Commentary: Decision day for Detroit

Mar 14, 2013

Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church got a new Pope. Today, the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan begin a new era.

Later this afternoon, Governor Rick Snyder is expected to announce that he has definitely decided to name an emergency manager for the city. His choice is reportedly a Washington-based bankruptcy attorney named Kevyn Orr.

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about this. But a cloud of uncertainty hovers over just about everything else.

It’s not clear when the emergency manager’s appointment will take effect or when he will fully begin his duties.

It isn’t clear what role, if any, the mayor and the city council will have, though Mayor Dave Bing has signaled his willingness to cooperate and work with an emergency manager.

Nor is it clear whether the manager will continue to pay the mayor and council.

There are many other questions, for which the emergency manager himself may not even have answers, for a while.

Some experts believe an eventual bankruptcy filing for the city is likely, something Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes explores in depth today. After all, Kevyn Orr is a bankruptcy attorney.

If that happens, however, it won’t be immediate. The emergency manager is likely to take some time to get a handle on Detroit’s vast and confusing financial predicament.

Those who may have most reason to worry are the city’s retirees, who depend on health care benefits that haven’t been fully funded. The law prevents an emergency manager from changing pensions, though a bankruptcy judge could do that. But retiree health care benefits are different, and could be drastically reduced or eliminated. That’s not to say that will happen.

But for any emergency manager, job one is to get finances under control. The problem is complicated here, however, because of Detroit’s pressing needs and desperate situation. There are likely to be some protests, though it’s not clear whether these will represent more genuine citizen anger or political performance art.

Some members of city council are likely to file a last-ditch lawsuit aimed at preventing an emergency manager, a move the council president himself described as a desperation “Hail Mary” pass. What he didn’t add is that he is captain of a team on which nobody can catch the ball.

Governor Snyder said a few days ago that his top choice for emergency manager was someone who was a true “people person,” and we have to hope that is so.

Kevyn Orr went to the University of Michigan 30 years ago, about the same time the governor did. If he can get streetlights on and make it so that the cops actually come when they are called, people may find having an emergency manager may not be that terrible an option.

We simply don’t know how all this will play out. We do know that Detroit’s government is in desperate financial shape, as is the city itself, and what’s been happening isn’t working.

And I know that regardless of your politics, the governor said something very true yesterday. “It’s not Detroit vs. Michigan. It’s Detroit, Michigan,” he said. “We are going to turn around Detroit, and it needs to happen by people working together.” No matter where we live, we have to hope that comes true.