Our Editorial: Blight program needs diligent watchdogs

The Detroit News

Questions are rightly being raised about the skyrocketing cost of tearing down blighted structures in Detroit. With perhaps 40,000 homes and buildings waiting to be razed, the city must get the maximum benefit from its blight remediation dollars.

Mayor Mike Duggan went before the City Council recently to offer an explanation for why the per-house teardown costs have risen to $16,400 from roughly $10,000 each before he took office.

His answer was that adherence to higher environmental standards is responsible for most of the increase. He cited, in particular, the added cost of dealing with asbestos removal.

Other factors cited by the mayor are the increased use of water to wet down debris and curb dust, and the higher cost of getting clean fill dirt to level out holes left by basements and cellars. The pace at which homes are being torn down has created a shortage of contractors able to do the work, the administration contends, and that, too, drives up costs.

Those seem to be fair answers. But when costs balloon 65 percent, red flags should be raised. The council should be looking at the line-by-line accounting of what the administration is paying to tear down blighted homes and making sure it is comfortable with the reasons given for the increase.

Duggan has also limited the number of contractors involved in the demolition projects to a few big companies. Complaints have been voiced that this policy is shutting out Detroit and minority-owned businesses from the work.

If using the larger contractors lowers costs, that’s a laudable decision. But the council must make sure that’s the case and should vet the companies doing the work for any political connections to City Hall.

The pace of the demolition work is commendable. Since Duggan took over the demolition work in May 2014, 6,760 homes have been leveled, and the mayor says the pace of teardowns has increased to between 100 and 150 a week from 26.

Duggan has pledged to hunt for ways to bring down costs. That’s essential. The city has too many derelict properties and too little blight removal money to squander funds.

He should be searching for economies of scale and more efficient ways of dealing with the environmental concerns.

Much of the money for demolition work is coming from the federal government, which has contributed $100 million and recently announced another $21 million grant for the Detroit Blight Authority.

That money should come with a watchdog to make sure the city, which had a poor track record of spending federal dollars before Duggan took office, is using the funds properly.

There’s no reason to doubt Duggan’s explanation for why costs have skyrocketed, or that City Hall is working to find ways to bring them down. Recently, the city began exploring the use of crushed concrete and other substances to replace the more costly fill dirt.

But with such a dramatic increase in costs, so much money involved and such lucrative outside contracts being awarded, there can’t be too much transparency or too many questions asked.

Council must be a diligent watchdog on blight removal to make sure this essential program is being carried out as efficiently as possible.