Mike Duggan Says Big Change Can Come to Detroit

by | February 28, 2014

By Matt Helms and Joe Guillen

Mayor Mike Duggan laid out what he said is a strong case that change can come quickly for Detroit, insisting that recent improvements in fixing streetlights, boosting bus service and a major new assault on blighted houses are a foundation for a recovery.

"Almost every day, somebody asks me, 'Aren't you discouraged?' " Duggan told a packed audience at City Hall on Wednesday night, noting that Detroit is in a bankruptcy fight for its life under state oversight.

But Duggan told the crowd gathered for his first State of the City address that he's far from discouraged. He said that he and members of the City Council have forged a calm, rational response to the city's challenges -- including a record snowfall in January that hammered the city's public works and trash-collection efforts. "Here's what I know for sure: The change has started, and the change in Detroit is real," he said to applause.

Still, Duggan acknowledged that Detroiters have felt disconnected from the national economy's recovery, with high unemployment amid a city that struggles to provide basic public services.

As first reported by the Free Press on Wednesday, Duggan also announced he was speeding up the spending of $20 million in unspent insurance industry funds set aside for demolition of fire-damaged vacant homes, an amount that could cover the cost of tearing down 2,300 blighted houses in the city. It's money that was included in emergency manager Kevyn Orr's proposed bankruptcy plan of adjustment last week that calls for spending $520 million over the next six years to tear down as many as 80,000 vacant structures at a rate of as many as 450 a week.

Duggan also urged state lawmakers to quickly act on legislation to crack down on scrap-metal operators who buy goods stripped from buildings, streetlights and cars. A bill in the state House would require scrap operators to take photos of the sellers and pay them by check mailed to an address. Widespread scrapping is blamed for malfunctioning city streetlights, stripped vacant homes and other costly damage to public and private properties.

In other efforts, Duggan said his administration is focused on encouraging job opportunities for Detroiters, including in major developments such as the M-1 Rail streetcar project on Woodward from downtown to the New Center and on the proposed new Detroit Red Wings arena just north of downtown. He also said a team he assembled is working on a proposal for the city to create an affordable auto insurance option for Detroiters, who now pay some of the nation's highest car insurance premiums.

No matter their driving records, "most Detroiters are paying more per month for car insurance than they are for their cars themselves," Duggan said, noting his family's car insurance bill rose to $6,000 a year from less than $3,000 after he moved to the city in 2012.

It was a largely optimistic speech for a mayor who won the city's top elected job as Detroit is weaving its way through the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, with a state-appointed emergency manager in charge of virtually all of the city's affairs. Duggan quickly worked out a power-sharing deal with Orr that left Orr with authority over the Police Department and the city's finances, with Duggan in charge of most other city departments -- and shouldering the responsibility for carrying out a transformation of a city government that fails to provide some of the most basic services despite the state's highest local property tax rates.

Political analyst Eric Foster said Duggan continued to straddle the fine line he's walked in both working with Orr while also building a case that he and the council are serious about running the city professionally and restoring elected democracy once Orr's tenure is over in September.

For residents concerned about dismal city services, Duggan made a "real, tangible presentation" about the efforts to fix city services, Foster said.

The mayor "laid out point by point, department by department, what he's doing," Foster said. "There are things you can actually measure, that you can come back and check throughout the year."

Councilman James Tate, serving his second term, said the council's cooperative relationship with Duggan's office has been refreshing. "This city has beat down for quite some time, and unfortunately, we haven't had enough people -- especially in leadership -- cheerleading," Tate said. "It's one thing just to cheerlead, but it's another thing to actually put those words into action, and that's what you're clearly seeing from this mayor, this City Council."

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of the leading proponents of the anti-scrapping bill Duggan touted, said the Senate has yet to agree to a key provision requiring a three-day waiting period before payment could be made by scrapyards for the three most-often stolen items: copper wire, catalytic converters and air-conditioning units.

Tlaib, a Democrat who lives in southwest Detroit, said scrapyard owners have fought the three-day waiting period, but law enforcement agencies are supportive.

"However, the scrapping industry doesn't get to vote," she said. "And the people overwhelmingly believe in the three-day delay, as well as our mayor."

Councilman Scott Benson said new community managers in each council district will provide another ally to help solve residents' specific problems.

"The common theme so far has been the winter," said Benson, whose district is in a northeast section of Detroit. "Helping people with the snow removal in the streets has been a constant battle for us."

(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press