I am grateful for my friend, Eric Moore, for asking me to write a brief article sharing my perspective on the unfolding financial crisis facing the city of Detroit, the socio/political ramifications of dealing with that crisis and some of the aspects that people of faith should consider as we respond to the crisis and the things political representatives are doing to respond to it.
The city of Detroit is caught in the throes of an impending fiscal failure. Based on my own conversations with elected officials, political appointees and union representatives and others, it is clear to me that there is no way Detroit can continue to do business as she has in the past. The city’s current outlay is approximately $60 million per month. There is currently a $50 million deficit which would increase another $150 million by years end based on current projections. For months now, our most-recent Mayor, Dave Bing and our newly-constituted City Council have known this fact. The officials of the labor unions that represent the employees of the city know this fact as well. Detroit’s current expenditures far exceed her revenue and the cupboards are bare. Everyone knows that.
The hotly-contested question now is what should be done to stave off total financial calamity. The Mayor, Council and labor unions had been unable for months to come to any significant agreements. The Governor of our state, Rick Snyder, has stepped in and, ostensibly, attempted to spur Detroit’s elected officials to action, holding out the threat of the appointment of an Emergency Manager for the city under PA4, the Emergency Managers (EM) law originally signed in 1990 by Governor Blanchard and reconstituted in March of 2011 when Governor Snyder signed Republican-passed legislation into law that is formally titled the “local government and school district fiscal accountability act”. It is also known as Public Act 4 of 2011 (PA4) or the “Financial Martial Law Act” and significantly broadens the scope of the original legislation. Under the new law, which hundreds of thousands of state residents have signed petitions opposing, Emergency Managers are now able to modify or cancel contracts as well as collective bargaining agreements; act as the sole agent of the local government in collective bargaining negotiations; act as the sole trustee of the local pension board, assume complete control over local governments while prohibiting elected officials’ access to office facilities, email and internal information systems; consolidate or eliminate government departments; remove current department heads and/or administrators; sell, lease, convey, assign or other use or transfer assets of the local government or school district; dissolve or dis-incorporate the local government and assign its assets; develop academic and educational plans; receive and disburse all federal, state and local funds earmarked for the local government or school district; and finally, “Take any other action or exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.”
I am aware the previous sentence was long and laborious. However, it is important to understand why residents of the city of Detroit, and other cities where EM’s are in place, feel that this law disenfranchises voters and amounts to a takeover of the city. It is because this law disenfranchises voters and amounts to a takeover of the city. Pun intended.
As of 6:00 p.m. Thursday, March 29th, the hard-fought agreements that finally surfaced over the previous weekend from months-long negotiations between city and union officials are in jeopardy. The city has now been presented by The Financial Review Board sent in by Governor Snyder with a Financial Stability Act that has the makings of a consent agreement and includes provisions to put in place a Financial Advisory Board, force the city to adopt a three-year budget, create a Project Implementation Office that would report to the Governor, force the Mayor to hire a Chief Financial Officer for the city and to void recently ratified collective bargaining agreements. The alternative the Council is being presented with is to ratify it or be subjected to the immediate appointment of an Emergency Manager. Council is also considering a recommendation from Mayor Bing that the city temporarily avoid the looming disaster by borrowing in excess of $200 million through municipal bonds.
The city is divided. A poll released showed that 62% of city residents believe the city is on the wrong track. Fifty percent think the Mayor and Council can fix the problem while 42% want the state to step in. There is a great deal of mistrust regarding the intentions of the state from within the city, in large part due to the undeniable debacle created when the state placed an Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools System. DPS has not benefitted in any way as a result of this malevolent action and the quality of education being offered to our young people has suffered significantly.
This drama-filled chapter of Detroit history is playing out in the shadows of what is already manifesting as one of the most divisive, mean-spirited, untoward national election cycles in American history. The overriding perception within the city and in most urban centers across the nation is that the vitriol being directed toward our current president, Barack Obama, has as much to do with his race as it does with his policies. There has always been contention between our political parties, but never has a president been subjected to the blatant disrespect Mr. Obama has experienced.
