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Commentary: What do huge spending cuts mean for Detroit?

Detroit, as you probably know, is trying desperately to avoid emergency manager status, bankruptcy, or both.

Governor Rick Snyder isn’t the most popular figure in Motown these days, but he is on the same page with city leaders on that, which is why he helped craft the so-called consent agreement.

The mechanics of it are still being worked out. But yesterday, Mayor Dave Bing proposed a new city budget that was almost frightening in terms of its austerity, and depressing when you think of the services this once-great city used to provide.

But this budget is also very much a step in the right direction. What Detroit has to do is this. Stop thinking of itself primarily as an employer -- and start seeing its mission differently.

The main responsibility the city has is to provide core services to residents in the best, most efficient and most economical way possible. Core services begin with public safety, lighting, water and sewer and transportation. Possibly also public health.

Things beyond that may not be possible now.

Exactly how core services are provided should be up to the experts. For years, one word has been taboo in city negotiations: Privatization. Union leaders feared the loss of jobs.

Unfortunately, we are in crisis times, the city is stone broke and needs to be in survival mode. This budget shows the mayor is starting to get it. The city still owns and operates a small airport, which long ago became a money-losing drain on expenses.

Mayor Bing proposes transferring it to an authority, which hopefully will sell it off.  But the mayor and the council still need to make the big leap when it comes to transportation. This budget cuts the subsidy the bus system gets, but that doesn’t solve anything.

That merely promises to make a bad system worse. What Detroit needs to do instead is either privatize it, or seek help from the state to merge it with the suburban bus system.

This is a place where government can play an essential role. Detroit has many people without cars who could work if they had a reasonable way to get to jobs in the suburbs. But city bus service is not only less than reliable and inefficient.

Nobody coordinates Detroit buses with suburban ones. Having a single authority would make the most sense from the standpoint of everyone. Having a private operator with a financial incentive to make this work might be more expensive for residents, but still could be better than what people have now.

Lighting services clearly should be privatized, and police, fire, water and sewer have to be made to work by any means necessary. That may sound harsh, but there really isn’t any choice.

Somehow, the city has to first make essential, life-supporting operations work, before there can be any thought of more. Those running Detroit really need to do some form of radical zero-based budgeting -- and reinvent the city from scratch.

Otherwise, others will do it for them. By the way, if you think this doesn’t concern you think again. Every sign points to similar days of reckoning coming for Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw and other Michigan cities. Detroit is a laboratory and a cautionary tale.

We all need to pay close attention.

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