DETROIT — By the time Dave Bing's four-year term as mayor ends, the former NBA great expects a leaner, less populated Detroit perhaps dotted with urban farms.
He just hopes the nearly broke city can avoid receivership along the way.
"We're still in a free fall," Bing told The Associated Press in a recent interview. He will be inaugurated Friday in a ceremony at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. "We've got major challenges and they're not going to go away anytime soon. This city could go bankrupt."
As 2010 begins, Detroit's unemployment and home foreclosure rates still are among the highest in the country. Eroding residential and business tax bases have contributed to the city's struggles to pay its bills.
The budget deficit is at an estimated $300 million; some city services will be ended or reduced.
"He has one of the most difficult jobs in the country," former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley said of the man he competed against in the NBA. "He's going to have a budget shortfall and he's going to have economic development and all the social services issues."
Detroit's fiscal dilemma wasn't fully realized until an affair with his chief of staff and criminal charges including perjury forced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to resign in September 2008 and later sent him to jail.
Before leaving office, Kilpatrick estimated the deficit at about $65 million. Ken Cockrel Jr., who moved up from city council president to mayor, initially said the deficit was about $125 million. After scrutinizing the city's books, Cockrel — and later Bing — put it at $300 million.
"I don't want to try and run the city with smoke and mirrors — that's been done," said Bing, who defeated Cockrel in a May runoff to complete Kilpatrick's second term. Bing then was elected to a full four-year term in November's nonpartisan election. He relinquished control of his Bing Group steel supply companies after taking office.
The mayor already has slashed more than $43 million from the 2009-2010 city budget through job cuts and by eliminating positions. With just under 13,000 workers, the city is one of Detroit's largest employers but more layoffs are expected. He has persuaded some unions to agree to 10 percent wage cuts and restructured city government to improve efficiency.
"We're not going to have the personal income tax ... property tax from a revenue stream, and we're going to get a cut in revenue sharing," Bing said. "You've got to balance the lack of revenue with cuts as best you can, and that's not going to be an easy job."
Thousands of job cuts by car makers and in related manufacturing industries have staggered Detroit. Nearly one in three working-age adults is unemployed.
"None of us envy the position that he's in, to have to initiate these budget cuts, layoffs, downsizing, consolidation," new City Council President Charles Pugh said of Bing. "That's tough, when you talk about laying off working Detroiters in an already terrible economy."
Bing will not get the board's rubber stamp on all issues, Pugh added.
"We're going to challenge the mayor to be more fiscally responsible as a city because receivership will render us toothless," he said.
Public lighting and other operations could be outsourced in the 139-square-mile city that once was home to close to 2 million people. Detroit's population is plummetting: preliminary U.S. Census figures say fewer than 800,000 people may be living in the city. On some streets there are more empty homes and vacant lots than people.
But it still costs to maintain police patrols and trash pickup in near-empty neighborhoods.
"There is no doubt we're going to shrink the city," Bing said. "You don't need as much land mass to let the 800,000 people live comfortably."
Bing would like to move people from isolated homes in dying neighborhoods to stable areas near the central city.
"There's going to be a lot of angst in some of the neighborhoods that have got to be depopulated, because people have been there for two, three generations," Bing said. "The homes may be paid for and nobody wants to add debt to their situation, but the city can't add debt either."
Those streets and blocks would be closed, houses bulldozed, perhaps making room for orchards, corn and bean fields.
"Will there be urban farming in the next year or two? Yes," Bing said.
Entertainment with a refocus toward the city's Motown musical heritage, gaming casinos and professional sports teams also could spur growth lost amid the U.S. auto industry turmoil.
Bing believes better days are ahead for the city, but acknowledges that Detroit still is in crisis.
"He's going to tell people the truth," Bradley said. "If it's bad news, he's going to tell them. He's not going to whitewash something."
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