You don’t have to be a religious follower of local news to see that Detroit has been on the receiving end of plenty of gifts, donations or, as some would say, handouts.
Call it what you will, Mayor Dave Bing has been clear that Detroit has, at this point, no choice but to set pride aside and ask for help in any way, shape or form.
He’s a mayor that ain’t too proud to beg, and in fact admits he spends an “important” portion of his time as mayor seeking help from the state, the feds, and the private sector. And rightfully so. As a leader, you do what gotta do, you take what you can when the going gets excruciating.
Over the past two months alone, the city has received millions on federal grants, big-ticket donations and in-kind gifts of everything from community building to toilet paper. It's hardly enough to make a big dent in the city's financial issues, but every bit counts.
In fact, much of the good news the city has to share lately has been about a donation or grant to the city.
Take Ford’s recent $10 million donation which in part went to meet costs at a city-run activity center. Or the news that a long abandoned “eyesore” would be demolished with a 6.5 million grant from the feds. How about the good news that Detroit would reinstate 26 firefighters with a 5.6 million grant from FEMA? While the gift of money always pleases, in-kind donations to Detroit firefighters have been announced this holiday season, as Art Van donated more that 150 mattress sets to Detroit firehouses o Christmas eve. Last month firefighters got a donation of basic supplies that the city has not been able to provide—like soap and toilet paper—from Detroit Chemical and Paper Supply company and the Andiamo Restaurant Group.
That said, Bing said there are “quite a few” more donors lined up to help Detroit amble through this financially stricken time.
Perhaps one of the most interesting plea for support comes from a program to help beef up if meager personnel numbers.
Bing has consistently responded to questions from reporters saying ““We just don’t have the people to get this done as quickly as we would like to” regarding various initiatives he has laid out.
So how can Detroit get more management level jobs without paying the high price? Bing mentioned a program at a press conference recently in which the city would seek to get businesses to “loan” their management-level employees to the city. That’s right.
“Because of the cutbacks we have had from a personnel standpoint we are very stressed, we are very light at the management level so we are now reaching out to certain businesses around the state in particular to see whether or not they could loan us executives from anywhere from one to two years,” Bing told reporters on Monday. “We’re getting some positive feedback there.”
Aside from being an HR conundrum, who would be willing to lend a manager to the City of Detroit?
We shall see.
Think back to before Snyder, before Public Act 4 took effect. The city was broke then, too. Just as broke, in fact, as it is today. There was the threat of payless paydays, a recurring warning in the city these days. So what’s different now?
The state’s taking a firmer stance: Make big structural changes in Detroit government or no money from us, is the message coming from Lansing.
That’s why at a press conference last week, Mayor Dave Bing told reporters that, ultimately, he’s not the one calling the shots in these politically and financially stressful days. The State is. “I’m open minded but by the same token, the State is holding the cards at this point,” Bing said when asked whether he would reconsider terms of a contract that is necessary for acquiring state funds. Bing has brushed off City Council’s concerns of a conflict of interest with the controversial Miller Canfield contract.
If the state is holding the cards, a good poker face is in order.
Per the Snyder Administration’s deal with the Mayor’s Office, the City must hire and maintain private legal and turnaround firms, among other restructuring moves in order to get $30 million in bond sale funds. Now, heading into the New Year, the city is so broke it (apparently) can’t even pay attention to the simple legal requirements of holding a public meeting.
As Detroit faces a fiscal cliff of its own, the words “payless paydays” and “unpaid furloughs” have resurfaced as they have time and time before, especially over the past four years after former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick left office and audits exposed the city’s financial nightmare. Essentially, the only difference between a payless payday and an unpaid furlough is notice not to come to work. And rhetoric. Either way, what usually would be a payday’s going to roll around and some unfortunate city workers are not getting paychecks. Either way, a check has to be missing a couple zeros or missing altogether.
We’ve heard it before, perhaps too many times: If the city doesn’t make drastic changes, it will crumble into the void. But by now Detroiters are a practically numb to the threat of running out of money. And that’s no good, especially if they city really is to run out of cash. But here’s the thing: it’s not.
