August 7, 2014 at 10:05 am

Daniel Howes

Incompetence proves to be Ficano's undoing

It won't be so easy for next Wayne County executive to untangle the financial mess

Incompetence has it limits, even in Wayne County.

Just ask Executive Robert Ficano, who finished fifth in the Democratic primary won easily Tuesday by former Sheriff Warren Evans. Where scandal, embarrassment and FBI investigations failed, county voters succeeded in ordering Ficano and his traveling circus to vacate the Guardian Building, soon.

Evans is poised to become CEO of Michigan's most populous — and most financially troubled — county should he prevail in November’s general election, as expected, in the Democratic stronghold that is Wayne County.

But his political achievement would mean little, and prove a scant departure from the hapless Ficano, if the top cop fails to deliver tighter fiscal discipline and better management to a county apparatus conditioned to gaming the system and taxpayers to its benefit.

It won’t be easy, as Evans and any sentient person familiar with the county’s particular dysfunction surely know. He understands that the county’s administrative structure complicates efforts to balance the books because the two largest chunks of the budget — the sheriff’s office and Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s operation — are overseen by independently elected officials.

He should realize that the “friends and family” shenanigans Ficano and his crew played with other people’s money created expectations among county bureaucrats that will be hard to unwind and even harder to litigate away, as Ficano learned to his own embarrassment.

Evans quickly will appreciate that it’s a lot easier to blow the county’s pension fund balance on 13th checks and generous matching programs and ridiculously lucrative early retirement programs than it is to rationalize benefits or restructure the county budget to begin rebuilding a dangerously underfunded pension fund.

He’ll see growing evidence that people are leaving Wayne County, and some of its more prominent municipalities, taking their tax revenue and associated property values with them. Between 2010 and 2013, according to U.S. Census figures, Wayne’s population slipped 2.5 percent while neighboring Oakland County grew by 2.4 percent.

Demographic accident? Partly, considering the decade-long exodus from Detroit. But Ficano’s legacy as county exec, marked by scandal heaped upon head-slapping scandal, also coincides with a generalized decline of people, property values and standards that cannot be off-loaded on the Great Recession, slumping real estate or changes in state revenue sharing.

That Wayne County voters, a typically apathetic lot inured to scandal, would use a sleepy August primary to bounce a well-known incumbent signals just how damaged Ficano is — and how ready voters are for competence and realistic leadership.

Evans projects a cool confidence that an administration led by him would reverse the county’s financial decline, contain cronyism, even affect the kind of pro-business attitude that consistently was an enduring strength of Ficano’s in the county’s top job. Really?

Confidence ain’t enough. It’ll take a plan, a team and the discipline to execute in a political structure designed more to confound the county executive than empower him to lead change. Whether Evans, no stranger to controversy, can muster any of that or manage ties to the business community is an open question.

But this much is true: times are changing in southeast Michigan. Thanks to a tough U.S. attorney, long-festering public corruption is being rolled up in both Detroit and its surrounding county. Taxpayers are seeing, in the details of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the facts of Wayne County’s financial slide, the hidden costs of self-dealing and machine politics — with their money.

The fall of the amiable Ficano is Exhibit No. 1. He agreed to pay his departing economic development director a fat bonus after she left the county for a better job at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, arguing all the while to incredulous contacts in the business community that she was owed “severance.”

He backed the Pinnacle horse racing boondoggle that closed within three years and cost the county roughly $35 million. He approved early retirement programs that enabled senior officials to retire early with nearly six-figure annual payouts and retiree health care paid by taxpayers.

Ficano’s administration backed a downtown jail project, now abandoned, likely to cost county taxpayers an estimated $200 million despite efforts by mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert’s real estate sharpies to reshape the half-finished hulk into another piece of his empire.

Boondoggles like those have been too common for too long around here, markers of a civic tolerance reaching its limits. The evidence of failure, the rank cynicism of public officials who get theirs while almost everyone else gets the bill, is too hard to ignore.

Incumbency ain’t what it used to be. Ineffective leadership in a region that has spent much of the past five years witnessing the costs of ineffectiveness and corruption is proving to be a path to unemployment.

Just ask Ficano, a nice guy soon to be on the outside looking in. He knows.
(313) 222-2106
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.