Risky business

You’d think that by now we’d have plumbed the depths of fiscal inefficiency in Detroit. Sadly, you’d be wrong.     Former Auditor General Joe Harris — he left his post earlier this month — says Detroit currently pays between $30 million and $70 million a year in lawsuits and claims. The city could substantially reduce that payout if it spent more time and money looking for ways to stop accidents before they happen. That’s what risk management is all about. And it’s an area in which the administration of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has slipped up big time, Harris says.

Harris expects his former office to issue a report with all the gory details by year’s end.

It’s an important issue for a city lurching toward insolvency. Because Detroit is self-insured, the cash it pays out comes directly from city coffers.

People often think of risk management as dealing strictly with things like workers compensation and insurance, says Councilmember Sheila Cockrel. Ensuring that those systems aren’t abused is a concern, but Cockrel says there are lots of other things the city can do to.

One is as simple as replacing missing street and traffic signs.

Downed signs are a major problem in Detroit, Cockrel says. Absent directional signs can lead to traffic accidents. Oddly enough, people who have car wrecks because a stop sign’s missing sometimes feel compelled to sue the city.

Another aspect of the problem is more distressing: Without street signs, it’s harder for emergency medical services to get where they’re going.

“If you’re looking for a street in the middle of the night, and the streetlights are out, and you’re trying to find Mrs. Jones’ house before she expires from a heart attack, and there’s no sign ...” Cockrel says.

That’s a thought that could keep you up nights.

In addition to the obvious human benefits of reducing car wrecks and saving little old ladies, Cockrel says that quickly replacing signs when they’re down could save Detroit millions of dollars.

Often, the same missing signs cause problems over and over again, which just seems foolish. That’s another area where Cockrel sees the need for improvement.

So far, Harris says, risk management hasn’t figured large on the administration’s radar. The council, too, is culpable. Kilpatrick’s proposed budget cut funding to the risk management department, and council maintained the cut when revising Kilpatrick’s budget.

We tried to ask the mayor’s people about this, but they didn’t return our calls. Cockrel says that the administration has recently moved to privatize some risk management services, but it’s too early to say what effect that will have.

Despite his warnings, Harris says, for the most part “nobody is doing anything at all about risk management. And it’s something we could do immediately to avoid risk.”

At this point, News Hits would be remiss not to mention how much we think Detroit is gong to miss Joe Harris. The auditor general is appointed by City Council to serve one 10-year term. Harris just completed his decade in the post, and we’re damn sad to see him go. He was one of a shrinking handful of city officials who would hand over public documents to the media with none of the runaround that’s de rigueur in most City Hall offices. Also, we liked his bow ties.

But we’re also sorry that Detroit’s losing one of its most ardent advocates for fiscal responsibility at a time when his brand of clearheaded advice is needed more than ever.

During the 10 years Harris served the city of Detroit, he was all too often a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Dismissed as a fiscal pessimist by the administration, more often than not Harris’ version of the story (and his budget figures) turned out to be right on target. That’s not something that went unnoticed by the public — one wag went so far as to suggest that disenchanted voters write in “Joe Harris for receiver” in the November election.

Inside city government, the position of auditor general has been a thankless task. Over the years, Harris grew used to being ignored by those he sought to caution.

“I don’t have any problem leaving here because we can make recommendations until we’re blue in the face,” Harris said about a week before he retired. “But I’m spinning my wheels making recommendations to city officials when it doesn’t do one bit of good. Hell, they don’t need me.”

Not true, Mr. Harris. Not true.

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