As one of the youngest candidates in the primary race, Lisa Howze has spent the majority of her professional career outside of politics. A certified public accountant, she joined auditing behemoth Arthur Andersen following her graduation from the University of Michigan. Howze also spent two years as a representative in the State Legislature and earned her master’s degree in finance from Walsh College.
Metro Times: Why do you want to be mayor of Detroit?
Lisa Howze:I truly have a love for this city. I know it's easy for people to say that, but love is demonstrated by your willingness to sacrifice, and I know that people of this community have made sacrifice after sacrifice and not gotten really any results.
So I'm coming to the table [with the] understanding that the city can't get better unless life for the people here gets better first. Having experienced many of their same experiences, whether it's being born to a single mother, growing up in Detroit Public Schools, coming home to a house that had no lights or no gas because those utilities got caught off (because we couldn't afford to keep them at that time), things like that, that's Detroiters' everyday existence, in many cases.
MT: Why should the voters give you their support?
Howze:In order to lead people, you’ve gotta own your own power. I refuse to accept the fact that, as mayor, I will be powerless — because powerless people don’t need a powerless leader.
So, as mayor, I will come into the office with a vision and a plan on how we will address the city’s issues. Part of that is making sure our citizens are safe and secure, so public safety is my number one priority — and my budget will reflect that. The second thing is the budget — getting the finances fixed.
I’m the only candidate on this campaign trail who has articulated a clear, defined plan on how we meet our financial concerns in the city: Reducing the general fund deficit, and addressing our short-term cash flow needs and drain.
And No. 3: Making sure we responsibly pay down the debt. We don’t do so by selling off assets, we use our assets to generate revenues so we can then service the debt. Having that
clear and concise, or defined, line on how we get there is key. But I always say that we can fix the city’s finances, but if your finances are broken at home, [the city has] got a problem.
My plan to do that is through City Airport, in terms of maximizing the use of that airport to capitalize on an industry that, frankly, in the United States of America, generates $150 billion per year.
MT: Wasn’t some commercial variation of that tried once, when Pro Air made City its hub in ’97; and Southwest Airlines before that?
Howze: Part of the issue is twofold: Forced competition from Detroit Metro made it difficult for an airline to really thrive here in our local, smaller airport. And the second thing is the larger, commercial jets were having a problem landing at City Airport because of the length of the runway.
So when you ask, “wasn’t it tried before,” we had the issue of when they wanted to expand the runway: The plan that had been laid out in the past would have required uprooting some of the graves at the local graveyard.
But, in working with airport administration and some other consultants that have been studying the problem, there is actually a workaround to building the runway out to where it does not interfere with the cemetery.
MT: You mentioned empowerment and harnessing the power of the mayoral office. What’s your philosophy regarding the sharing of power between the executive branch and the Detroit City Council?
Howze: There are two things missing from what we’ve seen in recent years with the current administration and council: One, a lack of respect and trust. When you don’t respect those who you’re asking to vote on measures that you present, when you don’t show—demonstrate—that respect by timely information, where they have an opportunity to examine and then put forth a vote, that presents a problem. And when you don’t trust the administration, that’s a problem.
In many of the areas where we saw conflict it had to do with … the budget. How much are we going to cut? Who’s going to cut worse or cut more? So that’s where the conflict pretty much took place.
MT: What are a few of the skills you bring to the position that you believe will make you an effective executive?
Howze:Being an auditor, a certified public accountant, means I’ve got the executive experience working with CEOs, CFOs, treasurers, and everyone at the top level of boards of directors, all the way down to the person who worked in the mailroom.
… I think that’s it’s very important you have relationships and you have the ability to work with all levels of management, because it’s what helps that organization to tick …
Right out of [college], when I joined Arthur Andersen, which is no longer around —unfortunately — the city of Detroit was actually one of my clients. I was responsible for performing an audit on its grants program, one of their federal grant programs, and when you think about it, the city has sent back millions on top of millions of dollars in federal grants that we have not used. That is unconscionable.
Howze:Yes. So what I propose is that we have a centralized grants management office, where [we] would have grant writers who are responsible for searching out, researching grants that we qualify for and actually submitting the paperwork to apply.
The second is that, once we are rewarded those grants, that we have a compliance team in place making sure we’re making all of the requirements and spending the money for its intended purpose — and not sending any back.
… So, how do we go about generating more revenue in the city of Detroit? We know that we’re maxed out on our taxes, we can’t legally tax [Detroit residents] any more. So where do you go? It means you gotta expand the tax base. More people have to be working. But beyond that, we have an opportunity where there’s money being left on the table every day, every quarter, every year, in the city of Detroit, because there are residents who live in the city who are employed outside of the city, but those employers don’t withhold local income taxes.
MT: The city tax?
