The Long Shot
The MT interview with Mike Duggan
Published: July 24, 2013
Duggan: It’ll be professional — for as short a period of time as I can afford to make it. But you understand that, from my perspective, I came out of the Detroit Medical Center. Harper Hospital was opened in 1863. Children’s Hospital and Hutzel Hospital were opened in the 1880s … institutions with a nearly 150-year history. When I came in, in 2004, they were on the verge of closing. The board had voted to close Receiving [Hospital], voted to close Hutzel, was about to close Sinai Grace, and the rest of DMC would’ve soon followed. The historical weight of that situation never left my mind. And, of course, the 11,000 employees — their paychecks were at stake — and for the 300,000 people [DMC] saw a year in the emergency room, it truly was a life-and-death situation. But when you have that much at stake, you can rally people to your side with a good plan — and that’s what we did. We didn’t go whining about how unfair the world was. We started to deal with the stuff we could deal with, at the cost we could control. We cut the wait times in the emergency rooms from three hours to 29 minutes. Patients started to come back. Then I went to the business community and got people like Roger Penske and Cindy Pasky [of Strategic Staffing Solutions] to join the board, who had some clout and helped us get us some philanthropic support; and ultimately make a deal. And so it’s a situation that I’m comfortable with — and the city certainly has a very rich history — and it’s in a very down position, but it’s something I’ve done before. I don’t need to learn how to do a turnaround out of a book. And ultimately, that’s what separates me from the other candidates in the race. They’re all good people who have been accomplished in their careers, but not one of them has ever turned around anything financially in their lives. And you’d hate to have your first try be the city of Detroit when it’s … bankrupt. That’s probably the reason why I’ve gained as much support among residents as I have.
MT: Private business or quasi-private business is a different beast than politics, and now you’d be working with the Detroit City Council, which has notoriously been independent of the mayor’s office. How do you see your relationship to the council and pushing your agenda?
Duggan: You know, I spent 14 years as deputy county executive, three years as prosecutor, dealing with the Wayne County Commission, who are no more or less difficult than the Detroit City Council. When we came into Wayne County, we were on the verge of payless paydays and we got the budget balanced 14 years in a row. We got the commissioners to support that as a core principle because they understood that if your budget wasn’t balanced, you couldn’t have any other initiative — you couldn’t build baseball stadiums, you couldn’t improve parks, you couldn’t do anything if you didn’t start by balancing your budget. When DMC announced the sale of the hospitals to Vanguard, that transaction required the approval of the Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Commission, and we got the approval of the city council on a 7-1 vote. We got the approval of the Wayne County Commission on a 14-0 vote. I spent hours in the room with the city council members and the commissioners and I showed them why this was good for the city, why the jobs and investment would be good. And they supported me, including [Councilman] Kwame Kenyatta. I feel very comfortable in a political environment, but if you’re going to deal with city council, you need to be open and honest with them on the facts, and you need to involve them in the early stages. You gotta do what you gotta do to grind out five votes, but I’m very comfortable in that setting.
MT: What would your administration’s top three priorities be, and how long should people wait to see those results?
Duggan: Well, certainly it would be to cut the police response time and get the streetlights fixed and take the abandoned buildings when they’re first vacated and get them occupied — don’t just demolish them. And I think you could see significant progress on all three of those in the first year. I do think we can better utilize the officers we have, and we could better utilize their time if we could make their in-car computers work — as far as cutting police response time. We can definitely demand accountability from the streetlight repair crews. When I was a prosecutor, I would see the abandoned houses and get them occupied — we weren’t just demolishing them. So I think that in the first 12 months, we can make the material change in all three aspects, and if people in this city saw the cops showing up, the streetlights on, and the abandoned buildings start to get occupied, we would see a fundamental change in the quality of life in the city.
MT: How do you pay for that?
Duggan: You go through each of the three steps individually. The abandoned property program: When I was a prosecutor, I started the abandoned property program without a budget, and what I did was — abandoned properties were choking the life out of this city, because when somebody walked away from their home it would immediately bring down the property values of everybody else on the block. But the tax laws do not allow the treasurer to take it for back taxes for three years. I started filing nuisance suits the day it became abandoned; saying when you’ve abandoned a property it’s a nuisance to your neighbor. I [would] file a suit and give the property owner three choices: They can sign a court order to get it fixed up and occupied in six months, that’d be great; They can knock it down themselves and keep the property, that was fine or; They could deed it to us and we’d sell it on the Internet like eBay.
By the time I left in 2003, I [had a staff] of approximately 50 people. And they were title search people; and they were boarding up the houses; and they were doing the real estate closings; and they were on the Internet — all of it paid for by the sale of the houses people walked away from. I was making $2 million a year selling apartment buildings and houses people walked away from, because what I did was I took the whole block at once. If you have three abandoned houses on the block and you knock down one of them, you haven’t changed anything. We’d sue on all three houses on the block the same day; we’d take all three the same day. One would be burned down, and we’d demolish it. Then we take the other two, and then we go to the neighbors and say we’re going to sell these houses next Wednesday. We go to the local church. They’d call their friends, they’d call their congregation members, and when people knew the whole neighborhood was coming back, they were spending $5,000, $10,000 — and some cases with apartment buildings $20,000 or $30,000 — and then the neighborhood started to improve.
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