The situation is volatile. There are fires of discontent and unrest simmering just beneath the surface of this socio/political malaise and the Church must be careful not to add fuel to the flames. I was appalled and distressed watching the news and hearing a local Baptist pastor telling the Governor to “send us our damn money” and, a few days later, hearing a Muslim activist saying “before we let you take this city over, we’ll burn it down.” In my role as pastor of a local congregation, I have asked our parishioners across our pulpit to be careful about how they talk about this crisis to people who are already at a point of frustration. We must be mindful that there are consequences to words that come from our mouths. None of us, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, Black or White, urban, suburban or rural, should be spouting party rhetoric or mimicking the incendiary verbiage of talk show hosts who make their living distorting truths and fomenting controversy.
God has given to us the ministry of reconciliation and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ. We are not representatives of a political party or ideology. In a march 5th email written by Eric Moore for The Society for the Promotion of a Culture of Honor, he says “God’s clear and adamant command regarding our responsibility toward government is to pray for kings and those in authority. The day is coming when partisan ideas and maneuvering will not solve our great problems . . . In reality the great problems we face were not generated in just the past four years or twelve years. The gigantic snowballs rolling downhill at us began forming more than a half century ago. Trying to reverse two GENERATIONS of bad decisions more aptly describes our situation.”
Eric’s words ring true not only for the upcoming national election. They are true for the city of Detroit as well. Former City Council member Sheila Cockrel said this week that Detroit has been facing financial collapse since the early 1940′s. The crisis is not the result of Black leadership or liberal policies. It is a crisis that has resulted from the failure of decades of political leaders, Black and White, conservative and liberal, to make the difficult decisions and concerted efforts necessary to stave off what they had to see coming. A system run amuck, tainted by powers and principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places, has fostered an “increased apathy toward a political system that serves only its own agenda,” as well as a spirit of deception that has finally run its course.
People of faith should not be consumed with the machinations of this system. We are citizens of another kingdom. We need to exercise kingdom authority, not for outcomes that serve our own political leanings, but that the will of the Father will be done.
No matter what agreements are reached by elected officials, political appointees and union representatives over the next few days, there are people and families that are going to be adversely affected. Any decision made has the potential to further decay the morale of the citizens of Detroit and those whose jobs are to protect and serve that populace. The possibilities for civil disobedience loom large. The loss of bus services threatens the meager livelihood of the working poor. Poor lighting that goes untended makes threatening neighborhoods increasingly foreboding. Decreased police and fire presence makes the city increasingly unsafe. The premise of fewer DPW workers makes trash collection undependable and attention to special cleanups unlikely, therefore opening the door for the spreading of disease. Layoffs of city employees makes it more difficult for residents to receive assistance with delinquent taxes and other matters that will lead to even more foreclosures and evictions for an already stressed population. Closure of the last few remaining community centers will leave senior citizens vulnerable and alone. Closure of the last few remaining parks and playgrounds gives our children no place to turn for recreational outlets. The list goes on.
There are hundreds of thousands of real people with real needs who will be negatively impacted in very real ways by the difficult choices that must be made. That must be the issue for people of faith. Whether there is or is not a state takeover, whether there is a Financial Advisory Board, an Emergency Manager or the Governor sets up office in a tent at the corner of Jefferson and Woodward, the lives of the citizens of this municipality are going to significantly change.
In light of these truths, I call upon every person of faith to be more committed to praying than posturing. I implore us to remember our primary responsibility with regard to those who operate in the political sphere is to pray for those who are in authority, whether we agree with their ideologies or not. Remember that as citizens of the kingdom of God, politicians are not our leaders, Holy Spirit is. Pray that our Father will manifest His grace in this time of upheaval and that the body of Christ will rise up and minister to the hurting and the innocent. Let us not be pawns in the hands of political partisans, but agents in the hands of a benevolent God.
Bishop James A. Williams II
Spirit and Truth Christian Ministries