By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.
Just over two years ago, in January 2020, the over-taxation of over $600 million in property taxes of Detroit homeowners, was the biggest shock of the city’s life at the moment. The PuLSE Institute immediately convened two forums on the issue, triggering a swift response from the administration of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Only two months later, covid-19 swept through the city and the nation, taking over the news cycle and day to day operations of local, state, and federal government.
Now, two years later, in our current January 2022, while the virus is still impeding progress to full recovery of life before the pandemic, significant measures have been taken to stem its spread. A vaccine against the virus has been introduced, mask mandates have been enacted, significant periods of shut down took place all across the country, students completed a full year of virtual schooling in a myriad of school districts and universities, and perhaps most significantly, citizens received direct economic relief in the form of extended unemployment benefits and cash payments.
Unfortunately, the same progress toward resolution cannot be said for Detroit’s over-taxation crisis. Instead, the Duggan administration has remained steadfast in its contradictory refusal of responsibility that the over-taxation happened under a significant stretch during his first term in office, and worst of all, stubborn in its willingness to do anything to compensate the many Detroit homeowners who suffered this egregious economic assault at the hands of their own government. In addition to Duggan, other city, state, and national public officials have refused to take any action or even speak about the now well-known, conservatively estimated more than half-billion dollar over-taxation.
However, the few public officials who have spoken out about the issue have done just that- talked. These officials, vested with significant legislative authority to actually introduce and enact laws to provide adequate compensation, have instead appealed to their constituencies as if they are only community advocates relegated to the sole power of their voice to address the issue without any authority to change the law.
Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, recently sworn in to her third term in office and newly appointed as council president, was first elected to city council in 2013, occupying office during half of the reported over-taxation period from 2010-2016. At the very least, it is plausible that her office could have inquired about the issues surrounding high property taxes in the city of Detroit, an economically depressed city with a median income of less than $31,000, and a population of 35% living in poverty.
Now as council president, she commands the gavel that brings council sessions to order, and along with her being the longest tenured woman on council, she must by now have the influence to coalesce her fellow council members to enact serious legislation in the form of ordinances, not flowery resolutions or proposals for voters to decide, to justly compensate the homeowners who suffered the over-taxation on her watch in council.
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is a member of the most powerful legislative body in the world, the United States Congress, and serves on the House Committee on Financial Services. This powerful committee has vast oversight responsibility on all components of the nation’s housing and financial services sectors, and is chaired by legendary Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a fierce anti-apartheid advocate, who used the power vested in her authority as Congresswoman to push for change that would end the laws of the apartheid system in South Africa.
During the dangerous apartheid era, Congresswoman Waters did not simply make speeches about what needed to change, in an area far outside her jurisdiction and another country altogether no less. As a then member of the California assembly, she boldly used the vast influence of her office to push for change by authoring Assembly Bill 134 to divest a record $12 billion from public pension funds in California, thus fortifying California’s opposition to the apartheid regime. Her actions helped fueled the crucial divestment strategy of the anti-apartheid movement, which was eventually successful with the fall of apartheid in 1990.
Congresswoman Tlaib, on the other hand, has continually referenced the unjust nature of the over-taxation, even describing it as illegal, but has refused to put the necessary power and resources of her Congressional office behind it. In February 2020, Tlaib appeared on a panel of the PuLSE Institute’s second forum on the matter.
Although Tlaib has famously profanely vowed to impeach former President Trump and even confronted current President Biden to plea for Palestinian human rights on a tarmac in Detroit, she uncharacteristically shied away from placing blame on Mayor Duggan’s administration during The PuLSE event, refusing to even mention his name or office for responsibility of the over-taxation despite his then Chief Financial Officer Dave Massaron’s initial admission that the City of Detroit “wronged a lot of people.”
To further underscore Tlaib’s insincerity on the over-taxation response, she even made a public commitment to take the issue to Congresswoman Waters, which she never did. Knowing Waters’ unflinching approach to holding colleagues accountable and bold questioning of those testifying before her, one can only imagine a swift resolution should Duggan ever appear before Waters to testify about the city’s actions that incurred the over-taxation.
Yet instead of taking the matter to Waters as stated, Tlaib has made weak and unsuccessful appeals to take the matter to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has also declined to take up the issue. While Whitmer is considered a rising star in national Democratic politics and a close ally to President Joe Biden, even a forerunner for his vice presidential running mate before the selection of now Vice President Kamala Harris, she is still a first term governor with far less political experience and influence than Congresswoman Waters.
Additionally, Tlaib may have viewed Whitmer as a neutral, more preferable target to appeal to the state’s jurisdiction of property tax issues, rather than taking the matter straight to the heart of the Duggan administration.
The appeals of Sheffield and Tlaib regarding the $600 million over-taxation have been nothing more than political theatrics. We know the over-taxation is inherently unfair, and we know the issue challenges legality, so them conveying to us that the issue is unjust and illegal is of absolutely no consequence.
