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How Detroit went broke

An amazing long form essay by the Detroit Free Press.  The answers may surprise you – and don’t blame Coleman Young.

Detroit is broke, but it didn’t have to be. An in-depth Free Press analysis of the city’s financial history back to the 1950s shows that its elected officials and others charged with managing its finances repeatedly failed — or refused — to make the tough economic and political decisions that might have saved the city from financial ruin.

Instead, amid a huge exodus of residents, plummeting tax revenues and skyrocketing home abandonment, Detroit’s leaders engaged in a billion-dollar borrowing binge, created new taxes and failed to cut expenses when they needed to. Simultaneously, they gifted workers and retirees with generous bonuses. And under pressure from unions and, sometimes, arbitrators, they failed to cut health care benefits — saddling the city with staggering costs that today threaten the safety and quality of life of people who live here.

The numbers, most from records deeply buried in the public library, lay waste to misconceptions about the roots of Detroit’s economic crisis. For critics who want to blame Mayor Coleman Young for starting this mess, think again. The mayor’s sometimes fiery rhetoric may have contributed to metro Detroit’s racial divide, but he was an astute money manager who recognized, early on, the challenges the city faced and began slashing staff and spending to address them.

And Wall Street types who applauded Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s financial acumen following his 2005 deal to restructure city pension debt should consider this: The numbers prove that his plan devastated the city’s finances and was a key factor that drove Detroit to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July.

The State of Michigan also bears some blame. Lansing politicians reduced Detroit’s state-shared revenue by 48% from 1998 to 2012, withholding $172 million from the city, according to state records.

Decades of mismanagement added to Detroit’s fiscal woes. The city notoriously bungled multiple federal aid programs and overpaid outrageously to incentivize projects such as the Chrysler Jefferson North plant. Bureaucracy bogged down even the simplest deals and contracts. In a city that needed urgency, major city functions often seemed rudderless.

When all the numbers are crunched, one fact is crystal clear: Yes, a disaster was looming for Detroit. But there were ample opportunities when decisive action by city leaders might have fended off bankruptcy.

If Mayors Jerome Cavanagh and Roman Gribbs had cut the workforce in the 1960s and early 1970s as the population and property values dropped. If Mayor Dennis Archer hadn’t added more than 1,100 employees in the 1990s when the city was flush but still losing population. If Kilpatrick had shown more fiscal discipline and not launched a borrowing spree to cover operating expenses that continued into Mayor Dave Bing’s tenure. Over five decades, there were many ‘if only’ moments.

“Detroit got into a trap of doing a lot of borrowing for cash flow purposes and then trying to figure out how to push costs (out) as much as possible,” said Bettie Buss, a former city budget staffer who spent years analyzing city finances for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “That was the whole culture — how do we get what we want and not pay for it until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?”

Ultimately, Detroit ended up with $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and unfunded pension and health care liabilities. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency manager, and Orr filed for Chapter 9 on July 18.

It’s an amazing story and one that many cities could repeat if they can’t make hard financial decisions (Saskatoon loves our debt too).  Nice job by the Detroit Free Press to bring all of this together.  Including this great quote.

“It just makes me ill. Almost cry,” said former Mayor Gribbs, now 87, who served from 1970 to 1974. “You can’t continually borrow money and use it for operating expenses and expect never to have the trouble of paying it back. That’s where you end up going bankrupt.”

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