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How We Play With a Shit Hand

City administrators can’t swap for better cards in a municipal game of blackjack.



Thank you, Metro Times, for devoting 1,100 words to the often-neglected issue of local government finance [regarding Hamtramck’s appointment of an emergency financial manager, “Oops, They Did It Again,” June 26-July 2, 2013, Vol. 33, Issue No. 37].

This issue affects every community, but seems to generate little public interest or media attention until taxpayers are faced with a service decrease, tax increase or a financial emergency is declared. The news feature reads like a “he said, she said” story between the city of Hamtramck and the state of Michigan, where the city is saying the financial emergency caused the “dysfunction” exhibited by city officials and the state’s Financial Review Team is saying the “dysfunction” caused the financial emergency.

In the end, [your reporter] does not take sides and declines the opportunity to offer an opinion regarding the source of the city’s problems, so I would like to pick up where he left off.

First, I must disclose that I personally know people on both sides of this story. For example, I worked for Ed Koryzno (administrator of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Fiscal Responsibility and the state treasurer’s designee on the Financial Review Team) in Ypsilanti. I know Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski from her work with the Michigan Municipal League, including her service as president of the Board of Trustees from 2011 to 2012. I also know several of the six different individuals who served in the Hamtramck city manager position since Hamtramck adopted a new City Charter, including the council-manager form of government in February 2005.

I could go on, but I won’t because that’s not the point. The point is that I can say from personal experience that these are some of the most talented and well-intended individuals one could ever hope to have serving a community.

I have been a professional local government manager since 2001, and I have worked in Oak Park, Ypsilanti, Ferndale and Birmingham. In my experience, most local government officials are doing the best they can with what they have. In my opinion, the problem is that far too many communities have far too few resources to provide what many people might consider basic government services.

A 2003 report by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) titled “Fiscal Capacity of Southeast Michigan Communities: Taxable Value and its Implications” concluded, “No matter how well managed or how high the millage rate, some communities will have difficulty providing basic governmental services.” It continues, “Communities with low relative per capita taxable value and no or slow growth face serious challenges … Strong state redevelopment policies and action will be needed to assist them.”

SEMCOG updated its taxable value data to study changes between years 2006 and 2008. Taxable value declined in a number of communities, but the worst was yet to come for most. In the meantime, the state weakened rather than strengthened redevelopment policies for communities.

I am not going to bore you with a detailed financial analysis of Hamtramck compared to other communities. Suffice it to say, Hamtramck has relatively fewer economic resources. It is probably accurate to say Hamtramck is one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the region by any measure. To suggest the “dysfunction” exhibited by city officials caused the financial emergency rather than the other way around insults the intelligence of the proud people who refuse to give up on Hamtramck. That these allegedly dysfunctional city officials agree on the need for an emergency manager to, “…come in, clean things up and kick some ass” proves it.

Robert J. Bruner, Jr. is the city manager for the city of Birmingham. Responses may be sent to [email protected]


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