Will Emergency Manager Help Or Hurt Detroit?

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Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced last week that he'll appoint an emergency manager for the city of Detroit. That means an unelected person will have sweeping powers to try to stop Detroit's financial hemorrhaging.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Residents of Detroit are absorbing the message sent by Michigan's governor. Rick Snyder swept aside the city's elected officials. He's using his power to appoint an emergency manager to take over city finances. Residents are deeply divided about this move, as we hear from Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nobody had a comment in regards to the lighting problem?

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: About a week before Governor Snyder's announcement, a few dozen people came to a community meeting at a northwest Detroit church. The weary Detroiters shared stories about problems in their neighborhoods. They already knew an emergency manager was coming. Some people, like Tom Wilson, said it's OK. It's either that or bankruptcy.

TOM WILSON: Both of them are going to hurt, but it's, like, which is going to hurt the less? Let's go ahead and get this thing done, get hurt and then go through the healing process.

CWIEK: It's no secret that Detroit is drowning in red ink. And in that respect, it's not alone. Several Michigan cities have been under some form of emergency management for years now, including Ecorse, a blue-collar Detroit suburb with fewer than 10,000 people. Joyce Parker is Ecorse's emergency financial manager. She's been there since 2009. Now she's in the process of transitioning out.

JOYCE PARKER: The budget for the city is balanced. The bills have been paid in a timely manner.

CWIEK: Parker says an effective emergency manager needs to listen to a city's elected officials and to community members. But at the end of the day, she has the power to make painful decisions. In Ecorse's case, city staff was cut by about 40 percent. The police and fire departments merged, and emergency medical service was privatized. As a result, Parker says...

PARKER: To a great extent, I do think the city is stronger than it has been in the past.

CWIEK: But many others argue that cities in trouble need real resources, not someone who just cuts costs, tears up union contracts and sells off assets, all while usurping the powers of local elected officials. That's Rashida Tlaib's view. She's a state legislator from Detroit. She grew up in Detroit, the oldest of 14 children in a tight-knit immigrant family.

RASHIDA TLAIB: We all used to be on the same block. It was, you know, a dream of us to kind of all live and raise our kids together. And I'm the only one left.

CWIEK: Tlaib gets visibly emotional when she talks about Detroit. She fears that an emergency manager will make life so unbearable, that even the most dedicated residents will just leave. She has other concerns, too.

TLAIB: You know, emergency managers should not be coming in and moving around our taxpayer dollars without any kind of accountability or transparency. I don't understand how we can really truly change things if we're not self-governing ourselves.

VINCE KEENAN: This is happening because of money.

CWIEK: That's Vince Keenan, another lifelong Detroiter and civic activist. His biggest fear is that the city will have to renege on promises made to city workers, like police officers and firefighters. But Keenan says the Detroit city government hasn't really been serving its citizens for a long time, so a lot of dedicated Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands, albeit at a micro level. He thinks a period of state control could be an opportunity to recharge Detroit's true civic lifeblood: its neighborhoods.

KEENAN: There's plenty of examples of really sort of incredible effort being put on by folks that had, at one point in time, felt abandoned and have built infrastructure to support not only themselves, but their neighbors.

CWIEK: Governor Rick Snyder confidently proclaims that an emergency manager can fix Detroit if the state and the city can partner. But no one really knows what that means yet, nor do they know who the emergency manager will be. At best, emergency managers across Michigan have had mixed track records, and everyone knows that Detroit, still by far Michigan's largest city, is a whole different ball game. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek, in Detroit.

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