Dearborn— Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano compared the county to the auto industry, saying both have seen troubling days but both both are coming back.
The executive used his 12th State of the County address Tuesday to highlight what he considered successes: a Cobo Center expansion, growth in the Aerotropolis enterprise zone and more than $1.3 billion in new investments since 2012.
Ficano said the county has “restructured, reorganized and rededicated” itself to serving the people of the community.
“Like the auto industry, Wayne County has had its share of adversity,” he told a crowd of about 90 at the Automotive Hall of Fame. “Like the auto industry, we’ve fought back from adversity and are moving forward again.”
After thanking officials, members of the military and law enforcement and firefighters, Ficano led with what he called “the biggest punch we’ve taken by far” — plummeting tax revenues brought on by the housing market crash and the 2008 recession.
The county is down 30 percent — more than $100 million annually — in property tax collections compared to 2008. County officials estimate the collections won’t reach the 2008 levels until around 2027, even with rebounding home values and not adjusting for inflation. Proposal A in 1994 and the Headlee Amendment of 1978. Those laws limit the increase of taxable property values to up to 5 percent per year.
At last year’s address, Ficano called the way municipal governments are funded “broken” and urged legislative reforms and an increase in state revenue sharing.
He highlighted cost reductions, saying employee salaries, including his own, had been cut 10 percent. The county workforce was reduced by 1,300 he said.
Ficano called for further savings in areas involving pension revisions, health care and employee work rules.
Ficano has weathered several scandals in his latest term. The FBI continues to investigate county deals. A grand jury has reviewed county severance and pension agreements. Three appointees have received prison sentences related to corruption probes. Taxpayers could be on the hook for $160 million because of a failed project that has a half-built and abandonded county jail in Greektown.
On Tuesday he looked to move forward on the jail project. A committee is looking into the feasibility to transferring inmates and operations to a shuttered state prison on Mound Road.
“This will allow the current facilities and land to be sold, bringing in private investment dollars and tax revenue,” Ficano said.
Tentative plans call for selling the unfinished jail and surrounding county properties to the development firm of Dan Gilbert for $50 million. The project would be a “win-win-win” for taxpayers, downtown as well as the Mound Road neighborhood and private businesses, he said.
He reiterated his support for a regional authority to run the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, a plan that has been meet with skepticism by Macomb and Oakland officials.
“A regional authority solution that brings all the interested parties together and works for everyone makes the most sense,” Ficano said.
His critics accused Ficano of glossing over the unfinished jail plan in Tuesday’s address and said the speech was full of platitudes.
“That was his mismanagement of the jail,” said Commissioner Laura Cox, R-Livonia, one of two Republicans on the 15-member county commission.
Commission President Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, praised Ficano’s efforts in the Cobo Center deal. There’s been talk, he said, of the county needing an emergency manager but Woronchak said he hopes to avoid that.
“I’m not ready to throw up our hands and say it’s too late,” he said. “We’re working hard every day to make sure it’s not too late.”
Ficano hasn’t officially announced if he’ll seek a fourth, four-year term but Tuesday’s address showed no evidence he was ready to leave office. Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara, D-Belleville, and William Wild, Westland’s Democratic mayor, have announced they are running for the post. State Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Township, is also a likely candidate.
“There’s a lot more work to do and I look forward to doing it,” Ficano said.
Wendy Lukianoff, a Canton Township resident and president of AFSCME Local 25, said union workers are “easy targets” for county officials looking to cut costs.
“We’re being asked to give, give, give and when you look at where it’s being spent, it doesn’t seem to be helping communities,” Lukianoff said. “It just seems like us at the bottom are always paying for their mistakes at the top.”