From his office, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has one of the best panoramas of the city — and a desk piled with more difficult problems than that of just about any mayor in the nation. The city nearly teetered into insolvency last spring, before council narrowly agreed to a unique “consent agreement” in which city officials are sharing power in a sometimes-awkward marriage with the state.
While the consent agreement may work well enough to balance the current budget, it does nothing to address the city’s $12 billion in unfunded liabilities. The agreement left city council still able to frustrate the mayor, as when they refused to allow him to fire Detroit Corporation Counsel Krystal Crittendon after she repeatedly filed suit attempting to block the agreement.
On top of that, the city’s 70th mayor turns 69 Nov. 24 — after a twin health scare this spring, when his intestine was punctured during a routine colonoscopy, and he later was found to have a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in both lungs, either of which easily could have killed him.
That was followed by news that Mike Duggan, current CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, former Wayne County prosecutor, and longtime political fixer, was preparing to run for mayor next year.
Nevertheless, Mayor Bing remains nearly as unflappable as ever, showing up at town-hall meetings in the natty suits he buys at Lou Myles in Windsor. Hour Detroit sat down with him to get a candid appraisal of how things are going.
First, how is your health?
My health is good. There were a lot of people as I went through my little ordeal who thought it was pressure from the job. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve been under pressure all my life, and deal with it pretty effectively. What happened is, I went in for a colonoscopy — it was a problem, and that’s what I had to deal with. But it’s all healed.
For years, people, starting with the late Mayor Coleman Young, tried to talk you into running for mayor. Four years ago, you finally agreed. Given the situation, do you ever regret running?
Honestly, sometimes. But it doesn’t last very long, because the responsibilities and problems are so immense that if you started to feel sorry for yourself, you aren’t going to get anything done. When I look at the people I’ve been able to bring on board with me, the level of commitment and expertise they bring, I know we will continue to make a difference.
Are you definitely running for re-election?
It’s not definite. What I’ve said is that, depending on what happens in this term, it’s up to the people. And I want to get as much done as I possibly can. And I’m focused for the rest of this term on just getting things done.
There’s a lot of speculation about Mike Duggan running for mayor.
Mike and I have talked. We’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve served on his board at DMC. He has the right to do what he wants to do, like any other citizen. Mike’s been successful in the political arena, successful in the private arena. I think competition is always good. It brings out the best in all of us. So his getting into the fray — I don’t see a negative.
Do you think he will run for mayor?
Yes. [At press time, Duggan had filed papers to form an exploratory committee to run for mayor.]
Turning to your three-and-a-half years as mayor, what do you think is your biggest accomplishment?
I think my connection with the people. We inherited a really ugly situation. Unless you have been here [the mayor’s office], you can’t really relate to what was going on — the depth and the breadth of the problems. So it’s taken more time than I would have liked to identify a lot of those problems, and put the business processes in place that improve things. In the short term, I don’t see where we’re going to generate a lot of revenue. I think you have to be very strategic … in order to make good business decisions.
When you talk about the mess you inherited, are you referring to what went on under Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration?
It goes back even farther than that, quite frankly. There were things that should have been done that were never looked at, i.e, negotiating a better health-care package. They [past administrators] should have taken a hard look at pensions. Things the ordinary citizen never thinks about. But as an administrator, that’s where the heavy lifting is, because you are talking $12 billion and then an annual deficit that ran somewhere between $100 and $150 million.
Is $12 billion the best estimate we have for unfunded liabilities (pensions and other long-term debts for which there is no money)?
I can see how the consent agreement may help get you to a balanced budget. But I can’t see how the city can come up with $12 billion.
One of the things that’s unfortunate with the cutbacks [is] we really don’t have the time and personnel to deal with the long-term problems We’re just fighting fires on a daily basis. The consent agreement — it does give us a framework to work from. But it really doesn’t give us the ammunition we need to really deal with the long-term liabilities.
Are city workers’ pensions going to be safe?
I think we have to look at that, because right now we have about 10,000 active employees. We have about 22,000 to 23,000 retired employees, so the math doesn’t work. We’ve got to look at — we have to have — [pension] reform, no doubt.
What about retirees who are, say, over age 70?
They would be protected. But the younger people, we have to look at something different because it’s not sustainable.
Some people have said that the best solution for Detroit would be similar to what happened with General Motors: some sort of cushioned bankruptcy, and then start over. Is that what’s going to have to happen?
I hope not. No. 1, GM got money from the federal government. That’s not going to happen here. And I think a bankruptcy would really hurt the other municipalities down here in Southeastern Michigan, along with the state. So that’s not something we’d look to for solving the problem.
There are urban experts who say that, in the long-term, the only thing that makes sense is some kind of merger of Detroit and Wayne County. Does that make sense to you?
It could, and I think it’s something that needs to be looked at. There are so many people that come with a lot of different ideas. I think it’s appropriate when they say you’ve got to think outside the box. You really have to think long-term to try to get a better understanding of … what’s legal and what’s not.
