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One More Slap in the Face

It was during one of my marathon late-night news sessions when the thought came to me: We're being punished for living in Detroit.

The story I was watching was about the growing budget deficit at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This grand musical tradition is like almost every organization in Southeast Michigan these days – living in the red and wondering how to get out.

The DSO reported on Thursday that it ended its recent fiscal year with a $3.7 million deficit; that compares to a shortfall of $500,000 from the year before. Much of the blame is the drop in corporate donations. According to reports, the orchestra's business support fell by half to $1.59 million compared to $3.29 million in 2008.

So how does the orchestra plan on solving the problem? No, they're not appealing to the corporations. And there are no plans for a massive fund-raising campaign among the public. The executive director said she is trying to get the musicians to reopen their contract. Salaries, which make up most of the DSO's budget, must be cut, management said.

Sheesh, methinks. Granted, the whole nation is in trouble. The recession has left a bloody trail behind it as companies and families slash budgets. I'm sure other orchestras are cutting back. And I'm aware that things like music are a luxury when many folks here cannot even afford heat, housing or food.

What gets me (and probably those DSO employees) is that this mentality feels like one more tax, one more pinch, one more slap to those of us who choose to remain here.

Earlier this month, the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University released new data on what it called the “Michigan exodus.” According to its research, Michigan has lost more people each year as jobs evaporated, with 9,388 fewer in 2005; 34,088 in 2006; and 46,368 in 2007. Rhode Island, the only other state to lose population in that period, lost only 2,000 over those three years.

The data shows that much of the population decline was triggered by manufacturing job losses, especially from the auto industry in Southeastern Michigan. Wayne County lost more than 100,000 residents out of approximately 2 million, or one in 20 people between 2000 and 2008. Not all left the state – some simply moved to other counties.

But Wayne County's exodus of residents (111,232) for this period was second only to Orleans Parish in Louisiana (172,821) following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. From 2006 to 2008, Wayne County charted the highest population loss per year in the nation.

“Such population loss can mean an economic vortex for a city like Detroit,” said Soji Adelaja, lead author of the new study charting the impacts of Michigan's population loss and director of the Land Policy Institute at MSU. “Fewer people mean fewer tax revenues to provide city services. Fewer city services mean lower quality of life for people. So people are faced with tough decisions: Stick it out, or leave.”

Those who choose to stick it out – like the DSO's small group of 85 musicians – are left to pay the price. In my mind, they are penalized for trying to keep Michigan going.

Not that people like me are helping the situation. Before children arrived, my classical music-loving husband and I frequently attended DSO events. We stopped going because it was too hard to find babysitters. These days, we'd probably make the argument that babysitters – plus DSO tickets – are too expensive.

That's in part because Husband took a pay cut earlier this year when General Motors went into bankruptcy. GM turned off its 401(k) contributions, added new health-insurance costs and took away vacation days as well. We slogged through all of it, confident that the company would survive this time and come back fighting. (Did I mention the stock we purchased just before the automotive giant spiraled into bankruptcy? It seemed like a good idea at the time…really…it did.)

A lot of those concessions were temporary, I'm happy to report. And my family is doing just fine; I have nothing to complain about. But I'm still left with the feeling that many who live here (and plan to stay here) will give up far more than they will receive in the months and years (even decades?) to come.

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  • 1

    Perhaps many will not view that being a resident of this region is a negative...The notion that this region is losing becuase change is taking place is truly a matter of one's current state of being on a number of layers...

    One could argue that those who are leaving are the one's who made the area weak and negative???

    Enough of the victimhood siren...Pleaseeeeeeeeeeee

  • 2

    What is really frustrating is that the burden is put on the middle class is this state - and it is just more incentive to move away. There are members of our legislature who want to raise state taxes as high as 10 percent on the middle class while they are earning exorbiant salaries and benefits. I can't get an answer from any legislature on the following. Maybe Time Magazine can help.

