NANCY KAFFER: Lansing to dictate how cities do their business?
Last week, an outstate lawmaker introduced a bill that would determine how officials in Detroit negotiate business deals, without seeking input from any of the organizations actually charged with doing those deals.
Or so all parties involved claim.
State Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, introduced a bill Thursday that would bar cities around the state from adopting community benefits ordinances, along with a few other things, such as prohibiting cities from offering a base wage or benefits that exceed state and federal requirements.
On its face, Poleski’s bill is a stunning state overreach, an attempt to micromanage local government affairs — the kind of thing Republicans like Poleski generally oppose — unless it fits their particular agenda.
But Poleski freely admits that the timing of the bill, introduced during the Legislature’s lame-duck session, is intended to spike a community benefits agreement ordinance under discussion by the Detroit City Council.
That’s why, he said, there wasn’t time to consult with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (the city’s economic development arm) or the Detroit Regional Chamber, whose lobbyist testified Thursday in favor of the bill.
Poleski — who served on the state committee that ushered the state’s Detroit financial aid package through — says he sponsored the bill because he wants to see Detroit succeed, and allowing individual communities to each determine how they make deals is bad for business.
“I suppose, if there had been a great deal of time left in the session, (consulting local officials) might have been a good tack, but there was just time to drop the bill and move forward,” he said. “The longer you go without making plain the state policy, the more likely it is that CBAs and other local ordinances might crop up. If Detroit were to enact that ordinance, believing itself to have that power, why let that go on if it is clear from a state perspective that locals do not have that power?”
After a bill drops, he says, “People come out of the woodwork” to talk.
If you’re not familiar with the term, a community benefits agreement is a negotiated contract between a city and a large developer for certain assurances as part of the development process. Concessions might include an agreement to hire a fixed percentage of residents to fill jobs created by the project, mitigate environmental damage, allocate parking in neighborhood-friendly ways, or to keep signage consistent with the appearance of the surrounding area. It’s the kind of agreement community advocates tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate around the construction of the new hockey arena.
There’s no question that community benefits agreements have sometimes proved sticking points in deal-making. But there’s little doubt in my mind that developers receiving substantial public subsidies should be required to ensure that the public truly benefits.
But in the absence of a legal framework codifying such agreements, it can be difficult to get developers to comply — that’s why the Detroit City Council is contemplating adopting an ordinance. The ordinance that the council is discussing would bind only projects worth $15 million or more that are receiving at least $300,000 in city tax credits or a discounted price for city-owned property.
The head of the DEGC has said he opposes the council’s ordinance. So does the chamber, whose lobbyist says a better way to grow city employment is to provide job training for Detroiters (which is not, one might note, mutually exclusive with community benefits agreements — in fact, job training is sometimes part of such agreements). Duggan has said that he opposes the Detroit City Council’s community benefits ordinance, but in response to a question about Poleski’s bill, the mayor’s chief of staff said Friday that he also opposes any efforts to limit the ability of local communities to negotiate such agreements. The DEGC, a spokesman said, hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill.
Poleski, like other business-community critics, says that creating additional requirements for business deals is counterproductive: “The CBA and other specific requirements are difficult, and in other words, expensive, for employers to implement. When they’re expensive or difficult for employers to implement, they don’t do it.”
The whole concept of limiting community benefits agreements doesn’t make sense, said Samantha Harkins, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, who notes that some of the most thriving cities in the country are highly regulated.
This bill gets another hearing Tuesday. That’s good, because there are a lot of questions yet to answer.
Contact Nancy Kaffer: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nancykaffer.