Recently Steven Rhodes, the Judge tasked with managing the largest municipal Bankruptcy in American history, cleared Detroit to emerge from reorganization and put to bed a series of hard-fought battles between creditors, citizens, employees, and pension recipients. Before approving the move though, Judge Rhodes issued a heart-felt plea to all involved: “move past your anger” and “fix the Motor City. What happened in Detroit must never happen again.” He also observed that “Detroit’s inability to provide adequate municipal services… is inhumane and intolerable, and must be fixed.”
Politicians and civic leaders, including Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder, hailed Friday’s decision as a milestone and a “fresh start” for the Motor City. Indeed, it was Snyder who originally agreed with State-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to take the City into Chapter 9: a last-resort he had promoted during his re-election campaign.
Lightning Fast Recovery
By Bankruptcy standards Detroit’s case finished in a flash thanks to a series of deals between the City and major creditors, especially retirees who agreed to smaller pension checks (after the Judge reminded them that they had no protection under the Michigan Constitution) and bond insurers who relented on their push to sell the City’s art collection despite being owed more than $1 Billion. By contrast it took more than 2 years for Stockton, California to get out of Bankruptcy, while tiny San Bernardino is still operating under Chapter 9 more than 2 years after filing.
An Innovative Plan
Detroit’s Plan of Reorganization involves cutting pensions of non-public-safety retirees by 4.5%, completely discharging $7 Billion of debt, and spending over $1.7 Billion to demolish blighted buildings and improve basic services. In particular, Judge Rhodes praised the way contentious issues in the Plan were resolved: such as the deal to avoid selling artwork from the Detroit Institute of Arts, and to keep pension cuts from getting worse. In fact, while he said the pension deal bordered on “the miraculous,” he acknowledged that the necessary cuts would cause hardship for the many who would now have to get by on less than $20,000 a year.
Ultimately Judge Rhodes had to accept or reject Detroit’s Plan in full rather than cherry-picking sections. He relied on the advice of an expert, who deemed the Plan “feasible” and predicted that its success would depend on the fiscal skills of the Mayor and City Council, as well as a City Hall technology overhall. Maybe the most unusual feature of the Plan was its reliance on $816 Million put up by the State, foundations, philanthropists, and the Institute of Arts, in order to forestall even deeper pension cuts and avert the sale of art – a step the Judge warned “would forfeit Detroit’s future.”
What Went Wrong In The First Place
In retrospect, perhaps this was inevitable. After all, Detroit’s economy was clearly at the center of a “Perfect Financial Storm” consisting of municipal corruption, fiscal mismanagement, the long, slow decline in the auto industry, and widespread urban flight that strangled the population from 1.2 Million to 688,000 by 1980, turning whole neighborhoods into boarded-up wastelands. Adding insult to injury, despite encompassing more square mileage than Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco combined, Detroit couldn’t even count on sufficent tax revenue to cover pensions, retiree benefits like health insurance, and debt service on funds borrowed to meet its budget burden. Still, the nail in Detroit’s coffin was the horrible debt deal made by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which locked it into paying high rates on its debt even as interest rates fell during the recession
Light At The End of The Tunnel
Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah declared Detroit to be “on the cusp of a new era and primed to reinvent itself in a way many people did not think possible.” True. But what really matters is that the Motor City has a new direction and a long, hard, clean-up job ahead. Sure, Bankruptcy was the catalyst for change, but only the City and its residents – businesses, individuals, religious institutions, and government – can affect real change. Here’s hoping, Detroit. We’re all pulling for you.
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