Kevyn Orr speaks to students and faculty on June 25, discussing the historic bankruptcy and the path out.
Courtesy Wayne State University Flickr feed.

“The reason they call sperm whales sperm whales, is because the fine oil they used for candles turned the consistency of (whale sperm) when it was exposed to the air, thus the word sperm whale…,” Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said.

Facts about cetacean etymology history weren’t the only thing Orr offered Wayne State students attending his guest lecture on Detroit: Metropolis in Transition. He also spoke about how he became the city’s emergency manager how the bankruptcy filing was a long time coming and how the once great and still proud city can fix the problems for the future.  

The class, which covers Detroit’s history and discusses its possible future, is a newly offered course at WSU this summer.

 Students in the class and staff from WSU filled the auditorium. They were joined by WSU Board of Governors member Eugene Driker, Matt Seeger, the Dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, and, City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr.

Graphic design graduate student Courtney Richardson said she took the class because she has a general interest in the City of Detroit and wants to learn more about it.

“I hope to get a different look and perspective on Kevyn Orr and his demeanor,” Richardson said.

Discussing the problems Detroit faces, Orr said the rapid decline in the city’s population in the last decade has been uniquely damaging to the city.

Orr said that the city’s demographics ballooned to 1.9 million people at one point, peaking in 1950, and then losing many of those people was not something that happened over night. He said it has been coming for 83 years.

Orr said the city has lost 250,000 residents in total in the last decade.

 “24,000 people a year –  a city averaging the size of Taylor –  left Detroit every year for ten years,” Orr said.

Orr said for a municipality to thrive, five core services are needed to work well: public works, public safety, finance and administration, parks and recreation and planning and zoning.

“That is what a municipality is supposed to do, and… do well. If you do those things well, people want to live near you and move towards you,” he said.  

But, Orr said, if you do not repair the roads or pick up the garbage, people will not want to live near the city. Orr said if the city does not take those five factors seriously, it can’t attract new residents.

Another problem the city faces, Orr said, is that many of the city’s resources are not being utilized properly.  

He said 60 percent of Detroit fire emergency calls are for to put out fires at abandoned buildings or other places that may not have needed attention to.

“We are sending first responders to dangerous buildings that are not even occupied. It becomes a game to start a Devil’s Night. 60 percent of our EMT calls are non-emergent. Somebody falls asleep on their armchair watching TV and calls the EMT. So we roll out a $300,000 piece of equipment and we run that equipment into the ground – that costs us even more money,” Orr said.

Orr also talked about how he came to the city and discussed his role since taking his post as emergency manager of Detroit, aiding the city’s navigation through bankruptcy. The former Jones-Day lawyer joked that he was never sued until he came to Detroit.

“I have never been sued so much in my life! I never got sued before I got here,” Orr said.  

Throughout the lecture, Orr reiterated the long road the city walked to its July 2013 bankruptcy filing. Orr explained the elements needed to formally declare the city bankrupt amid its fitful rebirth.

“If you go back and look at the history of how we got here, for the past ten years (the Auditor General) has been forecasting this result like a voice in the wind. Nobody listened,” he said.

“(The) treasurer in 2005, when (Detroit) borrowed $1.5 billion …to finally fix the pension crisis in 2005, (he) told the city, ‘you should declare bankruptcy now – you can’t afford this’,” he said.

Orr insists, as has Mayor Duggan, it is about growing the city and reinventing the city. Orr says he and his team’s only job is to help by resetting the balance sheet.

“We hope that by this fall we will have gone from a transit of $18 billion in debt, narrowing it down to as little as three and four so the city can repay its debt. But that’s just the start,” Orr said. 

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