Louis Schimmel: Revolutionary Public Servant

(Note: The following was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Impact, the newsletter of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

On May 3, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy presented Louis Schimmel with its prestigious Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor Award for his unique and exemplary public service. Rarely has one man done so much with so little in such thankless tasks.

Schimmel was a longtime executive director of the Municipal Advisory Council of Michigan, a statistical clearinghouse that tracked Michigan municipal bonds and Michigan municipal finance. He thoroughly understood the need for market incentives in city government and was thus well prepared in December 1986 when a Wayne County Circuit Court judge appointed him receiver for the small Michigan city of Ecorse, south of Detroit.

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Ecorse had repeatedly failed to pay its water, sewer and utility bills, and its budget deficits were widely viewed as irreversible. But in less than four years, Schimmel completely erased the City’s $6 million deficit by eliminating sinecures, privatizing a number of city services and creatively renegotiating the city’s employee union contracts. The success was so stunning that it received regional and national media attention.

A decade later, the state appointed Schimmel as "emergency financial manager" of the small Detroit-area city of Hamtramck, which had amassed a $2.4 million debt that threatened it with bankruptcy. Schimmel once again fought small-town politics and strong union resistance in order to privatize services, lay off unnecessary staff, renegotiate city contracts and end unwise management practices.

Schimmel bore these years of battling crisis, cronyism and local criticism with implacable determination and gruff good humor. The Center was thus honored to present him an award fashioned after the memorable closing line of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed and an intimate gathering of family and friends surprised Schimmel with the award at a dinner honoring him. As Reed observed: "(Louis) Schimmel redefined ‘public service.’ By word and deed, he made it abundantly clear that it means serving the public, not serving one’s self at public expense." The idea, though simple and timeless, is revolutionary.


John E. Coonradt is vice president for advancement for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.