A new normal in local governments?

I was a bit dismayed to read this news article in the Detroit News earlier in the week about Highland Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit (which is completely surrounded by the larger city; that point will be relevant in a minute). In order to settle several million dollars they owe to DTE Energy, most of Highland Park’s streetlights are being completely removed. According to this article, the city and the utility agreed that this was an acceptable solution to reducing their energy bills and removing debt from their rolls.

However, I have to wonder: does this represent some kind of “new normal” in local governments? I would consider lit streets at night to be a basic provision that a city should provide, but serious rethinking has had to occur in Highland Park. I mentioned above that geographically Highland Park is completely surrounded by Detroit (except for a small area that borders fellow “surrounded suburb” Hamtramck). This is important because there is no possibility of increasing the residential tax base through annexation; additionally, the population is both decreasing and aging in Highland Park. So what else is there to do? I’m unsure that shrinking their expenditures to the point of a balanced budget is possible, but on the other hand there is really no choice. What other services might be cut by the city, and what do we expect from local governments that is perhaps “expendable”?

I don’t mean to make Highland Park an “example” of any type or lay blame to the city’s government for the difficult situation. This is not uncommon in the U.S. today. Public library hours are being cut back in many communities, as is the frequency of garbage collection, and many public employees have been laid off, including firefighters and police officers. I could go on. It may just be that Highland Park and neighboring Hamtramck are experiencing this sooner than other places, and there may be a wave of similar actions coming in other communities that don’t own their streetlights.

In a future post I’ll also talk about another city facing serious financial problems, but for a different reason: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is preparing to file for bankruptcy after years of struggling to pay debts. Stay tuned for that.

UPDATE: Read my post on Harrisburg, PA for more details on their own financial woes.

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