Detroit’s infrastructure was built for 1.8 million people. Today, 700,000 live within the same 140 square miles. Experts believe that street, water, wastewater, streetlight, and other infrastructure systems are three times the size they need to be for the city’s population.
In the long march toward bankruptcy, public works tried valiantly—amidst pay and benefit cuts, furloughs, and workforce reductions—to bridge this gap. Inevitably, though, service declined or disappeared. Garbage is picked up twice a month. Some neighborhoods contract privately for snow-plowing. Almost one-half of the 88,000 streetlights don’t work, which is one reason the crime rate is higher than similarly sized cities.
With 40% more residents planning to move away within the next five years, some say it’s time for Detroit to merge with Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties and save money by consolidating redundant service departments. They say this is how Indianapolis, Miami, and Toronto saved themselves from a similar fate. If you live in one of those cities and have an opinion about that statement’s accuracy, I’d like to hear it. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many cities, counties, and states are experiencing the same dynamics that took down Detroit: too much debt and unfunded pension obligations. Some experts say Detroit’s leaders too freely engaged in the former to meet the latter. Since 2010, five other cities and two counties, plus almost 30 special districts, have filed for bankruptcy, according to the National League of Cities.
We explored how cities and counties are dividing and conquering service requirements in February 2012. Urban planners and academics think consolidation is the only way the various levels of government can afford to maintain quality of life for people, such as many Detroit residents, who would otherwise be marginalized.
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P.S. I’ve heard that lifelong Detroit employees may receive 10 cents or 20 cents for every dollar they paid into their pensions. When Orange County, Calif., went bankrupt in 1994, employees did in fact get their whole pensions. They also sued the county to keep their jobs—and won.