In Michigan, the state takes over broken cities by appointing an emergency manager with unilateral power to hire and fire, to sell or buy, to keep the town or recommend its dissolution. Under the new Republican majority, Michigan cut the money it used to share with local governments. Towns and cities and school districts that were already struggling now face either getting emergency managers or cutting their budgets to meet the new austerity. Muskegon Heights, where an emergency manager is converting the entire school system to for-profit charters, and Highland Park, where an emergency manager just recommended the same plan, become cautionary tales for towns like Pontiac, where the school district is selling off property and slashing staff to stave off an emergency manager.
Even if it's on a whole other scale, Michigan is not the only state where the dynamic is at work. In the state of Rhode Island, for instance, a town takeover comes with a "receiver" for boss; the town is put in "receivership." Today in the New York Times, Joe Nocera takes note of two state lawmakers from Woonsocket, one with ALEC ties, who used their positions in the legislature to keep their district in the poorhouse and advance their ideological goals. Nocera writes:
The fact that their town had a big budget deficit meant that if they played their cards right, they could do a lot more than just fix the schools’ problem. They could actually shrink the town government!
And how does one go about doing that? By refusing to go along with tax increases and forcing the city to the edge of bankruptcy, thus raising the possibility of bringing in a receiver. “You never move faster than when you have a piano hanging over your head,” [Rep. Jon] Brien told me. “The receiver is that piano.”
What the ALEC lawmaker is describing is government by fear. The policy choice is between trying to fix a city by starving it or reinvesting in it. Judging from what has happened Michigan so far, starving cities and taking them over has led mostly to the same starved, taken over cities breaking again -- if they were ever fixed -- and returning to state control.
(Woonsocket photo by @pablocommotion/Flickr Creative Commons)