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Detroit Mayor Bing Opening the Door to Privatization

Leonard Gilroy
September 14, 2009, 8:41pm

I was interviewed recently by Detroit Free Press writer Suzette Hackney regarding Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's government reform agenda, which includes a fresh look at potential privatization of a range of government services and activities. Her excellent column was published in yesterday's edition, and it reinforces my feeling that Mayor Bing is a mayor to watch:

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says he is taking a strategic approach to turning around Detroit -- an approach that will focus on the city running core services such as police, fire and EMS and outsourcing or privatizing others that can be done more efficiently elsewhere. [...]

Bing, his top advisers and department heads spend hours each week holed up in a downtown conference room on the 26th floor of the Cadillac Tower, blocks away from city hall. The space is called the OR, the off-site operating room where they're debating how to restructure city government into a more cost-efficient and effective model. The debates can be intense, but Bing's team members have agreed to walk through the doors with cleansed and open minds. Yes, trash pickup is a vital city service, but who says it must be done by city workers? Certainly Detroiters depend on public buses, but why does the city need to manage the Department of Transportation? Bing acknowledges that the decisions are difficult to make -- which city services will be outsourced and which departments will be consolidated or eliminated -- but he doesn't appear to be flinching from the responsibility.

"Because I'm not worried about my next job, I'm going to make the hard choices that are necessary to move forward," Bing said. "I've had people tell me, 'You've got to be crazy to do the things that you're doing right now and think you're going to get re-elected.' Well, that's not the most important issue to me. The most important issue to me is doing what's right for whatever time that I'm here to make a difference.

My take:

"The more of a union influence and presence, the more difficult it is to even get something off the ground, but the writing has been on the wall for Detroit," Gilroy said. "Mayor Bing only has to look around at other models. It's all out there, and it's all been done successfully. It's not like he'd have to reinvent the wheel; he has to just get comfortable with the new wheel."

It sounds like the Mayor's already getting comfortable, as he seems to be unfazed by the potential public employee union blowback. This blowback has already started, by the way—the article notes that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (the largest city employee union in Detroit) officially withdrew its support for Bing last Friday.

However, something a former NBA player certainly understands is adversity and competition. Sometimes they go hand in hand. But if you have a solid game plan, stay focused and execute it well, you'll put yourself in the best position to be successful. IMO, the overall game plan here should be fairly straightforward. Here are some key elements:

For Detroit's sake, let's hope that Mayor Bing is successful in changing the paradigm of governance in that city. Government-as-usual will not solve the city's ongoing fiscal and economic woes. Outsourcing those commercial activities currently performed by public employees will be a critical part of doing more with less in the future and putting the city back on sustainable fiscal footing.

» Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2009
» Reason Foundation's Privatization Research and Commentary

UPDATE: I had a recent post on Mayor Bing's proposal to privatize city payroll and tax collection here.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform

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