Should States Bear a Greater Fiscal Responsibility to Address Disparities–especially when so many Lives and Futures are at Stake?

 

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eBlog, 9/12/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the massive and cumulative service insolvency in public safety in the bankrupt City of San Bernardino. Even as the City nears its longest road out of bankruptcy of any city ever in U.S. history, the extraordinary absence of any state role to help the city confront its cancer of crime could bode ill for the city’s post-chapter 9 recovery. Then we turn to Michigan and the ongoing issue with regard to what a state’s role ought to be in addressing fiscal disparities. While the State of California appears to be disinterested in any such role; Michigan traditionally has; but, increasingly in recent years, it has eroded such support, with grim fiscal consequences in Flint, Detroit, etc.

Can the City Do it All by Itself? San Bernardino, still healing from last December’s terror attack—the city’s response to which has been praised by the FBI, nevertheless appears today caught between a rock and a hard place: it is experiencing a surge in violence this year unlike any it has faced in decades: with four months left in 2016, there have been 150 shootings and 47 slayings in the city of 216,000 residents, compared to 44 homicides all of last year, including the 14 people killed by terrorists at the Inland Regional Center. San Bernardino is now on track to have more murders than in any year since 1995, when 67 people were killed. There is no explanation why; by the same token, even as the city nears its exit from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, the terrible rise in violent crime hardly augurs well for its assessed property values—or for its hopes for attracting economic development. The violence might be adding to other tensions: the killings have disproportionately victimized San Bernardino’s black residents, who account for 14 percent of the population, but nearly half of those killed.  San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan says the city has been especially hard hit by state initiatives that reduced some drug and property-related felonies to misdemeanors, leading to shorter sentences for criminals; he did not need to mention the reductions in the city’s public safety budget as it struggled to cobble together its proposed plan of debt adjustment now awaiting final approval for U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. In 2008, there were more than 340 police officers on the force. Today, there are about 215. The Chief does note, however, “We don’t have the capacity to investigate everything that’s reported in the city.” Others point to the lack of economic opportunities, its years of cuts to diversion programs, and a lack of other basic services — such as working street lights in many neighborhoods—an issue, as readers remember, that both Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Mayor Mike Duggan made immediate and critical priorities—have contributed to this year’s violence. Those reduced fiscal resources have, no doubt, contributed to solve fewer than 40 percent of this year’s homicides.

Unsurprisingly, a new study, commissioned by Southern California law firm Graham Donath, using FBI data and looked at crime rates, police presence, and investment in police departments, as well as community factors, including poverty, education, unemployment, and climate, determined San Bernardino to be the state’s most dangerous city—just ahead of Stockton and Modesto: the study found a high correlation between crime rates and poverty: San Bernardino’s poverty rate exceeds 30 percent, or, as the report notes: “In taking a look at our collected data, no city in the bottom ten of crime rate (that is, has the lowest crime) has a poverty rate higher than 12.9 percent,…But for cities in the top ten, every one has a poverty rate of 14.5 percent or higher, topping out at 30.6 percent in San Bernardino.”

A Lonely Vigil. Understandably, in the wake of the State of California’s rejection of the city’s application for a state grant to help fund Operation Ceasefire, Chief Burguan must wonder whether the city is alone in its battle against killings—or, as he asks: “Who really is that concerned about San Bernardino? Or are people at the state level happy letting San Bernardino drown in this stuff?…We clearly have the most significant crime spike of any place in the state, and all that money went elsewhere.”

