Thursday, February 25, 2016

Balancing the Budget on the Backs of the Poor

Click for photo credit. 
Yesterday, Hofstra University celebrated its annual Civil Rights Day with a number of activities including a very fascinating panel on the situation in Flint, Michigan with panelists Marseille Allen, Founder, Water for Flint, Kent Key, Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research (MICHR), and Nuzhat Quaderi of Erase Racism. The panel was organized by Hofstra's Jess Holzer. They highlighted many of the issues I discussed in a recent post titled When Populations Implode. As I noted and as the panelists yesterday highlighted, the real crime in Flint occurred when the government tried to balance the budget of Flint on the backs of the poor. 

There was no way that the City of Flint could maintain its infrastructure with the budget it had. 
Anyone who understands civic financing could see that there was no way that the budget could be balanced in Flint without causing significant problems in education, infrastructure, public health, or environmental protection. Instead of finding ways to invest in the city to rebuild, improve infrastructure, or promote economic development in partnership with the local government, the governor put into place undemocratic decision making processes that took the power of self rule away from citizens who were most vulnerable to harm by the external decision makers in order to balance a budget that couldn't cover basic services. The placement of a fiscal manager doomed the city to the full impact of external decisions which of course led to the water crisis. Even when the problems were identified by citizens early in the process, managers and state officials did not take the local population seriously--remember they had no access to elected officials who were responsible for decisions.

Clearly, new models of governance need to be developed when cities have fiscal challenges due to declining populations or tax base. What happened in Flint occurred because citizens lost access to decision makers when the state put in place a fiscal manager responsible for key decisions. As the panelists noted, the citizens knew that they had water problems. People were getting sick. Rashes occurred. The color of the water changed overnight. Instead of dealing with the issues raised by citizens of Flint, the government told them to keep drinking the water and that it was safe. Of course we now know it wasn't. The citizens had no where to go to gain redress from local officials. They could only go to the governor's appointed fiscal manager. This is not how things are done in the U.S.-- unless you live in a poor community.

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