For Cities, Federal Government Undependable
For Cities, Federal Government Undependable
Few desks in America offer a better view of our nation's economy and the impact of federal fiscal policies than that of mayor of the city of Detroit.
To the west is one of America's busiest border crossings between the United States and Canada. Just across the street stands the gleaming headquarters of General Motors. And throughout our city, cranes and crews are working on Detroit's biggest construction boom in 50 years.
While Detroit is growing at an historic pace, we are – like most urban centers in the country – struggling to overcome neglect by the federal government. Funding cuts have hobbled our schools, eaten away at our infrastructure, and dismantled programs to help the poor and those who need help to rise up in the workforce.
Most recently, Washington has played its funding game with homeland security dollars, funneling the vast majority of money to state governments while demanding that local police and fire departments defend and protect citizens in the heightened state of security post-9/11. What does this mean in real dollars? According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, cities spend $70 million per week every time the nation's terror alert level is raised. To make matters worse, the few federal dollars cities might get are barely trickling across the Potomac, with a bureaucratic logjam holding up $7 billion for first responders.
The funding game is especially dangerous for Detroit as $92 billion in goods flow each year across our international border and we are home to General Motors, a cornerstone of our nation's most important industry. Despite our critical location and vital role in America's economy, we have yet to see more than a few million federal dollars for homeland security.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by all of this as it is yet another example of the scant attention paid to most of America's big cities. Beyond funding cuts, the White House ignores the vital role cities play in our national economy as it preaches a magic potion of tax cuts to create jobs and get our country moving again. That may play on Pennsylvania Avenue but it doesn't work on Main Street.
America's economy is driven by its 320 metropolitan areas, which generate 85 percent of our nation's economic output. And the nation's long-term success hinges on strengthening and creating high-paying jobs in these economic centers. The way to do that quickly and dramatically is for the federal government to invest in urban infrastructure.
For years, cities like Detroit, with support from the state, have been shouldering the brunt of infrastructure costs. The time has come for the federal government to build America and pay its fair share. Dollars must be directed to rebuilding public works and transportation systems, and developing new systems like high-speed rail. We must invest in roads, bridges, ports, and buildings vital to commerce – and we must wire our cities to be competitive in the global, high-tech economy.
Investing in urban infrastructure creates high-paying jobs in everything from construction to architecture to technology. And the projects strengthen a city's foundation and its ability to grow new companies, new jobs, and new economic opportunities. At the same time, we must also invest in job training and providing people with the skills they need to compete in the global economy.
In Detroit, we gave up long ago waiting for a radical policy shift in Washington. Last year we opened a $250 million state-of-the-art water treatment plant, resurfaced 160 miles of roads (the most in a single year), and transformed brownfields into industrial parks. This year we launched the biggest downtown infrastructure project in our history, and we are rebuilding our riverfront. As Detroit grows, my administration is focused on strengthening the city's financial health and finding ways to do more with less. That means a new emphasis on reengineering city services, streamlining departments, and building our tax base.
Changing the way we do business in Detroit has become a singular focus as the sluggish economy, federal funding cuts, fewer state dollars, and the soaring costs of employee healthcare and pensions have pushed us ever closer to a fiscal crisis.
There's no shortage of evidence that similar, if not worse, struggles are gripping city halls across the country. A survey by the National League of Cities found 75 percent of officials are less able to meet financial needs this fiscal year than last. That response is nearly 50 percent higher than last year, and the worst in a decade. Similarly, the Michigan Municipal League reported, "local communities in Michigan are on a conveyer belt to crisis and service cuts." Unfortunately, that prediction was realized when the state-controlled Detroit Public Schools recently slashed 3,200 jobs including teachers and bus drivers.
For Detroit, further major service cuts were narrowly averted for the coming year. We closed a potential shortfall of $264 million and balanced our $1.6 billion budget primarily through eliminating inefficiencies, slashing rampant overtime, and by restructuring departments. We saved millions, for example, by reorganizing trash collection and redeploying resources. We slashed overtime by 35 percent when we discovered employees had been assigning it to themselves and doubling their salaries for at least a decade. And we made deep cuts in the bloated Department of Transportation where poor management has allowed the bus system to lag miles behind other cities.
Balancing the budget required the elimination of 263 vacant positions and the layoff of 377 employees throughout the city. But I'm proud to say we did not cut a single police officer, firefighter, or EMS technician.
Still, the fact is the current budget only bought us time. As the new fiscal year begins on July 1, the clock is already ticking for 2005-2006 when we could face an even bigger shortfall if we do not fundamentally restructure city government and find new sources of revenue.
That process has already started with the implementation in my administration of corporate-style management practices that align departments to achieve five strategic priorities for Detroit: improving our financial health, accelerating economic and business development, improving public safety, improving city services, and improving key stakeholder relationships.
At a time when help from the federal government is dwindling and the economy is sputtering, we are committed to improving services to our citizens and growing Detroit by running the city like a business.
Kwame M. Kilpatrick is the mayor of Detroit, Michigan.
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