Detroit EM must embrace “Street Time” and absolute transparency

It’s time; without significant and swift intervention Detroit will financially collapse, there is no other possible outcome.  The argument that elected officials should have remained fully in charge makes the false assumption that reforms can be enacted at government speed. Government entities normally have the luxury of operating on government time because there is really no hurry when you’re not the one being directly affected. Solutions are often adopted that will not produce measurable results till far down the road, if ever. Critics opposed to the appointment of an emergency manager claimed there was no chance anything could be accomplished in only eighteen months. This is exactly the mindset that will doom this process no matter who is in charge. The residents and small business owners in Detroit will not support any long term plans without signs of immediate progress. All the parties in this rescue must understand the need to operate in street time. While governments and big businesses have the resources to implement solutions that can take years, individuals and small businesses must function in the here and now … street time. Parents want to know that their children can safely take a bus to school now, not a year from now. Small business owners need to see signs of improvement that will boost their bottom line so they can make payroll this month, not six months from now. Incremental changes that give some hope of better times ahead can be fast tracked separately from the big picture negotiations. Changes proposed to quickly show good faith to residents and businesses need to be treated by those who work for and run the city like their jobs depend on them, because now they actually do.

None of this will work unless those who are bent on obstruction face the full reality of the situation. The reality is; the federal government is not going to rescue Detroit and even if it did you probably wouldn’t like the outcome any better than the bond holders, closed dealers, stock holders and retires in the auto bailouts liked theirs. There will not be an infusion of no strings attached cash coming from the rest of the state’s residents, who themselves have been dealing with cut backs and falling revenues in their own communities. Anyone pulling for bankruptcy has no idea what a harsh process it is and how much worse their life will get before it ever gets better. The idea that an EM is only here to make sure the fat cat bankers are made whole ignores where much of the money really came from. Those debts that many want to walk away from are in part the savings of individuals put aside for retirement and cash from employee pension funds. These are not speculators that can afford to lose large portions of their hard earned nest egg; they are people who sought out a seemingly safe investment. Any process undertaken will be painful but the pain needs to be spread equitably and everyone must be shown why doing nothing is not an option. If the leaders of this unprecedented rescue mission are seeking the support of Detroiter’s they must earn it by realistically and transparently communicating the depth of the problems and the proposed solutions … no backroom deals!

Any revival effort will need to address the ever vocal guardians of the cities jewels. Current residents of the city do not own these so called jewels any more than the past residents, who also had a hand in creating, maintaining and enhancing them did. Each generation inherits the use of and responsibility for the assets of the city from those who came before them and are charged with making sure that they remain available for use by future Detroiters. Being the caretaker of these assets does not necessarily mean full ownership or absolute control if it cannot be accompanied by proper management and regular maintenance. During the Cobo Center authority talks it was noted that the appraised value of the property was actually less than what it would cost to take care of the deferred maintenance (a polite term for neglect) and desperately needed improvements. This was not a cash cow ripe for the taking, it was a facility badly in danger of becoming obsolete (remember Ford Auditorium) without a long term plan and a lot of cash. Belle Isle was the latest example of this totally control or let it rot philosophy. Much like Cobo Center, whoever has the responsibility to run and maintain it; can’t move it, can’t deprive Detroiter’s of its use and is not in line to reap any windfall for their efforts and investment. Let’s say the state, with an intact and respected park management structure, would have run Belle Isle and improved it for the next 10 years. At that point the city would have been free to decide if it was in their best interest to take on the cost and responsibility of running a fully functioning and well maintained park.  If there was a downside for Detroit in that plan, most still fail to see it.  Any mixture of ownership, control or oversight must be explored to make sure Detroit’s best features remain available to all and in first class condition.

While the exact amount of the city’s operating deficit and long term obligations can be debated, no one is focusing on the price of neglect. Whether the neglect was the result of fraud and waste or simply present because scarce funds needed to be allocated to more pressing needs, it is a huge legacy that needs to be dealt with. The six million dollar yearly cost to run Belle Isle was often noted but the three to four times that amount it will take to restore it was not. Operating budgets can be balanced but when you are operating broken down buses, non-running ambulances, poorly equipped schools and fire trucks with ladders that can’t be used, what’s the point. When the huge sum needed to repair, replace and bring into compliance the majority of the city’s infrastructure is considered, it is obvious that the overall financial needs are definitely not being overstated.

Those claiming the sanctity of democratic rule and local control ignore the fact that all local governments exist under rules set forth by the state. Being a resident of the state of Michigan supersedes your local residency at least in that the state must insure that all local units of government function to certain standards. These standards include proper handling and use of tax payer funds as well as having adequate systems in place to insure public safety. If these basic conditions are not being met by local government, the state has no choice but to step in and protect the rights of its residents, no matter where they live. All parties in this difficult task need to lay bare and face the situation as it really is while keeping in mind that those at street level expect to see immediate tangible evidence that as the grand plans play out, their life is getting measurably better by the day.

James Krause is a small business owner and life-long Southeast Michigan resident who comments on various subjects from a small business perspective. These articles are assembled on a small business comment site  Mr. Krause has been the owner of LongShot Golf Inc. in Clinton Township for over 20 years.