Detroit Mayor Warns Of Tough Road Ahead

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Detroit Mayor Dave Bing i i

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says that for the city to move forward, its residents must accept it won't be what it used to be. Paul Sancya/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Sancya/AP
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says that for the city to move forward, its residents must accept it won't be what it used to be.

Paul Sancya/AP

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing gave a pep talk on his 100th day in office to his 100 or so appointees just before they were officially sworn in.

"We are at a point in the history of this city where we have a major responsibility, and a major opportunity to take this city from where it is to where it needs to go," said Bing, a former basketball star with the NBA's Detroit Pistons.

In his characteristically low-key manner, Bing told the group that "tough times were ahead" and that it was up to them to lead the city back to greatness.

A City At The Crossroads

Later in his office, Bing acknowledged that Detroit is at a crossroads. He says that for the city to move forward, people must accept that Detroit will never be what it was decades ago.

"We've got to figure out how to be the very best that we can be with what we have, as opposed to lamenting about — we lost this, we lost that, we're not this, we're not that, I don't make as much, I'm not as rich as I used to be, I'm not as secure as I used to be," he says. "We have to deal with the now."

For Bing, the "now" is a $275 million budget deficit that grows by the day. Detroit's finances are so precarious, the mayor says, the city could run out of money in October. He has already laid off hundreds of workers, and says more pink slips are likely on the way.

Detroit's Recession Has Deep Roots

Detroit is by no means the only municipality battered by this recession, but the roots of its crisis go much deeper. For years, the city spent more than it brought in. Add to that a declining population and persistent corruption, and you have a perfect storm.

It is under these conditions that Bing, a political novice, won a special election to fill out the rest of Kwame Kilpatrick's term. Kilpatrick resigned after a felony conviction. To bring the city back from the brink, Bing says, he is ready to make some unpopular decisions, and says everybody is going to hurt.

"I think there are a lot of people who said they wanted change as long as it didn't impact them, and there's no way to implement change unless you're going to impact everybody across the board," Bing says.

Mayor Criticized

To bring spending in line with the city's ever-shrinking pool of revenue, Bing has asked Detroit's 50-plus unions for major concessions, including a 10-percent pay cut. Although he has asked his appointees to do the same, it hasn't appeased the rank and file.

The city's workers took Bing's 100th day in office as an opportunity to air their grievances. Outside City Hall, more than 200 city workers protested the proposed cuts.

Wanda Brown, who works for the Water Department, says the mayor needs to start at the top.

"I'm tired," she said. "We haven't gotten a raise in seven or eight years. It's just not fair.

"He needs to find some other area to cut. We did not put the city of Detroit in this deficit. We, the workers, did not do that, so whoever caused us to get into the deficit, go deal with them. Stop messing with us, the little people."

The union protests come at an awkward time for Bing. He is proposing cuts while trying to win re-election. Bing won a recent primary with more than 70 percent of the vote, but his opponent, Tom Barrow, a certified public accountant, hasn't let up.

Barrow insists Bing is unqualified for the job.

"I think it's palpably clear that he is in so far over his head," Barrow says. "He just doesn't understand how municipal finance works; he doesn't understand how city government functions and works; he's having to be told things and [is] just clearly out of touch with Detroiters."

A Risky Message

But what Barrow sees as a liability, Bing sees as an advantage.

The mayor plays up his outsider status. With a little more than 100 days under his belt, Bing says he is realistic about what he can achieve in one or two terms. While the city will never be what it was, Bing says he is responsible for putting it on the right path.

"I like for us to be a fiscally stable city — that we're not in the red anymore, that we can make the necessary investments to take our city to the next level," he says. "That we've created an environment where people feel good about saying, 'I'm from Detroit.' "

Bing says he is just being honest about the city's situation in asking Detroiters to make do with less. It's a risky message just a couple of months before an election.

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