Detroit lost a quarter of its population in the past decade, it may go broke by April and fall under state control, and Frances Lockett has a hard time getting to her job 10 miles from home.
She rises at 4:45 a.m. to get to work by 7:30 cleaning homes in suburban Grosse Pointe Park. It’s a 20-minute car ride that takes her 90 minutes on two buses, with a half-hour wait between. A few years ago buses ran more often, she said.
“It wears on you,” said Lockett, 62. “Some times it’s worse than others.”
The reliable unreliability of public transit -- on average one-third of the 305 scheduled buses are off the road for repairs each day -- exemplifies the crisis that threatens the 18th-largest U.S. city with bankruptcy or state takeover. Lost revenue from plunging property values and a dwindling, poorer population have nearly broken its ability to deliver basic services in a city receding amid swaths of vacant land.
Detroit faces a $155 million deficit that by June may grow by an additional $44 million without spending cuts, according to an analysis by Ernst & Young LLP. Mayor Dave Bing, the City Council and municipal employee unions are at odds over how to attack it. Yesterday, Bing dismissed the idea of a financial review that may be the first step toward state supervision.
“Detroit needs to be run by Detroiters,” he said at a news briefing.
Today, Treasurer Andy Dillon ordered just such a move.
Late and Angry
However, one barometer of residents’ frustration with dysfunction is gripes about buses that are late, full or nonexistent. In a city where almost one in five households doesn’t own a vehicle, buses on weekdays take an average of 122,450 riders to work, school, shopping and doctors.
“It’s one of the biggest complaints we have,” said City Council member Gary Brown.
Other shortcomings are more serious.
“If you call 911 to have an ambulance take you to the hospital, there’s a likelihood that ambulance won’t come,” said state Senator Tupac Hunter, 38, a Detroit Democrat. “Is that the workers’ fault? No, the resources aren’t there.”
The strife demonstrates Detroit’s eroded underpinnings.
Its population fell 25 percent to 714,000 since 2000, according to 2010 U.S. Census data that suggest tens of thousands moved to suburbs. Nearly half of Detroit’s adults, roughly 200,000, are functionally illiterate, according to the National Institute for Literacy.
Children in Poverty
September unemployment was 20.6 percent, twice the state average, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. About 38 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2010, including 54 percent of children under 18, according to Census figures. Median household income was $29,500 compared with $48,700 statewide, the data show.
Twenty-three percent of housing units were vacant, compared with 10.3 percent in 2000, according to the data. The median value of housing was $53,900, compared with $123,000 statewide.
The city’s credit is rated below investment grade by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s.
Last month, Governor Rick Snyder, 53, said Detroit’s straits merit a state review, the first step to the appointment of an emergency manager. In March, Snyder and the Legislature broadened the powers of such officials to let them fire city and school board employees and suspend union contracts.
Under New Management
Michigan was the only state to lose population in the past decade, according to census data, and its economy was hit harder than any other state’s, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index. As the state declined, so did its municipalities: Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Ecorse all have emergency managers, as do Detroit’s schools.
Both Bing and the City Council oppose a state takeover. Snyder said he doesn’t want a manager, either, and said there are less-drastic steps available.
Brown, the councilman, said he favors an agreement with the state that would grant the mayor broader power to cut costs, though not as sweeping as an emergency manager’s.
The council this week proposed saving $68 million by eliminating 2,300 jobs, including 500 police and firefighters. Bing would dismiss 1,000 workers.
“We don’t have revenue from property taxes to support a workforce of 11,000 anymore,” said Brown, 58, who retired from the Detroit Police Department after 26 years.
Money in Corporations
Brown said if employee unions give up $100 million in concessions, 1,000 job losses might be avoided. Both the council and Bing have called for 10 percent wage cuts, and bigger payments from employees toward health care and pensions.
The mayor also wants to almost double the city’s corporate-income tax to 1.9 percent, which would raise about $6 million more each year.
W. Howard Morris, 50, a Detroit financial planner, said an emergency manager is inevitable. Morris himself was appointed by the state to run the finances of schools in Inkster, a suburb west of Detroit.
He said Bing should have pushed drastic spending cuts within six months of taking office in May 2009.
“What he’s proposed is a day late and a dollar short,” Morris said.
For the buses, the dollar shortage is acute.
Bing ordered mechanics to work longer hours and said he’ll seek to a private company to run the system.
The agency, with 600 drivers, costs the general fund between $80 million and $100 million a year, Bing said. The city plans to buy 46 buses with $6 million in federal aid, while it scraps 41 old buses -- a net gain of five, according to Dan Lijana, spokesman for Bing.
On Nov. 4, thousands were stranded after about 100 drivers refused to get behind the wheel in protest of an altercation with a passenger at a terminal the day before. They resumed work in the afternoon after Bing promised more police protection.
The wildcat strike disrupted lunch at the Grand Trunk Pub downtown, where four cooks couldn’t get to work to prepare for a crowd that waited as much as hour for food, said Amy Hubbarth, a waitress.
“We had seven corned beef sandwiches ready, and on a Friday, that’s not going to get anybody anywhere,” she said.
Hubbarth, 30, lives in Detroit with no car and uses buses regularly. She’s ridden public transit in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Those are thriving cities because people can get where they want to go,” she said.