    Members of the Michigan house and senate all earn $79,650 annually. Senators each get $12,000 expense budgets, $52,000 for office expenses, $108,000 for staff - and this is before they get their health benefits. There are 38 members of the senate and another 110 members of the house. They are second in the nation for highest salaries, exceeded only by California. (Even with the paycut they took this year.)

    The senate is spending over $9 million a year on salaries, staff, and expenses. The house is spending $8,761,500 just on salaries for themselves. (I couldn't find the data on the budgets the house members get.) That equals close to $18 million a year before benefits. That's enough to hire 360 teachers at $50,000 per year. Or 180 teachers with masters degrees at $100,000 per year. (Of course, I'm not including benefits. So maybe it's only 130 teachers at $100,000 per year.)

    I say if they need office supplies they can ask the moms in their district to donate them along with tissues and paper towel. And they can sell candy bars to pay for the gas they need to go to Lansing. When I am punished for living here with a 10 percent state tax I'll be moving.

  • 3

    @joytreg - I seem to recall watching a Channel 7 or 4 new segment about their additional monthly allowance that isn't tracked in any meaningful way. IIRC it was around 1200$ per month but my google-fu is failing me today. In an economy where public teachers in a failing district are being asked to give up even more of their comparatively small salaries - you make an excellent point: Why do people that make an obvious contribution to the culture of the region have to forgo pay and jobs when Lansing keeps theirs?

  • 4

    I don't want to see the DSO go anywhere, or become less artistically astute, but perhaps the organization is not being run as well as it could be? Perhaps the musicians make too much ($104k starting salary, anyone?) too soon? Perhaps the strategic planning taking place over there isn't as well thought out as it could be and they are perpetuating an outdated business model?

    And those musicians aren't "paying the price" to stay here like you suggest, they're raking in some serious cash working in a city that is unable (unwilling?) to support a symphony of this size. They've made no sacrifices to be here-- they live in the Grosse Pointe communities or up in the NW suburbs.

    • 4.1

      The DSO is a top-notch symphony that deserves everything they get. The budget difficulties currently being faced are a direct result of the recent economic downturn and a bit of bad timing, not due to a general lack of support.

      The new musical director, Leonard Slatkin, will be taking the symphony to heights it has not enjoyed it quite a while. He's big on communtiy and outreach programs, exposing many who have not had the opportunity or inclination before to the joys of the symphonic experience. There have also been changes to ticket pricing in order to accomodate smaller wallets. Slatkin has also arranged recording and touring plans, which had largely fallen by the wayside, to bring renewed attention to the symphony on the national level. Unfortunately Slatkin arrived just as the downturn started so he didn't have the lead-time he wanted to establish some the contacts that could have eased the situation, plus he just recently suffered a heart attack, which has also delayed some work. Fortunately he is doing well and is expected back on the podium in January. You can follow Slatkin on his personal blog - www-dot-leonardslatkin-dot-com and the symphony on their website -

  • 5

    @mbianca - In case you'd forgotten but the whole region is suffering from the suburbs on down. Anyone who has decided to stay in the region and support the arts as opposed to running to a bigger market and potentially more pay - should be applauded. There is no such thing as high starting wage when you perform a valuable service to the community. In economies of scale, the DSO wages are competitive but not exorbitant. Maybe they should put down their violins and get a job at Taco Bell, would you be happy with their pay then?

  • 6

    @danindetroit- of course i don't want musicians to stop doing what they are good at. what i want is for them to take a pay cut to save the organization that they are bleeding dry via their salary and benefit "requirements." the DSO staff has been reduced 20% and everyone who is left has taken a pay cut, how can the musicians not do so as well?

  • 7

    @mbianca - Professional musicians are no different than professional athletes. While it's unfortunate that support staff has been cut, the true stars are what draw a paying public. I would be just as appreciative of a Red Wing player continuing to make his original contract money and stay in the city to support his team, as I would a DSO musician that does the same. Just staying in the area and continuing to play is tantamount to a pay cut when many could easily make more in a larger city.

  • 8

    [...] And in Time’s Detroit blog, Karen Dybis relates the troubles at the Detroit Symphony and Michigan generally to her own personal story in One More Slap in the Face [...]

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