Fixing Detroit: A Laboratory for Saving America's Cities?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Shuttered businesses line a downtown street in Detroit, Michigan.

One evening last month, the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, took to the podium at a downtown theater. The occasion was the state of the city address, and despite the mayor's best effort to project optimism, the truths facing America's 11th largest city are grim. The budget deficit is at least $85 million. The police department doesn't have the money to safeguard Detroit's vast, sparsely populated territory. The school system is a mess, and its emergency financial manager plans to shut nearly a quarter of the city's public schools by summer. Bing plans to shrink Detroit's government and shed thousands of jobs — an unpopular proposition in a city already boasting a 25% unemployment rate. Outside the theater, protesters waved signs that read, "FIRE THE MAYOR," and "SAVE OUR CITY." Inside, Bing spoke plainly: "We've been hit the hardest by what many call 'the Great Recession.' We simply cannot afford to continue down this road." Days later, an independent report would suggest that Detroit's actual budget deficit might be $400 million, and that the best route for survival is possibly bankruptcy.

Yes, Detroit is a city in crisis. But it is hardly alone. From San Jose, Calif., to Atlanta, cities are grappling with budgets that clearly show that the effects of this recession are far from over. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg may lay off thousands of teachers to close a $4.9 billion budget deficit. Phoenix, a city hit especially hard by the housing crisis, recently imposed a 2% emergency tax on retail food to help resolve a $245 million budget shortfall. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villagiarosa is considering privatizing city-owned parking garages and meters, and cutting his city's workforce from 14,000 to 10,000 this year to close a $485 million budget deficit. "We're eviscerating the level of services people expect," he says, "but I don't have a lot of options." The mayor of Kansas City, Mo., Mark Funkouser, is wrestling with how to pay for a $2.4 billion sewer upgrade in a city closing dozens of public schools. "These infrastructure builds are simply too big to handle on our own," he says. Already, the mayors of Phoenix and Philadelphia have asked the federal government for $50 billion to support various infrastructure improvements, like bridges. Detroit's mayor has visited the White House at least twice in recent months, and says, "It's going to be very difficult for us to come back without some massive federal support."

But will cities get the support they want from Washington? Given President Barack Obama's race and background as a community organizer in some of the bleakest stretches of Chicago's South Side, expectations were high that his administration would be the first in nearly four decades to substantively deal with the challenges facing urban America. He was called the country's first "urban president," and even created the first White House Office of Urban Policy. Obama has said that his administration's policies, like the American Relief and Recovery Act, and the then-pending health care package, would help cities, that they would "disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families, simply because they're the ones who are most vulnerable." But so far, that very broad approach has proved a disappointment to his urban supporters. Says Congressman John Conyers of Obama's urban policy: "It's been made a low priority."

Congress does have jobs bills on the docket that mayors would love to see passed. For example, the $75 billion Local Jobs for America Act recently proposed by Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat, would steer around $53 million to cities, to prevent job cuts and hire essential municipal employees, and non-profit workers who can supplement city services. The bill, says Chris Hoene, director of policy research at the National League of Cities, "may stop the bleeding," at least in the short-term.

But action on urban issues carries political risks for the President. Any federal help for cities that smacks of a bailout might push Obama's image further left as the November elections approach. The Miller bill, for example, would be funded by deficit spending. Even Michigan Republicans, who know that a healthy Detroit is critical to their state's success, want to see any aid to the city and others thoroughly justified. Says Rep. Pete Hoekstra, from the western part of the state, "If the federal government is going to be putting money into urban centers, we ought to fight for every dollar that we can," he says. "But it shouldn't be used to prop up a broken Detroit. It should be used for a new Detroit."

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