Howze:There are 22 municipalities throughout the state of Michigan that levy a local tax. If the employers don’t withhold those taxes, then it’s left to the employee to be responsible for reporting those taxes at the end of the year. And because the systems in the city of Detroit are so messed up, it will never detect it; if it does, it’s years later.
MT: What you’re saying is it’s incumbent upon residents who live in the city, but work in the suburbs, to pay their pro rata portion of the city tax from each paycheck?
Howze:The state law that governs this is the city income tax ordinance. Residents [who both live and work in the city] pay the full complement of the tax, and in the city of Detroit that rate right now is 2.4 percent. If you are a non-resident who works in the city of Detroit, the tax rate is 1.2 percent; so it’s 50 percent of whatever the residential rate is.
What’s happening is if those employers outside of the city aren’t doing the withholdings, then those are revenues the city does not have the ability to enjoy.
MT:But aren’t most people paid through professional payroll companies whose job is to make sure there is compliance on taxation?
Howze:Companies are withholding state taxes and federal taxes all the time. When it comes to the city of Detroit, unfortunately, there’s this contempt or disdain for providing additional resources that all parties know could assist the city of Detroit.
And partly, let’s just play the [Devil’s] advocate, in terms of managing the resources, and making sure that they are going toward their intended purpose, again, public safety is an opportunity that we have to reinvest in, whether it’s more equipment for our police officers, putting more officers on the street, buying better vehicles — these tax dollars could go toward that.
But when you have malfeasance … it causes some who manage the purse strings in this state to say, “Whoa, hold up. We don’t want to support a system that has demonstrated the ability to do right by the taxpayers of the city of Detroit, so let’s hold up.”
What I’m saying is that when I take office, I’m coming in as a steward of the taxpayers’ dollars, so the state of Michigan can trust me to be able to do that. And that’s really what it’s about – restoring trust and integrity.
At the end of the day, everyone has said, the governor has said, members of the state legislature have said: As goes Detroit, so goes the state of Michigan. So you cannot to continue to starve your child and expect to have a strong family. We all have to be moving in the right direction. And so that’s the direction that I want to move in.
MT:What role do you foresee city government having with regard to the emergency manager’s office?
Howze: You can’t resolve the city’s problems from 1,500 feet away, or 1,000 feet away, and say, “well we’ve got to get rid of him!” The way you get rid of [the Emergency Manager] is you get rid of the problem that caused him to be here in the first place. And so that’s again why I say I’m pushing solutions, not lawsuits. The lawsuits have been filed, the Supreme Court has been issued briefs; you have attorneys who are working on that.
So, if he is removed as a result of those efforts, great. But in serving the entirety of Detroit’s residents, I have an obligation to meet those primary concerns. One, that’s public safety; two, how am I going to feed my family and keep a roof over my head? So, that’s jobs. Three, how do I make sure that I’m getting my basic city services? Trash pickup, parks and recreation for my kids; these are the things that real Detroiters think about.
Because at the end of the day, when they go home, I hope and pray that Kevyn Orr is not on their mind. In other words, if he is, then we’ve ceded more power to him than the law would naturally allow.
MT: As Gov. Snyder appointed Orr, it seems reasonable to state that he wouldn’t be here otherwise; it’s not like he campaigned for the job.
Howze:I remember being in the legislature, meeting with the governor and my other colleagues. Of course we all fought against the emergency manager law; [the city was] at that critical point when the financial review had been ordered. There were members within city [government], including the current mayor and council members who said we could solve the problem ourselves.
And they did begin to walk down that path with labor, which had given so many concessions and offered a workable agreement, but then the mayor never presented it to council for ratification.
And so we’re going to continue to pursue this from the state’s position. If that process had been allowed to go forth and to move forward, where you had buy-in from labor and the administration or management, we’d probably be in a much better position than we are today.
We’ve lost a lot of time … with these financial reviews that came to the same conclusion. We’re in debt, we’re short on cash and we have a deficit. So what’s the vision that’s going to push us beyond the point that we are?
What are the policies that can be enacted from the state’s standpoint that could assist local municipalities like the city of Detroit. What controls can you put in place to make sure the dollars are going toward what you intended it to go toward?
Just like we have an escrow of the additional debt that we were allowed to borrow in conjunction with the consent agreement, you can escrow dollars that are meant to go toward public safety, you can escrow dollars that are meant to go toward parks and recreation
MT: Are you suggesting employing the infamous “lock box” strategy?
Howze: Right. There are ways to make sure that the taxpayers’ dollars are being spent appropriately.
MT: How would you promote cooperation between the city and your counterparts at the county level?
Howze: Whenever we talk about southeast Michigan and the city of Detroit, again, it goes back to partnership. How do we help to move the region forward? There’s always conversation about regionalism. I support regionalization as long as it does not mean the marginalization of the city of Detroit.
