No one who draws a paycheck from the city of Detroit -- or wishes they could -- likely will embrace the plan from Mayor Dave Bing's crisis turnaround team, unveiled Wednesday.
Not the unions, accustomed to living off an expanding public sector now contracting because revenue is disappearing. Not City Council, captive as some of its members are to the quasi-religious belief that privatization of any city service is bad, mostly because it would impact political patrons in labor. And not vendors, their bank accounts fattened by city contracts.
Reality stinks sometimes.
Bing and his turnaround team are asking the right questions and pushing the right issues because Detroit's financial problems are only likely to get worse. Exacerbating them are chronic mismanagement, the implosion of the hometown auto industry, a decade-long state recession turned national and limits to help from a White House already into Detroit for nearly $70 billion.
The turnaround team wants to outsource management of payroll and Coleman A. Young International Airport; close the Mistersky Power Plant; renew ties with foundations, one of the few groups still able to spend money; centralize accounting and cash collection; renegotiate procurement processes; restructure debt; and consolidate union representation, now including 50 separate contracts for 12,000 employees.
Does Bing's 145-page plan, which the mayor concedes to be an outline, prescribe change? You bet. A business-like turnaround is one of the few hopes this long neglected and poorly led city has to find its bottom and begin a long, slow climb back to respectability, responsibility, new investment and maybe some measure of repopulation.
Economics trump politics
Because Detroit's politicized management, generations in the making, is a proven failure. Denying the simple facts of the city's predicament, more evidently true with each passing week, won't make them go away. They'll only get worse as the nation's economy slowly recovers, investment restarts and Detroit is left behind.
That's a stiff challenge to the status quo. The city's unions and its council members inhabit a political world shaped by continual battles over the allocation of diminishing taxpayer money, be it from Detroiters, non-residents who work here, state revenue sharing or federal dollars.
Unlike so many mayors before him, Bing is moored elsewhere. He's less tied to shifting political alliances and what they might mean for his career and more focused on the real world of hard economics. Right now, the economics and the discipline they command are on the mayor's side, not the usual noise makers.
The city is "critically short of cash as a result of a $280 million estimated accumulated deficit and a growing structural deficit," says the turnaround team's report. "The city is at risk of running out of cash to settle obligations at several points throughout the year" -- this month, January and, "especially by late spring 2010."
Detroit's cash crisis, as real as the ones that pushed two hometown automakers into bankruptcy, are necessary to drive change, but they're not sufficient. The corollaries to Detroit's dismal financial condition are the sobering facts of life here -- a crime-ridden city with public schools teetering on bankruptcy, an unemployment rate running somewhere north of 25 percent, a collapsing tax base and a corrupt political culture.
Recession makes job harder
Worse, for the near-term politics and Bing's ability to push a turnaround plan during an election season, is the grip of recession. The thousands who swarmed Cobo Center Wednesday to file applications for federal help with rent and utilities are but one more reminder.
Yes, the region's deepening economic troubles expose real needs. They also sharply define a deep-seated culture of expectation and entitlement working against Bing as he tries to persuade Detroiters the crisis facing their city is real, not manufactured to break unions or cement a political career that could end as quickly as it began.
He's got a city accustomed to believing that public institutions -- the city and its public schools, for starters -- are the employers of first resort. He's got members of council, some of whom stand a decent chance at re-election, leading the charge against privatization. He's got some unions effectively daring him to impose contract concessions.
All of it presupposes that the fiscal crisis Bing sees, the credit rating agencies see or the crisis turnaround team of volunteers sees is a bad dream that will pass. It isn't, any more than the crushing debt burdens and disappearing cash flows of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC were.
Union leaders, their political allies and supporters across the city are free to demonize the mayor, criticize his various teams and withdraw political support in advance of the November election. But none of that changes the fact that the city bureaucracy consumes more cash than it takes in -- and it will continue to do so until things change, dramatically.
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