EFM offers Detroit last, best hope

Guest Editorial
Sometime this month, an emergency financial manager will be assigned to Detroit. It will be a milestone no one wanted, but an essential step in ending Michigan’s largest city’s malaise.

The debate about emergency financial managers is strident and understandably so. No city wants state intervention no matter how dire its fiscal circumstances might be. The authority of elected municipal officials overridden by a state-appointed czar is appalling to anyone who believes in democracy.

Detroit’s steady descent into insolvency, its inability to provide essential services such as police and fire protection and elected leaders’ failure to devise and apply a credible strategy to reverse its failing fortunes make state intervention necessary.

When Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday that he will appoint an emergency financial manager to Detroit, it was an admission that extraordinary steps must be taken to save the city. It also is an assurance the state intervention won’t be indefinite.

Public Act 436, the new emergency financial manager law the Legislature approved last year, allows city officials to remove the emergency manager after 18 months. The provision affirms democracy isn’t dead, and the intervention must show results.

Detroit officials have though March 11 to appeal Snyder’s emergency financial manager decision, and they are likely to do so. But there is little reason to expect it to go anywhere.

Detroit’s fiscal challenges are profound — a $327 million budget deficit and about $15 billion in long-term liabilities. The mayor and City Council have no answers. So it makes no sense to give them another chance.

Detroit is dysfunctional. Its police and fire departments are understaffed and ill-equipped. To need the police or fire assistance and not know if they’ll show up ought to be unthinkable. In Detroit, it’s the status quo.

State intervention is a harsh remedy that must be effective to be justified. None of the principals want the emergency financial manager to operate any longer than necessary, but it must make marked improvement for the time it’s in effect.

Detroit’s malaise has been steady and alarming. Its greatest casualty is quality of life.

There is no timetable for Detroit’s turnaround under an emergency financial manager. There only is the promise that this is the way to stem the bleeding and to establish some measure of financial stability.