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Detroit mayor calls layoffs only choice

Is under fire over budget gap, SUV

DETROIT -- With his city teetering above a financial abyss, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick went before television viewers this month and delivered some grave news: He had no choice but to lay off nearly 700 city workers and to cut services.

This was no time for wanton spending, he said.

Days later, Kilpatrick found his own spending under attack when a local television station reported that the city just signed a $25,000 lease for a Lincoln Navigator for Kilpatrick's wife, a fact the mayor at first denied but eventually confirmed.

The Navigator story snowballed after Kilpatrick's bodyguard shoved a TV reporter against a wall. It was just the latest in a series of allegations that the 34-year-old former college football player has used city resources to enhance his personal life.

Kilpatrick, a first-term mayor facing an election this year, has won praise for his willingness to confront the city's $230 million shortfall in next year's budget. The financial problems at least partly predate his administration and stem from the city's steep population decline since the 1950s and the resulting erosion of the tax base.

But convincing residents of the need to make sacrifices will be difficult, given Kilpatrick's reputation for living large, and making the tough choices needed to balance the budget while surviving an election will be an even greater challenge.

Critics say it was only political immaturity that prevented him from acting in the past three years to stem the escalating budget crisis.

"All of it is exploding in his face because of his neglect and his mismanagement," said City Councilor Sharon McPhail, one of two candidates running against Kilpatrick in a nonpartisan mayoral primary Sept. 13.

The two top vote-getters will face off Nov. 8. Officials say the Lincoln Navigator was never used for transporting Kilpatrick's family because he did not want it after he learned of the price. The Police Department has been trying to find another use for it.

But questions have been raised about the sport utility vehicle's steep price tag of $24,995 -- if it had been $5 more, the contract would have required City Council approval. Three Detroit-area dealerships said a monthly lease for a fully loaded Navigator would cost nearly $800. That would come to about $19,000 for two years.

Kilpatrick has been confronted with a string of embarrassing allegations dating back to rumors of a wild party in 2002 that included nude dancing and an assault concealed from police. State Attorney General Mike Cox investigated but found no evidence the party took place, calling it "urban legend."

The mayor, who favors expensive suits and a diamond earring, has also been sued by former Detroit police officers who contend that guarding him included facilitating wild nights on the town and extramarital affairs.

Kilpatrick denies the allegations and said Saturday that the media have attacked him because of racial stereotypes.

"When you're a young African-American man with an earring, it's hard for people to believe you're a good husband and father," he said.

The impact of the latest allegations on voters' opinions remains unclear.

But many Detroit residents may agree with Kilpatrick's race argument, said Ed Sarpolus, a pollster with Lansing-based EPIC/MRA.

The City Council's fiscal analyst, Irvin Corley Jr., is forecasting a $274 million deficit through the 2005-06 fiscal year, including a $57 million shortfall for the current year and an estimated $90 million deficit for last year. If the City Council fails to approve a pension bond proposal, the deficit next year will jump to $354 million, he said.

In his Jan. 12 budget address, Kilpatrick said he was laying off 686 city employees and cutting 237 vacant positions. He also said city buses would no longer run 24 hours a day.

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