February 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Pledging an extra $20M for blight, Duggan outlines aggressive moves

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan vowed Wednesday that “change in Detroit is real” to fix broken city services and offered a plan to spend $20 million to demolish fire-damaged abandoned structures in his first State of the City address.

The former Detroit Medical Center CEO cited an improved relationship with the City Council and the launching of a new Department of Neighborhoods as well as revised Public Lighting and Detroit Land Bank authorities as signs he is making improvements in city services.

“You’ve seen us take on these issues calmly and deal with them honestly,” he said in a wide-ranging, 45-minute speech at City Hall. “The change has started, and the change in Detroit is real.”

Among the examples Duggan cited is the city’s purchase of 15 new ambulances, which are expected to be in service this summer. The city is also in the process of hiring 70 more emergency medical technicians.

City Council members and political analysts praised Duggan for being a quick study of the city and showing he grasped the plight of many residents.

Duggan, who was given authority over most city operations by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, made clear that while he is tackling many service issues, fighting blight is a top priority. He said he will tap a unused fire escrow account to tear down about 5,000 properties that can’t be fixed.

The cost the insurance companies paid often did not cover the cost of demolition, Duggan said, so the city left the $20 million in the bank account. The plan, he told an audience of about 500 appointees and supporters, is to take the money and “start rolling through the community and start to bring those blocks back.”

The money is in addition to the $520 million Orr and Duggan want to spend on blight removal during the next five years.

Duggan also said he has launched his Department of Neighborhoods and hired employees to set up an office in each of the seven City Council districts so they can work with neighborhood groups to fight abandoned and deteriorating structures. They will replace 14 offices scattered across the city.

A federal task force including Quicken Loans Corp. Chairman Dan Gilbert has finished a parcel-by-parcel survey of blighted and abandoned structures in the city — a feat the mayor lauded as shortening the battle against blight by at least a year.

Duggan’s blight plan was welcomed by Glenda Price, a financial advisory board member who sits on Detroit’s Blight Task Force.

“It takes money to get the job done,” Price said. “It’s going to speed up the process of total blight remediation. ... These dollars allocated to blight removal are going to be critical to new development, neighborhood stabilization, as well as economic viability.”

The anti-blight battle includes fighting scrappers “who are tearing this city apart,” Duggan said, by stripping precious metals, air conditioners and other fixtures from homes and businesses, and selling them as scrap metal.

He said he will be working with Democratic and Republican state lawmakers to pass stalled legislation that would put more restrictions on the sale of certain items in scrap yards. Gov. Rick Snyder also backed such an effort in last month’s State of the State address.

Duggan wants requirements including taking a clear photo of the seller of certain items to discourage the stripping of properties. He also wants a three-day waiting period on the sale of copper wire, catalytic converters and air-conditioning condensers in scrap yards so police investigators have time to track the items.

Opponents have argued proposals could entangle legitimate commerce in governmental intervention and there are more effective, less intrusive ways to fight illegal practices.

The mayor lauded the efforts of state legislators, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Sen. Virgil Smith, both Detroit Democrats, on the issue even though they have sparred on issues like the three-day waiting period.

At one point, the mayor acknowledged Detroit is not sharing equally in the country’s economic recovery. Creating more jobs is a key to turning around the city, he said, and “a job means a reliable bus system.”

The mayor credited new bus director Dan Dirks with extending 14 bus routes to 1 a.m. to help riders get to and from work.

Duggan told the story of at least one man who has to ride a bus to the end of the line so he has a seat to get to work. At some points, the man was paying two bus fares to get to and from work.

Duggan said he added a new bus line at 3 p.m. so the resident can get to work.

“When I say change is immediate, for at least one rider it is,” he said.

Duggan also indicated he has urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox to act quickly on Detroit’s request for 50 new buses in the fall.

Former City Council member Sheila Cockrel said Duggan showed a grasp of the issues confronting residents.

“He hit on all the key issues that Detroiters have been grappling with day to day,” she said. “... It was absolutely an extraordinary speech. It came across as authentic.”

Political analyst Eric Foster said Duggan provided a detailed explanation called of the city’s operational problems and what needs to be done — something that has been lacking in State of the City speeches going back to Mayor Dennis Archer in the 1990s.

There has been “a lot of high ambition, but not a lot of details” in past speeches, Foster said.

Among the issues the mayor addressed were city parks. He called he condition of the parks last summer “embarrassing” and pledged 150 city parks would be open and “well-maintained” this summer.

“We need to do more,” he added in setting a goal of recruiting faith leaders and businesses to open and maintain another 50 parks this summer.

Council member Saunteel Jenkins welcomed the parks initiative, saying, “Children deserve to have some spaces to play.”

The mayor also said he is committed to following through on a campaign promise and has assembled a team to help the city develop its own auto insurance plan that he is calling “D-Insurance.” The mayor said he is working with the City Council to conduct a feasibility study that should be finished by summer.

Duggan delivered his first State of the City Address on the same day he launched his campaign one year ago. In the midst of a snowstorm at the Samaritan Center on the city’s east side, he vowed that every city neighborhood has a future.

His campaign endured a rocky start, winning a write-in campaign and a recount last summer. He won the August primary and then the November general election to become Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years.

Duggan reiterated during the speech city workers are critical to helping turn around the city.

“In this administration, you are going to have leadership that listens to you and involves you,” Duggan said. “We all need to work together to give the residents the service they deserve.”

The mayor was greeted before the speech with a standing ovation, prompting him to say he hoped the audience would be as enthusiastic in another year. But his self-effacement did not prevent him from ending his speech with a bold assertion: “Detroit is not nearly as far away from turning around as most people think.”

Council member James Tate seemed to agree.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment where there’s this glimmer of hope that things are going to be better,” Tate said after the speech. “Even in the midst of all the challenges that we have, clearly you see that we’re not done and there’s a whole lot of fight left in this city.”

dnichols@detroitnews.com
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