That’s my reaction to last week’s news that the state team charged with reviewing Detroit’s financial condition has unanimously concluded that a financial emergency exists in the city.
To quote them exactly: “…a financial emergency exists because no satisfactory plan exists within the City of Detroit to resolve a severe financial problem.”
That’s putting it mildly. The city’s cash shortfall is likely to hit $100 million by June. The deficit accumulated since 2005 mounts up to nearly a billion dollars. Detroit’s unfunded long term debt (mostly pension and other retirement benefits) is about $14 billion.
That comes to around $20,000 per city resident.
When General Motors went into bankruptcy in 2009, it had a staggering debt-to-asset ratio of 20 to 1. That meant for every dollar of assets GM had, the automaker owed $20 in debt.
Detroit’s debt-to-asset radio? It’s now 33 to 1.
Virtually everybody thinks the stage is now set for Governor Snyder to appoint an emergency financial manager. He technically has as long as 30 days after the declaration of financial emergency to make up his mind, but as State Treasurer Andy Dillon noted, the city is bleeding cash and doesn’t have much time.
The situation looked much the same back on April 4, 2012, when the Detroit City Council voted 5-4 to adopt a consent decree with the state that provided the Lansing with “the lightest possible touch” to get the city to sort out its financial problems.
The goal was to avoid a (then) dreaded emergency manager.
At that time, I wrote, “under the consent agreement as written, there is an awful lot of diffusion of power. … The long record of bad blood between Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council doesn’t encourage optimism that reaching agreement on anything will be easy.
“When you add the racial politics that have pervaded the relationships between Detroit, the suburbs and the state for decades, you have to worry the whole thing could come apart at the seams.”
Well, it did, indeed, but it sure took a long time and a ton of political posturing to do it. What’s fascinating to me is that the Detroit situation today is exhibiting the same strange slow-motion stumble that General Motors displayed just before it went bust in 2009.
I’m sure that’s because nobody – back then or now – really wants to face a bankruptcy. But, think. In the case of GM, it turned out a bankruptcy was exactly what the doctor ordered. My guess is that’s the same song they’ll be singing for Detroit’s financial future, but it’s going to require a second and a third verse:
The second verse will showcase an emergency financial manager to sort out the operating deficit and cash flow problems. That means the emergency manager will have to deal in a very tough way with the city’s various powerful unions and woefully inadequate tax collection system. Financial experts tell me that the issues here are more those of rigid and antiquated work rules, jurisdictional tangles and bad management than of wages
However, resolving the city’s operating deficit and cash flow problems isn’t going to deal with the enormous accumulated debt or the structural rigidity in the city charter that practically guarantees the expensive structure of city bureaucracy.
Frankly, I doubt even an empowered emergency financial manager is going to have the clout to get the city’s bond holders to take a “haircut” and force a rewrite of the city charter.
That will take a third verse of the Drama of Detroit song: The largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
That sounds terrible. But if you look at the precedents set by GM and Chrysler, a structured bankruptcy is conceptually possible, financially sensible and politically acceptable. What exactly will be required to make manageable the city’s billions in unfunded long term liabilities will only gradually become clear.
Bottom line: An Emergency Financial Manager is a necessary temporary solution to Detroit’s problems, but it isn’t sufficient.
If we’re really going to make a thriving Detroit an essential part of a thriving state – something everybody wants – we’d better make sure we take a full dose of the bitter medicine and get the entire job done completely and not stop part way through.
That’s why this song, like most good ones, will wind up with three verses: 1) Consent Agreement 2) Emergency Financial Manager 3)Structured Bankruptcy.
After that, we have to hope for an upbeat finish -- and an ending happier than the first verse gave us any right to expect.