Detroit bankruptcy gets go-ahead; pensions at risk

A federal bankruptcy court judge Tuesday, Dec. 3, A federal bankruptcy court judge Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, turned down objections from unions, pension funds and retirees, and declared Detroit eligible to reorganize its debt in bankruptcy. One city's largest unions immediately appealed. This is the city this past summer. (July 19, 2013) Photo Credit: EPA

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DETROIT - Detroit is eligible to shed billions in debt in the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history, a federal judge in Michigan ruled Tuesday in a long-awaited decision that now shifts the case toward how the city will accomplish that task.

Federal bankruptcy court Judge Steven Rhodes turned down objections from unions, pension funds and retirees, which, like other creditors, could lose under any plan to solve $18 billion in long-term liabilities.

Minutes after the ruling, a lawyer for the city's largest union, said she would pursue an appeal at the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. City officials got "absolutely everything" in Rhodes' decision, she told reporters.

"It's a huge loss for the city of Detroit," said Sharon Levine, an attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents half the city's workers.

Opponents want to go directly to a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, bypassing the usual procedure of having a U.S. District Court judge hear the case.

Despite the ruling, the bankruptcy plan isn't on the judge's desk yet. The issue for Rhodes, who presided over a nine-day trial, was whether Detroit met specific conditions under federal law to stay in bankruptcy court and turn its finances around after years of mismanagement, chronic population loss and collapse of the middle class.

City representatives have argued that it needs bankruptcy protection for the sake of beleaguered residents suffering from poor services such as slow to nonexistent police response, darkened streetlights and erratic garbage pickup -- a concern mentioned by the judge during the trial.

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"This once proud and prosperous city can't pay its debts. It's insolvent. It's eligible for bankruptcy," Rhodes said in announcing his decision. "At the same time, it also has an opportunity for a fresh start."

Before the July filing, nearly 40 cents of every dollar collected by Detroit was used to pay debt, a figure that could rise to 65 cents without relief through bankruptcy, according to the city.

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr who had testified the city's current conditions are "unacceptable," release a statement praising the judge's ruling and pledging to "press ahead with the ongoing revitalization of Detroit." Orr was appointed earlier this year by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican.

Rhodes' decision is a critical milestone. He said pensions, like any contract, can be cut, adding that a provision in the Michigan Constitution protecting public pensions isn't a bulletproof shield in a bankruptcy.

The city says pension funds are short by $3.5 billion. Anxious retirees drawing less than $20,000 a year have appeared in court, many in anguish.

Despite his finding, Rhodes cautioned everyone that he won't automatically approve pension cuts that could be part of Detroit's eventual plan to get out of bankruptcy.

There are other wrinkles. Art possibly worth billions at the Detroit Institute of Arts could be part of a solution for creditors, as well as the sale of a water department that serves much of southeast Michigan. Orr offered just pennies on every dollar owed during meetings with creditors before bankruptcy.

Behind closed doors, mediators, led by another judge, have been meeting with Orr's team and creditors for weeks to explore possible settlements.

Much of the trial, which ended Nov. 8, focused on whether Orr's team had "good-faith" negotiations with creditors before the filing, a key step for a local government to be eligible for Chapter 9. Orr said four weeks were plenty, but unions and pension funds said there never were serious across-the-table talks.

Orr, a bankruptcy expert, was appointed in March under a Michigan law that allows a governor to send a manager to distressed cities, townships or school districts. A manager has extraordinary powers to reshape local finances without interference from elected officials. But by July, Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder decided bankruptcy was Detroit's best option.

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Detroit, a manufacturing hub that offered good-paying, blue-collar jobs, peaked at 1.8 million residents in 1950 but has lost more than a million since then. Tax revenue in a city that is larger in square miles than Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco combined can't reliably cover pensions, retiree health insurance and buckets of debt sold to keep the budget afloat.

Donors have written checks for new police cars and ambulances. A new agency has been created to revive tens of thousands of streetlights that are dim or simply broken after years of vandalism and mismanagement.

While downtown and midtown are experiencing a rebirth, even apartments with few vacancies, many traditional neighborhoods are scarred with blight and burned-out bungalows.

Besides financial challenges, Detroit has an unflattering reputation as a dangerous place. In early November, five people were killed in two unrelated shootings just a few days apart. Police Chief James Craig, who arrived last summer, said he was almost carjacked in an unmarked car.

The case occurs at a time of a historic political transition. Former hospital executive Mike Duggan takes over as mayor in January, the third mayor since Kwame Kilpatrick quit in a scandal in 2008 and the first white mayor in largely black Detroit since the 1970s.

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Orr, the emergency manager, is in charge at least through next fall, although he's expected to give Duggan more of a role at city hall than the current mayor, Dave Bing, who has little influence in daily operations.

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