of overhaul.

The reasons to restructure and reform the self-serving Detroit/Wayne County governments become more apparent each day. We have too much government, mismanagement, inside dealing and corruption.

We have a system of local government that predates the Model T, is outdated and nonfunctional. Try to provide one good reason, beyond preserving political fiefdoms, why we need two separate governmental bodies to govern our affairs in a shrinking region.

Detroit’s population dropped by 25 percent in the past decade and is now at slightly more than 700,000, the lowest level since 1910. For the third year in a row, Wayne County has led the nation in counties with population declines.

Both Detroit and Wayne County have massive deficits and no realistic plan to close the gap. The resources we once had to support these duplicative layers of government are no longer there. Basic services suffer as fading tax dollars prop up an aging system of duplicative and nonresponsive government.

So why not seek ways to minimize costs, enhance efficiency and better market and manage the region through a modern city-county consolidation? This should be done -- and is, in fact, being looked at across the state.

It’s insane to maintain government structures created in a different age from our fast-paced, hyper-competitive, disruptive, knowledge economy, where ideas and jobs move around the globe effortlessly. Leaders should be driving us to governmental structures that offer regional leadership, effective and efficient local government, and a globally competitive regional economic climate.

There are city/county consolidation models to consider, most notably in Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Lexington/Louisville and Nashville.

What we once had in Detroit/Wayne County is gone, never to return. With the implosion and reformation of the auto industry, globalization and technology, the world has permanently changed. These radical changes require an equally radical response to governmental structure.

There have been significant changes in how business has responded to shifting global change. Meanwhile, our city and county governments simply continue stumbling along.

There is much to gain and nothing to lose by having a serious conversation about the pros and cons of how we can structure government to serve the people and make Detroit-Wayne County and the region a global economic magnet.

There will certainly be resistance from those benefiting from the status quo. There is little to be gained by local officials initiating such a call for change. Yet change and progress are needed.

State legislation could be drafted establishing something similar to the Wayne County Charter Commission 30 years ago to allow local voters to decide if they want to consider reforming and consolidating their governmental bodies and drafting a “constitution” for a new form of local government.

Reform has a way of wearing out. It’s time for ‘Reform 2.0’ in Detroit/Wayne County -- and across the state.

The question remains whether leadership will emerge at the state and local levels and in the public and private sectors to get the conversation -- and, more importantly, action -- underway to create a city/county government to help us thrive as the 21st century unfolds.

After all, a crisis and scandal are terrible things to waste.

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state school superintedent and the 2011 recipient of The Detroit Regional Chamber’s Leadership Detroit Lifetime Achievement Award. He may be reached at



Fri, Feb 10, 2012 : 11:09 p.m.

The Oakland County executive is a Republican and has 20 or 21 appointees. The Wayne County executive is a Democrat and has 167 appointees. Wayne County will never be blessed with a Republican executive the likes of Mr. Patterson because we have far too many stupid people. Detroit, Highland Park, Inkster, River Rouge, Taylor and Romulus. Ficano was an excellent student of McNamara.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 11:39 p.m.

Just get rid of all the Democrats, bout time.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 4:55 p.m.

@cbergen I'm not quite sure what kind of evidence you need for the fact that Wayne County, the City of Detroit in particular, is in a financial mess as Mr. Watkins says. I think that's common knowledge.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 8:16 p.m.

There are plenty of pros and cons when it comes to the union debate in general. However, when it comes down to a non-profit (Detroit) being unable to afford to pay union employees, there's not much you can do except let some of the employees go. This isn't a debate about the value or effectiveness of unions. It's a matter of being too broke to pay employees. The leaders in Detroit seem to think that they can keep staff at current sizes - news flash - when your city loses 25% of its tax base you've gotta fire a lot of people.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 6:48 p.m.

No: people try to simplify fiscal issues that are complex (e.g. the tired argument against unions.)


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 6:07 p.m.

If your city is hemorrhaging citizens, you adjust your spending accordingly. Obviously that entails slashing costs across the board. However, given the power of unions in Detroit, that's not happening at the rate it needs to happen. Thus the city is in its current predicament. People try to make fiscal issues more complicated than they really are.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 5:22 p.m.

Pointing to a burning building and declaring loudly that it's on fire doesn't help to put it out. There are no viable solutions here or systematic ways of addressing any (largely understated) problems. Any allusions to "solutions" in other cities/areas are left to the reader to research for herself. That's just poor writing.

John Smith

Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 4:08 p.m.

The consolidation of government is not a question of if, it is when. The multiple layers of tax supported agencies within a given state can no longer be sustained. It would be in our best interest to begin the process now, rather than wait until it becomes a mandate and the few, rather than the many will design the final product.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 3:53 p.m.

Seems to me Mayor Bing is doing quite a lot with union cooperation, city council cooperation, etc. Published reports indicate he has tentative deals reached on staffing cuts, benefit cuts, future pension changes, work rule changes, transportation, lighting, police, and fire, recreation, etc. that eliminate much of the forward looking deficit that was causing all of the the Governors concern, Supposedly. Amazing what locally elected leaders can do. I'm not clear what is being proposed regarding a new Detroit-Wayne County. How about fixing what we have as a start?

Joe Kidd

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 7:09 p.m.

I do agree with Sparty but Detroit is way behind in making these changes. They have been discussing cutting for months but kept putting it off, pretty much right up to the finish where, once crossed, they get an Emergency Financial Manager from the state under the new law. That just seems to be the union line, (in concert with politicians who they support) hold out with the generous compensation up to the point where you absolutely have to, not as soon as possible. Mayor Bing has made progress with many unions, but it is still a shaky situation, waiting for the police and fire to fall in line. There does not seem to be shared eagerness in solving the problems. However, in tandem with cutting to cut deficits cities have to make efforts to attract both business and residents in order to begin a solid recovery, another good reason to enact changes earlier rather than later. The longer you wait and the worse the problem the harder it will be to dig out. In my lifetime, Detroit has had a couple of periods where some significant improvements were made, the riverfront improvement of the Renaissance Center going up, the casinos, the Lions returning and a new Tiger Stadium. But them slam on the brakes.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 11:42 p.m.

The Mayor and published reports say he has negotiated cuts to cover the entire deficit if the unions follow thru on their negotiated agreements. We will see. PA 4 will be put on hold pending citizen referendum, so EFM is out the door regardless.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 5:01 p.m.

In your dreams, Sparty. Detroit needs to cut $105 million from the budget. They've done about half that, but the other half has to come from union concessions. That's unlikely to happen at this point. "Amazing what locally elected leaders can do." Yeah, amazing how far locally elected leaders can drive a city into the ground.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

I'm officially at a breaking point: How many more columns will publish that are vacuous, meandering, and ultimately pointless? I think the idea of an Internet community rising out of local news stories is a great, noble experiment. However, the editors need to realize that the actual stories are our catalysts for meaningful conversation. As a frequent reader, less frequent commenter, I see less and less reasons to come back and be a part of this community. I'm sure Mr. Watkins is an intelligent, articulate man (and perhaps writer.) However, this is the third week in a row that I've noticed his column is strong on hyperbole and generalizations and light on argument and evidence. As of right now I'm the only commenter in this field, but if history is an indicator the fields below will eventually be populated by equally vapid counter-attacks and opinions that do absolutely nothing to raise the discourse about actual issues in our region. This is a direct result of the quality of the initial column. No doubt commenters are to blame in part. However, so too are authors like Mr. Watkins who offer no intellectual stimulus. Most of all, the editors of should seriously consider a better vetting process for what gets published to represent their enterprise and the readership of our area. Anyone looking in right now from outside would certainly not be impressed.