Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nothin' But Blue Skies

Chicago journalist and Lansing native Edward McClelland has a new book that chronicles the "story of how the country's industrial heartland grew, boomed, bottomed, and hopes to be reborn."

Nothin' But Blue Skies covers various cities in the Great Lakes Region, including Flint, which gets two separate chapters. I just finished an advance copy, and McClelland provides an insightful and sympathetic take on the people and places that make up the Rust Belt. In particular, he captures the agonizing contradictions of trying to run a shrinking city.
"The emergency manager law was written to rescue cities from corrupt or incompetent mayors," McClelland writes. "[Dayne] Walling, a cross between a Webelo and a West Wing policy wonk, was not corrupt. Nor was he incompetent. It would have been impossible to balance the budget of a city that's lost half its people and over 90 percent of its middle-class jobs without making it look even more like the set of Escape from Flint. If a city is too poor to afford democracy, it's not a city anymore." 
 Nothin' But Blue Skies is a must read for anyone trying to understand the forces aligned against cities like Flint. Thankfully, it also presents compelling, heart-felt portraits of the people fighting to save the city.

28 comments:

  1. Thanks for the praise, Gordon. I'll be doing a reading at the Flint Public Library on June 4, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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    1. Really enjoyed the book, Ted. Congratulations. You covered a lot of ground.

      Good luck at the reading. I spent a lot of time in that library. Some of it studying, but most of it just goofing off. It's a great spot.

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  2. Was by there today after a trip to the Flint Institute of Arts. The area still shines,but driving past my alma mater Flint Central H.S. which is now closed was sad. What a great high school it was! Remember having this argument with my professors at U. of M. when they were trying to tell us that the new "service industry" was some kind of logical replacement for the "old fashioned industrial based one". I argued then, and still do, that to create wealth you have to MAKE something, not just shuffle money around. I wish I hadn't been quite so correct.Now look at us.

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  3. "If a city is too poor to afford democracy, it's not a city anymore."

    For some reason that quote struck a chord with me. Gave me chills, actually.

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    1. Yes, it provoked a lot of thought about the true definition of a city for me. It's still astounding to me that the state can determine that certain areas can be stripped of their elected representation. And that things have gotten so bad in many cities that some residents applaud the move.

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  4. Forest Hill Forest HillApril 12, 2013 at 2:50 PM

    You forget that many people don't really care about self determination. The people that are screaming the loudest in Detroit about Kevyn Orr, who has been named Emergency Financial Manager, are the very people who stand to lose the most if corruption is eliminated.

    And another facet is the Detroit Water Department, which is crying bloody murder about Genesee County planning to build their own pipeline to Lake Huron, because Detroit charges Flint area communities an astronomical rate to pump water up and down hill, falsely stating that it is because Flint is at such a high altitude. All they apparently know about Flint is what they saw on "The Fitzpatricks". Hey, it's in the mountains. I saw it on a TV show. Anyway, that story is front page news today in The Detroit News.

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  5. "If a city is too poor to afford democracy, it's not a city anymore."

    If a city can't afford to spend what its electorate-selected government chooses to spend (or steal, or waste), and the electorate keeps voting for that kind of government, it *shouldn't* be a city because it's proven itself unable to handle the responsibility.

    The EM system was created to *protect* that kind of electorate from bankruptcy court, where after auction-liquidation of municipally owned assets--what am I bid for this slightly used City Hall?--the remaining unpaid creditors legally could demand forced private-property taxation that in many cases would be confiscatory. Would that be better for democracy?

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    1. I agree with you JWilly on many levels.

      I just finished Charlie LeDuff's Detroit book. It's anecdotal, but he conveys just how profoundly dysfunctional Detroit's city government was before the EM. (Or are we back to EFM after the referendum?)

      I'm obviously not a lawyer, but the constitutional lawyers quoted in the stories I've read indicate that states have the right to do this to municipalities. (Although the Federal government could never do this to state governments.)

      But the current lawsuits attacking the law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act seem to have merit. (More than half the state's African American residents are now under the EM system.) And I don't believe that simply selling off assets, laying off workers, and privatizing a city's services is a long-term solution to Flint's problems. The previous EM of Flint has said it will actually make things worse.

      I feel that something drastic has to be done, but I fear that the state is disenfranchising large numbers of black residents, and it won't solve the problem.

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    2. Local governments are empowered under the State Constitution and state laws, so they can be constrained in those ways as well. Local governments typically go wrong via skimming/theft/unjustified pay/fixed contracts/kickbacks when they have plenty of money and no one's keeping good track of it. Sometimes that happens in cities that have weak tax bases because the current Constitution and laws don't provide much oversight for borrowing.

