Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures

Make no mistake: Detroit’s bankruptcy, the largest municipal bust in American history, puts the future of our entire state at risk. Although it’s easy enough for some people to claim that it would be better if Detroit sank into Lake St. Clair, the fact is that Michigan as a whole can never again prosper if its largest city remains a sinkhole of poverty, despair, corruption and violence.

The good news is that the positive response to this crisis has been unprecedented. An extraordinary coalition of foundations, both local and national, has pledged hundreds of millions to help the city. Overturning decades of conventional political wisdom, Mike Duggan – a white guy brought up in nearly all-white Livonia – has been elected mayor of Detroit, whose population is more than 80 percent black. And Rick Snyder, a Republican governor, is trying to persuade a sometimes Detroit-phobic legislature to put $350 million into a “grand bargain” to help save the Detroit Institute of Arts – and ease the post-bankruptcy burden of city retirees.

And not least in all this: The launch Jan. 30 of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a group of nonprofit news outfits working together to share “data-driven, solutions-based journalism that deepens public understanding of Detroit’s journey through bankruptcy and engages residents in the revival of this once-powerful city.”

Those words are those of David Zeman, editor of the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, which is partnering with WDET-FM, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public TV and New Michigan Media to pool hundreds of years of journalistic experience to help Michiganders understand the roots of Detroit’s crisis and provide insights the city’s future. The Cooperative is being funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and from Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative and the Ford Foundation.

The intent is to provide news coverage that complements that now being provided by the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and local radio and TV. To mark this, Bridge Magazine released last Thursday its first contribution to this collaboration, a series of articles intended to provide fact-based benchmarks to help Michigan citizens to understand just where things stand in Detroit as of early 2014.

The goal is to judge progress (or lack of it) as time goes on. Data from Bridge articles indicates the situation isn’t pretty:

Of the city’s total revenue today, 42 per cent goes to meet legacy costs such as retiree pensions and health care, a huge rise from 30 per cent in 2006.
Detroit pays $129.1 million annually to service long term debt, double the amount 10 years ago.

A 2012 Detroit News poll found that 40 per cent of Detroiters want to move out of the city within five years. Why? Forty percent of street lights don’t work; 40 percent of city buses are broken; an estimated 78,000 vacant housing units spawn blight and crime.

The city spends $800 million on police, fire and EMS services, but police response time in 2013 averaged 58 minutes, nearly five times the national average. Only 18.6 per cent of crimes were “cleared” by arrest or prosecution.

As of last November, unemployment in Detroit was 15.1 percent. Joblessness for youth 20-24 was 40 percent, in part because only two-thirds of the city’s population had graduated from high school. Half of Detroiters with jobs work outside the city, but at least one-fourth of the residents don’t have a car; what bus service exists is entirely inadequate to get them to and from work.

Detroit Public Schools in 2009 registered the worst scores among big cities in the history of the National Assessment of Progress Test, and math and reading scores for fourth and eighth graders were the worst in the nation.

Zeman, an award-winning reporter and editor, pledged that Bridge will establish benchmarks “that we will return to in the months ahead to chart Detroit’s progress and hold public officials accountable. Going forward, we aim to be an indispensable resource for the people of Detroit – who have endured years of mismanagement and broken promises – and to residents across Michigan, who sometimes question how their lives and communities, and tax dollars, are tied to the fate of the state’s largest city.”

This is a terrific challenge for any group of journalists, no matter how talented. But it comes in addition to the other solid stories published by Bridge over the years, including our most recent report of Academic State Champions for Michigan’s K-12 public schools that drew record traffic to the Bridge site last week.

