THE BLOG

Emergency Manager Maybe the Best Thing to Happen to Detroit

12/12/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

Mayor Bing and others have made the statement that Detroit should be run by Detroiters, this in answer to Governor Snyder suggesting that Detroit should enter into a Consent Agreement or face having an Emergency Manager takeover.

The only problem with Mayor Bing's statement is when you have unqualified Detroiters operating Detroit. Detroit is where it is today in part because (1) its finances have been sorely mismanaged; (2) those in charge refused to make the necessary structural changes that are needed and (3) monies owed to the city, whether from the state, corporations, income taxes or property taxes have not been collected.

We've heard numbers thrown around like $200 million owed the city by the State of Michigan, $155 million owed the city in unpaid taxes and millions owed to Detroit in corporate taxes, and the Detroit Public School system owing the city $15 million. Assume that those numbers are a little inflated and let's say it's half of that. It's enough owed the city to solve its debt crisis. That would more than cover the debt the Detroit now faces.

The fact that these dollars have not been collected and until now there has been no mention of even asking for it is a clear example of bad management. Getting help from the governor in terms of forcing employers to collect taxes from Detroit residents working in the suburbs and recalculating the revenue-sharing split, especially if Gov. Snyder does not intend to pay the $200 million owed to the city, would help Detroit solve its deficit.

It didn't help the city of Detroit at all that the Charter Revision Commission had an opportunity to restructure city government but failed to do so. They, in fact, grew, not shrunk, government. There are several departments that are charter-mandated which could have been consolidated. The Commission added an Inspector General and kept the Ombudsman position, a clear redundancy. They also caved to political pressure when they failed to reduce the number of Council members from nine to seven.

In 2009, voters elected five new members to City Council. That, for Detroit, was sweeping change, switching out that many Council members in one election. Voters yearned for change, new life, energy, because they want so much to save their city. What you have in Council generally are some caring people who really want the best for Detroit but unfortunately they're limited. They are led by a former news reporter who has no background in financing, public or private management operations and who has had some challenges with his personal finances.

Charles Pugh, along with his President Pro Tem Gary Brown, have made public safety the poster child for what's wrong with the city. Yes, public safety is 60 percent of the city's budget. Yes the police department has a budget north of $300 million. But unless we can have a safe city, we will have no city.

Pro Tem Gary Brown, a former police executive, is laser-focused on everything police. He has now discovered after his 26 years with the Detroit Police Department that there is something wrong with a culture that he fostered and nourished. Having officers doing building maintenance is not a good use of personnel. And it isn't good use of personnel when Brown was an executive and he had an officer taking his car to be gassed and washed. Brown knows the culture that exists can't be fixed overnight.

He also knows that this culture is not exclusively responsible for the plight the city finds itself in, but it's a good sound bite. It plays well politically to point a finger and place blame. By doing this, you direct attention away from the lack of a coherent plan or a substantive thought on Detroit's financial malaise.

Brown has suggested that Mayor Bing lay off 2,300 city workers, including 500 police and fire workers. What he will not tell you is this is a Band-Aid. The structural deficit will not be satisfied with these cuts. Mayor Bing has been adamant about not laying off public safety workers. He, at least, understands how tragic that would be for the people of Detroit.

Both Mayor Bing and City Council President Pugh and President Pro-Tem Brown keep saying the unions need to come to the table. Neither Mayor Bing or Council "leaders" seem serious about addressing the financial crisis; if they were, they would come to the table with a coherent plan. The tragedy of all this is the people will be the losers. They will lose either by being less safe if Pugh and Brown get their way and officers are laid off, or they will lose because these "leaders" cannot come up with long-term solutions and Detroit is declared insolvent.

Some on Council appear to want to marginalize what police officers and firefighters do in making their case for concessions. Pro Tem Brown's attack on the police department seems personal, which is all the more reason why Detroit needs changes at the top. Since the elections aren't until 2013, the only way to remove the incompetence that exists and force the city to fix itself structurally would be through the appointment of an emergency manager.