Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

June 5, 2014

Phil Power: Detroit not only city in need of help

A question from an old Kalamazoo friend stopped me dead in my tracks: “I can understand why folks are excited about Detroit making progress on the post-bankruptcy ‘Grand Bargain’. But why do the powers that be seem only interested in Detroit?

“There are lots of other communities in Michigan that are badly off and need help … so how come we never hear about them?”

He’s absolutely right. I spent some time last week at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual big policy conference on Mackinac Island. From most of the optimistic chatter on the front porch of the Grand Hotel — without a doubt the most optimistic I’ve heard in many seasons — you’d think Detroit is the only place in Michigan trying to resolve its financial problems.

Not so.

Places like Kalamazoo are suffering plenty. Not to mention Flint (in some ways, possibly worse off than Detroit). Add to the mix Jackson, Saginaw, Benton Harbor, Allen Park and many places in the Upper Peninsula. In fact, many of the larger, older cities in Michigan are facing big time financial trouble. So are some of the small ones.

And the sooner our leaders recognize that a solution to Detroit’s problems — important as that may be — isn’t the only crucial issue facing our state, the better off we all will be.

Across the state, we face local government financial crises almost anywhere you look. (If you think your community has nothing to worry about … you would be well advised to investigate further.)

What is perfectly clear is this: Unless the governor, the legislature and all of us start paying attention, the entire state is going to face problems that jeopardize our national image, not to mention our entire economy.

My friend in Kalamazoo knows perfectly well that his city faces a $190 million unfunded retiree health care liability. Flint, already for some years in the hands of an emergency financial manager, is considering laying off what’s left of its public safety apparatus. Even relatively well-off communities are in real or potential trouble: Livonia’s retiree health care plan is only 38 percent funded; Birmingham has funded only 26 percent of its projected retiree health care costs. Jackson, where the entire city budget is $50 million, faces $59 million in unfunded health care liabilities!

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