Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy last month and has long-term debts estimated over $18 billion, needs every penny it can get. That's why a report that the city lost a $1 million check in a desk drawer is not just an absurd example of bureaucratic inefficiency, but alarming.
Bloomberg News reports the routine payment from Detroit Public Schools was misplaced in a City Hall drawer for a month this past February.
Atlantic Wire points out that the larger concern is not the $1 million, which is less than one percent of the city's annual budget, but that it's still receiving paper checks:
It's as if you, a person who makes $50,000 a year, lost twenty bucks. You wish you hadn't lost that twenty and it was stupid you did, but you're not going to go broke because of it. ... In short: It's like you lost $20 bills all the time because you never got around to learning how to use pockets.
The city's decades-old computing systems don't help anything. In Detroit, each department uses its own system, and information is separated even within some departments -- like in the Police Department, where precincts and districts "cannot share information across their systems."
In a July report to show creditors the depths of Detroit's insolvency, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr pointed to consistent cash losses due to old operating systems. Payroll administration costs $62 per check for a total of $19.2 million a year, compared to an average $18 per-check cost for the public sector.
"The City urgently needs to upgrade or replace the following IT systems, among others: payroll; financial; budget development; property information and assessment; income tax; and DPD operating system," he wrote.
Orr spokesman Bill Nowling told The Huffington Post the city is working to improve collection and accounting.
"Our new CFO, Jim Bonsall, is working with his staff to put new and more modern accounting procedures in place to better transact city business so issues like this lost check don't arise," he said.
Bloomberg points out other examples of operational flaws and outdated systems, but it's not just IT: head-scratching inefficiencies plague other departments where there's more at stake than dollars. On Thursday, recently appointed Police Chief James Craig called a press conference to highlight some of the frustrations he had with the way the department had been run. He wondered why more than 50 brand new cars sit unused in a warehouse even though funds are available to equip them as patrol cars, according to MLive. Meanwhile, a majority of DPD's fleet has reached replacement age.
Craig also pointed to the department recently letting a grant to lapse that would have allowed them to purchase a armored vehicle and how sworn officers had been working in clerical and mechanical positions.
Last month, the city's emergency dispatch system went down for two hours, while dispatchers reached officers, firefighters and EMS technicians by cell phone, according to the Detroit News. The shutdown delayed response to 17 priority one calls and more than 100 non-priority calls. The backup system had never been tested.
From outdated equipment to broken systems, there's a lot to fix before Detroit functions effectively and efficiently.
"I wish I could make this stuff up," Craig said, according to MLive. "You may detect a little frustration in my voice, but again it goes back to ... accountability, status quo, no sense of urgency."