Government Plus…


We have explored the connections between you and your neighborhood. We have also discussed how our civic engagement is tied to the wider question of the wants, needs and services we require as a collective. In Lesson 4 we’ll discuss building support but first it’s important to understand organizations and entities that partner with the City of Detroit to support our city.  We can engage and work with them as well to do work in our neighborhoods.

Connecting the Dots

Better understanding of all the components that come together to serve Detroit will make for better civic engagement. When looking at Detroit city government as a whole, it is important to note public-private bodies that work to aid private industry for economic development in the city of Detroit, provide extra resources to a specific government function, such as lighting or transit, and/or support other services to Detroiters that the City of Detroit agrees are priorities for the city.

To better grasp these governmental functions, it might help to break these down into two unique divisions: general purpose and special purpose (or district) governments.   

General Purpose governments can be a city, township, village, or county. They govern over a multitude of services and functions for residents and are authorized by the state. 

Special Purpose or District Governments are narrowly defined in scope and operation. The Census bureau defines special districts governments this way: “Authorized by state law to provide one or a limited number of designated functions and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments. Examples include water districts, cemetery districts, fire districts, and mosquito abatement districts.” The bottom line: special purpose or district governments, which we’ll discuss most frequently as “authorities,” in Detroit service specific functions and have funding separate from the City of Detroit.

A Closer Look at Special Purpose Governments 

According to the 2017 Census of Governments, there are 436 special purpose governments in Michigan. Special purpose governments can focus only on Detroit or include the City of Detroit in a regional cooperation. 

These organizations have different names, and slightly different powers depending on the State Law that authorizes them, but all fall under the category of Special Purpose governments.

Here are some examples:

Detroit Land Bank AuthorityManages City of Detroit’s run down and foreclosed properties, homes, and lots. Actively sells properties to developers and residents. It had roughly 95,000 properties in 2018, making it the largest in the country. 
Great Lakes Water AuthorityOperates a regional drinking water and waste water system for 126 municipalities and 8 counties in Southeastern Michigan excluding Detroit.Learn more in this lesson’s Department Highlight.
Detroit Building AuthorityManages the facilities and real estate transactions of Detroit City Government. 
Detroit Public Lighting AuthorityProvides street lighting for the city.
Downtown Development AuthoritySupports and promotes investment and businesses in a defined downtown Detroit district through loans, grants, capital improvements and sponsorships. Collects a 1 mill property tax from district property owners.
Detroit Transportation CorporationOperates the downtown Detroit People Mover monorail

Special Purpose governments are governed by appointed boards and subjected to both the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act. Most appointees are provided by the Mayor and approved by Council. 

Powers of special purpose governments normally include: 

  • To issue tax exempt bonds or notes
  • To provide tax abatements (relief) to developers, businesses, and others
  • To sue and be sued 
  • To provide grants 

Special Purpose government bodies serving Detroit often have reporting requirements to Detroit City Government. For instance, the Downtown Development Authority must “secure the approval of development plans from the Planning and Development Department and the City Council” before they can implement any plans. And the Detroit Housing Commission must make monthly reports to Detroit City Council. 

Special Purpose governments don’t have to exist permanently or continue to provide the services they were created to. Things can change as needed.  For example, The Detroit Land Bank and Detroit Building Authority were responsible for home demolition in Detroit.  But after a 2019 Auditor General report found consistent inaccuracies and improper payment procedures of the federally funded operation, the demolition program is moving back to complete city oversight under a new Detroit Demolition Department in 2020.

The City of Detroit and Official Non-Profit Partners

We know there are a lot of non-profit organizations in Detroit doing work to support the citizens of Detroit.  Many work with the City of Detroit to get resources to our neighborhood while remaining completely independent from the government.  However, there are certain non-profits that are connected to the city of Detroit by how they’ve been established, how their boards are selected, how they’re staffed, and/or how they receive funding. Here are a couple of examples:

Community Education Commission

The Community Education Commission (CEC) is a non-profit organization established in 2018 to support K-12 students and families in Detroit.  It has two primary programs: the GOAL Line, an after school bussing program and the Detroit Schools Guide, a full listing of all Detroit’s K-12 schools, their programs, and their quality (as evaluated by the CEC).

The CEC has a board appointed by the Mayor and is staffed by the City of Detroit, however similar to other non-profit partners, the Mayor has to follow certain guidelines.  There can’t be any more than eleven board members and there has to be one board member from each of these categories:

  • Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) Administrator (the Superintendent or another district leader)
  • DPSCD educator
  • Charter school operator (the management organizations that oversee charter schools)
  • Charter school educator
  • Parent of a current detroit school student (more than one can be appointed)
  • Representative from unions with educator memberships 

Detroit Housing Commission

Operating since 1933, the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) builds and manages the city’s low income housing primarily through annual funding from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development–some of which is . These developments include the Brewster Homes, Woodbridge Senior Village, and the continued construction of Herman Gardens. DHC also manages and operates approximately 6,000 units under the Housing Choice Voucher Program (‘Section 8’) in various apartment buildings around Detroit. DHC’s five member board is appointed by the mayor.

