Detroit Manager to Listen, Then Assess Priorities

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“Maybe he means he doesn’t have the details of it yet, but I hope he has some idea what the major issues are,” Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning said of Orr. “Mr. Orr has to deal with the threat of bankruptcy. This is a more immediate issue and he has to make a decision fairly quickly whether to put the city into bankruptcy or not.”

Then he has to match revenue and spending.

“This is the idea of downsizing the city so that the costs more closely match the amount Detroit brings in,” Henning said. “On the revenue side, something has to be done to stabilize the tax base. That’s all easier said than done and will take years, probably well beyond Mr. Orr’s term.”

Pamela Amato, a former emergency financial manager for tiny Three Oaks in southwestern Michigan, said when she took the job in 2009, she did not jump straight into the finances. Three Oaks had a $600,000 deficit and was nearly devoid of cash. It took less than a year to turn the village around. Amato says listening to officials and residents was the key.

“I wanted to get a sense from the people who lived there and who were in governance as to what was going on and used that information to chart my own course,” she said. “I let them know that we either succeeded together or we failed together.”

Orr has met with people in Detroit’s business and foundation communities, attending some dinners and receptions. He plans to commute between Detroit and his home in the Washington, D.C., area during the time it takes to fix Detroit.

“I was very comfortably placed in my private law practice at my firm that I adored,” Orr said, pointing out that he had been picked to go to open a Miami office before the offer to become Detroit’s emergency manager came from “out of the blue.”

Jevonsha Johnson, 28, said she wants Orr to keep in place efforts under Mayor Dave Bing to level as many of the city’s 30,000 or more vacant houses as funds allow. There are two adjacent to Johnson’s newer wood-framed bungalow in the city’s north end and another across the street.

“It don’t make you feel safe,” Johnson said. “The other new houses over here have been broken into several times. My neighbor next door told me a couple times that they broke in while his wife and daughter were there.”

Although Orr said he likes what he has seen in parts of the city — downtown, resurgent Midtown, the strong cultural and central business districts — he acknowledges other neighborhoods are “in need of some TLC.”

Amid all these problems, he acknowledges there’s a risk of being unable to solve them, though he insists he will within the 18 months dictated under Michigan’s emergency manager law.

“Failure is not an option,” Orr said. “It’s just a question of designing the architecture around what can be creating a future — and a sustainable future — for the city.”

(Photo: AP)

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