Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 24, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Water bill is poignant symbol


---- — There was something a little poignant about Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s annual state of the city address last week.

“Despite the naysayers’ predictions, there have not been any payless paydays. No emergency manager — to date. And no declaration of bankruptcy for the city of Detroit,” he said.

He had to know, of course, that an emergency manager, and probably bankruptcy, are almost certainly coming.

This was, quite likely, his last such speech. The mayor has not said whether he plans to seek re-election. If he does, he may well not win. But what does seem clear is that the city is almost certain to be under an all-powerful emergency manager soon, which means any mayor will be a mere figurehead.

This year, Bing did all he could to put the best face on what he has managed to do. The city has, he said, torn down 6,700 vacant and derelict structures. What he didn‘t say is that there are tens of thousands more that need the wrecking ball.

He did proudly mention that the Cobo Center, Detroit’s main convention center, has been successfully renovated. There will be a new police headquarters, the mayor said, and yet another “crime reduction strategy,” though no more cops.

And the Legislature, the mayor added, has just agreed to create a public lighting authority that will hopefully invest the money needed to make Detroit’s ancient street lights come on again.

Yet he had to know it was all too little, too late. His speech was, in a sense, a letter to history written by a good and decent man who, whatever his limitations, was faced with a mess that it’s hard to think that any elected leader could ever handle - even if not faced with a city council that seemed determined to ignore reality.

Not that the mayor’s speech was entirely realistic.

“Every day there are more signs of hope and possibilities,” he sad

Well, maybe in newly fashionable Midtown, an area sparking with new condos and young adults flocking to move in. Maybe in the downtown itself, with its casinos and stadiums.

But not in the vast majority of neighborhoods, some of which even the police only like to enter in broad daylight, and in force.

The mayor himself seems worn out by his job. A superbly toned athlete and member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, he looks and sounds older than his 68 years.

Living in the city wears even private citizens out. The night before the mayor gave his speech, I went to dinner with one of the city‘s better-known residents, in a neighborhood where hope and possibilities are only words in the dictionary.

John King is one of the city‘s cultural icons. A lifelong Detroiter, he founded one of the nation‘s largest used book stores, which fills up a giant former glove factory on Lafayette Boulevard.

King, who looks a little like a 63-year-old General George Armstrong Custer, drove me west on Fort Street, past block after block of abandoned and collapsing warehouses and factories.

Eventually we came to a tiny hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant on a rundown street called Lawndale, where we were the only non-Hispanic diners. King wanted to show me his water bill.

For years, his store had been billed $12.90 a month for a separate “fire line” water service. Then, in December, he got a letter from the city. “We have recently discovered that our billing system has not billed correctly.” From now on, his bill would be $255.44.

Plus, they seemed to be telling him if he ever has a fire, he’ll have to pay extra for the water. He swallowed hard, and paid. Then last month, he got another bill for back charges of $13,661.64 on the service he never used, and never knew he had.

Repeated attempts to dispute this bill have met with no response.

“Why don’t we just forget it and move to San Francisco?” Janelle, his longtime companion, urged him. “I’m getting close. I’ll tell you that,” King said.

If he closes up and leaves, it would be both a cultural and an economic blow to the city. His three Detroit bookstores employ more than a dozen neighborhood residents, whom he hires and painstakingly trains.

John King, the son of two blue-collar Ford Motor Co. workers, has lived in Detroit his entire life, staying when everybody else left, putting up with car insurance rates three times what he would pay in the suburbs, Rather than leave, he built a beautiful little apartment atop his second building. Then he tried to connect to the city’s cable TV service. “But they said I was a business and would have to pay $3,000,” he said. He bought a satellite dish instead.

Dave Bing has been fighting, too, also without much luck. A successful Detroit businessman after leaving the NBA, he had been urged to run for mayor for two decades. Finally, after the national embarrassment of Kwame Kilpatrick, he finally did,

But after taking office, he found getting anything substantial done infuriatingly difficult. Too often, the nine-member city council seemed more interested in posturing than progress, as when they rejected a state offer to renovate Belle Isle.

In the final analysis, however, it is unlikely even a superhuman could have saved Detroit from insolvency. Bing himself noted he inherited $13.8 billion in unfunded, long-term liabilities.

Two billion of that will come due within five years. Late last week, word leaked that a state-appointed review team was telling the governor there was virtually no chance Detroit’s elected officials could get the city‘s finances under control.

Nobody, least of all Mayor Bing, can be very surprised.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.