The Business Community and Detroit’s Government

Just like individual citizens, businesses are an important part of Detroit’s community.  As employers they offer opportunities for Detroiters to make a living; commercial strips of stores and restaurants offer us places to shop and eat; businesses own and occupy buildings in the city making them like homeowners in their reliance on city services.  Finally, operating businesses brings in tax revenue which supports city operations. The good condition of the city is essential to the health of businesses and the health of businesses is essential to the city’s success.  With that in mind, urban centers like Detroit, larger regions like counties, and even states have coalitions of businesses that support governments and work to influence governments on behalf of the business community.  In Detroit, there are a few organizations in particular we should all be familiar with that work closely with local government and have been working closely with local government for many years.

Detroit Economic Growth Corporation 

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) was established in 1978 and has worked with City of Detroit government since then. It is a private non-profit led by a board of directors made up of business executives, organized labor (unions), civic leaders, and government officials and its work focuses on facilitating business investment and development across Detroit.  Of all the business organizations, the DEGC is most officially tied to Detroit’s government by:

  • Acting as staff for a number of public authorities whose board members are appointed by the Mayor and approved by Detroit City Council
  • Working directly for the City of Detroit under contract and managing economic development efforts funded by private and foundation contributions, grants, and contracts
  • Providing Business Liaisons to each council district who work with the Department of Neighborhoods. They help businesses identify resources to help their growth; understand and work with City processes; and improve the overall business environment in neighborhoods
  • Receiving funding from the City of Detroit for its projects

The Detroit Economic Development Corporation (DEGC) provides operations for these public authorities that all serve development purposes, meaning growing businesses including new business construction : 

  • Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority
  • Downtown Development Authority 
  • Detroit Next Michigan Development Corporation
  • Eight Mile Woodward Corridor Improvement Authority 
  • Local Development Finance Authority
  • Economic Development Corporation  

Each of those entities has distinct responsibilities and powers, but they are very closely related and impact projects like new buildings and developments. By using a common staff, the work of these public authorities is well coordinated and avoids duplication.

Downtown Detroit Partnership

The Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) is a non-profit membership organization that began in 1998. Most of the members are businesses, but foundations, universities, and even the State of Michigan have been members of the organization. This organization has a focus on making downtown Detroit appealing for residents, businesses, and visitors.  The DDP:

  • Manages, maintains, and programs downtown parks: Campus Martius Park, Beacon Park, Capitol Park, Grand Circus Park, and Spirit Plaza (established in 2019)
  • Provides other direct services to downtown such as safety initiatives.
  • Manages the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (the BIZ)

The DDP receives charitable donations to support its work, however the BIZ has its own board and funding.  The DDP helps to manage the BIZ which is established by state law to define an area (called a zone) and support business improvement there.  The BIZ supports business improvement in downtown Detroit and is able to fund its work by collecting property taxes from commercial properties, which are buildings with for-profit businesses and residential properties with renters, like apartment buildings and other rentals.

Detroit Regional Chamber

The Detroit Regional Chamber was founded in 1942 and is the largest chamber of commerce representing Detroit business.  Chambers of commerce exist in cities around the world and work to represent the needs of businesses to local governments as well as provide support to those businesses such as employee training, networking events, and educational opportunities.  Chambers can represent broad communities of business owners or specific ones such as the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and the National Business League, Inc. (formerly the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce).  The Detroit Regional Chamber has over 20,000 members in seven counties and hosts two key policy events annually that convene government officials, lawmakers, philanthropies, and businesses: the Detroit Policy Conference focused on Detroit and the local region, and The Mackinac Policy Conference which convenes people from across the state of Michigan. The Detroit Chamber also raises funds and manages them for the Detroit Promise Scholarship, a scholarship that’s available to fully fund all Detroit high school graduates (with certain grades and test scores) to attend Michigan trade schools, community colleges, or four-year institutions.

Final Thoughts 

Sometimes it can seem like there are entities such as businesses with more power and influence over government than the everyday citizen.  At the local level, and in Detroit, you can see that you have access to decision-making, opportunities to advocate, and influence over many of the entities closest to Detroit’s government.  Further, in many cases these entities are accountable to you. You have power and influence and can use that to build momentum for your neighborhood causes.

Lesson Review

Draw a venn diagram comparing the services delivered by special purpose governments and general purpose governments.  Specifically, compare the role of the City of Detroit with that of the authorities we’ve learned about this lesson.  What do they have in common? Where are they different?  Then write a short essay explaining how the City of Detroit maintains influence over services provided by authorities and other organizations and why that influence is important.