The city won’t run out of cash any more than is has in the past. That’s not my opinion; it’s Detroit CFO Jack Martin’s. He spoke at a press conference last week declaring that a few unpaid furloughs will be enough to fill the cash gap. He and Bing last week promised “absolutely no payless paydays” and “no bankruptcy whatsoever.” But a slow trickle of furlough savings a $30 million lump sum is not.
But really, how do the two even compare? If a few unpaid furloughs for non-public safety or revenue generating workers is enough to stave off a financial crisis, was how critical was the crisis in the first place? It’s a question that perhaps touches on root of the issue between the legislative and executive branch of Detroit government.
Obviously, unpaid furloughs are being used as a threat to get council members to approve a controversial contract. But if it doesn’t work, then what? More lawsuits from unions? More back-and-forth?
As Bing and Martin have said, bankruptcy at this point is far from an option. The city is not close to being eligible ... yet.
Now that the State-City Milestone agreement benchmarks have not been approved by the City Council, and now that the state’s emergency manager leverage has been repealed, it’s back to the drawing board. Back to the unpaid furloughs hotly contested in 2010.
As far as bankruptcy goes, there’s a good reason we want to avoid it: “Bankruptcy costs a lot of money, ironically,” Said Eric Scorsone, extension specialist in State and Local Government at Michigan State University. He said the city of Vallejo, California spent over $10 million on bankruptcy lawsuits in 2008. “If you can get the same outcome at a cheaper price, you do that.”
Let’s do that.
Remember the Cobo Hall drama? It may seem like a dated political fad now, but three years ago Detroit was abuzz with the threat of losing the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) or, on the other end, the “hijacking” of Cobo Hall from City of Detroit ownership to regional control.
That’s behind us now and construction continues unchallenged at COBO. Now that the riverside conference center is in the hands of a regional authority—and regional funds— the political storm has calmed and it’s a non-issue.
But Detroit has moved on to a new controversial authority, one that would put Detroit’s public lighting department in the hands of a joint authority between City and State appointees.
The legislation, which Mayor Dave Bing announced in August, got tied up in the State Senate a month after the announcement , with a slim chance of passing in the lame duck period after the election. Passage of this legislation would authorize the creation of a City of Detroit Public Lighting Authority and allow the City the bonding capacity to invest an estimated $160 million to modernize the street lighting system, according to Bing.
Opponents of the plan—state legislators representing Detroit—say that the authority is not a good deal for Detroit in the long term, arguing that it represents another loss of a city asset amid financial hardship.
Meanwhile many Detroit Neighborhoods and major thoroughfares remain in the dark, with antiquated lights that are broken and needing modernization.
While the authority seems like it could be a good fix for Detroit there is a misconception that passage of the legislation will get the city glowing like a Christmas tree in a matter of months.
That’s far from the truth. In fact, Bing himself is the first person to put that misconception to rest.
“I don’t want to make our residents think that this legislation is going to get the light in right away,” he told Council members at a meeting last week. “Even if an authority is passed through legislature the lights are not going to come on every day.” This legislation gives us the opportunity to make an investment to fix problems over a 2-5 year span.”
Councilman Ken Cockrel, Jr. called for an interim plan while the authority takes its time. “We need a plan B,” Cockrel said. “Large swaths of the city are in the dark. There has to be a contingency plan.”
There isn’t a contingency plan. Some would argue that there's no money for a contingency plan witout another controversy over state-city power politics.
In the meantime, many Detroiters will keep on living in the dark as they have become accustomed and perhaps the legistlation for the public lighting authority will pass, and, three years from now, we will see some progress little by little, and it will go the way of Cobo Hall--which is not necesarily a bad thing.
Just look at Cobo. Today, three years later, significant improvements have been made to the home of the NAIAS but the biggest improvements and expansions are still in progress. That’s not to say the authority isn’t doing a good job, it’s to say that big improvements like the ones needed at Detroit Public Lighting take years, and patience. They also take collaboration. The longer we wait for the lighting bills to pass state legislature, it just tacks on more time to the already lengthy renewal.
Many streetlights are out in the Detroit neighborhood I live in but I’m fortunate enough to have a car. It really doesn’t bother me any more. I imagine many Detroiters have, over the years, grown accustomed to a city that goes dark at sunset. It’s the norm.That’s part of the problem.
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