Detroit — Mayor Dave Bing on Wednesday pledged to pick up the pace on city reforms, saying his administration is making progress and acknowledging he needs to become more “engaged and involved” to overcome deep resistance to change.
“I have to get out in the community more than I have … to talk to people,” Bing said during a wide-ranging discussion with The Detroit News editorial board, noting his top priority is addressing crime in the city.
Responding to a Detroit News poll this week showing some 40 percent of residents plan to leave within five years — mostly due to crime — Bing said it’s critical to get fiscal reforms in place. City administrators pointed to Midtown development as a sign that Detroit is poised for rebirth.
“This is a long-term problem,” he said. “We’ve got to get people thinking it’s worth staying here, because it’s starting to change. That it’s not the time to run, because something good is starting to happen.”
Bing said Detroit has made significant progress in its consent agreement with the state, including reforms in public safety, recreation, income tax collection, transportation, labor and payroll.
But he was candid about his frustration with the slow pace of change.
“We have a working plan. We’ve had it for a long time, but it’s been difficult from an implementation standpoint because people are all over the map with their personal agenda and it’s slowed the process down,” Bing said. “We do understand our challenges, but we are committed to move these initiatives forward and make this a better city for all of us.”
On Tuesday, City Council members urged Bing to move more swiftly to implement restructuring efforts needed to save the city from insolvency. The criticism echoed concerns raised Monday by the city’s Financial Advisory Board, which is overseeing the consent agreement.
On Wednesday, Bing — joined by several members of his top administration — said the city will end fiscal year 2013 in late June with a deficit of $40 million if the state does not release about $80 million now being held in escrow. If the money is released, the city will end the year with $40 million in cash.
William “Kriss” Andrews, the city program manager, said the state “has told us they expect us to pick up the pace of change,” but said the city has not been given specific benchmarks to meet. “Right now they aren’t satisfied with the pace of change, and neither are we,” Andrews said, adding: “We have the means and ability to fix this ourselves.”
Gov. Rick Snyder’s spokeswoman said late Wednesday the governor understands the challenges Detroit faces, but that “action is necessary.”
“We’d acknowledge both that we’ve been disappointed in the pace of change but also that these are far from easy answers or decisions — those ran out long ago,” Sara Wurfel said in an email statement. “But the critical need to address and resolve them is strong.”Among the improvements Bing touted:
Payroll: The city is upgrading its payroll system, which currently costs $19.2 million per year to operate. A plan to outsource the system is expected to save the city approximately $11.2 million a year.
Tax collection: The city is working on ways to more aggressively collect delinquent taxes. The city sent letters to about 5,000 people who owe taxes from 2006 to 2009 and has recovered about $400,000 so far. A new set of letters will go out by the end of the month. An entire upgrade of the income tax system is set to start in January.
Labor reform : The city has imposed new union contracts citywide that include reforms in work rules, pension and health care, saving some $60 million this year, Bing said. The city estimates the so-called City Employment Terms — which have been challenged by unions in court — will save the city $102 million each year.
Police: The city has switched to controversial 12-hour shifts that put more officers on the street in an effort to reduce overtime, started a “virtual precinct” model that replaces officers with civilian positions and pursued anti-youth violence initiatives with the help of federal grants.
Recreation: The newly created Detroit Recreation Trust, which seeks private donations to keep the city’s 17 recreation centers open, has secured $15 million in pledges from 13 public and private donors.
Transportation: The city has outsourced management of the Detroit Department of Transportation, saving $15 million annually, eliminated nonproductive routes and introduced a “text my bus” program to improve customer service.
Members of the City Council’s budget, finance and audit committee were briefed by Bing staff on Wednesday afternoon. Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown said he’d like to know more about what benchmarks the state is using to measure progress on the consent agreement.
“I’d like to see people move with a lot more sense of urgency,” Brown said. “If you don’t know what the measure is, it’s difficult to get there.”
In his talk with The News, Bing acknowledged that recent turmoil within the Detroit Police Department has made enacting reforms there more difficult. Former Chief Ralph Godbee retired on Monday after being embroiled in a sex scandal with a woman who also works for the department. Bing said the opportunity to look for a new chief outside the department is there, but it’s unrealistic to think someone will come in given the current troubles facing the city.
“I question whether or not you’re going to get a great, capable person in the short duration,” Bing said. “It’s going to be tough, (but) I’m not going to write it off. There’s a reality we have to look at.”
Bing also said he’s not ready to make a decision on seeking re-election.
“I don’t have a timetable. Right now I would be making a mistake in trying to focus on re-election,” Bing said.
“I need to focus on how much I can fix with the time I got left. If I can make a positive impact there, then whatever my decision is going to fall I’ve got a much better chance of repeating this. I gotta fix things.”
Whether he runs or not, Bing said he’s not pleased with those who would criticize him from afar, including some potential mayoral candidates.
“People on the outside think they know what the hell city government is all about,” Bing said. “If you haven’t been there, you have no idea. I can tell you that.”
Darren A. Nichols, Detroit News