Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. A former federal government lawyer with the Social Security Administration who wrote legally binding opinions for administrative law judges across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Patterson also brings a wealth of knowledge representing indigent defendants and vulnerable populations seeking relief from the government. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.
“The people’s good is the highest law.” –Cicero
Welcome to 2020. In this new decade exists the statistically proven largest and ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In the United States, Detroit still consistently lands near the top of poverty and inequality statistics nationwide, and this is not a new phenomenon. With this constant battle to the bottom, one would assume the number one agenda item for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration would finally be to institute smart, long term, and long lasting policies aimed at reducing poverty and spreading economic growth and stability throughout the city.
Aside from pointing to empty, decreasing poverty numbers without accounting for the rise in the city’s white population, a historically more affluent demographic, you would think Duggan would finally focus on uplifting the economic plight of the majority African American population, which has seen critical economic losses under his administration. Examples include a decrease in home ownership, less than half of home mortgages in comparison to whites, and a controversially minuscule percentage of city issued demolition contracts.
Instead of touting the latest job training or scholarship program that has failed to track success rates to determine transformational change, you would hope Duggan would champion true policies to institute training and education in burgeoning industries that would place Detroit residents in competitive wages and job markets. (The auto industry is not it.)
Rather than glowing over the latest development downtown that has no bearing on how that economic influx will spread into economically depressed neighborhoods, you can reasonably conclude that Duggan would finally set his sights on spreading that same growth throughout the far corners of the city that tragically lag in comparison to the growth experienced in Midtown and downtown.
Reasonable assumptions, and noble ideals. But think again. New Year, same Duggan.
A recent, Detroit News bombshell article estimated for the first time that from 2010- 2016, the city of Detroit over assessed taxpayers roughly $600 Million in property taxes. And this was just a conservative estimate. The disturbing article documents the hundreds of thousands of residents who were over assessed on property taxes for years following the devastating 2008 recession. This overassessment led to shocking cases of residents, in search of stability and financial footing as home owners, often owing more in back taxes than the actual tax assessment value of their homes, with many ending up in foreclosure.
Rather than acknowledge the enormous weight of such an egregious and unconscionable oversight on the city of Detroit, Mayor Duggan caustically seemed to shift the blame onto homeowners themselves.
“Folks had a process by which they could appeal it. Those years are closed. I don’t know any lawful way to go back and say to all the taxpayers of the city who did follow the process, ‘We’re going to raise your taxes to pay the taxes for people who didn’t.”
His comment reflects insensitive reasoning that concerned homeowners should have gone through the process when it was available, knowing full well as an attorney how daunting the legal system is for those not well versed in its intricate, lengthy, and often deliberately confusing and hassling procedures.
Duggan’s comment also reflects a dangerous mindset and tried and true political maneuver: scapegoating the poor while ignoring their own culpability and responsibility.
Instead of using the enormous weight of power and authority rooted in being the city’s top administrative official by correcting the wrong done to his constituents by its government, Mayor Duggan would rather double down on blame shifting and forfeiting restorative solutions.
In essence, Mayor Duggan blames the poor for losing their homes. This is in spite of his Chief Financial Officer Dave Massaron admitting that “The city of Detroit, going into bankruptcy, did a lot of things wrong and wronged a lot of people.”
Most significantly, however, Duggan’s comments signal a veiled class warfare approach, pitting the “well-to-do “who paid on time or challenged accordingly against those less better off who struggled to pay and find relief. Massaron repeated this perilous mentality, stating that “At the end of the day, a number of residents over the last decade have paid their taxes. Over-assessed or not, they paid their taxes. And we need to be sensitive to the fact that those residents paid into the continued city operations.”
While the Duggan administration claims it would be unfair to those who did pay and take advantage of the process, government bears the brunt of responsibility for quality of life of both. And in a case as reprehensible as this, relief must reasonably be sought and granted for all who were over assessed, whether they paid on time or not, because the city’s wrongdoing is what led to the over-taxation in the first place.
Massaron, the chief financial executive of the city, openly admitted that the city wronged a lot of people. Why would residents demand any less than to be compensated and made whole for these wrongs suffered at the hands of a self-proclaimed guilty party, their own government?
Is it not common sense that any resident of a city would have faith in their government to be honest in matters of government affairs, or should any prudent resident just assume their government is inherently lying to them and jam the court system to seek justice that is not freely given?
Let’s not even take it that far. Let’s go back to kindergarten. When you are wrong, you are wrong. Apologize and make it right. Simple enough, yes? But apparently, rules and the basic principle and distribution of fairness don’t apply to those tasked with making the rules, in this case the city of Detroit.
And unfortunately, we have seen Mayor Duggan make a similar heartless and irrational analysis against the poor and vulnerable seeking relief before in another quality of life crisis facing Detroit- the water shutoff issue. In his December 2019 District 1 mandatory meeting, he reaffirmed that he will not declare water a human right and once again pitted the classes against each other when he used the argument that providing relief to those behind on their water bills would be unfair to those who are paying.
