Wayne County has a long way to go, but in a short time Warren Evans has set the county on an admirable financial turnaround. In his second State of the County speech last week, Evans balanced nearly every accomplishment against a sobering reality.
“We’ve made tremendous progress, but we need to stay focused and continue to make the difficult decisions,” the first-term county executive said.
While Detroit opted for emergency management and bankruptcy to resolve its financial crisis, Evans saw another way. He signed a consent agreement with the state under the emergency management law and renegotiated county employee contracts, cutting pay and pensions — just one of the tough tactics necessary to regain financial footing.
In October, the county exited the state’s consent agreement on stable ground. In 2016, Wayne County posted a 2-year accumulated $80 million surplus, contributed $10 million toward unfunded pensions, upgraded its bond ratings (which translates into enormous savings on future loans), and reduced its unfunded health care liabilities by nearly $1 billion.
“Two years ago this county would have had difficulty borrowing money to buy a used car,” he said. “We’re now able to borrow up to $300 million to solve our jail problem. It didn’t happen by accident.”
The unfinished jail is a constant reminder of millions of taxpayer dollars mismanaged and promises broken. It represents an old way of doing business that Evans wants to leave behind. He’s determined to see the new jail built at the right price and speed.
Rock Ventures wants to build it. Most attractive is its willingness to bear cost overruns, a common symptom of the county’s projects in the past. Rock’s deal would give Wayne County a new courthouse instead of a remodeled one, a new 60-bed juvenile detention center and a 1,632-bed adult jail — altogether, a new criminal justice complex on Warren just outside downtown.
Rock Ventures proposes a $1 billion redevelopment of the unfinished jail site. That’s an exciting prospect for downtown Detroit. Evans is cautious. His focus is on dollars and time, and Rock “has a lot of work to do to meet our timetable,” he said. Evans is committed to a full review of the Rock Ventures proposal, and we trust that he will look as closely at the advantages as at the risks.
Also in his speech, Evans called out Lansing, criticizing the state for not sending more direct aid to local communities: “Michigan’s system of funding local governments is broken. The state can no longer continue to solve its budget problems on the backs of local governments.”
Whether that’s the answer or not, local communities have to do a much better job of managing their own finances and coming up with creative ways to stretch their resources. Evans is doing that in Wayne County, and he should get credit for the progress.