Thinking for ourselves
Breaking it down
By Shea Howell
Week eleven of the occupation
June 4, 2013
One of the least reported events from the Mackinac Policy Conference was the gathering of Detroit Mayoral candidates. Moderated by Nolan Finley of the Detroit News and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, four hopefuls discussed their views on Detroit.
The selection of participants was unclear. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan were obvious choices as the front-runners in most polling. Also included were former State Representative Lisa Howze and current State Representative Fred Durhal, Jr. Both are polling at around 1%. Neither Krystal Crittendon nor Tom Barrow was part of the forum. Both are serious candidates.
Most of the reporting on the event highlighted the “jabs” candidates took at one another. Lisa Howze and Fred Durhal were especially contentious, trying to use the forum to stake out a stronger claim on the job.
But three of the four were united in one critical area. Napoleon, Duggan and Howze all challenged the idea that Detroit is facing a financial emergency. In this they are joining the long -standing positions of Krystal Crittendon and Tom Barrow. All are doing a service to the public by interrupting the constantly repeated mantra in the media of our $15 billion debt.
Nolan Findley, building on comments about the budget introduced by Rep. Durhal, said, the city of Detroit needs “good fiscal management” and the next mayor will need to “keep us on track.” Directing his question to Sherriff Napoleon, he repeated accusations of “a record of mismanagement,” and asked how Napoleon would handle the budget questions.
Napoleon defended his record, pointing out that the budget problems he faced in the sheriffs department were manufactured by unrealistic allocations from the county. Perhaps it was this emphasis on a “manufactured crisis” that prompted Mike Duggan to tackle the basic assumption of the financial emergency. Duggan said he was not interested in the Sherriff’s budget, but the city’s. He noted that it “looks hopeless. We’ve got these huge deficits.” But he said, as Lisa Howze has pointed out, “They say you have a $15 billion dollar debt. When you break it down, it isn’t nearly as horrible as it sounds. I’m not saying we don’t have serious problems, we do, but $6 billion of that is on the Water Department. When you look at what’s left, it’s $9 billion. Of the remaining $9 billion there is one billion in bonds, $2 billion in retirement, and $6 billion in retiree health. We’ve got a huge retiree health issue which is the way we ought to be talking about this.” He believes we can make a “significant impact” on this area.
A critical responsibility of this election cycle is for candidates to use one of the few public processes still functioning in our city to clarify the misinformation being repeated in the mainstream media.
The way we define a situation directs are thinking about how we will solve it. As long as we have the mantra that Detroit is “$15 billion dollars in debt,” we have a financial crisis that justifies everything from selling the Water Department to the giraffes in zoo. When
Detroit is characterized as “swimming in a sea of debt,” any lifeline will do.
What Krittendon, Barrow, Howze, Duggan, and Napoleon have all pointed out is that the financial situation is far more complicated than this glib media representation conveys. Likewise, the solutions to it are much more varied than the firehouse sale of all our assets and the dismantling of public services.
Much of this crisis can be directly attributed to structural issues created by the state legislature and the Wall Street interests it represents. The effort to use this crisis to create an “austerity mentality” is provoking resistance around the globe. We, in Detroit, are joining that resistance to create a better way.