      A key reason why democracy only works well in societies and locales with well employed middle/working classes is that voters that are employed pay taxes, and therefore are disinterested in forming common cause with the unemployed and unemployable to elect a government that promises them "freebies" that are paid for by borrowing, which eventually must be repaid by taxes on the middle/working classes.

      Would it be better if, instead of taking self-rule away from electorates that have chosen to give themselves services and benefits paid for by unrepayable borrowed money, the State instead eliminated the ability of (all) locales to borrow money, deficit-spend, and buy anything on a deliver-now, pay-later basis? It'd be much easier to keep track of civic finances if they operated on a cash-escrow basis. Local governments would less often be corrupt if the people running them had much less access to money.

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  6. Flint’s emergency manager fired 150 workers, cut wages by 20 percent for those who remained, and eliminated retiree health coverage. He also imposed a $143 annual fee for trash collection, a $62 special assessment for street lights and doubled water rates. The police force has been cut in half since 2008, which is a big reason Flint has the highest murder rate in the nation. Flint is closer to a balanced budget, but it’s becoming so overtaxed and unlivable that anyone who can afford it will move to the suburbs, further reducing the tax base and requiring more cuts.

    Since Flint and Detroit can’t maintain the accoutrements of a modern American city with their current tax bases, the most practical solution to their financial problems is regional consolidation. They should merge with their suburbs, as Miami, Indianapolis and Toronto have done. A megacity composed of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties would contain 3.9 million people, making it the second-largest city in the United States. Detroit could consolidate its police and fire services -- which consume nearly 60 percent of its general fund budget -- with surrounding departments. Suburbanites would benefit from the efficiency of a single local government, and from a stronger central city, which would make the entire area more attractive to out-of-state business. When most Americans think of Michigan, they think of Detroit’s decay and dysfunction.

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  7. Ah,the Toronto model! It makes perfect sense, but is the most difficult endeavor you can attempt in local jurisdictions. Do you forget the battles between L.Brooks Patterson and Coleman Young during the 70's and 80's over this very same issue? The suburbs and the cities have a deep distrust for one another. The "efficiencies" you speak of don't mean squat to the folks in the suburbs - that's why the fled to the countryside in the first place. Many people remember when Flint held sway over the county with it's gerrymandered boundaries, that's why Bishop Airport lies within the City of Flint. Now they come with their hat in their hands wanting to join together. I don't think so. Regional government makes perfect sense,logically, but has been rejected so many times that I don't think it is a viable strategy here. Sad but true.

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    1. Consolidation is a nice urban planning fantasy. It will never happen.

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  8. Flint had the highest murder rate in the nation LONG before 2008, Ted.

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  9. Flint, faced with the loss of GM jobs and residents to its suburbs, tried to consolidate in the mid fifties. The suburbs, as you can imagine, went ape shit over the attempted land grab. The last thing the hinterlands wanted was to hitch their wagon to Flint. After all, most of the residents had happily abandoned the city. The effort was dead in the water by 1958. The best Flint could do was somehow carve out Bishop Airport and the truck plant on Van Slyke in the sixties, and that took some maneuvering that bordered on the miraculous.

    But the opposition in the fifties in Genesee County would be mild compared to the opposition today's Grosse Pointers and other suburbs would mount if you tried to force them to unite with Detroit. Imagine an army of middle managers in L.L. Bean chinos and polo shirts with shotguns manning the barricades along Mack Avenue. Throw in the prospect of the suburban kids being forced to attend school with the youngsters of Motown and you'd have a riot on your hands.

    It's also naive to pretend that corruption and poor leadership hasn't contributed to the decline of Flint and Detroit. Obviously, the GM job loss and the housing bubble did the vast majority of the damage. That's a given. But I don't think you can write off decades of graft and fraud in city hall in both cities as a minor component. The suburban areas would be justified in saying no to that kind of leadership. GM put both cities on the canvas, but the elected leaders kicked em while they were down.

    Having said all that, consolidation with good leadership would be a fine solution. After all, the dire state of Flint and Detroit are slowly dragging the surrounding areas down with them. A healthy Flint and Detroit would help the entire state. But how would anyone in their right mind agree to link up with these two cities right now? How would you convince people their money wouldn't disappear?

    Ted, pretend I live in Grand Blanc. Let's hear your pitch. Convince me.

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  10. > ...some maneuvering that bordered on the miraculous. <

    Actually it bordered on the illegal...but only bordered. Sometimes the best lawyering consists of figuring out exactly where an imprecisely defined border is, and carefully arranging to stay just this >.< far on the legal side of it.

