August 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Wayne Co. jail costs run $65M over budget

Overruns blamed on plan changes, higher technology expenses

Ficano )

Detroit — Wayne County officials say a controversial new jail, which has been awash with complaints about favoritism for a year, could cost another $65 million.

Aides to Executive Robert Ficano made the rounds to commissioners in the past week breaking the news: The $300 million jail now could cost about $365 million and grow to 2,300 beds from 2,200.

Some commissioners, who said they felt pressured to approve bonds for the project last fall, are dumbfounded.

"There is no way in heck the commission is going to approve any more money for this," said Commissioner Kevin McNamara, D-Belleville.

"We've had it with spending money. It's cut and cut and cut, and anything left over goes into public safety. I'm not building any bigger things."

Ficano staffers said plans for the downtown jail, billed as a cost-saver to consolidate three facilities, have changed since construction began late last year and officials who orchestrated the plan left. Detroit officials backed away from verbal commitments to house about 200 inmates there for about $30 million, they said. Design plans and technology costs also are higher than anticipated.

County officials expect to receive exact estimates on the new costs this week and formally make a request to commissioners next month, said Carla Sledge, the county's chief financial officer. The officials are pushing for more beds because the county's inmate population has averaged about 2,100 and is expected to grow.

"We're definitely going to give commissioners options on how to proceed," Sledge said. "But obviously, we want to build the jail to capacity that trends have shown what the jail population has been."

Many of the issues surfaced after the project's leaders left the county last fall around the time the FBI launched an investigation into the Ficano administration. Former economic development chief Turkia Mullin sold commissioners on the concept, which was largely orchestrated by former Deputy Executive Azzam Elder.

Both have been named in federal grand jury subpoenas served on Ficano in October.

"Whose fault is this? If you had to look at fault, it would be whoever brought it to us from jump street and they aren't with the county anymore," said commission chairwoman Alisha Bell, D-Detroit.

"Everything they started just went kaput. I sincerely believe the intentions were good, but the execution obviously was horrible … They just don't do a good job executing these projects. I don't know why everything has to be so rushed."

Mullin persuaded commissioners to approve the jail in an expedited fashion to take advantage of an expiring federal program for low bond rates, Bell said. Now, commissioners may have little choice but to spend the extra money, she added.

"We're in it now. We can't stop construction," she said. "This puts us in a very horrible position."

Commissioner Burton Leland, D-Detroit, said the commission may have to spend more.

"It's not going to be enough," he said. "We have some problems now and we may have to come up with some additional bonds."

The issue is the latest controversy for a jail that has been mired in it for more than a year. Among the issues:

Ficano's former deputy executive, Charlie J. Williams, made $420,000 in brokerage fees from Greektown Casino for selling a parking lot to the county for $14 million for the jail. Weeks later, Williams was a member of a Wayne County Airport Authority team that nominated Mullin to become CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. She began the post Sept. 2, 2011, but was fired in October amid the FBI investigation.

Contractors have complained that requests for bids for the project favored Walbridge, a Detroit-based construction company. Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. served on the board of a nonprofit led by Mullin that paid her a $75,000 bonus. The nonprofit and its business members are named in FBI subpoenas to the county.

Mullin's former deputy, Anthony Parlovecchio, left the county in February 2011 and was hired soon after as the owner's representative for the jail, a job that ensures contractors complete projects on time and on budget. The deal would have made him as much as $1.9 million, but he was fired in December due to appearance concerns. He has since sued the county for breach of contract.

McNamara said most major projects encounter cost overruns and doubts there's anything sinister about the latest budgeting issue.

"I don't think anyone is doing anything illegal on this," McNamara said. "How stupid would you have to be to do something illegal with the FBI watching every move?"

Commissioner Bernard Parker, D-Detroit, said he would not support spending more.

"I don't think they need to build more jail cells," he said. "We can't do anything more."

Sledge said she became involved in the project after Parlovecchio was let go and joined a committee to serve as the owner's representative. Also on the committee is June Lee, a senior executive project manager for the county.

Unlike commissioners, both were reluctant to blame former county officials.

"We aren't in a position to second guess the decisions that were made," Lee said.

"It's hard to tell what the original intent was in how to design this project. We are moving forward trying to put the pieces together with the information we have in a way that makes sense."

Mullin's attorney, Raymond Sterling, said she can't be blamed for any cost issues with the jail.

"How is this her fault? She's responsible for cost overruns a year later? How convenient," he said.

The jail at Gratiot and Interstate 375 is expected to open in 2014. When it was approved, officials said it would eventually save the county $20 million in operations and transportation costs. It would consolidate three jails — two downtown and one in Hamtramck.

Sledge said savings are still anticipated even if commissioners veto the extra money, but she couldn't provide specifics.

(313) 222-2513

Detroit News Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.