In a recent Detroit Free Press op ed John Austin writes about a Michigan Future report he and I worked on entitled Revitalizing Michigan’s Central Cites: A Vision and Framework for Action. The report was published in 2003.
As John writes:
We said a grand political bargain needed to be made … The basic deal was this: City officials would need to make tough political decisions — namely, changing the way basic public services are delivered to be at the same quality and the same cost as those of their surrounding suburbs, and the development of a measurement system to hold them accountable; and regionalizing or incorporating many public services that could be managed more effectively or efficiently at the county, regional or state level (think transit and parks systems). In return for these changes, the state would establish Michigan’s urban cities as the priority for a variety of investments in infrastructure, housing, parks and public safety. In other words, the governor and state would wheel up some heavy financial artillery toward investing and building up core cities. They would also promise that regionalization of services and tax base had to be coupled with a tangible improvement in the quality of services provided to current residents of central cities — meaning any trade of “control” would be met with clearly enhanced services.
Obviously nothing like that happened in 2003 or in the years since. By and large actions at the state, regional and local levels have made things worse –– particularly in Detroit. Far too many central cities didn’t make the tough political choices to balance their budgets and reorganize to provide higher quality services at a competitive cost. And the state and regions didn’t make central cities a priority for public investment.
In fact state policy has made it harder to provide quality services and amenities the last decade –– particularly the last two years –– with revenue sharing cuts, transportation spending cuts and formulas that are anti urban/anti transit, property tax cuts and limitations, and the elimination of the brownfield and historic preservation tax credits.
So the predictable happened: our central cities continued to depopulate and too many of them ran out of money. What has changed since 2003 is the importance of vibrant central cites to regions and state. More so today that a decade ago strong central cities, which are attractive places to live particularly to young mobile talent, are a central ingredient to prosperous regions and states.
The fix remains the same: we need central cities which are able to provide quality services at reasonable costs and we need more investment from the state and regions to make our central cities attractive places to live, work and play. These need to be done simultaneously: its not just structurally balanced budgets or structurally balanced budgets first and then we will consider state and regional investments. But both/and. Our central cities need to be responsibly managed and we need the state and regions to make vibrant central cities a priority.