Vernal unease

Apr 19, 2006 at 12:00 am

Here we go again. Like marshmallow bunnies and crocus blossoms, controversy surrounding Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's annual budget proposal has become a springtime fixture. Since first taking office in 2002, the mayor has popped up each April to declare that his budget for the coming fiscal year is, as required by law, a balanced plan.

This year is no different.

And, as with past years, Irvin Corley Jr., the City Council's fiscal analyst, has followed close behind saying that the mayor's numbers don't add up.

So, whom should we believe?

Our money is on Corley, whose past analyses have been much closer to reality than the mayor's. Last year, for example, when Kilpatrick was defending his budget as realistic, Corley warned that it would fall far short of meeting expectations, and that the city would have to do some major borrowing to stay afloat.

The Kilpatrick administration responded to that assertion by calling it hogwash.

And what happened? Last month, the administration came before council and announced that the city would have to borrow $127 million to keep paying its bills through June, when the current fiscal year ends.

As if it were a jukebox record that keeps skipping in place, we're hearing the same refrain again this time around.

"For the past four years we have continually implemented efficiencies and made a steady series of cuts in city operations to bring our budget into balance," Kilpatrick told the council.

It's true that many cuts have been made. And things certainly would be even more dire than they are now if Kilpatrick and crew had not done a lot of severe trimming. But, for all they've accomplished, it hasn't been nearly enough to keep the city from continuing to swim in red ink. In fact, the problem continues to get worse.

Looking ahead to next year, based on the proposed budget Kilpatrick just submitted, Corley reported to the council that the administration appears to have both drastically overstated the amount of revenue the city is likely to take in while severely underestimating the previous deficit that will have to be addressed. "Combined, we see potentially a $262 million problem in the proposed budget," Corley reported.

What's changed is the method of deception. Last year's proposed budget was filled with what Corley called "if come" items, "crazy things" like the spin-off of the transportation department and a fast food tax requiring voter approval. You could look down that list, and the expected savings attached to each item, and get a handle on how far from reality the proposal was.

In terms of the "if comes," reported Corley, the new budget proposal "is somewhat more realistic" than the plan Kilpatrick submitted last year.

"At first glance, we applaud the mayor for eliminating many of the 'if comes' from the proposed budget," Corley told council.

This time around, the number-juggling appears to have been handled differently, with the major discrepancies occurring in the way the administration is projecting revenues and estimating the deficit for the current fiscal year — a number that has to be incorporated in the new budget.

Corley's analysis was produced just a day after the mayor's proposed budget was submitted to council, and he'll be meeting with the administration this week to go over the plan in detail.

"We might be missing something," he tells News Hits. "But at first glance, their numbers look way off."

Detroit, of course, is not the only government entity trying to maneuver its way through difficult financial times. Officials at all levels are attempting to deal with shortfalls. The problem with Kilpatrick's approach is that, by submitting budgets that balance on paper but not in reality, the city's accumulated debt continues to grow, making the prospects of insolvency all the more likely.

"I don't mind being proven wrong," Corley told us. "And if they do prove us wrong, I'll be the first to go to council and report that."

"But," he continues, "I've been at this for a while now, and my staff has been around." And as far as they can tell so far, in respect to the probability that the mayor's budget will actually pencil out, "things aren't looking that great."

As Corley says, maybe he's missing something, and the administration's numbers really do add up. But if the past is any indicator of the future, the mayor has produced another work of fiction. The only thing that's changed is the way it's being presented.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]