Once-bankrupt Detroit is "on the road to recovery," Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday night during his annual assessment of the job he's done and work yet to be completed.
But Duggan made it clear that Detroit's beleaguered neighborhoods are at — or near the top — on his fix-it list.
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In the first State of the City address since Detroit exited the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Duggan told residents, business, philanthropic and other elected leaders that growing a city's population is "one true gauge of a mayor's success" and that it starts by improving neighborhoods.
Detroit has aggressively demolished vacant buildings with federal aid, tearing down 3,500 in 2014 alone, and Duggan said that will continue even after current funding ends in August, with the city tapping into $7 million from a fire escrow assistance fund. He said Detroit also is saving many homes by auctioning them off to buyers who pledge to fix and live in them.
"People didn't think we could sell these houses," the mayor said in his speech at the Redford Theatre, a movie house in northwest Detroit. "Now we have 168 families in houses that people have given up on."
The city has seen its population fall from about 1.8 million in 1950 to about 680,000 today. But a sign of the city's recovery is the fact that property assessments have risen in some neighborhoods.
"It means more people want to move into that neighborhood than move out," Duggan said.
Detroit emerged from bankruptcy in December. Plans call for the city to restructure $7 billion in debt, while using $1.7 billion over a decade to improve services for residents.
Duggan has just started the second year of his four-year term as mayor. But it's the first full year he is in charge of operations without sharing some duties with emergency manager Kevyn Orr.
Orr was appointed in March 2013 by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and took Detroit into bankruptcy that July.
Orr wielded near complete control of Detroit's finances. In late 2013 — before Duggan officially took over as mayor — the two reached a deal that allowed the new mayor to oversee blight removal, public lighting and the fire department.
That allowed Duggan to work on improving those city services while Orr and his team concentrated on chopping away at Detroit's cumbersome debt.
Orr stepped down in December as the city emerged from Chapter 9, placing Duggan and the elected City Council back in charge. They still must work with a financial review commission on Detroit's budgets and spending, but Duggan said that might be short-lived.
"We still have to run a very tight budget week after week," he said, adding that Detroit will end the year with a balanced budget for the first time since 2002.
Three straight years of balanced budgets would allow the city to escape state financial oversight.
Other speech highlights included:
— Duggan's repeated pledge to try to have the city provide auto insurance for residents who pay some of the highest premiums in the country.
— Reducing response times for 911 police calls from 37 minutes to 17 minutes
— Plans to put 200 additional officers on the streets
— Installation of 35,000 new streetlights last year
First-term Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said changes are taking place.
"Lights are on. Buses are moving. Houses are being torn down. The ones that can be saved are being saved," she said.
Rita Ross, a 69-year-old retiree, agreed that Detroit is "coming a long way."
"We have a lot of things to overcome, but we do see a beginning now happening with downtown and Midtown," Ross said. "Of course, still being in the neighborhoods, I'm still waiting and hoping. But from his speech tonight, the hope is real."