Detroit Files For Bankruptcy — With Fingers Crossed

Philip Bump

The city of Detroit has filed bankruptcy, according to the Associated Press, completing the city's long, slow economic slide. Doing so only addresses one of the city's problems, though, suggesting that it has almost certainly not hit rock bottom.

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According to the Free Press, the city owes $18.5 billion to creditors, including its public employee pensions. If you're curious (as we were), if each of the city's 701,475 residents took their $13,965 annual per capita income (!) and gave it to the city to retire that debt, it would still take two years before it was retired.

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Which is precisely the problem. From a peak population of 1.8 million in the 1950 Census, the city emptied. To oversimplify, the people left in concert with (though not only because of) the decline of the manufacturing industry, including automobiles. With that industry went higher paying jobs. For the city, fewer people meant fewer collected taxes. Meanwhile, the population aged. City workers moved into retirement, expecting that the pensions that were part of their contracts would help provide for them. Less in taxes, more in obligations, a smaller, poorer tax base. Again: oversimplified. But in summary, this is Detroit.

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In March, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as the city's emergency manager — an unelected position essentially granted autocratic power to make changes as Orr sees fit. (The law allowing emergency managers was itself highly controversial.) Just yesterday, Orr was profiled by the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Orr, who is paid $275,000 a year, has hired a new police chief and chief financial officer. The city is in the midst of privatizing its garbage collection and outsourcing its publicly run electric department for street lighting. Mr. Orr is contemplating leasing the city's island park and its regional water and sewer system. He is also weighing a takeover of at least one of the city's pension funds, which are under investigation by the city's auditor general for possible mismanagement.

Fittingly, Orr, a corporate bankruptcy expert, worked with Chrysler when it went through the process.

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Since 2010, seven cities, counties, and towns have declared bankruptcy. Detroit would be by far the largest. If reports are correct and Orr has filed for bankruptcy, the next one to three months would be spent determining how the city's limited money would be divvied up among those it owes. (A bit of a bright side: The city's bond rating can't drop much.)

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There's a catch to Orr's plan, as the Free Press explains.

The employee groups, and separately the city’s two pension funds in another lawsuit, argue that the governor — who under Michigan law must authorize any bankruptcy filing — cannot do so if the filings include plans to reduce pension benefits, because the state’s constitution explicitly protects public pensions.

The groups are going to court on Monday to block a bankruptcy declaration — which they suspect is why Orr filed before that point.

Detroit's bankruptcy filing only fixes one of the city's long-term problems, of course, the cycle of borrowing and spending that left the city unable to pay its bills. The population won't suddenly rebound. The 60 percent of kids living in poverty won't be thrust into the middle class. Republican elected officials won't stop using it as a punchline.

Orr doesn't intend that it do so. He just wants to halt the slide.

The filing, via WXYZ.