Detroit

Managing the Mess

May 5, 2011

When the news broke yesterday that retired General Motors vice president Roy Roberts would be the new Detroit Public Schools czar, the first thing I thought of was Henry Ford.

This is not because I have attention deficit disorder. No, I thought of something brilliant Hank the First once observed about his own career.  Ford said if he had asked about transportation needs in the 1890's, nobody would have said they needed an automobile.

They would have said they wanted a faster horse. For years, various people have been trying in various ways to beat life into a dying horse called the Detroit Public Schools.

They’ve tried appointed boards and elected boards; emergency managers, all sorts of superintendents and infusions of cash.

Nothing has worked very well. Sometimes they identify a particular problem, but the overall health of the system has remained poor. Now if you are not from Detroit, you may not think this matters much to you. Except that it does.

We as a state will all suffer, economically and otherwise, if kids can’t get a functional education in our largest city. Plus, the seeds of many of the problems that have ruined Detroit’s schools are present and growing in other school systems, urban, suburban and rural school systems across the state.

Photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Things continue to look bad for the Midwest housing market. Seven of the lowest performing major markets in the nation are from the Midwest and Detroit leads the pack. Sean McSweeney is with Clear Capital, a national real estate valuation company. McSweeney says while Detroit faces many challenges, there are still reasons Detroit home owners should be hopeful. 

The National Guard / Flickr

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced that Michigan will get a $4 million grant to improve security along the Canadian border with better communications systems, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

The grant to the Detroit-based project is part of a $25.5 million package of border security funding measures announced Monday.

Napolitano says the programs are designed to improve emergency response capabilities along the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders.

Wayne County is leading the Michigan project, which covers points of entry from Detroit and Port Huron in the south to Sault Ste. Marie in the north. Participants include Wayne, Monroe, Macomb and Chippewa counties, Detroit and several Canadian units of government.

In a statement released yesterday on the Homeland Security website, Secretary Napolitano said:

“The projects funded through the Border Interoperability Demonstration Project strengthen the security of our northern and southern borders, and our nation’s overall preparedness and emergency response capabilities. These BIDP grants provide our state, local, and tribal partners with resources to explore innovative, effective, and adaptable solutions for improving emergency communications.”

Budget hearings continue today in Detroit. The Detroit City Council’s budget, finance and audit standing committee will discuss the city's Finance Department budget later this afternoon, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

The Detroit City Council is continuing hearings on Mayor Dave Bing's proposed 2011-12 budget…

Bing presented his proposed $3.1 billion budget to the council last month. He says the city faces a $155 million deficit that could swell in several years unless there are more cuts, and payments to two city pensions and health care expenses are reduced.

Bing met Monday with union leadership where he detailed needed concessions to help cut into the deficit.

The council is expected to make recommendations or changes to Bing's proposal. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Detroit census challenge

May 2, 2011
Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Imagine trying to prove that thousands of people exist, when you have no idea who they are.

That’s the dilemma facing officials who think their communities were undercounted in the 2010 Census.  But for Midwest cities preparing to challenge those numbers: How do you find people the Census Bureau missed?  We went looking for answers in Detroit.

When Detroit’s numbers came out in March, Mayor Dave Bing quickly summoned the press.  The tone was crisis — as if a natural disaster had struck.  And in a way, it had.  Detroit had lost a quarter of its people over the last ten years.

As cameras whirred, the mayor explained that Detroit’s population now stood at 713,777. 

"Personally I don’t believe the number is accurate,” he said.  “And I don’t believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge."

Cleveland, Akron and Cincinnati are also considering challenges. 

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Stephen Hill, the former executive director of the Detroit Public School's Risk Management Department could be facing prison time for his role in a scheme that stripped millions from the Detroit Public School system.

The Detroit Free Press reports that Hill was one of 9 people indicted last fall in the scandal. Officials charged him with taking kickbacks "in the form of a new Mustang GT convertible in 2005 and a new Dodge Durango SUV in 2006...[and] using DPS funds to pay for his $40,000 retirement party when he temporarily left the district in September 2005."

Here's more from the Free Press:

Stephen Hill, a former Detroit Public Schools executive, is facing up to 9 years in prison after pleading guilty today to his role in a scheme that looted more than $3 million from the cash-strapped district.

