Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What is government for?

[Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2010 edition of Ferndale Friends]

What’s government for if not public safety?

On January 25th, hundreds of villagers armed with torches and pitchforks stormed council chambers to demand council stop their evil plans to layoff police officers and pull the plug on an $8 million city-hall- monster.

I tried doing that last November but fell 79 villagers short.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

The truth is, there was nothing on the agenda regarding layoffs, police or otherwise. But eventually $3 million will need to come from somewhere and according to city manager Bob Bruner, public safety is half of the city’s budget.

In the heat of the moment someone suggested, and was applauded no less, a special public safety millage they would gladly pay to protect our police and fire departments from budget cuts. Not being the excitable chap I was in my youth, I was dumbfounded. If public safety isn’t one of the essential responsibilities of government what is? Why shouldn’t government attend to its primary responsibilities first then the discretionary? Maybe an essential government responsibility should consume half the budget. Maybe the public safety budget should be thought of as less a percentage of the budget and more as an expense proportional to the size and demographics of the city.

If cutting public safety 20% is reasonable, then so should shortening our streets 20%, or turning away one of five cars coming into the city, or responding to only four-of-five 911 calls for medical or fire emergencies.

Rather than propose a special millage for public safety I would rather (though reluctantly) consider a temporary millage for non-essential services. When I write temporary, I mean the millage for discretionary (though popular) services like leaf pick-up must be renewed every year or two. This would give citizens a direct vote to fund (or not) projects and services similar to how they were given an opportunity to vote for a new library.

If city council wants to protect discretionary items then they need to find a way to pay for them until the general fund can afford them.

How about an out-of-the-box idea? And I mean REALLY out-of-the-box idea.

Little cities need to stop thinking big and start acting big. The 38 square miles made up by Berkley, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Madison Heights, Oak Park , Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, and Royal Oak Township pack ten governments and nine police and fire departments into an area the size of Livonia.

According to a July 2007 article in The Detroit Free Press, Zachary Gorchow and John Wisely wrote:

These 10 municipalities spend more than $9 million combined on salaries and benefits so that most can have their own city manager or township supervisor, clerk, treasurer, fire chief, police chief and other department directors, according to records obtained by the Free Press.

It is theoretical only -- no one has proposed the idea -- but if the 10 municipalities were to become one, it would create Michigan's third-largest city at about 192,000 people, behind only Detroit and Grand Rapids.
Mixed inside those hard facts are some real possibilities. How much of those cities’ budgets could be saved by sharing not just services, but department personnel and motor pools as well? How green could that community be? How much political capital might it have in Pontiac and Lansing?

Imagine the resources our schools might have if they weren’t half-full—but that’s another article.

Of all those cities, Ferndale may be financially better off than some, but is our nose so big we’re willing to cut-off 20% of our police and fire to spite our safety?

I think not. I’d prefer our city council and manager start camping at other city’s council meetings, calling them out, in public, on cable, and even in print, to pressure them to agree to more regionalized services.

Lots of regionalized services.

We don’t need to erase our borders, but it may be time to blur them. How bad are the 10 governments willing to let it get? Maybe it’s just not as bad as they tell us.

A quick story.

Crystal Proxmire, writer and editor of, moved in across the street from me so I gave her a ride home from the council meeting. She told me she’d heard a rumor that I was responsible for the anonymous flyers about the police layoffs that caused the raucous.

“I wouldn’t have left my name off,” I told her. “Writing lacks credibility without a signature.”

“I knew it wasn’t you,” she said. “It wasn’t wordy enough.”
Ah, thanks?

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