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Detroit’s tough times demand tough calls

Last Updated: November 18. 2011 1:00AM.

Daniel Howes

Detroit’s tough times demand tough calls

The question to General Motors Co. Chairman Dan Akerson was a simple one:

“What advice would you give Detroit Mayor Dave Bing,” now facing an unforgiving financial reckoning that is likely to culminate in a state takeover of the city’s management — whether the mayor, the City Council or its unions like it or not.

GM’s CEO, in an appearance Thursday at the Detroit Economic Club, diplomatically responded that he wouldn’t offer any advice except to observe that Bing may actually have a tougher job than he does. That, coming from the guy leading GM out of the largest industrial bankruptcy in American history.

Yes, the mayor may have a tougher job. But Akerson, GM’s fourth CEO in less than three years, said something else in an unrelated answer that cuts to the heart of the enormous challenge bearing down on Bing, council and union leaders whose only response to proposed restructuring is to say they can’t give anymore:

Leaders make tough decisions.

They make the calls that make sense for the next generation or more, not the next quarterly earnings statement or the next budget. They tell their people the truth about their predicament, not a sanitized, politically correct version filtered through a culture of denial, dysfunction and self-dealing. They explicitly recognize that hope is not a strategy.

Leaders facing critical threats go deep and fundamental. They choose what to keep and what to jettison. They claim responsibility for cleaning up the mess before them instead of casting about for scapegoats because the hunt doesn’t make their tough job any easier.

Case in point: The biggest applause line in Bing’s speech Wednesday was his call for state officials to return the $220 million in revenue-sharing cuts to Detroit because the city had reduced its income tax rate, as agreed, but Lansing had reneged. Ever heard of Michigan’s one-state recession, also known as the “Lost Decade”?

Apparently not, because the not-so-subtle message is that Lansing is to blame for Detroit facing this existential crisis now. Never mind the decades of mismanagement that begat crumbling services. Forget the exodus of Detroiters that became a flood in the past decade, depressing everything from home prices and tax receipts to the number of students attending Detroit Public Schools.

Disregard the anti-business rhetoric of the past or the hectoring of would-be investors at council meetings and the effect of it all on corporate decision-making. Pretend that the obsession with retaining Detroit’s “jewels,” however tarnished, didn’t saddle the city with strangling costs or hamper its ability to provide basic services, exacerbating the problem.

This isn’t a game, Detroit politics as usual or the punishing aftershock of a cyclical downturn that will pass and allow embedded interests to keep living off the public dole. The mayor and council are standing at the gateway to the new normal of a smaller Detroit, a smaller Detroit government, a city whose reach and collection of assets will be smaller tomorrow than it is today.

Why? Because if the mayor gets the restructuring moves he wants, they won’t be nearly enough to reverse a critical cash drain and he’ll be forced to come back for more. That’ll mean more than outsourcing management of the bus system and privatizing the lighting department, ideas that have been around since Dennis Archer’s tenure as mayor.

It’ll mean a rush to turn city assets into cash — City Airport, Belle Isle — and off-load more municipal services to contractors. It’ll mean pay cuts, benefit reductions and layoffs, not one or the other. It’ll mean combining a service like the city health department with its counterpart in Wayne County. And so much more with so little time.

The phrase “tough decisions” doesn’t begin to describe it. Which raises a question: Could anyone but an outsider summon enough dispassion to actually make the hard calls, whatever that portends for Detroiters elected to govern a city they’re struggling to govern?

The mayor, the council, even skeptical union leaders desperately want the answer to be “yes” because they know the alternative is politically fraught and a one-way ticket to irrelevance.

They’re right, and the only way to avoid the state-appointed emergency manager they loathe is to make the tough decisions to do a whole lot more than is already on the table — or someone else will do it for them.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20111118/OPINION03/111180334/Detroit’s-tough-times-demand-tough-calls#ixzz1eGRloxu9

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