Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, left, and Mike Duggan )
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what city Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon are talking about on the campaign trail.
Twice last week I heard the two Detroit mayoral candidates say the city has no business in bankruptcy court, doesn’t need an emergency manager, shouldn’t touch pensions or sell assets and doesn’t need to rewrite labor contracts.
It makes me wonder if candidates so detached from the reality of Detroit’s financial crisis can make legitimate claims to being capable of leading Detroit out of this crisis.
I asked both of them how Detroit could free itself from $18 billion in debt and erase operating deficits that top $100 million annually without bankruptcy and got answers so similar I’d swear they’d rehearsed them together.
First, both candidates said, subtract the $6 billion in debt attached to the city water department because that obligation is covered by revenues generated by the sale of water to suburban customers and is not in jeopardy of default.
Fair enough. But that still leaves $12 billion, or about eight times the city’s annual general fund budget.
No problem, the pair responded, because $6 billion of that amount represents what’s owed to retirees in health care benefits. And since the state constitution doesn’t protect health care benefits, the city could wipe that away on its own.
That leaves $6 billion, half of which represents the pension shortfall and half other debt. And that, they say, is a load the city can handle once it is under their leadership and operating more efficiently.
Duggan said if the city collected the $100 million a year in unpaid income taxes, it would be back in the black. Napoleon said if the city’s leaders didn’t panic, and instead came to the table with creative ideas, solutions would present themselves.
And if my aunt had different parts, she’d be my uncle.
Detroit is where it is today because none of those things happened. The political leadership could have stripped retirees of health care benefits, but didn’t have the will. The city could have developed a plan with the state to improve income tax collections, but it never did.
What it did do was continue to borrow money, including another $135 million last year just to keep operating.
Give Napoleon and Duggan the benefit of the doubt and agree that had either one of them been mayor, the crisis may have been averted. But they weren’t. And if the state had let this disaster roll on for another year waiting for new elected leadership, the hole would have been that much deeper.
So deal with reality, guys. Instead of standing in the street screaming at the federal courthouse, as Napoleon did last week, count your blessings.
If this bankruptcy is approved and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr can wipe away two-thirds of the debt while doing the hard work of restructuring the broken government, it’s heavy lifting the next mayor won’t have to do.
Follow Nolan Finley on Twitter at nolanfinleydn.