How much will this Detroit progress cost us?

Many say downtown growth explosion is major sign of progress. But for who?
In short? The anger being expressed by a number of Detroiters over the $34.5 million in public funding approved by Detroit City Council to go toward the Detroit Pistons’ move downtown is the chickens coming home to roost.
After attending the standing-room only emergency school board meeting that was called last Friday largely in response to these angry Detroiters (not to mention the community meeting called at the exact same time by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield who said she is considering changing her ‘yes’ vote because of so many angry calls from constituents at the 7-2 vote), the one thing that occurred to me is that this level of discontent has been simmering near boil ever since former Governor John Engler took over the Detroit Public Schools more than two decades ago.
Many Detroiters say they are getting tired of having multi-million dollar decisions made involving their tax dollars without their input and without their say-so. The widely held perception that this most recent multi-million dollar decision is being made to benefit billionaires such as Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and the Ilitch family, the driving force behind the construction of Little Caesars Arena and District Detroit, when so many Detroiters are struggling to make ends meet makes the sting that much more severe. The question that keeps popping up is why does the city have to pay all this money? These guys are billionaires, so why can’t they cover it?
To be clear, the opposition does not at all seem to be against having the Pistons come to Detroit. Many actually support that move, are anxious to have the team in the city, and love the Pistons. But the belief amongst the people on the ground that the movers and shakers behind this deal may be structuring a deal that fattens the corporate wallets of billionaires and advances a major development deal on the backs of poor Detroiters by redirecting millions of school tax dollars that could and should be spent on Detroit’s DPSCD schoolchildren is fanning the flames. Which is why those at the meeting are advocating that the question be put on the November ballot, giving residents the opportunity to vote on whether this money should be approved.
It must be stated, however, that the tax increment financing deal actually won’t affect any of the money intended for DPSCD, and therefore will not diminish the money that’s intended for the children. What will be affected is the payment toward the debt, which falls under DPS, also referred to as ‘oldco’, not the newly created entity of DPSCD.
“I’m very troubled by the fact that it appears as if some people here don’t want the people of the City of Detroit to have a voice in what’s going on. I’m personally for the Pistons coming back. I’m just not for using our dollars to help billionaires. This is major corporate welfare,” said William Davis during the public comment portion of last week’s emergency school board meeting. Davis President of the Detroit Chapter of National Action Network.
Rochelle Jordan, a neighborhood resident, felt much the same, as did the lengthy line of public speakers that stretched out the door of the meeting room.
“I’m for the Pistons coming downtown, but when it comes to these children we’re looking and future congressmen and future lawyers. It’s very important that we fight for these children.”
Added Russ Bellant, “I find it troubling as a former [library] commissioner because I know we lost millions of dollars to the tax capture of the Detroit Public Library,” said Russ Bellant.
“I’m hoping as board members you will look at this not from any downtown influence, not from any other influence other than is this right for the school district. That should be your only criteria because that’s your elected responsibility. Is it good for the education of children?
“When the city had charges put on tickets of institutions they own; Tiger Stadium, Red Wings, money was collected by the owners to pay for the maintenance of those to the city. They never paid it. And in 2012 the law department said that the Ilitch organization owed the city of Detroit $284 million. It was never collected. Ilitch signed off on paper for a total couple million dollars and it was buried.”
And that furiously boiling sentiment right there is what the supporters of all those $$$$ for Little Caesar’s Arena and the Detroit Pistons move either don’t understand or are purposefully overlooking. Because ever since Detroiters lost control over their school system, which means parents and voters who felt they no longer had a voice in how their own children were being educated, followed by the loss of control over their city, there has been a hardening sense of resentment directed against those who they felt were responsible for taking that control away. To many, this sequence of events has felt very much like taxation without representation.
So now, after all these years of a steadily building anger over being disenfranchised and shut out, while watching stories about how their city was making a comeback, the (hopefully) last DPS emergency manager – sorry, transition manager – stepped down last year to make way for the first so-called ‘empowered’ elected school board since 2009 when Robert Bobb stepped in as the first emergency manager. Even though the empowered board remains under the supervision of the Financial Review Commission. And a full year hasn’t even passed before they hear stories about all this money – their tax money –­ that is going to help some wealthy billionaires finance their business deal with money that was supposed to go to help Detroit’s school children.
From the Detroit Free Press:
“Council’s approval comes more than six months after negotiations began between the city and the Pistons and hours after a late Monday night decision by a federal judge to deny an emergency injunction that sought to block the funding.
“The Downtown Development Authority, the public entity that owns the arena, has amended its district boundaries several times, most recently in 2013, to accommodate the new arena, which will also be home to the Red Wings, and surrounding development that covers a nearly 45-block area from Grand Circus Park to Charlotte between Woodward and Grand River.
The DDA is expected to collect $726 million in school property tax revenue through 2051 as part of its tax increment financing. The money will be used to pay off $363 million in bonds for public investments in the arena and the surrounding development district.”
“Robert Davis and D. Etta Wilcoxon, both plaintiffs in the lawsuit over public funding of the arena, are asking the school board to place a question on the November ballot on the use of school tax revenue for the arena.”
No decision was made by the conclusion of last week’s meeting as to whether or not the school board would do this.
To be sure, the argument can be made that the decision approved by city council in support of the deal can be considered the vote of the people since they are the duly elected representatives of the people. And there is also merit in the view that to derail such a major development deal at this late date could do irreparable harm not only to the deal itself but to the city’s economy and growth potential.
These are valid points. But an equally valid point is that a lot of Detroiters feel their city is being wheeled and dealed away from them, and they’re both scared and furious at the same time.
This anger is ticking.

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