Hill, who admitted that he accepted roughly $150,000 in kickbacks from a vendor that overbilled district for inadequate work, pleaded guilty to extortion and conspiring to commit program before U.S. District Court Judge Paul Borman.

screen grab from HDNet clip

Dan Rather will air a special two-hour program on the Detroit Public School system titled "A National Disgrace."

It will air on HDNet Tuesday, May 10 at 8:00 p.m. eastern as part of their "Dan Rather Reports" program, and will be re-broadcast at 11:00 p.m. on the same night.

This from HDNet's press release:

The special takes its title from a controversial comment by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and presents an unflinching look at corruption, mismanagement and failure. Tens of millions of dollars have been stolen from the district. And a school board bickers over trivialities, while their students score at the bottom on national tests.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says the city is at a tipping point and could be assigned an emergency manager if the state doesn’t let it extend income and utility taxes.

Bing met privately with Governor Rick Snyder and lawmakers today.

He  says if the state does not allow Detroit to extend taxes, the city will lose about $100 million in revenue:

"Then I think we’re looking at an emergency financial manager," said Bing, "and I don’t think the state wants to go in that route, nor do we. So we need the support from the Legislature up here to make sure they make the necessary changes to give us the support that we need."

Bing needs legislation for the tax extension because of Detroit’s massive population loss. That drop disqualified the city from laws written for the state’s largest city.

Bing also wants Detroit’s 48 unions to make large concessions to help close a $200 million deficit.

screen grab from YouTube video

The Thunderdrome comes to Detroit this Saturday!

It's not the post-apocalyptic competition featured in the Mel Gibson movie.

Instead of "two men enter, one man leaves" ...

It's more like "around 100 men and/or women enter, around 100 men and/or women leave... perhaps with some scrapes and bruises."

A write up on this wild, anarchic race is featured on the Changing Gears website by WBEZ's Robin Amer.

Robin writes about how the organizers unearthed an abandoned velodrome in Detroit's Dorais Park:

It was literally unearthed by one of the city’s vigilante lawn-mower gangs — people who mow the lawns at city parks because the city cannot afford to do so. The velodrome, on the city’s east side, was repaired by racing enthusiasts who cut down trees growing in its center and invested thousands of dollars of their own money and over 4,000 lbs of concrete fixing its surface. And now, it has come back to life as home to a variety of competitions.

When asked who the sanctioning body for this race is, organizer Andy Didorosi replied:

We are. We're the only sanctioning body in the world for zany two-wheeled party racing on abandoned Velodromes. :) Sanctioning bodies are silly.

Here's a video of last year's race. I like how the victor, instead of doing a lap with a checkered flag, does a lap with a torn-off portion of a Pabst Blue Ribbon box.

user downeym / Flickr

There's been a lot of speculation over whether the television program Detroit 1-8-7 will stick around.

Melissa Burden wrote about the speculation in today's Detroit News:

A local actors union said it has confirmed with producers of "Detroit 1-8-7" that the show is leaving the Motor City for good, even if it's picked up for a second season.

An administrator for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Detroit chapter posted Tuesday on the group's Facebook page that the cop drama is leaving Michigan.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

More than 100 students are expected to attend a youth forum in Detroit on Apr. 26 to share their ideas for what makes a good school. The forum is  put on by the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit and starts at 5:30 p.m.

Rick Sperling is the group’s founder. He says lawmakers, school board members, and teachers have all voiced their opinions about school reform, but he says student voices have been missing from the conversation:

Trying to improve Detroit's grocery stores

Apr 25, 2011
Pneedham / Flickr

All this year, Michigan Radio has been taking a weekly look at things that are working to improve the state. Today: we take a look at food and Detroit. The city has been called a “food desert,” because of its lack of grocery stores. One group has been trying to change that. Sarah Fleming is the program manager of the Green Grocer Project. It was launched a year ago by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and we asked her how it's going.

Drawing Detroit

Apr 24, 2011

An artist in Detroit is expanding his project that highlights different city neighborhoods.  Several years ago Ben Bunk moved to Detroit for an artist residency at the 555 Gallery. 

He would ride his bike on a seven mile commute from the Eastern Market area to a studio near the abandoned Michigan Central Station. His bike rides inspired doodles which eventually lead to a series of black and white drawings of neighborhood buildings.

