Reflections on the City Budget Hearings

As I began watching the city budget sessions, I didn’t know what to expect. Initially, seeing the dull room with city officials, I thought I would fall asleep five minutes into it and not remember anything. It didn’t seem too interesting hearing people just talk and shuffle through papers. However, it proved to be extremely interesting and engaging. Being a millennial and a native Detroiter, I haven’t been as involved in my city’s politics as I would like to admit. I’ve never actually heard about our city officials making huge changes to my neighborhood. Watching these sessions gave me an entirely new perspective.

I’ve taken public transportation for most of my life, so it was amazing hearing that $1 million is going to be invested into DDOT buses. In addition, the city terminals will be getting cleaned, the bus fleet will have updated cameras, and potentially even get Wi-Fi! Growing up I always wondered whose responsibility it was for the buses and bus shelters to be cleaned. It makes me consider when was the last time money was actually invested in the bus fleet, because it seems like the buses are always late and the shelters are usually run down or nonexistent. Not only will transportation be upgraded, but police body cams will also be improved, and city-wide Wi-Fi is being worked on. It’s exciting to consider being able to use features of WIFi anywhere you may be throughout the city and all the benefits it will have. It would be great if we could collaborate with some of the current high-speed internet providers there are in Detroit.

Neighborhoods like my own were also discussed. There will be about $10 million allocated for blight removal throughout the city - blight that is bringing down the property values in our communities. The removal of the blighted homes and lots will beautify our city and help show a greater sense of pride. Over 3,000 trees have been removed, and programs to mow more vacant lots are in place.

The Housing and Revitalization Department (HRD), with a 2018 budget of $26.5 Million, is going above and beyond to help residents. They will be providing 0% home repair loans and increasing all new affordable housing programs. I think this new loans initiative will be amazing! It will allow residents to make the much-needed repairs on their home with 0% interest, providing assistance to those who have been living in run-down homes with no options to make improvements. The Detroit 0% Home Repair Loans Program offers 0% interest loans from $5,000 to $25,000 to help Detroit homeowners invest in and repair their homes. However, the process of obtaining this loan is rather difficult. Detroiters must be able to prove they’re able to make payments on the loan and have an adequate credit score.

Workforce Development is one of the more amazing departments within the city that works hard to support Detroiters. They were extremely prepared during their budget session and even provided PowerPoint slides for each topic that was discussed. They work with the 200 citizens returning to Detroit each month from incarceration to help them obtain job training and careers. They also provide in-prison training to get citizens ready for employment when released. Workforce Development is now working with Detroit employers to introduce more background-friendly job opportunities. Along with assisting returning citizens, current residents are also considered, for example, by lobbying for the state initiative of eliminating driver responsibilities fees by October 2018 and creating new training programs for both youth and adults.

Grow Detroit’s Young Talent (GDYT), is another facet of the City’s workforce development department. It is a citywide summer jobs program that employs young adults ages 14 - 24. I have friends who were in this program for years and have told me that it has changed their lives. It was also great to see the impact they’ve been making in the last year: 9% more students graduate, 9% more take the ACT, and 4% have higher attendance rates.

The Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity Department (CRIO) is an entity responsible for things such as enforcing Mayor Duggan’s executive order that city projects must employ 51% Detroit residents. However, instead of ensuring that they meet this requirement, CRIO usually just collects a fine from the organization that is responsible. It doesn’t give me much confidence for the department in this area. Over the course of watching their budget session, CRIO seemed unprepared and confused. They was unable to answer city council’s question as to how exactly the $1.5 Million in fines collected from companies were being spent. As a result, president of the city council, Brenda Jones said, “I don’t want us to go where we ended up with the land Bank. So I would like a motion from the body to ask Mr. Whitaker to provide a report to determine if the CRIO dollars that are being transferred can be transferred without council approval.”

I expected a department with such an important role in the city’s revitalization to be fully prepped, organized, and educated on the issues that are important. The 51% executive order will be helping Detroit residents earn income, but it never seems to happen that way. However, the fines that are collected from companies who don’t meet the executive order requirements are invested into job training funds for Detroiters. There is also a 4% program that is being used for developing and creating neighborhood programs.

In summary, the engagement of city council members was pretty inspiring. I saw people who are so deeply interested in our city and ensuring that it’s run in the most efficient fashion. They were all very tough on issues that were important to them and their constituents. However, it does cause me to really question the checks and balances that Detroit officials have in place. There was a lot of very important information discussed, and it seemed like the only reason city council were talking about it was because it was on their agenda for the day. I fear what would happen if certain important topics didn’t make the agenda. Who would check on it? Who would be responsible for it getting done? Also, what happens to topics, policies, money, and people that don’t fit in the time frame of the budget session agenda?

This is where I, as a citizen of Detroit, have to do my part in staying on top of my elected officials, making sure the policies and programs that I care about get accomplished correctly and in a timely manner. I now know it is my responsibility as a citizen to stay informed and get engaged in my city’s politics. There were certain topics and discussions that often hit city council members on a personal level, strengthening their passion in making it best for the city. It is very motivating to know that our city council are at least working to help these many departments move Detroit forward.

By Gearramia Coffey
Research Assistant
Junior at Western Michigan University