An informed public is the essential “iron core” of a working democracy. At Bridge Magazine, we’re doing our very best to keep that core hard, polished – and free of rust.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

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Tue, 02/04/2014 - 9:08am
With the exception of Bing and Archer, the mayors of Detroit have for years been the best reason for whites and blacks to leave the city. And the graft and self-serving of the city council has been a scandal of its own. To attract people back to the city will require an honest and trustworthy government, and the new mayor seems to be one who can help assure that.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 10:49am
The woes of the once great city of Detroit are not at all hard to figure out. Simply look no further than the democrat party (& Rinos). If the progressives & The Bridge want to revive the dead horse (Detroit), use your own money and leave us out & up here alone (Pure Michigan). Detroit is (brain) dead. Accept it. Take the life support away (out-state tax dollars) and bury her. The obituary should read "what happens when democrats run things". Enough of Detroit already!
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 12:37pm
Dear angry Bob, Democrats "run things" in Ann Arbor and it's not so bad at all here. Your analysis of Detroit is as clear and logical as Kristallnacht. Michigan can't heal and grow if many Michiganders adopt hate and revenge politics. Just look to the Middle East to see what that will produce for your kids. FYI, we're angry too, because Detroit was so good for us in the 1950s. Unfortunately it was the most northern southern city. Then it blew up and the inmates who stayed ran it for themselves until this mess. It is better to blame your country's cultural history that a vital piece of our economic geography has been mismanaged. I say your country because I came from Germany and my wife's family came mostly from Canada.
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 9:14am
Peter, You claim Ann Arbor is doing good, can you describe how and why it is doing so good so other cities can use it as a model? SImply saying someplace is great, wasn't that what Detroit was claiming until it failed? Detroit and other cities need a model of success to learn from, is it Ann Arbor? Does the city government create the cultture of Ann Arbor or is it the people in and around Ann Arbor? Can you describe that culture and how the CIty facilitiates that culture? Does Ann Arbor have a vision of what they what they are, of want they want to be? Can you share it. Detroit needs more than a feel for the future they need a description of their destination and a map to get there. NOthing we here from Mr. Power, his 'colalition', or from any others is a description of where Detroit should be going so how can we expect them to develop a map of how to get there? Mr. Power seems to know they will get there, but does he really know where that is?
William C. Plumpe
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 2:35pm
One reason that Ann Arbor is doing so well I am proud to say is the august presence of the University of Michigan a huge cash generator for the City at large. It is a very special situation that is repeated in only a few other Cities like Palo Alto. (I am not including East Lansing or Columbus, Ohio because they are located in or adjacent to the State Capital and are another special kind of case). Ann Arbor was built around the University of Michigan which has been there for quite a long time. And the University is not a "cyclic employer" like the auto companies. While University budgets are subject to cost cutting the very significant educational and research value connected with the University will always be a driver for the local economy. While Detroit has a premier urban University in Wayne State the economy of Detroit is tied primarily to the auto industry and not a single provider like U of M and the City of Ann Arbor. Enough said.
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 11:58pm
Willaim, Your focus seemed to be on U of M and not the City. What is the City government doing that makes it so successful? Could it have more to do with the businesses and those in the suburbs (something Mr. Power distaints around Detroit) of Ann Arbor?
Thu, 02/06/2014 - 6:02pm
Yeh, that's right we need some discussion of vision here. Phil didn't create this venue just so hard line Republicans can bitch and point fingers. If that's all you can offer, get a job with Fox News.
Sun, 02/09/2014 - 9:45am
Mike, I need your help, would you please describe Mr. Power's vision. Does it identify the core services the City should be providing and the metrics to measure the their performance by? Does it describe the role of reisdence? Does it dscribed the culture that will need to be so the City can sustain itself? Please help me see what all the eforts and moneys are being invested to achieve.
Joe F
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 3:11pm
Sadly, progressive/liberal/socialist/Democrat policies will destroy the economic vitality of anything or anywhere they touch. The agenda each of these groups espouse represents a failed ideology that lies to the people for their personal gratification, political or financial gains. And in the end, those who accept these lies become the ultimate victims. Only free-market capitalism has the capability to create growth, jobs and opportunity for all.
William C. Plumpe
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 2:40pm
