Lessons from a Front-Row Seat for Detroit’s Dysfunction

Bill Nojay, Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2013

Since Detroit declared bankruptcy on July 18, the city’s crippling problems with corruption, unfunded benefits and pension liabilities have gotten the bulk of airtime. But equally at fault for its fiscal demise are the city’s management structure and union and civil-service rules that hamstring efforts to make municipal services more efficient. I would know: I had a front-row seat for this dysfunction.

Last year, I served as chief operating officer of the Detroit Department of Transportation. I was hired as a contractor for the position, and in my eight months on the job I got a vivid sense of the city’s dysfunction. Almost every day, a problem would arise, a solution would be found—but implementing the fix would prove impossible.

We began staff meetings each morning by learning which vendors had cut us off for lack of payment, including suppliers of essential items like motor oil or brake pads. Bus engines that the transportation department had sent out to be overhauled were sidelined for months when vendors refused to ship them back because the city hadn’t paid for the repair. There were days when 20% of our scheduled runs did not go out because of a lack of road-ready buses.


A major expense for Detroit is the cost of lawsuits filed against the city for various alleged injuries on municipal property. At the transportation department, there were hundreds of claims arising from bus accidents alone. How many of those claims were fraudulent? How many were settled (with the cost of settlement and legal fees posted against DDOT’s budget) at unnecessarily high cost?

It was impossible to know, since the city’s law department handled all litigation and settled cases without consulting the DDOT staff. It was the law department’s policy to settle virtually all claims—which meant that the transportation department became easy prey for personal-injury lawyers bringing cases with little or no merit, costing the city millions.


Disability and workers’ comp claims were routinely paid with no investigation into their validity. More than 80% of the transportation department’s 1,400 employees were certified for family medical-leave absences—meaning they could call in for a day off without prior notice, often leaving buses without drivers or mechanics. Management’s only recourse to get the work done was to pay the remaining employees overtime, at time-and-a-half rates. DDOT’s overtime costs were running over $20 million a year.

Then there was the obstructionism of the City Council. While I was at the DDOT, roughly 10% of bus-fare collection boxes were broken. In another city, getting a contract to buy spare parts to repair these boxes would be routine. The City Council publicly expressed outrage that we didn’t fix the fare boxes, since the city was losing an estimated $5 million a year in uncollected fares.

But the reason we couldn’t fix the fare boxes was that the contract for the necessary spare parts had been sitting, untouched, in the City Council’s offices for nine months. Due to past corruption, virtually every contract had to be approved by the council, resulting in months-long delays. {snip}

Union and civil-service rules made it virtually impossible to fire anyone. A six-step disciplinary process provided job protection to anyone with a pulse, regardless of poor performance or bad behavior. {snip}


Detroit’s other municipal departments had similar challenges. I would often compare notes with managers trying to run the city’s street lights, recreation programs, police departments and smaller offices. All of us faced similar gridlock.

The last thing Detroit needs is a bailout. What it needs is to sweep away a city charter that protects only bureaucrats, civil-service rules that straightjacket municipal departments, and obsolete union contracts. A bailout would just keep the dysfunction in place. Time to start over.


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