Can Mayor Dave Bing Fix a Broken Detroit?

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Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (Paul Warner/Getty Images)

(The Root) — In the face of a crushing $265 million deficit and $13.2 billion in long-term structural debt, it was either sign a consent agreement, file for bankruptcy or accept the fate of a state-appointed emergency manager, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing told The Root about two weeks ago in an exclusive interview.

The former NBA star and business owner, who was elected in May 2009, chose to sign the consent agreement under which he is required to create positions of a new chief financial officer, a project management director and nine-member financial advisory board to help run the city. He has also developed a spending plan to trim more than 2,500 of the city's 10,800 jobs and cut $250 million in annual expenses. And last week he announced the appointment of Jack Martin, a former emergency manager of a public school system outside of Detroit, as chief financial officer.

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Bing himself is on the road to recovery. He was beset by health woes in March and April when the consent agreement came up for a vote at the city council. He was hospitalized twice: treated for a perforated intestine and released, and treated for acute pulmonary embolism in his lungs and released. Several weeks after returning to work, Bing checked in with The Root.

The Root: How are you and how is your health?

Mayor Dave Bing: My health is improving daily. I had an unfortunate situation where I had to have surgery, but that was about seven weeks ago … My health is coming along very well.

TR: Why did it take so long to come up with a plan to save the city?

DB: I don't think there is a plan to save the city at this point. I don't think anybody externally and in some cases internally here in the city of Detroit understood the depth and the width of the problems that we have. We're talking about problems that go back 40 years, and there is no way any plan that anybody puts together is going to solve the problems short-term. We've approached some of the issues as a city both from a short-term and long-term standpoint. We're constantly changing things because the economy continues to change.

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TR: Some have argued that the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and some critics argue that you only pursued the consent agreement after the state threatened a takeover by an emergency manager. Is that a fair or unfair assessment?

I think the same thing is true for bankruptcy. Nobody seems to value a bankruptcy at this point in time. From my position, I had two options: Sign the consent agreement or let an emergency manager come in. We opted to sign the agreement. And we're working with the state to make some financial changes in terms of how we do business in the city of Detroit.

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TR: How will the consent agreement finally put Detroit on the road to economic recovery? How long do you predict it will take?

DB: It will take several years. We now have a three-year budgeting process instead of one year. It gives us a much better opportunity to review our resources and to develop an understanding of what our revenue streams are going to be. Therefore we can align our spending with the revenues that we project so that's important.

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TR: There have been reports that the city is still on the verge of bankruptcy. Is that true?

DB: Everybody who thinks they know a little about what goes on in the city has an opinion in terms of what we ought to be doing. My constant retort to that is you are not here, you don't know what the hell you're talking about. I think the governor and I are on the same page when I say that bankruptcy would not be good for the city, nor would it be good for the state. So we're not dealing with that thought at all.

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TR: What do you think will be your legacy?

DB: People ask me, "What's your legacy?" I don't worry about that. That's for historians to determine after I'm gone. But my legacy is about the 46 years I've been in Detroit. I've been in the neighborhoods. I've hired people. I've had my own businesses. I've had over 300 employees, all hired from the city of Detroit. I've had family upon family that I helped employ.

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My legacy is from an athletic standpoint, which was my first career and my business career as the second. And those are the things that I think people will remember me for. I'm not so naive to think that by being mayor of the city that won't have some impact, but the three years I've been here I don't think can qualify what I've done in my other … years here.

Lynette Holloway is the Midwest bureau chief for The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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