July 18, 2014 at 10:12 am

Detroit services improving, but neighborhoods slow to see change

Private contractor Rizzo Environmental Services has helped improve service, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

City services are starting to improve one year after Detroit filed the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. But residents and city officials agree significant work remains to reverse decades of deterioration.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr points to progress that includes a drop in violent crime; an infusion of new fire trucks, ambulances and police cruisers; and more efficient private garbage collection.

But Orr, who is seeking approval of a sweeping $7 billion debt-cutting plan in bankruptcy court, acknowledges that may not mean much to those still living in blighted neighborhoods.

“To the average resident, this blighted house is still next door,” Orr told The Detroit News in an interview this week ahead of Friday’s one-year anniversary of the filing. “That’s all fine, well and good that you are trying to get the city’s financial house in order, but when do I get rid of this blighted house that’s been here for 20 years?

“What I would say to them is you can’t just flip a switch and have all of this resolved — no matter how much we’d like to — in a day, but we’re going to get to it as soon as we can.”

City resident Daryl Brown, 50, said he’s still concerned about what’s going to happen for the city neighborhoods, particularly lighting.

“I have seen some improvement, but we still got the issue with the streetlights,” said Brown, who has lived in his Rosedale Park home for nearly 15 years. “I know they have a monumental task to do, but some of the things as simple as turning on the streetlights is not that hard. It all depends on where you’re living at on how services are going to be rendered to you.”

Orr’s plan of adjustment calls for shedding about $7 billion in debt, primarily with cuts to retiree and health care costs. That is what is expected to free up the financing to reinvest into services and help stem population losses.

Detroit wants to reinvest about $1.7 billion on improving city services. The plan calls for spending nearly $420 million on blight removal, $225 million in capital reinvestment and $167 million on the city’s aging vehicle fleet. More than $150 million is set to be spent on technology upgrades to computers, payroll systems and cameras.

A consultant report released by the city this week shows public safety will be a priority post-bankruptcy. Improvements in response time, case closures and the crime rate will lead to improved service, according to the report compiled by consultant Conway MacKenzie.

A move to transform 250 administrative positions in the police department from uniform to civilian will result in 12.5 percent more officers on the street, the report says. It calls for staffing at “a reasonable level,” which will include more recruitment since 50 percent of officers are eligible for retirement in the next five years.

The report also calls for 17 percent more firefighters and a 22 percent increase in EMTs.

Residents say they are guardedly optimistic about the planned improvements.

Thomas Wilson Jr., 67, who lives on the city’s northwest side, said he “wasn’t expecting a miracle, but I was expecting some change.” He says he’s noted more police on the street and better garbage pickup.

“I’m a realist. I knew that wasn’t going to happen (overnight),” said Wilson, who lives in the McNichols near Schaefer area. “The bottom line is down the road Detroit is going to be OK. Is it going to be great again? I have my doubts ... I just want it to function and function well.”

Detroit resident Donnie Whitley, 40, said he didn’t know what to expect from bankruptcy, but figured there was nowhere to go but up. “We were such a low point with trash not being picked up, grass not being cut and parks not being maintained and take care of,” said Whitley, who lives in the Osborn neighborhood on the east side. The area suffers from one of the city’s highest crime rates.

“Now what I’m seeing is some of the services are being restored ... There are changes you can physically see.”

Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown said a $120 million loan for quality-of-life improvements is already being put to work, with funds being allocated toward the removal of more than 10,000 dead trees citywide and to enhance Detroit parks.

By fall, Brown expects residents will see improvements in bus service and, with the city’s migration to the DTE Energy power grid, fewer power outages for schools and at traffic signals.

“The building blocks are in place,” Brown said, adding after Orr leaves Mayor Mike Duggan will step in and “super-charge getting these services out to citizens.”

The city is trying to save money through privatization in areas such as garbage collection, recycling and custodial services, Brown said. This week, he said, a three-year agreement was reached to turn over administration of city workers’ compensation, which has been handled by Detroit’s Risk Management Division, to a third party.

The city spends about $15 million on workers’ compensation annually. The contract is expected to save about $3.6 million.

For the first time since 2010, the city is cutting grass on more than 100,000 vacant lots. The first cut began June 9 and will run through Aug. 15. A second cut will run from Aug. 25 to Oct. 3.

Political analyst Eric Foster said the bankruptcy filing has allowed the city to begin on a path of spending less on debt and more on essential services.

“There’s no new pot of money coming and you can’t go to the bank to get liquidity,” said Foster of West Bloomfield-based LB3 Management LLC. “The best way to allow for bankruptcy is to through the release and removal of debt. The bankruptcy has made significant strides in the ability to free up existing cash to pay for services. That’s really the lynchpin. You’re giving the mayor and the city council something to work with.”

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