UPDATED: 10-16-13 at 2:15 pm
This morning’s news finds the quaint coastal resort village of Elberta, Michigan sounding the emergency manager alarm bells over their budget deficit of $560,000. The community has been struggling for a number of years now, and when Gov. Snyder passed his first incarnation of the enhanced emergency manager law back in early 2011, Northwest Michigan turned their eyes to Elberta as a potential casualty, fearing their pristine coastal parkland was at risk for private sale.
This isn’t the first brush with emergency management in this corner of the state. Two years ago, tiny Suttons Bay Schools used the spectre of emergency management as a means to “solve” their budget deficit –they employed the threat as a cudgel on the community to solicit contributions and win concessions. Traverse City Area Public schools have been cautiously looking over their shoulder in the face of future budget shortfalls, although that potential threat remains a few years off — they will not be alone by then.
Anyone with a calculator and a rudimentary education in economics would understand that the state would never agree to expend substantial sums of tax dollars to remedy budget deficits that are potentially less than the cost of emergency management itself. The Snyder administration proved as much when they shuttered and dissolved both Albion and Inkster schools this year under ram-rod legislation designed to avoid assigning emergency managers to the small districts.
Democracy Tree has been warning for some months now that eventually the state would run into a similar problem with a municipality. The sovereignty of local units of government is protected in the state constitution, buttressed by the Home Rule City Act, and was reaffirmed in the Constitution Convention, ratified in 1963. But, is that protection enough? Under the Snyder administration, Michigan has seen two versions of the emergency manager law that are arguably unconstitutional at both the state and federal level.
Right now, Elberta has been ordered to devise a five-year deficit reduction plan for the state to approve. If things turn south for the tiny community, they may be put in the position where they are forced to self-dissolve. However, their likely tactic will be to threaten their community of 372 residents with the sale of parkland as a means to pass a millage to cover their shortfall. Emily Votruba, a parks and recreation board member, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that selling parkland was a possibility:
“We have a beautiful stretch of beach and it’s all undeveloped. This is a situation that’s ripe for someone to come in and sell off some land … and in an emergency manager situation we won’t have any control.”
Votruba contacted Democracy Tree to clarify that her sole intention is to alert the community of the potential threat to public parklands. She is uncertain what the local government officials intend to do, including whether sale of public assets is on the table.
However, these kinds of statements are nothing new to communities in Southern Michigan. There were threats of the sale of Jean Klock Park, a beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline in Benton Harbor, under emergency management. While that parkland was not sold, they did manage to sell other community assets, such as their radio station. More recently, Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has been eyeing the priceless works of art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Flint emergency manager held an auction of city assets and sold-off, among other things, the santa and reindeer display that traditionally graced the top of city hall.
As our federal government careens from one manufactured crisis to another, using threats to leverage agendas, we find small town officials here in Michigan playing the same game.
Amy Kerr Hardin