DETROIT (AP) – Dave Bing delivered his final official speech as Detroit’s mayor on Wednesday, proclaiming that the city is much stronger now than it was four years ago despite going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
During the luncheon speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the former NBA basketball player lamented that his efforts to fix the city’s beleaguered finances were slowed by rules governing contracts with workers and an often adversarial City Council.
“I had to obtain the approval from City Council, which slowed down the process of getting anything done,” he told business and civic leaders. “I had to negotiate with labor unions that were resistant to change. I couldn’t move as rapidly as I wanted to. I didn’t have the authority or the power to act independently as the emergency manager does today.”
Detroit has been under state oversight since March when Gov. Rick Snyder appointed turnaround specialist Kevyn Orr as emergency manager.
Under state law, Orr has complete control over the city’s finances and spending. Both Bing’s and the City Council’s roles have diminished since Orr was hired.
Orr filed Detroit’s bankruptcy petition on July 18 in federal court. On Dec. 3, a judge allowed Detroit to become the largest U.S. city to enter bankruptcy.
Orr says Detroit debt is $18 billion or more with underfunded obligations of about $3.5 billion for pensions and $5.7 billion for retiree health coverage. Before Orr arrived Bing had trimmed the city’s payroll from 14,500 to about 9,400 jobs. He also instituted pay cuts for city workers.
“I knew the negative impact this would have on their livelihood and their families,” Bing lamented. “I also knew that downsizing city government was absolutely necessary for the city to survive.”
But it was too little, too late. A financial review team and Snyder determined the city was in a financial emergency with no adequate plan to correct things. That led to Orr’s hiring.
“I chose to partner with the emergency manager once it was obvious he was going to be here,” Bing said.
Bing said he was able to persuade General Motors to keep its world headquarters and hundreds of jobs in Detroit. He also convinced business leaders and foundations to pay for 100 new police cars and 23 new ambulances for the police and fire departments.
More than 9,000 vacant houses were demolished in four years.
“In the end, what matters most to me is giving residents a better quality of life. After all, that’s why I ran for mayor in the first place,” Bing said. “Too much focus has been placed on what didn’t get done, instead of concentrating on how far we’ve come.
“We laid the foundation for the true transformation of our city.”
Voters elected the professional basketball Hall-of-Famer and successful businessman in May 2009 to complete the second term of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick who was charged with lying during a civil trial and later jailed. That November, Bing was elected to a full term.
Kilpatrick would face more charges as revelations surfaced that city business was rife with theft and bribery. He was sentenced in October to 28 years in federal prison for extortion, bribery, conspiracy and other crimes during his years in office.
“We successfully restored integrity and respect to the mayor’s office,” Bing said Wednesday. “Corruption became a thing of the past. Pay-to-play went away.”