Tim Kiska: What Would Coleman Do?

By Tim Kiska

While the city of Detroit looks down the barrel of financial doom and a possible state takeover, it might be worth mentioning that we’ve been here before, under the administration of Mayor Coleman A. Young. Red ink. The possibility of Lansing coup d’etat. And it’s worth examining what Young did to fix the problem.

We forget that the early 1980s were a difficult time in Michigan — even more difficult, on some levels, than what we’ve faced since 2008. Unemployment hit the double-digit mark in February 1980, and stayed there until 1985, peaking at 16.8 percent in December, 1982. It hasn’t been that high in the current recession.

And the city of Detroit had big financial problems. In mid-1981, Detroit faced a $133 million budget deficit –which clocks in at $331 million in 2012 dollars.  Young had little room for maneuver. The police department had already been whacked by 27 percent in the previous four years. He had already trimmed the city payroll in a way that would have impressed even the most crazed Tea Party budget-cutter. (A bit of trivia: The city’s work force stood at 25,500 when Young took office in 1974. By late 1993, his last year in office, the number stood at 16,800.)

So Young went to the voters for a tax increase—in an election year, no less. Young and then Governor William Milliken forged a coalition of Detroit and outstate legislators to allow the measure to go before voters. Pause and ask yourself: How many elected officials these days would have the guts to ask for higher taxes while running for re-election? Young asked for a one percent tax increase, which would raise the city’s income tax from two to three percent for residents, and from .5 percent to 1.5 percent for non-residents.

Young had tons of political capital, which he had earned from service in public office from the early 1950s onward, and partly by virtue of the fact that he was the city’s first African-American mayor. He went to the Council of Baptist Ministers and asked: “Are we going to do what we have to do to guarantee the city continues to move forward and our destiny remains in our own hands?…Vote no and the state takes over.”

Translation: Pass this, or the white guys will be back at the wheel.

Voters passed the measure in June, 1981 by a 68 percent-32 percent margin.

To be fair, Mayor Dave Bing doesn’t have the kind of political clout that Young had.

But it’s worth asking the question: Young moved early and dramatically to avoid a state takeover. Did city officials let the current situation get too far?

Maybe this should have been dealt with back in the administration of the now-disgraced Kwame Kilpatrick.

To borrow a phrase: Just sayin’.


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