You see, past administrations have painted this picture that it’s OK to put the city of Detroit at the kiddy table. You don’t get to sit at the table with the adults and be a part of this conversation of controlling your own destiny.
What I’m saying is, those days are over. We’ll come to the table but we’re coming as a strong partner in this conversation, or we won’t come at all. That is what’s key. As we explore moving toward regional transportation — that’s a measure I supported [as a state representative] … it’s about how do we get to a place where we can play in the sandbox together, as opposed to this is mine, I want to keep it for me, and you can’t share in it.
… It can’t just be about Detroit giving and sharing its assets and the region participating and benefiting from it. It’s like, OK, we want to give people access to jobs that are in your communities so our transit needs to go [beyond] 8 Mile Road.
We want to be able to enjoy some of your facilities that are in, say, Oakland County. Just as well, when you come to Detroit and you enjoy ours, there’s a cost associated with that, and in order to make it fair, we’ve gotta be regional on both sides of the coin, not just when it comes to Detroit participating.
MT: There’s been much made over gentrification in Midtown and development downtown, but most residents live in the myriad other neighborhoods, many of which are impoverished. How will you marry those two Detroits?
Howze: How we do that is No. 1: Look at what’s happening in midtown and downtown; there’s a tendency to introduce the “us vs. them” conversation. I don’t envy, nor am I jealous of, the things that are happening in Midtown. In fact, I say let’s model it.
It’s no different than the outlook I had when I was 10 years old [and my neighbor] had a lemonade stand. I said, “If she could do it, I can do it.” And so, if they can do it in Midtown and downtown, then we can do it in other parts of town.
It wasn’t an accident or some magical thing … it was a part of someone’s vision and then a plan. It started as an idea where they said, by 2015, we’ll have 15,000 young people working, playing and living in the Midtown area. And as we are approaching 2015, occupancy in Midtown is well above 90 percent. [Police] response time, making that community safe, is 90 seconds from the various law enforcement agencies working together.
So when you look at what they did there, OK, let’s now look at Chalmers and I-94, Chalmers and 7 Mile, Hayes and Whittier … many people have vacated these areas. Let’s make it a destination place so that our young people, who are graduating from Detroit Public Schools with millions of dollars, collectively, in scholarships — after they go get those nice educations like I got from the University of Michigan — where, are they going to go?
Let’s create an opportunity, here in the city of Detroit, for them to come back home to use their gifts and talents, and skillsets that they develop in these great institutions, right here in the city of Detroit. Help them to become landowners, and property owners and entrepreneurs.
The other thing that we have to think about is many of the families or people who are moving to the Midtown area, they’re single. They want the urban life experience; they want to be close to the cultural assets that are available in the city of Detroit.
But, at some point, they’re going to meet the love of their life, they’re going to get married, they’re going to want to have children, they’re not going to want to raise those children in a loft or an apartment building, so they’re going to want housing. We have to create market rate housing in the city of Detroit.
MT: The issue likely isn’t whether there is affordable housing in the city as it is about safety or the quality of Detroit’s public education.
Howze: Absolutely. And so when you create this new blueprint for what a successful Detroit looks like, you have communities that are safe, you have communities that offer affordable housing or market rate housing — because we have to have a tax base in the city of Detroit — And you have strong schools.
You’ve got schools that are safe and providing an educational experience that prepares our children for the future. That’s the basic things that people want, and so in order to do that from the mayor’s office, it will require me to work with our school system, to work with our various educational providers, because we know that has become a diverse field.
It’s no longer just public education. You have your charter schools, you have private institutions that are educating our children and so, again, as mayor, you kind of have to be able to balance all those things into one and say, “What’s going to be best for the city overall, given the different tools I’ll have to work with.”
MT: What do you hope people take away from reading this interview?
Howze: … I would want you to take away from this interview that there is value to sticking and staying. There have been people in this community who have seen it all … in terms of Detroit’s evolution. And what they’re simply saying is, “I want my piece of the pie, and I feel like I have not been awarded for staying.” It’s kind of like you go through all the preparation and then someone else comes and gets the benefit of it. And so how do you reward those who have stayed. How do you create economic prosperity for them? Because, it’s about creating a level playing field; I’ve been here my whole life and I still haven’t been given the opportunity to get in the game or to actually play.
And so while we’re embracing those who are coming, it’s just like owning a retail store or any type of a business, you always want to attract new customers, but if your existing customers are walking outside the back door, you’re always going to be in the process of attracting new customers.
The type of leadership and management that I want to bring to the city is one that’s balanced, that rewards those who have stayed and create opportunities for them, for retention purposes, and then, those who are coming can say, “Hey, these people know how to take care of their own, when I have achieved the status of 10 years’, 20 years’ residency in the city of Detroit, I know that this city’s going to take care of me also.”