Come on. Don't you have anything better to offer than highly politicized rhetoric? Just makes me think your argument is not worth a pile of cow manure because you have to resort to extreme political diatribe and apparently have no intelligent and salient points to make. Just blah, blah, blah and more blah, blah, blah. Enough said.
Thu, 02/06/2014 - 12:17am
William, Have you heard from any 'progressive', 'liberal', or Democrat any about accountability, abot establishing peffromance metrics, about a vision specific enough to have the public hold them accountable? And since the Democrats have been in power in Detroit for generation how can you discount that concern that their policies have contributed to Detroit;s situation? Does it have to be Partisan if those in power have been from the groups mentioned? What Republican has been an elected offical in Detroit in the past several generations? Or is it simply always answer questioning of those groups to claim it is partisanship and they could contributed to any of the problems at hand?
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 5:29pm
Dear Joe, Thank you for reminding us that our constitution makes us suffer our very own Taliban movement. Nothing creative comes from mindless recitation.
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 9:02am
“…puts the future of our entire state at risk.” Mr. Power says this and fails to describe how that will happen and what it will look like. Doesn’t he trust us to see it his way? He doesn’t offer a vision of a successful Detroit. Doesn’t he trust us to make the same sacrifices he deems necessary for Detroit to succeed? Is he trying to inform us or lobby us? I wonder if Mr. Power even considers the cost to the rest of the State to continue to give money unchecked to Detroit as a risk for the State. Mr. Power’s “extraordinary coalition” seems to be those who want to throw more money at Detroit without accountability. They make no effort in describing what that money will provide and they offer no accountability for the spending, why should Mr. Power and the coalition avoid sharing their vision with the public? Don’t they trust the public while they want us to trust them? Mr. Power talks about numbers, money, race, about judging progress, response times, unemployment, all of those are symptoms of problems. Unless you define the problem all that will still be just numbers and not solving problems. My concern with Mr. Power’s view and that of his coalition is that they don’t know the questions to ask. How can they tell if there is mismanagement if they don’t know what Detroit is being managed to? If Mr. Power doesn’t know to ask what the vision of Detroit is, what are the core services it needs to provide to become sustainable, then how will Bridge staff know if Detroit is succeeding or if it is being mismanaged?
Willam C. Plumpe
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 2:50pm
No matter what you may think or what anyone tells you I can assure you that once the bankruptcy is finalized the Feds and the State of Michigan will have a very significant financial oversight function for at least a decade over City of Detroit finances. Bankruptcy Judges do not like their directives to be ignored or their hard work to go to waste. Detroit will have some kind of big time Federal/State financial oversight board for at least a decade after the bankruptcy is finalized even if there is no EMF and the Mayor and Council recover full authority. You can bet on that. Enough said.
Thu, 02/06/2014 - 11:06am
William, Finacial control is needed, but without cultural change there is little hope offor Detroit coming out of its current spiral to being worse then it is.
Thu, 02/06/2014 - 6:11pm
Duane, Free market capitalism does not run cities and cities are not free market capitalism. You cannot hold anybody accountable because elected offcials and employees are indemnified for their actions and whatever assets they may have run away with is not enough. By the way MR. Free Market capitalist how many sports stadiums and other free market projects have the people given subsidies and tax breaks for?
Fri, 02/07/2014 - 9:32am
MIke, It maybe that you have a different preception of what consitutes accountability. I beoeve that expectations can be established ofr programs and government roles, with thoes expectation there can be metrics establish for all to see and compared to the desired outcomes. I am not looing to punish, I believe metrics can be used to imporve, Though for programs there may be a point when the are ended and even for people in specific roles there may come a point where they will need to place in a different role or have their reponsinliites change or even leave the orgainzation. Free market does havea builtin accountability, but accountibility can be established with any law, program, or role. The key issue is the willingness of those who push for the programs to include accountability in those programs.
Sun, 02/09/2014 - 6:36am
One of the reasons for failure of cities / counties / states / countries is that politicians of all stripes want to get reelected and continually kick the proverbial can down the road. Eventually the can falls into a pothole and can no longer be kicked. Those who think an 8% return is achievable for a legacy cost investment are only dreaming. Those who fail to react to bad circumstances in order to placate certain segments of society are only dreaming. Those who think that things will return to what they were are only dreaming. There are only a few who are willing to stand up to their constituents and do what is right for the citizens. Snyder and Patterson are two who come to mind. Promise less and deliver more. I do not see a bright future for places like Wayne County, California, or even the US for the way it has been run (or not run) for the past few decades.