Newly hired SMART manager has history of federal tax delinquency, records show

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Detroit — The newly hired head of the publicly funded bus service for southeast Michigan has a personal history of federal tax delinquency, according to Internal Revenue Service records reviewed by The Detroit News.

Dwight Ferrell was the unanimous pick earlier this month of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation Board of Directors to lead the system that has an annual budget of about $200 million, employs about 800 people and buses tens of thousands of riders daily. Ferrell, 64, formally takes his post on Sept. 20. 

SMART announced Dwight Ferrell will take over as general manager on Sep. 20.

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According to IRS records reviewed by The News, in April 2016, a tax lien of more than $90,300 was placed on Ferrell for four years’ worth of unpaid personal federal income taxes. The lien was released in July 2017, an indication that taxes had been satisfied in full, according to SMART. The IRS does not comment on individual cases.

The SMART board released a statement saying Ferrell remains the best choice to run the regional bus authority and that "like many people, Dwight experienced personal financial issues due to extenuating circumstances relating to his family. He has held executive roles at other transit agencies that are larger in size, scope and budget, and given his positive interview and references, we are confident he is the best candidate for the job and to lead the Authority into the future."

Ferrell, who has led regional transit systems in cities including Cincinnati, Austin and Philadelphia, has nearly 40 years of experience in the transit industry. He most recently served as the CEO of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in Cincinnati, according to a company press release.

The board noted it had "recently been made aware of Mr. Ferrell’s previous tax problems," but was told "the matter is closed and payment made some years ago."

IRS records show Ferrell was delinquent four years for unpaid federal income tax — in 2010 for $12,339.81; in 2012 for $40,935.43; in 2013 for $3,468.19; and in 2014 for  $33,568.70.

SMART spokesperson Beth Gibbons provided a copy of a "Certificate of Release of Federal Tax Lien" and the SMART board's statement, but said Wednesday Ferrell was unavailable for comment. The News was unable to find a phone number or email for Ferrell.

In reference to other questions, the board's statement stressed the tax situation was a "personal issue and is not a result of any employment misconduct."

SMART board Chairman Khalil Rahal, who is an assistant Wayne County executive and executive director of the county’s Economic Development Corp., was quoted in a SMART news release this month as being “glad to find someone of Ferrell’s caliber” to lead SMART’s regional needs. 

Rahal declined to comment on Tuesday and referred questions to Gibbons, who provided the board's statement.

"The matter was settled 4 years ago with all arrears being brought current and the levy lifted in 2017," the board's statement read. "During the time in question, Mr. Ferrell was employed by MARTA in Atlanta and also by Fulton County, Ga. — two large employers in which this issue did not appear to impact or affect his ability to manage and lead these organizations. The SMART Board of Directors remains confident that Dwight will lead the authority in a fiscally responsible manner moving forward."

The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, announced Dwight Ferrell will take over as general manager on Sep. 20. He has a personal history of federal tax delinquency, according to IRS records reviewed by The Detroit News.

The SMART board has two representatives each from the counties of Wayne (Abdul Haidous and Rahal); Macomb (Vicki Wolber and John Paul Rea); and Oakland (Bret Rasegan and Hilarie Chambers); and one from Monroe (Royce Maniko). Wolber, Rea, Rasegan and Chambers, as well as Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Ferrell was chosen from 24 applicants, three of whom were finalists, the statement said. He'll be paid $215,000 a year.

Ferrell resigned in late 2018 from his job at the Cincinnati Metro, where ridership was reportedly declining. He said at the time he wasn't forced out and the decision was something he had considered for a while. The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the agency that oversees Cincinnati Metro, was forecasting budget deficits. He stayed on as a consultant for six months.

Ferrell said in a statement last week that “I am honored to have been selected to lead SMART as its next general manager and eagerly await working with the staff and talking with riders and other stakeholders to learn more about how SMART can continue to meet their evolving needs."

Among Ferrell’s duties will be recommending how to use federal funds SMART received during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have already been used for bus improvement.

Robert Cramer, deputy general manager, SMART, announces the SMART Flex, Metro Detroit's first on-demand transit service with Via, at the Dingell Transit Center in Dearborn on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

SMART, the region’s only public transportation system since 1967, has more than 725 vehicles and buses on fixed routes in the Metro Detroit area, servicing about 29,000 riders daily.

Ferrell replaces John Hertel, who resigned in March 2020, one day before the SMART board had planned to fire him for parking his personal fleet of cars at a SMART facility. Hertel, a former state senator, headed SMART for a decade and also was general manager of the Michigan State Fair for several years.

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