Crash course 

Event shows Detroiters that there’s no painless path out of this mess

A select group of Midtown residents gathered last week for an exercise in understanding, using fake money and role-playing to gain insight on the real-world catastrophe their city is facing.

What organizers of the event wanted to help these people comprehend is this: There are no good options for solving Detroit's financial mess.

There's also another lesson to be learned: These solid citizens, and others like them, can have a role in shaping the decisions officials will make as the city struggles to find fiscal stability.

After some 190 invitees dined on chicken, spaghetti and peach cobbler at the International Institute near the DIA, former City Council member Sheila Cockrel, one of the organizers of the CitizenDetroit initiative, did her best to help participants digest just how dire the city's situation is:

"This is the most profound crisis [facing Detroit] since the fire of 1805, when the city burned to the ground."

Now a faculty member at Wayne State University's Honors College, Cockrel explained that a lack of will on the part of city leaders has brought us to this precarious point. It has long been known that the city was on an unsustainable financial path. But instead of making the difficult decisions necessary to avert disaster, decision-makers decided to take the easy way out and "kick the can down the road." 

But the end of that road has been reached. A recent consent agreement with the state has already reduced the autonomy of Detroit's elected officials. Failure to immediately stop the rising tide of red ink could result in the complete loss of local control over city government.

"We need to create a conversation rooted in facts," Cockrel told attendees at the event, which was organized by Wayne State's Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society, with help from two local organizations, the Citizens Research Council and Publius.org.

Those facts are indeed daunting. As Betty Buss of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Research Council explained, the current crisis has been a long time in the making.

The city has lost 61 percent of its population since 1950, and a startling 25 percent between 2000 and 2010. But it is not just people and the taxes that they pay that have been lost. The city's manufacturing base has been reduced by 80 percent since 1972. Retailing has been similarly decimated.

As a result, the city has an accumulated budget deficit of $265 million, more than $13 billion in long-term structural debt and no hope of the state or federal governments coming to the rescue.

One of the most daunting obligations facing the city has to do with the pension and health care costs for retirees. Buss pointed out that the city now has twice as many retirees as active workers on the payroll. 

Something has to give somewhere. 

Which is where the role-playing and fake money came in.

Each of the 18 tables was designated as an ersatz city, with the eight or nine people sitting around each table playing mayor and city council members; a facilitator at each table served as chief of staff to help keep things on track.

Each city had $10 million in CitizenDetroit cash and a budget requiring deep cuts to meet.

The faux officials at the table where News Hits took a seat also had a pesky semi-faux reporter to deal with.

We saw people who took their roles seriously, carefully weighing the pros and cons of proposed cuts. 

As Buss warned them, "There are no good choices for you to make. Anything you do will hurt somebody in some way."

That was reflected in the intense but exceedingly civil debate at our table, which featured a local businessman, a guy who does marketing, a woman involved in the urban gardening movement and another woman who is school guidance counselor.

When recreation cuts were suggested, someone pointed out that kids with no constructive place to go when they aren't in school can end up turning to crime, resulting in higher costs in the long run.

One table decided to make a big cut to public lighting. Part of the thinking was that so many street lights aren't functioning that having more out wouldn't matter all that much.

In regard to privatizing some services, it was pointed out that doing so doesn't always save money, so that isn't necessarily a good answer.

Our table decided to not put money into a fund to cover future pension and health care costs for retirees. Other tables also targeted that for cutting.

We talked with Buss of the CRC about that. She explained that pension obligations, under the state Constitution, must be met. The situation is different, however, when it comes to retiree medical coverage. When we pointed out that others — particularly the city's unions — dispute that, Buss responded that if such cuts were to be made, lawsuits would certainly result. 

But she also contended that, given the conservative majority currently on the state's Supreme Court, the unions would face a steep uphill battle if the matter did end up in litigation.

It is all part of the strife that surely awaits the city as attempts are made to balance the city's budget — not just this year, but in years to come. Because, despite some improvements, the overall forecast appears very bleak. Some areas, such as Midtown, may be experiencing a resurgence, but, overall, it appears the city continues to lose population. And then there's the opening of competing casinos in Ohio, which will certainly hurt the gambling business — and the tax revenue it generates — in Detroit.

There was, however, another message for participants: This isn't a problem that can be solved merely by cutting. Creative solutions — both in terms of providing services and attracting new residents and businesses — must be part of the equation.

Participants took that message to heart as well. Michael Matorelli, who does sales and leasing for several Midtown properties, suggested that the cross-training of police, firefighters and EMS personnel could help those respective departments deal with budget deductions without cutting into services.

Ideas such as that, along with the data collected at this and similar events in the future, will likely be provided to decision-makers as they attempt to help Detroit navigate this crisis. That's one of the goals emphasized by Irvin D. Reid, Wayne State's president emeritus and a member of the Detroit financial review team appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. 

The notion that solutions to Detroit's problems can be found at the grass-roots level is key.

Near the conclusion of Thursday's event, as participants were asked if they had anything more they wanted to offer, one young woman — a 22-year-old Wayne State student — stood and gave an impassioned speech. 

"The community is what is going to make this community strong," she said.

And everyone in the room applauded.

More by Curt Guyette

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