Robert Bennett: Democracy fell along with Detroit

Published: Monday, Aug. 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Detroit is a mess due to a unique set of circumstances not replicated in any other state or city. With an economy based purely on cars, it had little ability to adapt when that industry declined.

Carlos Osorio, AP

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The old saying, "A democracy will fall once people discover that they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury," has proven itself true in Detroit.

Some blame Detroit's slide from being one of America's richest cities to becoming its biggest bankrupt entirely on poor decisions made by the managers of the Big Three auto companies. They say that the citizens of Detroit have been innocent bystanders in this tragedy and are entitled to a bailout similar to the one those companies received.

Putting aside the question of whether or not the auto bailout was a good idea — full disclosure: I voted against it — I challenge the notion that Detroit's voters had nothing to do with its problems. Undue "largesse out of the public treasury" has been given to its governmental employee unions, with full voter approval, for decades. The resulting impact on city services was not caused by the auto companies.

Governmental employee unions are not automatically detrimental to good government; most cities have them, including police and fire fighters. However, in Detroit there are 47 such unions, including one for crossing guards. At contract time, the Detroit city council always met their demands in order to buy labor peace, a tactic that tells union negotiators. "Next time, ask for more."

The resulting "more" given to the unions over the years has not been just money, paid now or obligated in the future. It included some of the most union-friendly restrictive workplace rules ever put in force. As a consequence, the quality of city services gradually deteriorated to the point of absurdity.

Examples come from a contractor who was hired to straighten out the mess at Detroit's Department of Transportation. He found that union contracts allowed bus drivers to take days off with no notice, which many of them often did, making it impossible for the system to meet its published schedules on those days. He watched the city waste millions by automatically paying claims filed against the department, regardless of their validity. When he sought to hire lawyers to fight the frivolous claims, and save those millions, he was told that the city's lawyer's union — yes, in Detroit, even lawyers have a union — wouldn't permit it. When items broke and needed repair, he couldn't get them fixed because the city council was spending what available money it had on less important items that had political imperatives connected to them.

For decades, Detroit's government has been controlled by 47 unions with enough electoral power to grant themselves "largesse" in ways that undermined the city's ability to function. This contributed significantly to the death spiral.

When essential services began to decay, people left, taking their tax payments with them. (Who wants to live in a city that can't collect its garbage?) The city responded by borrowing money, keeping the unions happy but increasing its financial burdens. As city services, including police protection, continued to crumble, more people left. (Detroit's population shrank as its murder rate soared.) Abandoned buildings brought lower property tax revenue and the city borrowed more. When the day of reckoning finally came, the tab was between $18 and $20 billion.

The decline of the Big Three auto companies obviously hurt Detroit, but no more than other cities were hurt when "de-industrialization" took place there. Its voters' failure to change its ways of doing business when trouble came contributed significantly to its demise. When it went bankrupt, so did democracy — the elected city council and mayor lost all power to a court-appointed emergency manager — which is a sober lesson for us all.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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