Duggan defends city’s demolition progress, costs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday defended the city’s demolition efforts in the wake of a scathing news report centered on the bid process, costs and true progress of the program.

The mayor made the morning presentation to Detroit’s City Council amid a call from the panel for an audit of the Detroit Building Authority and land bank’s demolition activities. The Detroit Land Bank Authority’s executive director, Kevin Simowski, was terminated Monday.

Duggan defended the efforts of the program that’s been a focal point of his administration. The television report that aired last week, he noted, has clouded the program’s perception for some.

“I have done everything I know to be transparent about this,” Duggan told council members. “There is no confusion about what we are doing. We are reporting it publicly.”

A spokesman for the land bank declined to elaborate on Simowski’s departure, but said the land bank’s board has appointed attorney Carrie Lewand-Monroe to serve as acting director. Duggan did not discuss why Simowski was let go, saying only that the land bank board makes hiring and firing decisions.

Last week, a piece featuring WJBK-TV’s (Channel 2) reporter Charlie LeDuff demanded the administration provide proper figures about how many demolitions Detroit has completed and questioned the increasing costs associated with tearing down the properties. LeDuff argued the records and figures related to Detroit’s demolitions “don’t add up.”

Duggan admitted to the council the costs associated with each vacant property demolition have indeed gone up. But Duggan stressed the increase is tied to new environmental standards and protocols. Failing to control dust or fill the holes would be “devastating” to the community, he said.

“We knew doing it would drive up the cost,” he said. “We thought protecting the families in the neighborhoods would be worth the higher cost.”

The cost of demolition had been about $14,000 per home in 2014. By 2015, that total increased to more than $16,000. The mayor on Tuesday defended the higher cost, saying the standards dealing with sidewalk repairs, topsoil and grass replacement are the bulk of that increase. Construction costs, he says, are also higher.

Duggan on Tuesday also agreed that bids “don’t always go to the lowest bidder.” Right now, 92 percent of the work is being done by Detroit companies, Duggan claimed.

The mayor noted that each time an award isn’t made to the low bidder, there are specific notations indicating why the lowest bidder didn’t have the capacity to do the work.

“We designed it this way and we think it’s the right way to do it,” he said, noting the bid process has never been questioned by federal or state agencies and “gives everyone the opportunity to participate.”

The mayor said officials have terminated two contractors and suspended four others for cutting corners. A number of bidders, he claimed, have dropped out in the face of the new environmental standards.

Duggan noted that under Dave Bing’s administration the city demolished 5,430 homes in a four-year period. The program averaged 26 houses per week, he said.

Under Duggan’s tenure, 6,760 homes have come down, he said. The average, the mayor added, is about 97 per week.

The mayor said the program is moving at a rate that he never imagined and he praised the council for the work “we’ve done together.”

Duggan faced numerous questions from the council in response to the news report and their additional concerns..

Council President Brenda Jones pointed to the high salaries of some of the building department’s top officials, including its former director, David Manardo, and deputy director James Wright. Manardo, who in recent days was appointed to serve as the city’s group executive of operations, is paid $250,000 a year. Wright earns $200,000. Neither salary includes benefits.

Duggan told the council it viewed and approved each of the contracts. Jones clarified that she did not vote in favor of those agreements, a cost she couldn’t support for a city rebounding from bankruptcy.

“It wasn’t the quality of the people, it was where this city stands as far as finances and where we are going,” she said.

Duggan said he’s hoping that by the end of the month, another round of funding will be secured to extend Detroit’s demolition work at least into April.

Council member Mary Sheffield congratulated Duggan for the program’s success and called the news report “shortsighted.”