Missing from the bold talk of these legislators is the courage to introduce meaningful legislation. Courage is lacking, not simply political will, because while there is talk and meaningless action that can be categorized as political will, the courage is missing to take significant action. The courage involves that you will act even when an issue is controversial or unpopular, which in this case means running afoul of the Duggan administration and its insistence that nothing can be done to compensate for the issue.
Rather than capitulating to this flawed interpretation of the Duggan administration, legislators like Tlaib and Sheffield can instead actually do what authority is vested in them to do, which is to introduce the legislation for the just and complete compensation of every homeowner improperly assessed under the $600 million over-taxation period. To go even further, they can institute new laws that would not only retroactively compensate for harm done, but change the laws to deter the same actions from taking place and instituting proper remedial actions moving forward.
If the Duggan administration doesn’t like the proposed legislation, simply let the city sue and challenge it in court, which is not a political anomaly, but actually the logical cycle of the three branches of government, not a political taboo that must never be resorted to under any means.
One does not have to look far to find examples of this basic tenant of American government. Take for instance former Mayor Coleman A. Young, who instituted a plan to integrate the Detroit police department in the 1970s after being elected as the first Black mayor of the city of Detroit. The majority white police department at the time, challenged Young’s plan and sued the city in federal court. The suit was brought before the late legendary Detroiter, Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, who upheld Young’s integration plan on legal grounds in the 1979 Baker v City of Detroit decision.
Mayor Young did not hesitate to change the rules with the authority vested in him to better benefit his constituency, and he remained courageous and steadfast in this pursuit, which is why he is still recognized to this day as arguably the best mayor in the history of Detroit.
We can even look to the current day and time to see examples of branches of government utilizing their authority to act, despite popularity and inevitable legal challenges. In this case, we can look to the vaccine mandate of President Joe Biden’s administration. Whether for or against the mandate is beside the question at the moment. The fact is, this is an act taken despite political popularity and inevitable litigious action, as the mandate is now being challenged in court with varied responses. Regardless, the point is the action with authority took place, which is more than can be said for the legislators in Detroit.
Another legendary figure, and one whose respect for the rule of law will never be questioned, is the iconic legal luminary and first African-American Supreme Court Justice, the late Thurgood Marshall. Before his ascension to the highest court of American jurisprudence, Marshall courageously challenged Jim Crow laws, legal policies at the time that regularly excluded African-Americans from crucial quality of life advancements such as education and employment. Marshall’s famous legal philosophy was to “do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” His approach was never subversive to the laws of the country, but instead sought to challenge the inequities shielded by legislation, and to institute the noble Supreme Court Maxim of “Equal Justice Under Law.” This is why we still remember him today as a model of the finest jurisprudence in American history.
Yet another example of political courage in Detroit belongs to the late Congressman John Conyers, whom Tlaib succeeded in Detroit’s 13th Congressional District. One of Conyers’ first votes in Congress was to enact the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, which he also cosponsored as a freshman legislator in the halls of Congress. He did not seek to tread lightly while learning the ropes in Washington, DC. He sought to make swift, meaningful impact, and he did so beginning in his first term in office and throughout his legendary career as the Dean of Congress.
Conyers also continually sought to introduce the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a federal holiday. After fifteen years of trying, he was finally successful when the law was enacted in 1983, and has now become a prominent holiday and nationally recognized day of service in honor of the late anti-poverty spiritual leader. These bold acts, which are now enshrined in our body politic, were not legal prior to their enactment, meaning laws can, do, and SHOULD change to suit the needs and ideals of an ever-evolving electorate.
Finally, Detroit and the nation as a whole has seen and experienced, due to the national economic terror brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, numerous legislative acts that had previously been viewed as pipe dreams pushed by progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Tlaib endorsed for the presidency during the last election cycle.
These acts include directly depositing cash payments into the hands of citizens due to the economic hardships suffered by the onslaught of the virus through multiple stimulus payments and a six-month automatic child tax credit deposit. These laws were passed to lift up the citizenry in time of desperate need, and further acts (such as student loan cancellation) are still in heavy contemplation.
Given these unprecedented, but now becoming routine, acts of relief, there is NO WAY the city of Detroit can disclaim any possibility of remedial measures to the economic hardships suffered by its citizens caused by its own failure to properly assess property taxes. And, there is NO EXCUSE for legislators like Sheffield and Tlaib to only resort to empty appeals to their constituents instead of actually using their offices to pass laws that will directly benefit their constituents and make them whole from the egregious actions of the $600 million over-taxation.
Until their words become actions, Detroiters must not fall for the trappings of these grand political theatrics.
Attorney Tina M. Patterson, a racial justice advocate and former federal government attorney for the Social Security Administration, is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s national anti-poverty think tank. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief and dean of the Institute at email@example.com.