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Posted on Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 8:04 a.m.

Denial vs. reality: The time has come for painful changes for Detroit

By Tom Watkins


Detroit Mayor Dave Bing answers questions posed to him by Bankole Thompson, the senior editor of the Michigan Chronicle during the Global Conversations Speakers Series on March 14. Bing says he won't accept the position of emergency manager for the city even if it's offered by the state.

AP Photo | Detroit Free Press, Eric Seals

I genuinely like and respect both Detroit Mayor Dave Bing andMichigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

It is down right painful to watch two good, decent men, who profess to want what is best for our city and state, to be tangled up in "us vs. them" issues that have the potential, if it has not already, to spill over into a racial divide with no easy way out.

Words have consequences. Mayor Bing calling Gov. Snyder less than honest and "disingenuous" and the Gov's retort that Detroit has a "cultural" problem accepting help are not advancing solutions to the financial Armageddon facing the city.

Mayor Bing, with all due respect, you have moved too slowly in addressing a fiscal mess and structural mismanagement that you inherited and has been decades in the making. As you so painfully know, the fiscal gimmicks -- one time only funding sources, paying your Visa card with your Master card borrowing options -- have run out. The city of Detroit is heading toward bankruptcy if drastic action is not taken-- now!


Tom Watkins

Mayor Bing, you need the state on your side to solve the fiscal crisis that has amassed.

The choices range from serious injury - to death:

• Consent Agreement

• Emergency Manager

• Bankruptcy

Gov. Snyder is taking the heat for more than a half decade of a whole bunch of politicians, Republicans and Democrats, sitting in Lansing and Detroit, that have kicked the Detroit problems down the road.

Today, we have reached the point that there is no more can or road.

If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. It is time to stop the pretending and spending and fix both the short-term and long term structural fiscal holes in Detroit government.

The changes needed are painful because they have been neglected for too long. Once upon a time, a bandage or aspirin may have sufficed. Today, major surgery and amputation is required to save the city. This is the reality that needs to be faced.

The changes required are difficult and will hurt.

When you deny and neglect problems as long as city and state leaders have, the pain is only magnified.

Governor Snyder repeatedly has said he is open to compromise on the Consent Agreement, as long as it truly addresses the fiscal and management problems and holds everyone accountable.

Niccolo Machiavelli, centuries ago in his famous book, “The Prince,” offered his analysis to the political theater we are witnessing today, as Governor Snyder attempts to address long standing and neglected problems in Detroit, when he said:

"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, or more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this ‘lukewarmness’ arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Stop the games, fix the problem.

Tom Watkins is a former state school superintendent and was a Detroit charter commissioner serving on the Wayne County Charter Commission in the 1980s. He is the 2011 Greater Detroit Chambers Leadership Detroit recipient. He can be reached at:



Sun, Mar 25, 2012 : 4:29 p.m.

I predict that Detroit won't come back until it has a white mayor, not because a white mayor would be better or more skilled than a black mayor. Rather, the fact that a white mayor was elected would indicate that the electorate had truly changed. The racial animus in the current electorate prevents reform.


Thu, Mar 22, 2012 : 3:55 a.m.

Thank goodness multiple Judges have put the EFM decisions in Flint and Detroit on hold pending further hearings. The Judge hearing the Detroit matter has the State explaining why it shouldn't be held in contempt of Court. That's Fitting since so many hold the republican administration in contempt.

Dog Guy

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 11:02 p.m.

What is the antonym of adroit? (Wait for it.) . . . Detroit!


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 9:34 p.m.

I can't buy the argument that many Detroiters are making regarding the ursurping of Democracy if a financial manager was put in charge of Detroit. Democracy operates best when the citizens of a community become engage and informed enough to actively elect competent leaders who put the citizens interest before their own. For too long, Detroiters vote for the same ole incompetent, graft feeding leaders, they fail to turn out to vote in significant numbers in major elections and once a person get into office they are usually there forever unless something truly drastic happens regardless of their performance for the people. Anyone that have followed the Detroit City Council during this crisis can see where part of the problem lie. They have been more concerned about their own political survival that even in the face of a "take over" by the State they are unable to put aside personal, petty and political differences to focus on the problem at hand. I say to Governor Snyder, I would be extremely disappointed if you did not make good on your promises. The citizens of Detroit deserves better than what they are currently getting. Oh. BTW. Bring in the National Guard to get the crime under control.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 4:30 p.m.

I love all the union bashing. Just more short sighted individuals that let their hate of unions cloud the facts. Unions in Detroit have taken HUGE concessions over the years. It's been on going. But now people want to ask, "Well, what have they given right now?" Do a little research before you start banging on the keyboards. Look at what a Detroit city worker makes compared to ANYWHERE else. Why aren't you union bashers talking about the REAL issue in Detroit? All the corruption that got them to this point. How many federal investigations are going on just under the Kilpatrick administration ALONE? People for years knew about Young's illegal dealings but wanted him in power no matter what the cost. So, could a city worker give a few more dollars out of their pocket? Maybe... doubtful. How about looking at the millions in illegal contracts being doled out in that city by politicians now and in the past? Nah, it's easier to bash unions.

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 10:48 p.m.

