Crews at Detroit’s Engine 54 station chase fires on trucks with broken gas gauges, faulty air brakes and, in one, an odometer that reads 183,000 miles.
Budget cuts mean the company, bedeviled by false alarms and arsons of vacant buildings, must cover almost 50 square miles (130 kilometers) on the west side, said Sergeant Shawn Atkins. As he spoke, water splashed on the concrete floor from a truck’s leaking 500-gallon tank.
“We want better rigs and better equipment so we can respond and keep ourselves safe,” Atkins said when asked what he’d tell Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. “Right now, we’re operating with bubble gum and duct tape.”
Orr can do little to help. Michigan’s largest city has a $327 million deficit, almost two-thirds of the police and fire budgets combined. Police ranks have already been cut 25 percent and businesses are ponying up to buy them cruisers, while ambulances take an average 14 minutes to respond. Orr must balance the demands of trimming costs further while still protecting residents from crime, fire and death.
“If he finds a way, he’s going to be a hero to a lot of people, me among them,” said Max Newman, bankruptcy lawyer with Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. “Without public- safety improvements, it’s going to be hard to improve everything that’s going on in Detroit.”
Orr, 54, a Washington bankruptcy lawyer who worked on the reorganization of Chrysler Group LLC, became Detroit’s emergency manager March 25, the sixth to take control of a Michigan city. His appointment by Republican Governor Rick Snyder was intended to head off the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy. Orr has authority to cut spending, reorganize city government, sell assets and change or cancel union contracts, though the city council can offer input.
Above all, Orr must harvest revenue from a city that lost one-fourth of its population since 2000. Newman said Orr may be able to negotiate a reduction in debt, including $8.6 billion in bonds, that siphons $150 million a year from the city’s $1.3 billion general fund.
“I think the bondholders will recognize a need to provide some relief,” he said.
Yet as officials make the books balance, Orr, Mayor Dave Bing -- and residents -- say public safety is paramount.
“I’d like to see more policemen, I want the streetlights to come on, tear down abandoned buildings,” said resident Gloria Edwards, 60, at a March 25 community meeting on crime.
Before Orr arrived, eight Detroit-area companies, including General Motors Co. (GM:US), Ford Motor Co. (F:US) and Chrysler, agreed to donate $8 million for 100 new police patrol cars and 23 ambulances. Orr said he’s hopes to expand that movement.
“We are well aware fire equipment deserves an upgrade and we’re looking at ways to do that,” Orr said in an interview.
Last year the city closed 15 of 67 fire stations, with another 10 closed on a rotating basis. That leaves some, such as station Engine 54, to tend fires more than 10 miles away.
Orr said better use of computers and technology could reduce such waste as runs to false alarms.
Meanwhile, the number of uniformed firefighters has fallen to 925 from 1,171 in 2009.
Police and firefighters took a 10 percent pay cut last year and morale is “less than zero,” said police officer Carl Mack, 50, who said he took a part-time job as a bartender to make ends meet.
Orr wouldn’t comment on restoring police and fire pay cuts.
The city is turning the lights back on. It replaced 3,000 broken lamps in March and plans to fix another 15,000 through June, Bing said in a statement. A new Detroit lighting authority, sanctioned by the legislature, will assume control this year with the power to borrow money to upgrade a system that had 40 percent of its lights dark.
Detroit has company among U.S. cities struggling to maintain basic services amid falling property-tax revenue and rising employee benefit costs. Stockton, California, declared bankruptcy last year after it reduced its police force by 26 percent over four years. Homicides, robberies and burglaries soared in the city of 296,360.
Detroit, with 707,000 residents across 139 square miles, in 2011 had the highest rate of violent crime among U.S. cities with populations of 300,000 or more, according to FBI reports. Last year, homicides rose 9 percent to 411, though major crime in general was down 2.6 percent, according to Bing.
Orr and city leaders must weigh whether Detroit can afford public services or should hand them to other localities, said Bill Brandt, chief executive of Development Specialists Inc., a corporate restructuring company headquartered in Chicago.
In the suburb Pontiac, an emergency manager disbanded the police and fire departments. The city pays the surrounding county and a neighboring township to provide police and fire protection, using many of Pontiac’s former officers. Yet Detroit, with its vast area, sits at its region’s center.
Before Orr’s appointment, Detroit was trying to muster a response to crime.
A joint city, state and federal effort to get habitual criminals off the streets resulted in 245 arrests and 41 confiscated guns in the first week of March, Bing said. The same month, 89 police were reassigned to neighborhood patrols and homicide investigations.
The department can hire recruits to replenish a force losing 25 people each month to retirement, Interim Chief Chester Logan said. The number of uniformed officers has dropped to about 2,500 from 3,350 in 2009.
Ambulance crews are quitting, too, because of the workload and danger, said paramedic Joe Barney, a union representative. About 150 paramedics and technicians operate 19 ambulances, though a half-dozen trucks routinely are out for repairs, Barney said.
The emergency medical services division answered 127,000 calls in 2012, according to Bing’s office. About 14 percent were handled by private ambulance companies. The city hopes to improve response times with a new GPS system.
The paramedics operate from fire stations that embody the plight.
At Engine 40, near Detroit’s center, raw sewage backs up near the kitchen despite pleas from firefighters to the city to fix it. They take up collections among themselves for the station’s cable television and Internet service, a lawnmower, snow blower and to fix broken toilets.
They use space heaters and there are no smoke detectors.
Verdine Day, 54, a 27-year veteran, said that in December, Engine 40 was dispatched to a fire at a vacant home 12 miles and 15 minutes away. By the time it arrived, the blaze had spread to an occupied house, whose occupants escaped without injury.
“They need to open more of these fire houses,” Day said. “They’re overwhelmed.”
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