When you’re overwhelmed with daily problems, how do you find the space to think long-term?
I thought I was going to be able to do that on weekends [laughter]. But my weekends have been morphed into the five-day week! On Saturdays, now, we’re still putting in six or eight hours of work. And in some cases, based on what you have to do in the faith-based community, you find yourself doing city work on Sunday. So I’m blessed at this point to have a staff of professionals that know what they’re doing. The problem is that I don’t have enough of them.
What has been your biggest frustration?
Not being able to forge a better relationship with city council. Everything we do, they seem to want to fight. You know, we’re supposed to be on the same team. I’ve never encountered anything like this in my life. I mean, I come from a background in sports, where it doesn’t matter who the star is; you aren’t going to win games unless everyone works together.
From a legislative standpoint and from my office standpoint, it would seem we ought to be on the same page, wanting the best things, the best outcomes of the citizens of Detroit. When we have good ideas, we don’t mind being challenged. But by the same token, don’t constantly put roadblocks up.
Why do you think the council does that?
Their need to feel relevant. Independence. You know, everybody likes now to refer back to Coleman Young. Well, that’s history. We have an altogether different environment today.
Would you say they’re romanticizing history?
Have you done an adequate job in explaining to the people of Detroit the severity of the problems?
Um. We do that on a daily basis, I think. But too many people are in denial. Too many people are afraid of change. It’s obvious that the way things are going is not in the right direction. But people fight change, and one of the things we’ve done in this administration is to be very fact and data oriented. We spend a lot of time doing the digging so that we make sure we have the facts, and can go out and present them.
How is demolishing vacant structures going?
It’s going well, a little better than I thought. The reality is that with so many vacant buildings, dangerous buildings that we have to demolish that at some point in time, we’re going to run out of money — and we’re close to that now. We’re reaching our goals, but when you have 40,000 empty buildings in the City of Detroit and in this first term you may be able to demolish 10,000, that’s 25 percent. But you still have a lot to do.
Are your priorities the most dangerous buildings?
The most dangerous and the neighborhoods that are going to be strong neighborhoods. We can’t allow them to reach the tipping point where they may go the opposite way. There are some neighborhoods where there are blocks and blocks of blight, but very few people there. So I have to make sure that, strategically, I’m protecting the neighborhoods where there are people.
Are you optimistic about urban agriculture?
Yes I am. But the first thing we’ve got to do is clean up the blight, and to make sure from an environmental standpoint that the ground is clean before we start looking at agriculture. But without a doubt, we are going to have so much available land that we have to look at it as an asset and not a liability.
What other major concerns are on your mind?
We not only have to figure out how to slow down the exodus of our citizens … but how to create this environment and excitement for those people that are here who will stay, and now we’ve got this 21-to-35 year old college-educated group that’s now starting to come into the city. We have to make sure we continue to do that, and do the kind of things to make people feel safe. Now, when you look at the downtown areas, the Midtown area, they’re driving their own [success]. We just have to make sure we don’t do anything to slow their expansion.
People have talked for years about merging the city and suburban bus systems. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a network of rapid buses to link the city and the suburbs. What’s going on with that?
[Laughs a bit uneasily.] I’m glad you asked about that! [Laughs.] Now that we’ve outsourced the management of D-DOT, we’ve seen significant improvements from an efficiency standpoint, from a cost standpoint. But I think the duplication of the two bus systems — SMART and D-DOT — that needs to happen. We need to get a merger, there’s no doubt in my mind about that.
But the bigger issue is regional transportation. So many people in the City of Detroit don’t work in the city. They work out in some suburb and they don’t have a car, and so public transportation is their means to get back and forth. Until we do [regional transportation], Southeastern Michigan will struggle.
So when the governor talks about regional transportation and a rapid bus system, I am 100 percent behind that. I think we’re going to see an announcement that … the commuter train that will go from downtown here on Jefferson up to Midtown at Wayne State is going to happen.
What do you do to relieve tension?
I still play tennis. I’m a weekend tennis player. I took up golf four or five years ago, but that’s time-consuming, so I don’t get a chance to do much of that. I read, I still read, you know; you can look at my desk.
Doesn’t look like a lot of fun reading.
[Laughs.] Oh my God, there’s an unbelievable amount of stuff I have to read for this office! On the outside, I’m a James Patterson fan. Love him. I must have read 40 of his books so far. It’s easy reading, and in some cases, really makes you think. I need something to get away. I come to work about 7 in the morning and go home somewhere between 9 and 10 at night.
Where do you like to eat out?
Troy probably has more restaurants than most cities in this area, so I do still go out to Troy and eat. But we do try to protect and support as many of the restaurants as we can in the city. Mario’s is a hot spot for us. And 1917 American Bistro up on Livernois is very good.
Have you talked to new owner Tom Gores about the possibility of bringing the Pistons back to Detroit?
Oh, I want the Pistons to come to Detroit. My whole career as a Piston was in downtown Detroit. And with downtown starting to come back, I think all our sports teams ought to be downtown. But I have not talked directly to Tom about that.