Park Closings in Detroit: Emergency Manager Imminent

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    Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s announcement last week of plans to close 50 parks in the city instantly grabbed attention in the New York Times as well as other national publications. At the same time the revelation of shutting down 50 of the 107 recreation parks also heightened the conversation around an emergency manager for Detroit, underscoring the dire straits the city is in.

    The mayor’s announcement, an apparent response to the Detroit City Council’s refusal to approve a State of Michigan proposal to lease Belle Isle and instead demand more answers from Gov. Rick Snyder, presents a challenge for families in the city who once looked to those parks for their recreational needs. It remains unclear whether the parks targeted for closing are in highly populated neighborhoods; the absence of recreational facilities is a recipe for crime.
    With the city’s ballooning deficit and cash flow issues, some are contending that an emergency manager is the route to cure Detroit’s fiscal crisis in order for the city to avoid bankruptcy. Under the new EM law, PA 436 of 2012 becomes effective, March 27.

    For instance, Rev. Bertram Marks, general counsel of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors and an advocate on issues in Detroit, penned a bold editorial recently calling for an emergency manager.

    “We have no more room for philosophical and ideological debates about how we arrived here and whether it is offensive to our autonomy for the state to intervene. Our condition is analogous to what we see in the private sector. Companies make themselves vulnerable to hostile takeovers when they are saturated with inefficiencies, mismanagement, waste and loss of market share,” Marks wrote.

    “The issue today is not whom we should blame, but rather who can fix these enormous problems. The morale of the citizens who feel virtually paralyzed by the numerous instances of violent crime, coupled with the frustration most Detroiters feel regarding city services, must be our highest priority and mandates immediate and precise action.”
    He went to say, “Detroit needs a manager who will be free from the influence of private contractors seeking to serve their need for profit ahead of the needs of the people. The contract provided to the emergency manager must include specific provisions that allow for his autonomy to work with the unions and the citizens to achieve the best possible results for the citizens of Detroit.

    “We do not need another study, review, agreement or half-hearted attempt to blame union workers and simply slash their salaries and benefits as a means of fixing Detroit’s problems. What we need is emergency financial management. Management requires innovative solutions beyond simply ‘cutting’ our way out of debt.”

    But the question that has been haunting not only officials in the corridors of power in Detroit but also the powers that be in Lansing is who would that individual be if the governor decides to make an announcement in the next four weeks?

    That individual, according to Marks and others, has to be not only free from the realm of politics, but also have a track record of turning municipal governments or institutions around and have a deep understanding of Detroit government, the city’s future and aspirations of everyone who is contributing to make a difference.

    Some names are already floating around city hall, in the political chattering class as well as among community leaders anxious to see who would be named an emergency manager if Detroit gets to that point.

    Charlie Beckham, the man who almost singlehandedly orchestrated the Bing era, has come up many times as an ideal candidate for the job given his lengthy background in municipal government.

    In the first editorial meeting I had with Bing (our first lengthy face-to-face encounter) months before he announced his candidacy for mayor, it was Beckham who accompanied Bing to the meeting to make the case that, in fact, the former NBA star-turned-businessman could do the job, as the city was struggling to free itself from the shackles of the Kwame Kilpatrick scandals.

    Beckham, a veteran of the Coleman Young era whose tenure with Bing ironically was short-lived right after Bing took office, and now has become a vocal critic of the mayor, has expressed interest in the position if given the opportunity.

    Another name that has come up, surprisingly, is Dr. Curtis Ivery, chancellor of Wayne County Community College District and former commissioner of the Arkansas Division of Human Services under then-Gov. Bill Clinton, becoming the first African American cabinet member under Clinton and managing billions of dollars in annual budget for Arkansas’ mammoth state department.

    Ivery, who has turned WCCCD, the state’s largest urban community college with over 70,000 students into a first rate educational institution since taking over in 1995, is viewed by many as a turnaround manager.

    In fact, WCCCD last year received an A+ bond rating from Fitch, which cited “strong budgetary and fiscal management practices” despite the challenges facing the local economy.

    Anthony Williams, the man who has largely been credited for turning around Washington, DC, as mayor and who was a featured speaker at the 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference, is also said to be under consideration. At the last business conference on Mackinac Island it was almost obvious that Williams was shopping for the job because he gave a prognostics of Detroit, and offered what he thinks ought to be done to bring the city back to solvency.

    In fact, Williams is believed to be the frontrunner candidate, and if that is the case it creates both an opportunity as well as a difficult challenge for the city.

    Picking someone with no ties to the city or state creates a level of independence in doing the job. But the issue is that the person would have no roots to the area, would not understand the political and social dynamics of the region in relation to the state, and the individual would literally have to be accompanied on an introductory handshake tour of the city, sometimes by opportunists looking to seize on the person’s lack of knowledge of the area.

    No matter who emerges as an ideal candidate, one issue remains: Detroit is at a crossroads and the leadership of both the city and the state cannot abdicate themselves from righting the ship.

    Foster, McCollum, White & Associates, a political consulting firm, conducted a fiscal analysis of Detroit’s financial state and concluded that, “Our assessment of the cash flow balancing is that a minimum of $94 million of the $202.4 million is unattainable and will not address the cash deficit in the General Fund. Our estimate is that the city’s General Fund will start with a $62.2 million deficit.”

    Their estimate also said the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is “hemorrhaging money significantly and has equaled the type of cash burn at the Department of Transportation. The Water and Sewerage Department lost $203, 500,000 during the 2012 fiscal year.”

    And the rate increases according to the political firm are not stopping the cash burn, citing as an example the Water Fund’s operating net deficit at $113.6 million as of June of 2012 despite revenue from Detroit and suburban customers increasing by $18.2 million.

    Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail bthompson@michronicle.com or visit his personal page at www.bankolethompson.com.

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