(TNS) — Skepticism was high among Detroit, Michigan residents and council members at a standing-room-only public hearing on Monday about Mayor Mike Duggan’s $250 million bond proposal to fund blight remediation.
About 200 people — from residents to state elected officials — signed up to speak on the issue at the meeting. More than 500 were in attendance.
Some residents urged council to approve the measure to encourage the demolition of abandoned houses throughout the city. Others spoke in opposition, citing concerns about mismanagement of the city's demolition operations in recent years.
"If you can't be a steward for a little money, how are you going to be a steward for a quarter-billion dollars?" said Detroit resident Georgia Cambell.
Council President Brenda Jones set the tone at the meeting’s outset — venting her frustration over telemarketing calls that she said went out earlier Monday, urging residents to lobby her to support the proposal.
“I have no trust whatsoever,” Jones told administration officials during their presentation about the bond. “I think that was the most ridiculous poli-trick I’ve ever seen.”
Jones did not speculate about who was behind the telemarketer campaign, but she warned those listening that intimidation tactics don’t affect her.
Asked earlier Monday whether the mayor's office was involved in efforts to contact Jones, spokesman John Roach sent a text message that said, "we encourage every Detroit resident to reach out to their elected representatives on this important issue."
Monday's public hearing offered the latest evidence that the mayor's bond proposal is far from a slam dunk with residents and council members. Residents in attendance clapped and snapped their fingers in approval when council members asked administration officials pointed questions about the city's demolition program.
The council could vote on Tuesday to send the proposal to voters on the March 2020 ballot.
Duggan's administration has been advocating for the bond to achieve its goal of removing the city's residential blight by mid-2025.
If voters ultimately approve the bond proposal, the city would secure $250 million in unlimited tax general obligation bonds to continue Duggan's aggressive blight remediation efforts. City officials say about 19,000 buildings have been demolished since 2014.
The bond proceeds would help tear down an additional 19,000 properties and go toward renovating an additional 8,000 homes through Detroit Land Bank Authority sales and legal actions against privately owned vacant buildings.
Early in the meeting, before the public had a chance to comment, council members questioned various city officials about a range of topics tied to the bond.
They asked about the city's demolition program, the proposal's impact on taxpayers and whether or not homeowners would get money to fix up their homes if the bond passes.
Some of the bond proceeds would go toward rehabilitating homes, but not occupied homes. Rehab money would only be for vacant homes that are owned by the city or the Detroit Land Bank Authority, said Arthur Jemison, the city's group executive for housing, planning and development.
Detroiters would see lower property taxes if the bond proposal is not passed, a council fiscal analyst said under questioning by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield.
Residents' average property tax bill would decrease by about $60 a year if the bond proposal is rejected, said Irvin Corley, a fiscal analyst with the council’s Legislative Policy Division.
The City Council has been in no rush to decide on Duggan's bond proposal — at least three times the council has postponed a vote on whether to send the proposal to the March 2020 ballot.
According to officials, Nov. 26 is the last day the body can vote on the measure before it goes on recess.
Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said Monday that this bond proposal is not the only chance to fund the city's blight removal efforts in the future. She said there has been a false narrative circulating that the city's demolition operations will crater if the bond isn't approved.
“This is not our only opportunity to do this,” she said.
Detroit Chief Financial Officer Dave Massaron told the council that the administration is willing to consider adjusting the proposal to allow for greater council oversight of the bond proceeds.
But Jones said the telemarketing calls put her in no mood to trust such a compromise.
The city has already spent $532 million since 2014 on Duggan's blight removal effort, according to the city's auditor general. The demo program has been funded with a mix of city, federal and other sources.
Total possible spending on blight removal over the next five years — if the bond proposal is approved in 2020 — could be as much as $500 million, taking into account additional funds planned to address blight, according to a report written by council's legislative policy division.
That means by 2025, the city may have spent upwards of $1 billion on blight remediation, thanks to the bond and other funding mechanisms the city has planned for the next several years.
Detroit City Council postpones $250M bond vote, citing serious concerns
Detroit demolition program mismanaged, riddled with problems, auditor says
The City Council is considering the bond proposal after a recent critical report from Detroit Auditor General Mark Lockridge. The report concluded that the city's demolition program has been mismanaged and beset with significant problems for the past four years.
Lockridge blasted the city for having "inconsistent and unreliable" demolition data, as well as poor record keeping that made it difficult to perform the audit.
City officials pushed back on the report, saying the auditor general used flawed and outdated data. But Lockridge's office said they simply used the data that was provided to them and even adjusted to include a newer set of data, which produced similar concerns about the program.
Jones, the council president, also raised concerns on Monday about an ongoing federal investigation involving the city's demolition program.
Massaron recalled that a news release in April from SIGTARP, a federal agency involved in the investigation, said that no further charges were anticipated against additional public officials.
Jones did not sound reassured.
“We don’t know what is involved in the federal investigation," Jones said. "So, we might be approving the usage of something that might be involved in the federal investigation.”
©2019 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.