"Ok, what would you rather see take 61% of expenses? " Nothing..... but that's not my point. I fully expect employee costs to be a major chunk of any city budget. My point is, and I don't take joy in this, because employee costs are a big chunk of a budget they have to be looked as a a source of cuts even if they have taken concessions in the past. I don't pretend to have any answers to Detroit's dilemma except a huge influx of working people and jobs they can work at. Detroit has been a shrinking city population wise for somewhere near 55-60 years now. Their official census count topped out in 1950.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 6:39 p.m.

Sorry Craig, I have to disagree. The cost of employee benefits and wages have been ignored for years. I admit to confusion as to why some people think this is a union busting campaign. It's about fiscal responsibility or lack thereof in the city of Detroit.

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 5:57 p.m.

whats gotten Detroit where they are is that while spending has headed up revenue has headed down. There is no one factor. A dwindling revenue base has a variety of sources. Corrupt politicians are certainly a part of the mix. But at the same time employee wages and benefits account for 61% of the cities expenditures and that can't be ignored.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 4:08 p.m.

Since the prime motivators for the republicon party are both the transfer of wealth and political power to the top 0.01% and the elimination of any tax burden for this same group, destruction of public unions is a top priority. It is very painfully obvious that the dictatorial powers gained by Slick, with his party's EFM law modifications, are part of that republicon grand strategy. Mayor Bing's assessment of Slick as disingenuous was way too soft on Slick. The man got elected after all by selling people on a soft image of himself without saying anything of substance.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

So what do you suggest Ray to fix Detroit - 70 unions, dozens of officials indicted, dozens more under investigation. Retirement costs that are out of control. Those problems all pre-date the Republican Governor. I am truly waiting for you to propose some solution to the problems.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 3:58 p.m.

Negotiating with 70 Unions....and one of those unions has exactly one member. If it wasn't so sad, it would be funny.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 3 p.m.

Fiscal incompetence and criminal behavior have become the hallmark of Detroit. Under no circumstances should the State give money to the city unless the State retains control. Detroit cannot be trusted to solve the city's problems as they have proved so many times before. Detroit's politician, both council and mayor, care only for their power. If they don't like, let them file for bankruptcy.

zip the cat

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 2:25 p.m.

70 unions,thats 69 too many to deal with. There problems stem from off the charts wages and benefits to having the same amount of employees for half of the population. Over half of the workers do nothing and get paid for it. If the city is in such a dire condition why are the big shooters makeing 6 figure salerys? Anyone who thinks snyder is the worst thing this state ever had must be living on another planet.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 1:51 p.m.

In the 6th century BC, Athens was in the middle of a mortgage crisis. For years, merchants had been lending money to small farmers who were sold into slavery if they defaulted. There was class and clan warfare, and political rifts that festered for decades. It got so bad that one man, Solon, was temporarily awarded autocratic powers by his fellow citizens on the grounds that he had the wisdom to sort out their differences for them in a peaceful and equitable manner. Solon made huge changes, erased debts, instituted new laws, and forced Athens to follow his rules for 10 years. There was a huge outcry but Solon's rule was the beginning of the famous Athenian democracy. Sound familiar? Sometimes one person can do what a whole group of squabbling people can't.

Tex Treeder

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 2:10 p.m.

As long as the trains run on time, right?

Ace Ventura

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 1:30 p.m.

Snyder is the worst thing that has happened to this since January 26, 1837.

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 12:26 p.m.

while your essay makes some legitimate points your excessive use of trite cliches sprinkled throughout only to finish with a quote from a 16th Century Italian philosopher is a bit underwhelming. I give it a C+

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

Its the mingling of classic literature with the "kick the can", "hole in the roof", band-aid/amputation cliche's that garnered the grade. Better to pick a theme and stick with it. Especially when you only have 524 words to work with.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

However old or new a quote might be is not all that important, except that an older quote might allow a perspective absent from a contemporary one. I think the fact that the quote is from a book written over 500 years ago, and which certainly seems to apply to the subject of the opinion piece, is a testament to the fact that the economic and power struggles exemplified by Detroit/Bing/Snyder have been occurring for centuries and alerts the participants and onlookers of what at least some of the dynamics are likely to be as the struggle plays out.


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 1:28 p.m.

Hey, at least there was no "at the end of the day" ;)


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 12:21 p.m.

Snyder is the best thing that has happened to this state in the past 30 years. I say let Detroit go belly up and suffer the consequences. At that point , the unions contracts ( what is it 70 of them) can be used to line cat litter pans and the taxpayers can get a fresh start. Good Day


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 6 p.m.

The problem is worse than the union contracts, it is the fact that the city has 2+ retirees with pensions and medical benefits for every current worker. Retirement and Health benefits for these retirees are eating the budget alive. Bankruptcy might be best, that way the pensions would go out the window and every asset the city has subject to sale. No union contract would survive and the current officials would have zero say in the matter. Nothing would be off the table. The only downside would be every school district, city and county would see the interest rate they have to pay on bonds jump by 1 or 2 percent over night, doubling the cost of borrowing money for everyone in the state. Yes, sir, no consent decree, no EM, just straight to bankruptcy!


Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 12:30 p.m.

Yeah, destroy what's left of the middle class. That'll solve the problem. Good thinking!