Storm Front

Detroit's Unnatural Disaster

Not to put too much on Mayor Dave Bing, who undeniably inherited a mess when he took over city hall, but with all due respect to his honor 50-mile an hour winds by themselves do not a natural disaster make. They are, to be sure, a challenge, as power lines and trees go down, but cities throughout the country have coped with far worse without the kind of damage that Detroit suffered earlier this week. No, Detroit's latest disaster is a decidedly man-made kind, the product of a city government that has yet to find the formula for recovery, and in particular government employee unions that have yet to suffer consequences that are proportional to their recklessness.

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Two ugly facts of life in Detroit contributed to the spreading of fires throughout neighborhoods. The first is the astonishing number of vacant homes in the city, the product of decades of economic mismanagement that chased employers, and with them middle-class families, out of the city. Contributing to that was the academic collapse of the Detroit Public Schools, which added further incentive for parents to pack up their families and leave. This part of the story is familiar to nearly all.

The part that many remain unfamiliar with is the recklessness of city employee unions, which retain collective bargaining authority. Mayor Bing is still obligated to negotiate with union officials whose outlook borders on fantastical, as they continue to make demands of an increasingly empty city. The wages and benefits of firefighters in the city remain out of line with the city's needs and resources, forcing Bing to resort to furloughs and layoffs. An understaffed fire department was ultimately unable to handle the unusually high number of calls for one night. A fully staffed fire department would have managed to control the fires faster, thus minimizing the damage.

Mayor Bing's approach to downsizing the city is not without its problems. He seems determined to withdraw services from large sections of the city and encourage Detroiters to relocate. A better approach would be an aggressive program to streamline city government and remove burdens from businesses, creating space for entrepreneurs to create jobs and lure people back into the city. A total overhaul of public education in the city also is needed, including lifting the cap on charter public schools. This approach has borne fruit in New Orleans and would do much to make Detroit more attractive to families.

But it can at least be said that the mayor is making an honest attempt to come to grips with Detroit's economy and population, and deserves a certain amount benefit of the doubt at least until he presents his final plan. The same cannot be said for the government employee unions that continue to wield great power and rake in forced dues cash. If anyone in Lansing is serious about helping Detroit, this would be a good time for a bill that would suspend collective bargaining for government employees in the city, so that Detroit's leadership can make the tough choices and make the most of the resources it has. With a little luck, Detroit might be able to put together a fire department that can handle the stresses of a long, windy night.