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Flint Guts Services to Balance Budget

The pension crisis and the dying Fordist economy have joined forces to sink another US city. Looking to plug a massive hole in its budget the city of Flint, Michigan, went for the nuclear option, firing 20 percent of its employees and restructuring its public services through a mix of cutbacks and outsourcing. The plan worked: The city has broken even, albeit at a terrible price. Bloomberg reports:

It’s…approaching the point at which it can’t function as a city. That’s the assessment of Edward Kurtz, its emergency manager. Without reliable revenue to replace dwindling property and income taxes and state funding, the birthplace of General Motors Co. (GM) won’t be able to support its citizens, even if its books are square, Kurtz said.

Today, hundreds of acres of bare concrete remain where plants once stood, and neighborhoods are scarred by vacant and boarded-up homes. Almost a quarter of the housing units are vacant, according to the U.S. Census.

For those who remain, life is dangerous. Flint had the highest rate of violent crime in 2011 among U.S. cities with 100,000 or more residents, and Detroit was second, according to the FBI.

The factors that devastated Flint are complex. There, as across the whole country, generous pension promises made by yesterday’s pols played their part. The city was forced to fire many of its public employees because it couldn’t afford to pay off its pension debt.

But the collapse of the manufacturing industry was an even larger factor. GM has long been the city’s largest employer, and the company’s huge personnel cuts gutted the local economy. The number of GM employees in the city has fallen from 80,000 in 1978 to 7,500 today. The state clearly needs to do more to bring some of these jobs back, but it’s hard to imagine it can bring back enough to return Flint to its former vibrancy, particularly when the city can barely afford to provide basic services.

Oh, and there’s another city not far away from Flint that is suffering from many of the same problems. Is this where Detroit is headed?

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  • Randall McDonnell

    Industry develops, the people gather, they form a government, and a city is born. Then the industry goes away, the people leave, the government shrinks, and the city disappears.

    Is there a reason to keep Flint alive on life support? What purpose does that serve? I’m not talking about abandoning the people – but if they are on government assistance why not relocate them somewhere that has better economic prospects?

    • Thirdsyphon

      Between 1990 and 2011, Flint’s population dropped by almost a third, from 141,553 to 101,558. Based on recent developments, this trend is likely to accellerate even further.

      I don’t think a China-style mass relocation of the city’s population is a feasible solution to Flint’s problems, but there’s probably room for some imaginative policies to help ameliroate local conditions as the city approaches its end.

      Unfortunately, a lot of the best policy ideas to manage population decline have already been tried in Flint and failed. . . and the city has been studied more exhaustively by city planners and students working in this area than any other human settlement on the planet. In the 1980s and 1990s, philanthropists poured almost a billion dollars into various initiatives aimed at getting Flint back on its economic feet. No luck. In the 2000s, efforts were made to innovatively manage depopulation through “blotting” (i.e.: demolishing vacant units and selling the now-green lots to the people living next door to them at a nominal price). This approach has had some success, but it’s far from a panacea.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    All this breast-beating over public employees losing their jobs is mystifying. It’s a job, not life. The essence of a mobile society used to be people on the move, not so they could sit in one place and travel only for vacations. To be an American means to live a good distance from your birthplace, and be better for it.

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