Wednesday May 18th, 2016
By Andrew Kleine, City Budget Director
The Flint water crisis saddens me in many ways.
As a human being, it is almost inconceivable that thousands of American children have been poisoned by their drinking water, suffering irreversible health damage that could ruin their lives.
As a Michigan native, I have seen up close how once-proud cities were brought to their knees as car manufacturing jobs moved away or disappeared. If you haven’t watched Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger & Me,” about how Flint was impacted by General Motors plant closures, now would be a good time. You might also Google “AutoWorld” to learn about a desperate city’s laughable attempt at economic development. The proximate cause of Flint’s water crisis is a series of bad decisions by people who should have known better, but the larger story is a decades-long economic slide that left Flint with virtually no tax base, the highest crime rate in the nation, and 100,000 residents short on hope. They don’t deserve this.
As a public servant whose job is to look out for the finances of a city with its own share of economic challenges, the fact that Flint’s water contamination resulted from a cost-cutting move hits close to home. The phrase “Penny Wise and Pound Foolish” has never been more apt. In Michigan, emergency managers are appointed by the State to oversee cities with severe financial problems. Many people view emergency management as anti-democratic intrusion. I don’t see it that way. The Supreme Court’s Dillon Rule says that state governments control local government structure, financing, procedures, and authority to undertake functions. That’s pretty much everything. It is reasonable for a state to intervene where it believes a city’s financial problems are at least partly due to corruption, incompetence, poor planning, or lack of political will to make tough choices.
My father was the State Treasurer of Michigan from 2006-2011. He told me that he only appointed an emergency manager when he was requested by local officials to conduct a fiscal review and the review concluded that there was a fiscal emergency. He also explained that from 1998-2016, Michigan’s revenue sharing to municipalities was cut by $5.5 billion as the State struggled to balance budgets in the face of population loss (Michigan was the only state to lose population in the 2000s).
Baltimore is no Flint. While we have high poverty and crime rates, we also have strong anchor institutions, a variety of cultural and entertainment attractions, and white collar jobs that support a middle class. We also happen to be located in a wealthy state that has helped keep the city out of the kind of financial trouble – receivership, default, bankruptcy – that has befallen other older urban cities such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit.
That said, Baltimore grapples with the same kinds of agonizing tradeoffs that led Flint’s emergency manager to switch to a less expensive water source. Even with high tax rates, Baltimore’s revenues are often insufficient to maintain the current level of services. If you want some details about the city budget, check out my last blog post. We are always looking to reduce costs that don’t help us deliver services to residents and to make our services more cost-effective, but we still have to make agonizing tradeoffs. In the annual budget process, every city agency can make a good case against cuts and for additional funding. They all provide services that citizens rely on. We do our best to focus scarce resources on delivering basic services and investing where we can to make the future better for our citizens, especially the youngest ones.
Say a prayer for Flint, and while you’re at it, pray for public servants who are asked to squeeze (clean) water from a stone.