Duggan’s response was problematic and insincere for two reasons. First, no one asked him for a waiver of personal responsibility in paying their water bills. Rather, countless community members and organizations like Hydrate Detroit have demanded a declaration that water is a human right and to stop the water shut offs in favor of a more feasible water affordability policy. These are rather simple and reasonable requests seeking relief for vulnerable and needy individuals from a government responsible for the people.
Second, Duggan’s excuse of unfairness to those who pay their bills on time is porous and disingenuous at best, and at worst, illogical and nonsensical. During the same District 1 meeting, Detroit Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown admitted that 94 percent of residents pay their water bills on time, which presents two major flaws in Duggan’s “fairness” argument. First, a six percent debt forgiveness is presumably not a major dent in the city’s water collection rate and therefore, provides no reason why this is not a feasible option for relief from water shut offs. Particularly when businesses have been allowed to accumulate millions of dollars in past due water bills without the same aggression to shut off services as a penalty. Lastly, and more importantly, despite the city’s consistent framing that people are not or do not want to pay their bills, per the water director himself, that is not true, as the overwhelming majority are indeed paying.
Time for a different excuse. Or even easier than that, time for an actual solution to the problem.
In the case of the property tax over assessment, the least the city can offer as mitigation for its culpability is a moratorium on foreclosures in city of Detroit. The most it could do, and the most equitable solution, is to offer refunds to those who have been over assessed, including the ones who have already paid.
In an era when hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been readily approved to billionaires (wealthy people who can afford to fund their own projects), to fund new sports arenas, business development, etc., the best the city can do to provide relief for the poor is to say emptily and with zero compassion, “You should’ve challenged when you had the chance?” This is the best it could come up with, even though the city fully admits its own wrongdoing which led to the massive economic injustice of over assessment that resulted in home foreclosures? Ludicrous. These would be laughable answers in a court of law. And no matter how far mainstream media goes to clean up the mess of the Duggan administration, there is no reason these answers should be valid and acceptable in the court of public opinion.
How can opportunity tax zones meant for low income neighborhoods be routed by city officials to reflect favor to billionaire Dan Gilbert, but Mayor Duggan has absolutely no plan of redemption to right the wrongs of the city’s overassessment to relieve the burden of the poor neglectfully placed upon them?
Since the historic and heinous Detroit bankruptcy in 2013, $400 million in tax payer money has gone to the Ilitch family and $240 million in tax payer money has gone to the Ford Motor Company. There is the $600 million to make residents whole right there. The problem is not that the city of Detroit does not have the money to make the residents whole. The problem is that the city of Detroit, under Mayor Duggan’s leadership, does not prioritize the need to make residents whole or improve their economic standing and overall quality of life.
Mayor Duggan has displayed the tenacity of a great leader, but he has failed to put that characteristic into solutions that will improve the quality of life of Detroit residents. We saw his passion on full display as he went to the lengths of suing the State of Michigan in federal court to force its hand on auto insurance reform. He did not let the supremacy clause of state law stop him on the personal crusade to change the auto insurance law, his biggest and earliest campaign promise finally fulfilled after numerous failures.
However, when the issue is of essential importance to his neediest constituents, but otherwise of little interest to him, like ending water shutoffs, raising the minimum wage, or now, resolving the massive and outrageous over assessment of property taxes, there’s nothing he can do about it. Such a grandiose expression of indifference to the needs of the suffering poor is quite appalling.
Even more shameful and atrocious is the silence of leaders who should call out this absolutely unacceptable attitude and behavior stemming from the 11th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. No City Council member has gone on record to demand answers or equitable solutions. No state legislator has issued a press release or publicly condemned the over half a billion dollar overassessment of property taxes of the state’s largest impoverished city.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after announcing a grand but foolhardy poverty tax force in lieu of the promised cabinet level poverty secretary, has not said one word about this shocking revelation. Civic leaders and other political gatekeepers have not gone on record publicly to chastise the findings or even demand relief for their own community, maybe even for their own selves.
This is 2020. The start of a new year always brings about feelings of change and optimism for a better future. In order to materialize this change, we must demand better and refuse to accept leadership that does not have the well-being of people emanating from its core. And that starts with raising our voices in unified condemnation of this massive failure of city leadership now.
With this new decade upon us, we must finally let it be known that we are tired of the apathy and will no longer accept pathetic excuses as answers for the lack of change in such a city of economic desolation like Detroit. Much of it at the hands of our own government, as the Detroit News report has clearly demonstrated.
We must demand better, and that starts with refusing to accept leadership that does not have the well-being of people emanating from its core. Mayor Duggan has shown time and time again that he is not interested in corrective solutions at the hands of failed policies and government misdeeds of his administration, which have led to unjustifiable inequity in Detroit.