Friday, October 19, 2012

5 Things Governor Snyder Should Do to Help Detroit

Governor Rick Snyder - Official Press Photo
Governor Rick Snyder has been an integral part of 3 initiatives that were intended to improve the lives of everyday Detroiters while stabilizing the City's budget. He has pushed for a regional transit authority, a new authority to upgrade and manage Detroit's street lights, and he tried to have Belle Isle managed as a state park.

Each of those 3 things has provoked a certain amount of controversy and none of them have been enacted. I won't discuss the merits of those 3 initiatives, at least not in this post.

Instead, I want to take the time to highlight 5 things that Gov. Snyder should do to help Detroit, which would not provoke the political stalemate that his other ideas have encountered.

It has never been more important to turn things around in Detroit. A recent poll by the Detroit News shows that 40% of Detroiters intend to leave the area within in the next 5 years. Crime, and the Detroit Police Department's inability to respond effectively to it, is the prevailing reason for their intended departure.

Detroit simply cannot afford to see that many residents leave that quickly. A 25% loss in population over 10 years is largely responsible for our current financial condition. A 40% drop within 5 years will drive both the City of Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools into bankruptcy, which will set off a series of events that will likely prove detrimental to all of Michigan.

If that happens, even if we do get those 3 things that the Governor is currently working on, the loss of residents and tax revenue and corresponding bankruptcy will mean wide-scale credit downgrades for cities and counties throughout the region. It will be harder for them to borrow the money they all need to borrow from time to time and it will cost them a lot more when they are able to borrow. That, in turn, will make many of the problems those communities are facing much worse.

With all of that in mind, I present 5 things that Governor Snyder should do to help Detroit. I believe an overwhelming majority of Detroiters will support these initiatives.

#1. Find a Buyer for the Rackham Golf Course
Stock Photo by C. Flart
The City of Detroit owns the Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods. It's a fantastic course; often ranked as one of the best public golf courses in the United States. However, because it's in the suburbs, very few city residents use it.

Kwame M. Kilpatrick tried to sell the Rackham Golf Course to private developers when he was Mayor of Detroit. No one in Detroit rallied in opposition to the sale nor complained that our jewels were being taken from us. Pretty much everyone in Detroit seemed okay with the idea of selling the course to private developers.

The courts, however, ruled that a deed restriction from the Rackham family prevented the City of Detroit from selling it to anyone other than another unit of government. The deal to sell the course died shortly after that ruling came down and the City of Detroit continues to own a valuable asset that does little for city residents.

Gov. Snyder could use his influence to persuade either the City of Huntington Woods or Oakland County to buy the Rackham Golf Course for a price that ideally is at least somewhat close to what those developers were willing to pay a few years ago. Failing that, the State of Michigan could step in to buy it. The purchase could be financed with the sale of bonds and those bonds repaid with revenue generated by the golf course.

As for how this would benefit Detroiters, the proceeds from such a sale would be enough to:
  • Replace our current fleet of ambulances that are simply beyond their serviceable life;
  • Reopen at least one of our closed police stations; and
  • Buy a couple hundred squad cards for the Detroit Police Department.
Being able to say that we own that golf course is nice. However, I think most Detroiters would vastly prefer the benefits of selling the thing.

#2. Takeover the Operations of Detroit's 9-1-1 Call Center
Officially, it takes the Detroit Police Department an average of 37.6 minutes to respond to an emergency, which is the worst response time of any major police department in the industrialized world. Most people who have had to make one of those calls, however, can attest to the fact that its true response time is much higher. Individual police officers have told me that they are on scene within a few minutes of getting a call, it just takes much longer for DPD to route those calls for service than it would for other departments.

Officials within DPD love to offer one excuse after another for their response time. None of them, in my opinion, hold any water.

No small part of the department's response time has to do with how those calls for service are routed within DPD's call center and dispatching. Therefore, I believe it would be prudent for either the State of Michigan or Wayne County to takeover management of Detroit's 9-1-1 call center and police dispatching.

Moreover, if Detroit were to combine its call center operations with the Cities of Hamtramck and Highland Park, the cost to each community would likely be lower than it is now. Faster response times at a lower cost is powerful thing that will do a lot to stem the exodus from Detroit.

#3. Takeover the Policing of Downtown Detroit
Detroit Police Officer on Patrol During Super Bowl XL
The unfortunate reality is that the Detroit Police Department has been mismanaged for so long, and is in such bad condition right now, that money cannot solve its problems.

It will take time to recruit, train, and deploy new police officers. Once new officers are deployed, they will still be rookies who will need mentoring and experience before they are able to maximize their effectiveness. Those things take time and, with the rate that Detroit is losing population, we simply do not have enough time.

Therefore, I believe that the best possible course of action at this time would be for the Detroit Police Department to hand the task of policing our central business distinct over to either the Wayne County Sheriff or the Michigan State Police. If those agencies are able to handle adjacent areas also, such as Brush ParkLafayette Park, or the New Center, that would be fantastic.

By doing this, we could redeploy hundreds of Detroit police officers into the neighborhoods where their presence is essential to stem our population loss and avoid a bankruptcy. Moving police officers into the neighborhoods is something that residents have been begging for for years.

As for the costs that the Michigan State Police and/or the Wayne County Sheriff would have to incur, at least a portion of them could be paid by asking the Detroit Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings to reimburse those agencies for the costs associated with directing traffic during their games.

The idea of professional teams paying for police services, by the way, is nothing new. It is something that former Mayor Kilpatrick proposed shortly before his scandals became public and he was ousted from office. No one voiced any objections to it then. It's doubtful that anyone would object today.

#4. Takeover the Collection of Detroit's Income Taxes
The City of Detroit is one of the few local governments that has an income tax for residents and non-residents alike. Unfortunately, Detroit does a really bad job at collecting on those taxes. Mayor Dave Bing has sent out thousands of letters to people who money, but has had only limited success.

When Ken Conkrel, currently the President Pro Tem of the Detroit City Council, was mayor on an interim basis, one of the reforms that he proposed was to have the Michigan Department of Treasury takeover collecting that tax revenue. It is one of many reforms that have been discussed in this town without being enacted. Regardless, there were very few people who spoke against that move back then and it's doubtful such a proposal would stir much controversy today.

Since this would likely generate more than enough money to wipe out Detroit current $40 million deficit, I believe it is something that should be done expeditiously.

#5. Takeover Billing for the Detroit Fire Department
Stock Photo - Jakub Krechowicz
The Detroit Fire Department bills for a variety of services. For example, insurance companies, as well Medicaid and Medicare, are billed for patients who need service from our EMS, DTE is billed when they have to guard a downed power line, and so on. The problem is that the fire department only collects on 52% of those invoices.

Very few enterprises ever collect on all of their invoices. Regardless, a 52% collection rate is really low. If one were able to bring it up to 2/3 of all invoices being collected, that would mean millions more in revenue for a fire department where, quite frankly, a lack of adequate funding is costing lives.

Since the State of Michigan does a much better job at collecting on moneys owed to it, I believe it would be appropriate for them to take this task over as well. The administrative costs associated with their collections could be deducted from funds they receive. It would still mean a substantial boost in additional revenue for the Detroit Fire Department.

These, of course, are my thoughts: 5 relatively simple and not very controversial things that Governor Snyder could to help the City of Detroit and minimize the chances that it will go into bankruptcy within the next 5 years. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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