Though less than three weeks remain until Election Day, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was not touting his work to revitalize Detroit to a mass audience at a campaign rally Thursday, but to a room full of University Law School students.
Snyder’s address was part of the Law School’s ‘Detroit Month’ — an effort to facilitate student engagement in the city by hosting speakers and other events throughout October. The governor used the speech to highlight the city’s progress in its bankruptcy proceedings and to defend his aggressive and interventionist approach.
“If you put it in perspective, we needed to do something. The city had been on the path to decline for 40 plus years,” Snyder said, adding that state officials had ignored the city for too long.
After more than one year in office, Snyder said he and the administration of then-mayor Dave Bing were not working well together, forcing him to take further action. In April 2012, the state and city entered into a consent agreement, in which a nine-member financial advisory board, jointly appointed by the city and state, would control the city’s budget. The agreement also required the city to reach certain fiscal benchmarks to receive resources from the state.
When the city failed to meet the terms of the agreement after a year, Snyder said he was forced to appoint an emergency manager, calling it, “the last thing I wanted to do” and “one of the toughest decisions needed to be made in this country within the last few years.”
Since appointing an emergency manager, Snyder has been criticized for giving such broad control over the city’s finances and operations to an unelected official.
However, Snyder characterized the controversial decision as an objective process that could only be enacted if certain legal and financial criteria were met. The city had reached that point, and Snyder said he had no choice but to tap bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr, a University alum, to the position. Soon after, Orr filed for municipal bankruptcy for Detroit, making it the largest U.S. city ever to do so.
Snyder marveled at the pace of progress the city has made in the 18 months since Orr’s appointment. He said the Plan of Adjustment, which outlines how the city will restructure debt and city services in bankruptcy, had earlier that day received approval from the city’s last major creditor and was now just a month or so away from court approval. Snyder said he owed most of the credit to Orr, Mayor Mike Duggan and the judges and mediators involved in the bankruptcy process.
In addition to those leaders, Snyder said he is also indebted to the city’s retirees for their role in supporting the so-called “grand bargain.” This plan addressed the controversy over the bankruptcy’s effect of freeing the city from its obligation to pay retired city employees the full cost of their pension they were promised. The centerpiece of the adjustment plan will give the city $816 million over 20 years to help reduce pension cuts, with funds coming from the state, nonprofits and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Snyder noted that as the bankruptcy has gone on, the city has made strides in other areas. He said the city is now better lit, trash is being picked up more frequently, blighted buildings continue to be removed and crime has gone down significantly. In addition, Snyder highlighted that the residential areas in midtown and downtown have a 95-percent occupancy rate. Still, the city faces significant challenges in these areas.
With that in mind, Snyder also made an appeal to the audience of mostly law students about considering living in Detroit, citing its great employment opportunities and affordability.
“In your lifetime, how many chances will you have to be on ground floor of bringing something back that most people thought wasn’t going to come back?” he asked.
In a Michigan Daily survey from earlier this month, only 22 percent of surveyed University students said they would consider living in the city after graduation.
Law student Timothy Garcia, who attended the lecture, appreciated how the governor addressed the problems the city needed to fix while also playing up its exciting potential.
“I was surprised, actually, that he came to Ann Arbor in the middle of campaign season,” Garcia said. “I’m really glad he did.”
Though Snyder did not mention the campaign explicitly, he did talk about his role in Detroit in broader terms, noting that while being the face of a historic bankruptcy might create a negative perception, it will be a good thing in the end.
“I don’t think about legacy, but when they write the history books, it’ll say, ‘Governor Rick Snyder was the one who put Detroit into bankruptcy’,” Snyder said. “That will be a good thing. Because otherwise the day after, the day after that and the day after that would be the worst in the history of Detroit.”