Emergency manager takes on critics in candid interview about city’s future
KEVYN ORR, Detroit’s emergency financial manager, discusses the challenges facing Detroit while admonishing his critics to look at the facts on the city’s books. — Andre Smith photos
Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency financial manager, unfazed by criticisms and mounting opposition, opens up to Michigan Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson in this exclusive sit-down interview about the difficult choices ahead for the city while sharing some of the city’s debt numbers. Orr said he is not an elected official bound to public opinion and that it is time to change course if the city is expected to make any progress. The future of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s comments about Orr are two of the hot button issues discussed in the interview. Orr applauded Detroit’s private sector for what he calls their commitment to the city.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: When you came on board you talked about the fact that you have faith that good parties can come together. Do you still believe that?
KEVYN ORR: I still do. I really do and this is why I mentioned the financial operating plan. I’m going to be fully open with everything. That includes labor, debt holders, citizens, elected officials, the press. Let’s just get it all out there the best we can. Nobody really can debate the numbers. They are what they are. The math is the math. So now the next step becomes what we are going to do about it. I’m assuming rational behavior, that everybody wants to get the city to a position that is both on a sustainable path. a path for growth and a healthier going forward financial practice.
MC: Do you get a sense of a rational behavior within the various apparatus that make up city government? Because I’m sure you’ve had background conversations with all of these interested parties.
KO: I have. I think given the tools that the city’s administration and legislative body has they are trying to do the best they can with what they can do. The emergency manager statute gives me significant additional powers and tools in my toolbox that aren’t held in ordinary course by either the mayor or the city council. So looking at what the city has tried to do in the past, they are trying to run a city on a……if we continue on those lines the city just wouldn’t be functioning.
MC: Mayor Bing said recently you need to speak more to Detroiters. Was there something missing there?
KO: No, I don’t think so. I’ve tried to be open, communicative to Detroiters. As you know, the mayor’s office is seven feet from mine. I talk to him. I talk to city council. I probably talk to city council more than some other people have in this building. The mayor’s certainly welcomed to have his opinion and what he wants to say. I don’t think it’s reflective of what I try to do.
MC: What do you see as the role of the private sector in light of the Mackinac Policy Conference and Detroit’s financial crisis?
KO: This is one of the bright points in my opinion. The private sector in the city is remarkably committed to helping the city do better. And it’s not just Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske or the Fords or the Illitches; there are many others like The Skillman Foundation, Kresge and all the other groups. They have over the past (10 years) at a minimum put over a billion dollars just in foundation money into the city. That’s our entire budget. They have made commitments in a very real sense. They put their money where their mouths are. Some of these private sector individuals could take their money to Miami, Florida, New York and make a much higher return than they can here in the city. They decided against their immediate financial interest to help the city. I’m very impressed and very thankful for this amount of support and commitment to the city.
MC: Do you now feel the weight of this office in terms of the challenges that lie ahead?
KO: No, not really. I’ve actually felt more comfortable in the office as I’ve got more information, got more data. Let me put it this way: I didn’t do this. I don’t feel any responsibility for where we are.
MC: But you are the one in charge at this point.
KO: This has been coming for 40 years. From my perspective anything I do is better than where we were. Even if I tell the people the truth, just how bad the situation is. I was telling somebody the other day your water department gets 80 percent of its revenue from the suburbs. If the suburbs like Flint and Genesee who felt they are paying excessive amounts left, you wouldn’t have a water department. Is that what you want? No, I don’t think so. So I think what you want is to be responsive to your customer base, make sure you can monetize the assets so it provides revenue to the city. So if we think as in Judge Cox’s ruling about an authority, that’s a better deal for you. Maybe better than you thought you would have because you still keep the lines, the switches and valves and you get a revenue stream.
MC: What about those who are protesting claiming a water department takeover?
KO: So to the people who want to protest, I say unless you come here with a leprechaun and a pot of gold in your arm, what are you adding to the process? This is serious business.
MC: Some believe that the city is authority-fatigued. Do you think the water department needs an authority?
KO: I’m going to examine it because as I said when I first came here before I was in this office I said everything is on the table. But people maybe authority-fatigued but the reality is what we’ve been doing as a city isn’t working. So clearly we have to do something different and maintaining the course….we’ve got to change course. We don’t have a choice.
MC: What’s been the biggest surprise so far?
KO: Probably one of the biggest surprises is how little actual information I think the city population has. Once you sit down because most people want to see a better city and have a factual discussion with people, the light goes off. Rational people of good faith have that and they stand down from the emotional position because if you maintain an emotional position in the face of the truth, you’ve got something else at work other than dealing with reality. And I can’t change that.
MC: In that light are you walking a tight rope?
KO: No. As you may have noticed despite what some people may see in the press I don’t really pay attention to it. I could care less because most opinions are either informed, under-informed or have another purpose. I’m dealing with the facts and that’s what’s going to drive decision-making. Opinions and elbows everybody’s got. I’m free. I’m not a politician. Opinions matter to politicians because it translates into votes. I’m not running for anything. I don’t have any political ambitions.