Michigan emergency manager locations remaining stable

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- The geographic reach of Michigan's law enabling state-appointed emergency managers to take over financially struggling schools and cities has not expanded since dramatic revisions were approved by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in March.

Emergency managers remain in the Detroit school district and the cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse and Pontiac -- all of which had the state-appointed officials in place before the law was changed to give them sweeping new powers.

The city of Highland Park's school district is the only local entity now in the official pipeline to potentially get an emergency manager, with a state-ordered preliminary review of finances set for August. The 1,300-student school district, riddled with a deficit approaching $20 million, would have options to escape an emergency manager appointment once that review is finished.

Formal requests for the state to review finances in the cities of Jackson and Allen Park were turned down in recent months, with Treasury officials deciding local government leaders were aware of the problems and taking steps to address them. Talk of emergency managers has surfaced in numerous other Michigan cities and school districts, but so far has not resulted in official inquiries to the state.

Opponents' fears that the law might be used to take over dozens of cities and schools across the state so far have not materialized. But some critics say that could be because the Snyder administration doesn't want to risk riling up more Michigan citizens while petition drives and lawsuits are seeking to overturn the law.

"I doubt very seriously that they would want to throw more fuel on the fire and create more pockets of resistance around the state," said Greg Bowens, spokesman for the Committee to Stand Up for Democracy -- a group seeking to put a proposal to repeal the emergency manager changes on the November 2012 ballot.

Supporters of the law say the lack of new locations in line for emergency managers suggests the law's preventive measures and incentives are working. Cities and schools may be using available resources to get their finances in order and avoid the crisis situations that could prompt the appointment of an emergency manager.

"That's what we were hoping," said Sara Wurfel, a Snyder spokeswoman. "One of the key points to updating the law was to make sure there were more early warning indicators so we could work more proactively with folks on the front end and there were more tools to address those situations up front."

The revised law has sparked opposition because it allows emergency managers to strip power from local elected and appointed officials, as has happened in Benton Harbor, a long-struggling southwest Michigan city. Unions have objected because emergency managers can toss out collectively bargained contracts in their quest to fix finances. The emergency manager of Detroit's public schools plans to impose a 10 percent pay cut for district employees and require them to cover 20 percent of their health benefits.

One lawsuit, filed with the help of The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, claims the revised measure is unconstitutional because it takes away citizens' rights to vote for and petition local government on matters of local concern. The suit also says the law suspends "home rule" for cities by giving emergency managers the power to repeal local ordinances and contracts.

The state is arguing in court that the law is constitutional.

Some groups, with the support of public employee unions, aren't relying on lawsuits to overturn the law. They're working to gather the 161,000 valid voter signatures necessary to make the ballot and let voters decide whether the law should stand. Organizers would not say how many signatures had been gathered as of late July because the signatures haven't been verified.

"Petitions have been flying out the door," Bowens said.

Opponents of the law say it contains so many potential triggers for an emergency manager to be appointed that dozens of cities and schools potentially could fall under its jurisdiction. But so far, most discussions of potential emergency manager situations have been confined to the local level in cities and schools where public officials want cost-saving concessions from public employee unions.

The mayors of Detroit and Flint have mentioned the possibility of an emergency manager in their cities as they bargain with unions. Emergency manager talk has surfaced in board rooms for many school districts -- even in the relatively affluent Northville Public Schools, where a new contract is under negotiation with district employees.

District officials have called it a potential last resort, but teachers' union officials consider it a scare tactic.

"It was definitely a negotiations ploy to try and create some pressure on us and see if we'd panic or flinch," said Nick Nugent, president of the Northville Education Association. "And we haven't."

Published: Thu, Aug 4, 2011