By Steve Neavling
DETROIT Feb 19 (Reuters) - Dave Bing, a former professional basketball star, may forever be known as the Detroit mayor who missed the last shot at saving the city from a state takeover.
A state-ordered review team said on Tuesday that the city faces a financial emergency and needs help to fix the problem. If Michigan Governor Rick Snyder decides to appoint an emergency manager who would take over the city's finances, Bing could see his power drain away in the last year of his term.
"Bing faced a Herculean task. But as well-intentioned as he might be, he couldn't move the mountain," said Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Institute, a free-market, conservative public-policy group focused on Michigan.
And if an emergency manager were to decide that a bankruptcy filing was the only course of action for Detroit's survival -- and not be blocked by a state panel -- Bing would go down in history as the mayor behind the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy ever.
A Democrat, Bing became mayor of Detroit in 2009 with lofty promises of fixing the city's finances, reversing urban blight, reducing crime and restoring trust in a government rocked by corruption scandals.
A mild-mannered businessman, Bing seemed the perfect antidote to predecessor Kwame Kilpatrick, a flashy, smooth-talking politician who had resigned under a cloud, and whose corruption trial is reaching a climax just as Detroit's financial woes are in the national spotlight this week.
Everything in Bing's career suggested he was a winner. A basketball Hall of Fame guard for the Detroit Pistons from 1966-75, he founded Bing Steel and developed a multi-million-dollar steel conglomerate in Detroit.
"It's a hard thing when you're not a career politician to step into that ring," said Raymond Pierce, a law partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, who worked on deals with Bing in the steel business. "Who wants to deal with the slings and arrows involved? It's almost all downside. It takes a brave, special soul to do that."
The arrows started arriving almost as soon as Bing took office. He inherited a financial mess after past administrations over nearly a decade added $100 million or more every year to the city's deficit.
A defiant and dysfunctional city council often blocked Bing's money-savings plans. The relationship became so strained that the mayor and council members stopped meeting. Detroit, with a shrinking population, faced the burden of union contracts reflecting the infrastructure of a much larger city.
"I am blessed with a very talented and committed team of executives, but challenged by the City Charter, labor contracts, and an indecisive City Council with ineffective leadership," Bing told Reuters in an email.
Bing's credentials initially earned him the support of the business community, but the relationship fizzled as the local economy continued to nosedive.
Despite resistance, the mayor laid off thousands of employees, slashed wages, closed fire stations and privatized numerous services. It was not enough to fix the city's finances.
The murder rate jumped 20 percent, and Bing was unable to make progress on a massive neighborhood revitalization plan to encourage residents to leave hardscrabble, decaying neighborhoods for more densely populated areas.
Bing, who moved from the suburbs into Detroit when he ran for office, was accused of being out of touch with poor black residents. African Americans constitute 83 percent of the city's population.
"He doesn't know what it's like to live and struggle in Detroit," said Rev. Charles Williams II, a community activist. "You have people who can't afford to feed their children or fix their leaking roof, but the mayor is talking about what he can do for businesses and downtown. There's just no connection."
Bing, who is black, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder forged a close relationship early on. Bing served as the master of ceremonies at Snyder's inauguration Jan. 1, 2011, and Snyder cheered on the mayor from the balcony of Bing's state-of-the-city address a few weeks later. The pair even attended a University of Michigan basketball game together.
The relationship soured as Snyder moved toward a state takeover of Detroit, and Bing last week blamed the state for some of the city's financial problems, saying Michigan revenue-sharing funds had been slashed over the years.
Bing, who is 69, has not yet announced whether he will run for a second full term, and local media have all but dismissed him as a serious candidate in the August nonpartisan primary election.
"I'll make that decision when I'm ready," Bing said last week.