Commentary: The Painful Truth

Jun 11, 2013

Last night Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s Emergency Manager, held a public meeting at Wayne State to discuss the state of the city.

Nothing he said was surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. The outlines of the disaster of Detroit have been on the Internet for a month, in a report Orr posted six weeks after he arrived as emergency manager. There was no attempt to sugarcoat the truth.

Though he offered flashes of hope, what Orr promised last night was, “sacrifice and pain.” He told a packed auditorium, “It’s going to be hard, but we can do it.”

Probably no elected official could have told the truth so bluntly. Certainly none have. Virtually everything Orr said last night was covered in a few stark paragraphs in his May 11th report.

The autopsy shows Detroit’s revenues fell sharply even as the city’s needs increased. As Orr said, “With high crime rates and poor public services in many areas, the health, safety and quality of life of Detroiters has suffered materially.”

The city borrowed every cent it could to try to keep up basic services, but still couldn’t. Eventually, it couldn’t borrow any more. And even when times were relatively good, there was, “the deferral of critical investments that directly impact public health and safety.” In other words, the city failed to invest in its infrastructure, and now that infrastructure is falling apart.

There is no mystery where the city manager is going. Public safety is his top priority. That, and somehow reducing the city’s crushing debt load, if possible without resorting to bankruptcy.

Then, the goal is to attract substantial reinvestment. The city needs an influx of vibrancy, humanity and cash, and Orr sees his job as getting it there. That will be a tall order.  But those who were dead set against any emergency manager ought to be profoundly encouraged. Orr has to be about the bottom line, but he also genuinely cares about Detroit’s future. “It’s going to be hard, but we can do it,” he said, before quoting part of Detroit’s ancient motto: “The city shall rise from the ashes.” 

We all have to hope he’s right, if for no more warm-hearted reason than our own credit ratings. But there are two things I believe we should think about. The city’s distress is in large part because of policies that didn’t start with Kwame Kilpatrick, or Coleman Young. They started long before, with white politicians who promised things to future generations they could never deliver.

Nobody really provided any oversight, including state government and the media, partly perhaps because these are complex issues requiring business knowledge to understand.

When in doubt, or an election is looming, politicians tend to kick problems down the road for future generations to solve.

Detroit is the most extreme case. But ask yourself – are you sure this isn’t going on in your city and county? We already know state politicians haven’t kept up our roads.

Most of us think of Detroit as an anomaly. And in some ways, it may be. But my guess is that Detroit is more like a canary in the coal mine. And when the miners don’t pay attention to the bird…

What happens next isn’t pretty.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Political Analyst.  Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.