Detroit’s public services albatross


Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manger has the monumental task of finding ways to help the city survive its financial crisis. Getting the city back on a sound footing fundamentally requires providing services at lower costs.

There is, of course, low-hanging fruit that is ripe for consolidation or elimination. At the top of this list is decommissioning of the city’s public health and public lighting departments.

A plan has already been set in motion to covert Detroit’s health department into a nonprofit Institute for Population Health. The institute will provide most of the public health functions required by state law, including immunizations, communicable disease testing, and vision and hearing screening and food sanitation and restaurant inspections.

But the institute basically substitutes one bureaucracy for another.

Detroit is the only Michigan city that runs or has oversight over health functions. County health departments generally handle this responsibility. Closing the Herman Kiefer complex and transferring to the county all functions within its walls, would be “best practices” personified.

Include in that move the Vital Records Unit, which comprise birth and death records.

The Wayne County Clerk, for example, maintains such records for all cities and townships except Detroit.

Insiders tell me that persons requesting birth or death certificates from the city by mail, may not get a response, let alone the record requested, in six months or more. Those who come to the city to personally request the documents, typically have to wait over an hour just to see if the record is available. The record-keeping system – or customer service — is just that dysfunctional.

The County Clerk has modern technology and business know-how to handle these functions. Many former Detroiters who now live in suburbia would be able to access these records via the clerk’s multiple service locations including Westland and Northville Township.

Waiting time under this operation takes 15 to 20 minutes. And the Clerk is currently installing an online document retrieval system — that will make electronic access to these records available in minutes.

However, no city function is ripe for a spin-off more than public lighting.

A new public lighting authority was seated because the city refuses to accept the truth about the critically impaired 110-year old system. The charge of the five-member board is to draft a plan and issue debt to pay for streetlight improvements. The panel is likely to find that reinvesting another $160 million in the same old system won’t come close to remedying its ills by the 2015 target date.

The utility’s citywide power distribution is responsible for all city streetlights, traffic signals and more than 890 public buildings, including some police and fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. The city has been trying to cope with widespread streetlight outages for decades.

Streetlight outages are near the top of citizen complaints. Adequate street lighting in an important public safety concern and critical for safe auto traffic and pedestrian travel.

The PLD has repeatedly received voter-approved bond money for required equipment upgrades. Some of it even went unspent after city officials found the dollars weren’t enough to improve the system’s reliability.

It’s difficult to see how a public lighting authority can correct years of major infrastructure needs. It may explore alternative structures, including management, ownership or sale. But the PLD has been studied for eons without producing solutions. More studies merely put “lights out” on hold. The antiquated PLD is simply beyond repair.

The time has come to transform the short-circuited PLD into an operation driven by the latest technological and consumer forces. The city’s best bet for lighting up the city again is get out of the public utility business. Giving it to DTE Energy would allow the city to discard a political liability. And getting out of the both the public health and public lighting business will begin to set a higher standard for public services.

1 thought on “Detroit’s public services albatross

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *