Politics & Prejudices
Emergency manager for Detroit?
Talking with Joe Harris about the city, its problems and a persistent lack of vision
Published: December 7, 2011
There was something poignant about the scene last week at City Hall, aka the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, when the council, mayor and other Detroit city leaders huddled around a podium.
They all expressed solidarity. We can fix our problems. We don't need any emergency manager. We can do it, honest, mon.
Just days before, they'd been nastily bashing each other. The mayor's budget didn't cut enough, the council said. After turning the other cheek for months, Dave Bing finally lost it.
He shot back that Council President Charles Pugh couldn't even manage his own finances, so how could he know how to fix the city? He accused Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown of being a triple-dipper who, thanks to a salary, police department pension and successful lawsuit, was sucking more money from Detroit than his share. As for Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr., who served as interim mayor for seven months: "What the hell did you achieve for the time that you were here?"
Nothing like money troubles to turn tempers ugly. But now the threat of an emergency manager suddenly is real. The governor has ordered a review of the city's finances, usually the first step. Whatever they think of each other, neither the mayor nor the council wants to lose their powers. Nor do the city unions want a situation where an emergency manager can void out their contracts.
Yet is it too late to avoid that?
Last weekend, I talked to a man who may have the best grasp of the situation — Joe Harris, now the emergency manager in tiny Benton Harbor, off in the southwest corner of the state.
Harris, a certified public accountant in private practice for many years, was Detroit's auditor general for a decade, from 1995 to 2005, and afterward served as the city's chief financial officer during the seven months Cockrel was mayor.
I asked him: Do you see any way the city can avoid having an emergency manager and losing control of its own affairs?
"Truthfully, no," he said — and paused. "Well, there is a way for the mayor and council and the unions to get together and order some draconian changes in labor contracts," he said.
"They'd have to do that quickly, and the mayor needs to understand he can't maintain the same public safety force the city has had." While both mayor and council agree that city positions have to be eliminated, council wants to eliminate far more – including 500 police and firefighters, something the mayor has refused to do.
There really isn't any choice, the former auditor said, and even that doesn't solve the city's bigger problems. What, I asked him, did he think the odds were that the city leaders could come together?
"Well, let's put it this way. I wouldn't bet the ranch on it."
Harris may feel he has to be somewhat circumspect. He was, after all, briefly, Detroit's chief financial officer before being replaced by Bing, and doesn't want to look like a vindictive ex-employee.
He is also now an emergency manager in another city, and might risk being seen as speaking out of turn. He's also aware that he has also been mentioned as a possible EM for Detroit, and might not want to be seen as campaigning for the job.
Yet, blunt, plain-speaking honesty has always been Joe Harris' style. When I asked him how Detroit ended up in this mess, he didn't hesitate to answer: "You have to start with a plan. What the city has is a long-term problem, and it takes a strategic plan to try to address it.
"But Dave Bing doesn't have a plan. Matter of fact, that's the same as the last four mayors. Not one has presented a viable plan."
"When Mayor Bing ran for office," observed Harris, "he said he would bring in a team of experts and straighten out the city's finances.
"But he didn't know anything. When you took a look at his team of experts, they didn't have the qualifications. I'm sure they were all good and respected in their fields, but they didn't understand ...
"After that, it turns out [Bing's] plan, such as it was, was to sit down with department heads and find a way to work together to solve the problem."
But these were people who had grown up in the system. They couldn't see outside their own closed universe, Harris said, with an air of regret. He has been predicting for years that would happen. "I thought it would have happened already.
"But they helped Bing get a quarter-billion-dollar loan, and instead of using it to help reorganize, they just went on doing the things they were doing," making a failed ship float a little longer.
What's important to keep in mind is that the city's real problem is not the current budget deficit. Far worse is the fact that the city has $5 billion — billion with a capital B — in unfunded pensions and other liabilities, according to the respected, nonpartisan Citizens' Research Council. How can the city ever hope to manage that?
"The tragedy is that this would be the time to borrow and refinance that," Harris said. Interest rates are near historic lows. "But the city has maxed out its credit cards."
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