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Trial starts; Is Detroit eligible for bankruptcy?

October 23, 2013

DETROIT (AP) — The city of Detroit will present a “mountain of evidence” to show that its perilous finances qualify for a turnaround in bankruptcy court, an attorney said Wednesday as a judge opened an extraordinary trial to determine if the largest public filing in U.S. history will go forward.

The trial will be an autopsy on what Michigan’s governor has called decades of ruinous financial decisions in the once-booming industrial hub of Detroit, combined with an exodus of people — the population has dropped to 700,000 from 1.8 million — and other social and economic factors.

Detroit, with $18 billion in debt, filed for bankruptcy protection in July, but it’s not automatic. Judge Steven Rhodes has set aside several days to hear evidence and decide whether the city met many key steps, including good-faith negotiations with creditors, before taking drastic action three months ago.

Miles away from court, countless streets are bleak: By last spring, at least 16,700 structures were inspected and classified as dangerous. Thousands of streetlights are dark.

Private donors are replacing ambulances that limp around with more than 200,000 miles (320,000 kilometers) logged. The fire department has just one mechanic for every 39 fire vehicles. The number of Detroit parks has dropped to about 60 in recent years from more than 300, due to a lack of money.

“There’s nothing left to do here. There is no revenue solution,” city attorney Bruce Bennett said in his opening remarks.

He said no one can credibly argue that Detroit is solvent.

Witnesses “will present a mountain of evidence showing the insolvency of the city,” Bennett said. “This is one of those cases where the data speaks very clearly and persuasively on its own. It needs no gloss.”

The trial poses a critical decision for Judge Steven Rhodes: If Detroit clears the eligibility hurdle, the case then would quickly turn to how to solve the debt and get city government off the ropes.

Jim Spiotto, a bankruptcy expert in Chicago, said it’s “virtually impossible” to argue that Detroit is solvent.

“They’re not paying their debts,” he said. “Look at their blighted areas. Look at their services.”

Nonetheless, unions and pension funds are challenging Detroit on the eligibility question. They claim emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who acquired nearly unfettered control over city finances following his appointment by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, was not genuinely interested in negotiating when they met with his team in June and July. Orr insists pension funds are short $3.5 billion and health coverage also needs to be overhauled.

Earle Erman, attorney for Detroit’s public safety unions, said the city has cut wages and changed health care benefits without across-the-table talks. Lawyer Sharon Levine, who’s representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the city spent months “mapping out its path” to bankruptcy not looking for compromises that could keep Detroit solvent.

In response, however, attorneys for the city said a June 14 meeting and subsequent sessions with creditors were well-intended but fruitless. A bankruptcy filing was being prepared, they acknowledged, but “never set in stone.”

Spiotto said the judge will have much discretion to determine whether the city has met its “good-faith” burden.

The trial in front of Rhodes is expected to last several days, with testimony from Orr, Police Chief James Craig and financial consultants. The governor will be a witness Monday.

“The city’s restructuring must provide a foundation for the city to begin to provide basic, essential services to its residents in a reliable fashion,” Orr said in July when he took Detroit into bankruptcy. “Without this, the city’s death spiral ... will continue.”

Orr’s team estimates that 65 percent of Detroit’s annual revenue would be eaten up in debt payments by 2017 without an overhaul in bankruptcy court.

University of Michigan law professor John Pottow said unions and pension funds are aggressively challenging the city because they lose leverage if the judge finds the bankruptcy filing was proper. Detroit would take the lead in coming up with a plan to bring the city out of bankruptcy, putting pensions at risk along with billions owed to other creditors.

“It makes denial and rationalization harder for people who want this to go away,” Pottow said.

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Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap.

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