Bunk says it’s fun to draw Detroit, and describes his drawing style as relatively simple.

“It’s realistic in the sense that it has perspective that’s correct, and all the windows are there but the lines are crooked. I would say it’s kind of childish and it’s funny. The buildings are kind of crooked and they talk to each other in how they’re bent.”

Bunk won a mini-grant from a local event known as SOUP and used the money to self-publish a post-card sized book of his drawings. Bunk is now working on professionally publishing a second edition.

user brother o'mara / Flickr

Lawsuits challenging emergency manager law start

Detroit's General Retirement System and the Police and Fire Retirement System have filed a lawsuit challenging the new emergency financial manager law.

From the Associated Press:

The City of Detroit's two pension boards have filed a lawsuit seeking to block the state's new emergency financial manager law, calling it unconstitutional.

The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press report the lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Detroit and names Gov. Rick Snyder and Treasurer Andy Dillon. The lawsuit claims that emergency financial managers could remove pension board members for no reason.

Snyder's office says the governor believes in the constitutionality of the law, otherwise he wouldn't have signed it.

Benton Harbor's Emergency Financial Manager, Joe Harris, was the first EFM to use broad new powers granted to him by the state.

Cleaning the lead out of Detroit homes

The federal government and private foundations will help fund a project to help get rid of environmental hazards in Detroit homes. From the Detroit Free Press:

The federal government will kick in $1 million to help make 100 homes in a targeted area of Detroit lead-free and safe from other hazards -- such as mold and radon -- and to train workers in environmental remediation techniques.

Deputy Secretary Ron Sims of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will present the funds to Mayor Dave Bing today.

The Freep reports that a study showed "60% of children in public schools in the city who scored below grade level on standardized state tests had lead poisoning."

Foundations, nonprofit partners, and state agencies are also expected to invest in the project.

Snyder to announce new leader for the Michigan Department of Corrections

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to make the announcement this morning. From the Detroit News:

Snyder selected Jackson County Sheriff Dan Heyns to run the department, which takes the largest share of general fund dollars in the state's budget, according to two people familiar with the decision.

Snyder will make the announcement publically later this morning at a news conference in the governor's press auditorium, across from the Capitol in Lansing.

user cncphotos / flickr

The 2010 Census figures, released last month, announced that Michigan was the only state in the nation to lose population in the last decade. Now it is up to the states to redraw their congressional districts based on the findings of the Census.

Redistricting can play a big role in the political makeup of both state and federal representation. In Michigan, citizens are waiting to see how the Republican-dominated Legislature will handle the task of reshaping the state’s congressional districts.

The main objective of redistricting is to create congressional districts with roughly equal populations in each district, says John Chamberlin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“It takes account of the fact that people move around the state or people move out of the state. In 2010, if you looked at the populations in state House districts, for instance, there are disparities. So redistricting resets the clock back to roughly equal populations.”

Each state handles the task of redistricting differently. In Michigan, redistricting is treated as legislation, with the Legislature creating a bill for passage by the governor. Because the Republican Party controls the Michigan state Senate, House, and governorship, the task of redistricting will fall solely to the Republicans.

Due to the fact that Michigan lost population since the last redistricting took place, the state will lose one member in the U.S. House of Representatives. Through redistricting, the Michigan Legislature must determine where to combine districts in order to eliminate the district of one U.S. Representative, explains Chamberlin.

user brother o'mara / Flickr

New emergency financial manager powers to be used in Detroit?

The controversial new law that gives state-appointed emergency financial managers more power could first be used in the Detroit Public School system.

Detroit Public School Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb said he intends to use the law.

From the Detroit Free Press:

"I fully intend to use the authority that was granted," Bobb said, referring to a new law that gives emergency managers the authority to modify -- or terminate -- collective bargaining agreements. It was the first time Bobb had publicly indicated he intends to use the expanded authority.

This statement came after all teachers in the Detroit Public School system were sent a layoff notices yesterday. As Michigan Radio's Sarah Hulett reported, sending layoff notices to all the teachers is unprecedented, but final decisions on whose job will actually be cut have yet to be made.

Teachers, in the meantime, say they're prepared to fight Bobb's proposals - from the Freep:

"If he tries to modify the contract and back-door us on the issue of seniority, we are aptly prepared," said DFT President Keith Johnson, who also will receive a layoff notice. "We have already prepared our legal counter."