Getting to the Heart of Fiscal Disparities—or, What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate. Taxpayers for Michigan Constitutional Government, Eastpointe City Manager Steve Duchane Duchane (Eastpointe is a city of about 32,000 in Macomb County), and two other Eastpointe employees have filed suit against the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Technology Management and Budget, and the Michigan Office of the Auditor General in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Mr. Duchane says local governments in Michigan have been doing a lot of reacting to revenue sharing cuts through the years, slashing services, and programs impacting municipalities, because they have been receiving fewer state funds. Thus, he is at the forefront of more than a dozen Michigan local governments taking action, joining a nonprofit group which has filed the civil lawsuit for overstating various payments to local governments and causing a more than $1-billion shortfall to municipalities. Ow, the state has until the end of this month to file a response. Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Michigan budget office, has released a statement: “The Office of Financial Management within the State Budget Office works hard each year to properly identify expenditures to determine the amount of state spending that goes to the aid of local governments…Those expenditures are in turn submitted to the Office of Auditor General for validation to ensure the calculations are accurate. This is a methodology that has been applied consistently since the passage of Proposal A (Proposal A was a property tax measure adopted in 1994: prior to its adoption, local property taxes were based on a property’s assessed value or an amount equal to 50% of the property’s market value, meaning that property taxes went up and down in close relation to an increase or decrease in property value. With the passage of Proposal A, however, the tax was stabilized.). The State Budget Office will take time to further review the complaint, but it’s important to note that these calculations have been consistently applied over time.” The local governments disagree; they respond the state is violating the Michigan Constitution by overstating spending that is paid to local governments and engaging in an “illegal tax shift.” Their  complaint states that Michigan is including payments from Proposal A revenue and payments to charter schools, county road commissions, and others from the trunk line roads fund and payments to cover the costs of state mandates in its calculations of spending in the form of aid that is paid to local governments: “When these items are subtracted, state spending in the form of aid that is paid to local governments falls significantly below 48.97% of total state spending;” ergo, in violation of the Michigan Constitution, according to the complaint.

This the complainants are seeking these items be removed from the funding formula for aid paid to local governments, and asking the court to order the state to make up the funding shortages, claiming that the loss of billions of dollars in funding has forced local governments to make significant cuts to services and programs to stay solvent. Or, as Mr. Duchane puts it: “State spending continues without control, and the locals have paid the price.” The challengers’ organization here was founded by Mr. Duchane and its president, John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University; its members include the cities of Center Line, Eastpointe, Mt. Clemens, New Baltimore, Richmond, Roseville, Utica, and Warren and Clinton Township in Macomb County; Hazel Park in Oakland County; Harper Woods, Southgate and Grosse Pointe Woods in Wayne County; Grosse Pointe Shores, which straddles Wayne and Macomb counties, the city of Auburn in Bay County, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice in Detroit, and Wayne City Councilman Tom Porter. In addition, other municipalities may be joining the group, whose attorneys include John Philo, executive and legal director of the Sugar Law Center; Tracy Peters, who specializes in education and the rights of students and parents, and Robert Sedlar, a constitutional law and legal conflict professor at Wayne State University School of Law.

For his part, Mr. Duchane said that while the group does not have data to explain where the more than $13 million in funds promised to Eastpointe to address municipal disparities has instead been used, he can, obviously, report where he believes it should have gone: That kind of money, he notes, would have meant that municipal leaders would not have had to raise taxes—especially in the wake of the Great Recession which brought so many Michigan municipalities to their fiscal knees, particularly because of the mortgage market meltdown that so devastatingly impacted real estate values, the state’s elimination of the personal property tax on businesses, and continued cuts in state revenue sharing. Combined with the state’s Proposal A and Headlee Amendments imposing state mandated limits on property tax growth, he noted Eastpointe and Hazel Park formed a unique taxing authority for 20 years to raise funds for police and fire services in their cities. The small City of Wayne attempted tried to join that authority; however, voters in that city and Eastpointe rejected the effort last month. Now, the City of Wayne, facing insolvency in as early as next year, has asked the state for an emergency financial review and could be facing a state-appointed emergency manager. Indeed, the city’s Mayor, Susan Rowe, last month reported that city officials are set to meet with the Michigan Treasurer later this month to discuss finances that communities are confronting, noting: “We’re just the tip of the iceberg…We’re not the only city in this (financial) situation. It’ll be happening to communities around us soon. We don’t have an expense problem. We have a revenue problem.”

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