February 20, 2014 at 10:53 am


State of Wayne County: A mess

Ficano glosses over a fiscal crisis that is rapidly becoming even more dire than Detroit's

Ficano (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Bob Ficano gave a fine campaign speech this week, seeming to answer the question of whether he’ll be seeking re-election this fall. But what he didn’t do was speak frankly to the residents of Wayne County as an executive charged with leading them out of the worst fiscal crisis in the county’s history.

The county executive presented himself as a fighter, reminding voters that he fought for union rights, gay rights, the renovation of Cobo Hall, the Detroit Metro Airport business park, and so on.

He also noted the county’s recent successes in attracting jobs and investments.

But the speech mostly skirted the elephant in the county: the $200 million budget deficit that threatens to push the county to either an emergency manager or insolvency, or both.

Ficano’s primary reference to the crisis was to note that property tax revenues have fallen by about $106 million annually. He also mentioned the various work force and other cuts he’s made.

But his response has not been nearly aggressive enough, and he’s added to the county’s dismal financial outlook with ill-conceived and poorly managed development projects — most notably the bungled new jail — and outrageous compensation packages for his appointees.

So even while the county has been implementing cost-cutting, the deficit continues to grow. Meanwhile, Wayne County’s pension fund has only about 60 percent of the resources it needs to cover future obligations, a leading indicator of financial collapse.

Simply based on its books, Wayne County’s condition is as bad or worse as was Detroit’s when Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager.

The deficit reduction plan Ficano offered last week might solve the immediate shortfall. He proposes spinning off two waste water treatment plants, tapping an $81 million reserve fund maintained by the county treasurer, and lessening pension contributions.

The Ficano administration says the actions will result in a surplus by late next year. It’s a good start.

But these are not structural fixes that will keep the county financially viable for the long-term. And the plan depends greatly on the county reaping the $121 million Ficano projects as a price tag for the waste plants. That’s no sure thing.

Key elements of the plan also depend on the cooperation of other elected officials who are not accountable to the county executive. For example, the plan calls for reducing costs in the Sheriff’s Department by cutting the number of inmates at the jail by 200. And it asks the Prosecutor’s Office to cut back on its operations.

Whether those savings will be realized depends on whether Sheriff Benny Napoleon and Prosecutor Kym Worthy go along.

Wayne County needs more than piecemeal cuts and a few assert sales. County government still spends more money per capita than its neighbors in Macomb and Oakland. Part of that can be attributed to employee compensation packages that are too generous for the times.

The county needs to reopen labor contracts to achieve even greater savings than what Ficano has negotiated so far. The leverage he holds is the example of Detroit, where bankruptcy will likely result in pension cuts and reductions in health care benefits.

Wayne must also prioritize services, deciding which are essential to county residents, and which can be foregone.

County leaders have waited too long to get ahead of this fiscal train wreck. Now their options are limited.

But if they don’t get the county’s books balanced, someone else will. They only have to turn to Detroit to see what that looks like.