House fails to reject partner benefits

There weren't enough votes in the State House to reverse the Civil Service Commission's decision to allow health benefits for the live-in partners of state employees.

The benefits are scheduled to take effect this October.

Michigan Public Radio Network's Rick Pluta reported that Republicans say the decision "undermines 'traditional families' and violates the intent of a voter-approved amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions in Michigan."

Attorney General Schuette is looking into that last claim, and House Speaker Jase Bolger says he'll continue to look for other ways to block the benefits.

Flags at half staff today for Navy medic from Niles

Benjamin D. Rast was killed in Afghanistan. Flags around the state will be at half staff today.

From the Associated Press:

Gov. Rick Snyder has ordered U.S. flags to be lowered to half-staff in honor of a 23-year-old Navy medic from southwest Michigan who was killed while on patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

The order is in effect for today.

The military says 23-year-old Benjamin D. Rast of Niles died April 6. He was assigned as a hospitalman to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.

There will be a visitation today at Brandywine High School in Niles and a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the school.

Some people got locked out of today's Detroit City Council meeting, where Detroit Mayor Dave Bing was laying out a 5-year budget plan that called for cutting employee pension and health care costs.

Council security told citizens and several reporters that they couldn't come in because the hearing room was "filled to capacity."

That escalated into a dispute between security guards and the people who demanded their right to enter under the state's Open Meetings Act.

Detroit resident and volunteer organizer Felicia Sanders wanted to hear Bing's presentation.

"If you get up and you're willing to attend a meeting to fight and speak out for your city, you should be allowed to participate in the meeting."

Sanders and others questioned why the City Council didn't hold the hearing in a much larger public auditorium just across the hall.

(courtesy City of Detroit)

Detroit’s mayor says the city’s unions will have to give big contract concessions or the city of Detroit may end up in the hands of a state appointed Emergency Financial Manager. Mayor Dave Bing outlined his budget plan to the city council this morning.

Bing says pension and health care costs threaten to force the city into insolvency.  

“If we are unable or unwilling to make these changes, an Emergency Financial Manager will be appointed by the state to make them for us.  It’s that simple.”  

The city is facing a $155 million budget deficit. The mayor says that could grow to over a billion dollars in five years, unless deep cuts are made now. 

Michigan’s new Emergency Financial Manager law gives the state appointed administrator broad powers to throw out union contracts and make budget decisions.

Were you aware that there’s a legal difference between print media and broadcast media in this country?

Print media, and the internet, are essentially completely free to print and say whatever they want to, although of course they can be sued if they commit libel or violate privacy laws. Broadcast media are different, however. The government, through the Federal Communications Commission, has the right to regulate them.

Stations can have their licenses revoked or not renewed if they violate FCC policy. Thirty years ago, stations could be in big trouble if they failed to provide news, or public service programming.

Those restrictions have now been largely relaxed. But stations can still risk their licenses if they broadcast hate speech, or programming that is either clearly racist or obscene.

The reason, by the way, that the government can regulate the broadcast media is that the airwaves are public property, like the national parks. And while you could theoretically have an infinite number of print publications or web sites, there’s only so much space on the spectrum for radio and TV transmissions.

Being granted a place on the dial is a privilege that carries certain responsibilities. However, the question is what those responsibilities should be.  Increasingly, I wonder whether stations should be allowed to broadcast advertising that is plainly false.

You might say that deception this is the very nature of most advertising, and to a point you’d be right. Nobody really believes that if you start drinking a certain brand of soda that beautiful young things will suddenly frolic on the beach with you.

We expect ads to stretch the truth. But every so often, they do more than that. As witness a last-ditch, highly expensive propaganda campaign being waged by Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River. He is desperate to prevent the building of a competing bridge, something Governor Snyder wants. Most commercial interests in both the United States and Canada also say the bridge is badly needed. But, Moroun fears his profits might be affected, and is currently waging a hugely expensive ad campaign to try and sway legislators.

Detroit

Detroit Mayor David Bing is delivering his budget address to city council right now.

Bing says the budget he is presenting is a five year plan to eliminate the city's budget deficit.

He says the most important conversation the city has to have is with union employees about pensions and health care benefits.

By 2020, Bing says fringe benefits and pensions would consume half the city's general fund.

You can watch the speech here.

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