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    1. Hey, I've been meaning to ask anyone out there...any good rundowns of the Bishop Airport/truck and bus plant annexation? Always wondered about how this went down but never really explored the topic.

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    2. What I recall is that the GM Plants needed a reliable water supply, and drought had caused Flint Township wells to dry up in the late 1960s. The Carman School District still got the school taxes, and Flint providing the water sealed the deal. The City of Flint already owned all the land proposed to be annexed at Bishop Airport. There was a little piece of land that connected the two which was required at the time to annex-all areas had to be connected to the existing city. That was waived a few years later and the annexation law changed, to allow a portion of Capital City Airport to be annexed to Lansing. As I recall, other area communities have a tax base parcel there also..

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  11. My hearsay understanding is that the law at the time said that majorities of voters in the annexing city and the proposed-to-be-annexed area as legally defined--but not the other voters in the governmental unit to which the proposed-to-be-annexed area currently belonged--had to vote in favor of the annexation. Businesses and quasi governmental authorities within the proposed-to-be-annexed area also had no say.

    The boundaries of the proposed-to-be-annexed area were drawn so that a very small number of registered voters resided within it. I heard three, but I'm not sure of the actual number. Most of the land to be annexed was non-residential.

    Somehow a majority of those three (or whatever number) voters were convinced that they'd be better off as residents of Flint than as residents of Flint Township.

    My understanding is that Flint Township hired lawyers to research how such a land theft (from their perspective) could be legal, and yelled and screamed in Lansing, all to no avail. Flint Township at the time had no particular pull in Lansing... certainly not equal to that of Flint. And, the plan was legal. Devious, but legal.

    It was never clear to me how the three (or whatever number) voters were convinced to vote in favor. My assumption was always that they were incented in some effective manner by someone not directly connected to the City of Flint but that stood to benefit from the City of Flint owing them a big favor.

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  12. I have suspected for many years that the resident voters of the 20+ square miles that Grand Rapids annexed circa 1960 were either uninformed, sold a bill of goods, or worse. It delayed, though didn't prevent inevitable decline, which is largely obfuscated by city officials and business people, as it is in many cities that are not Flint.

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  13. Flint water and sewer service availability was used as an incentive to the locals as an afterthought , the services being the initial step in getting development there in the first place.Flint was a political powerhouse back then -who could stop them,Mundy Township? If there was tax base to be had,they went and took it. Not until the population shifts of the 1960's did the surrounding cities and townships gain an equal footing with Flint and begin to push back.

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    1. It was more population growth in outlying Genesee County rather than population loss in Flint (196,940 to 193,317) from 1960 to 1970 that caused the shift. Genesee County population is still substantially larger as a whole than it was in 1960,

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  14. I've been told in the past that prior to the annexation episode Flint Township was a "plain" township under the relevant state governmental-forms law--the simplest, least regulated, least-operating-cost form of locality government--but following the annexation they became a Charter Township. The relevant distinction under the relevant state law being that property cannot be taken away from a Charter Township except by majority vote of that Charter Township's electorate.

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    1. After a couple of dozen cities throughout the state incorporated to prevent annexation by Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, taxes went way up and services didn't. Then the people and townships got wise, and began becoming Charter Townships instead. Not a perfect solution either, but very little annexation or incorporation has happened since. The yellow ink stopped taking over our maps, but then, MDOT started making Charter Townships and Census Designated Places yellow. It better reflects growth and urbanization, but some smaller towns asked MDOT to stop and they did somewhat.

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  15. If annexation were done correctly, then the former suburban areas would provide the leadership. They'd be able to outvote the depopulated urban core. That would lead to better government of central cities whose problems have been dragging down entire metro areas, not to mention the entire state. I wonder if residents of Flint or Detroit might be more inclined to give up some power now that the alternative is an emergency manager, who takes away all power.

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    1. Ah yes, I'm sure the black majority in Flint and Detroit would be happy to have the white suburbanites come in and run things.

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    2. It hardly matters whether the Flint and Detroit electorates would be willing to "share power".

      The suburban electorates would laugh at the idea that after all those years of the center-city leaders expecting suburban leaders to kowtow whenever they tried to work together, now the suburbs should "provide leadership" (and tax dollars) to the center cities...now that those center cities have been run into the ground.

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    3. All I can say is, if you like the way things are going in Michigan, don't change the way you're doing things.

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  16. Lansing recently annexed part of Delta Township to build the new GM plant, but the agreement involves tax sharing and only brought one family into the city.

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