July 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Big or small, bankruptcy hurts

Debts dissolve, but issues still linger

The DIA's art has been a hot-button issue in Detroit's bankruptcy case, which began a year ago Friday. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Things would be different if her husband were still alive. No, not just different, because Sherry Kurzynowski is learning that different isn’t always better.

Things would be good.

She wouldn’t be three weeks from her next disability check, worrying already. She’d have a little spending money, maybe to take to the casino. She’d have a credit card.

Going to court was supposed to fix all that, 364 days ago. Fix the financial part, anyway. But few things are as simple as you think they’ll be.

Eighty-three petitions for bankruptcy were filed in Detroit on July 18.

There were three Deborahs trying to shed their obligations that day — Debs with debts. There were two Benjamins, two Daniels, two Kimberlys and two Kims. There were a White, a Greene, a Gray and two Browns.

There was one large American city.

The Detroit bankruptcy marks its first anniversary Friday, with almost everything still to be determined and nobody much cashing in except lawyers and art appraisers.

Most of the cases were resolved within three or four months, Kurzynowski’s among them. But as she’ll tell you — and as the city will eventually discover — your problems don’t disappear when you leave the courtroom.

'It shouldn't be this tough'

Alma, Birch Run, Clinton Township, Detroit. The home towns from July 18 run through the alphabet and across the map.

One man who filed has been trying to sell his five-bedroom home in Bloomfield Hills for 5 ˝ months. He just dropped the price to $549,000.

In Sandstone Township, five miles west of Jackson, Kurzynowski is clinging to the house she has owned more than half her life. It’s worth $94,000, but she refinanced five years ago and her equity is minimal.

“I’d like to see somebody do what I do and make what I make,” says Kurzynowski, 60, “and wonder why I had to file.”

The slide began in the early 1990s. Until then, she had a cleaning service and baked wedding cakes on the side, but two brain aneurysms left her on disability.

Her husband carried her through it.

They met at a family reunion. He was the cousin of the man she was dating, and the spark was instant. They married three months later.

“A wonderful man,” she says, and they had a decade together. Then, 12 years ago, he drowned in the same lake he grew up on.

“Nobody promises us a rose garden,” she says, “but it shouldn’t be this tough.”

Angry and cynical

Kurzynowski will tell you she’s cynical and angry. Then she’ll apologize for it, at least a little, because those things feel so un-Christian.

She’s angry because when she finally drew a 1.3 percent boost in her $1,549 government check, “the Yuppies and Guppies voted this damned 3 percent millage in, and my house payment went up $55.”

She’s angry at banks and politicians and the price of gasoline. She’s angry at herself, for using credit cards to buy food when she had told herself she never would.

It was the $12,961 in credit-card debt — and the bill collectors and garnishment that went with it — that finally spurred the bankruptcy.

Now she’s clear of that, and in a quirk of credit, she’s driving a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze. She couldn’t afford to fix the transmission on her old car, but she qualified for a low-mileage lease.

That makes her happy, and her 5-year-old great-granddaughter makes her ecstatic. There are rays of sunshine.

But life costs money. Water and utilities, $200. Insurance on her home and car and health, $321. Even with a $390 pension disbursement atop the disability check —and only $25 a month for clothing, according to her court paperwork, with nothing for recreation — her expenses were all of $4 less than her income.

That hasn’t changed.

“Do you eat,” Kurzynowski asks, “or do you pay your bills?”

Do you take just a small bite out of your pensioners, or do you gladden some New York hedge fund managers?

Bankruptcy is supposed to be the answer. Eventually, maybe it will be.

The only thing certain for now, in Detroit or in Sandstone Township, is that it comes with questions.

nrubin@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-1874
@nealrubin_dn