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OPINION

A first step to recovery for Wayne County

Warren Evans

When I took office as Wayne County executive in January 2015, conventional wisdom held that we were headed for an emergency manager and possibly bankruptcy.

The conventional wisdom was wrong. Wayne County not only avoided emergency management but on Oct. 19, after little over a year with state oversight, we emerged from a consent agreement after delivering our second-straight budget with a surplus.

There’s no question that Wayne County faced a serious financial crisis. However, I believed that we would be better off if we controlled our destiny and solved the problems ourselves. To everyone’s credit — Wayne County elected officials, our employees and the residents and taxpayers — we recognized the urgency of our financial crisis. More importantly, we all worked together to find solutions.

As we exit the consent agreement, Wayne County is now on solid footing to move forward. Things aren’t perfect and we face significant challenges. We need to finish the Gratiot jail as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Our employee pension and retiree health care systems remain woefully underfunded, and although we’ve increased our pension funding from 45 percent to 54 percent, we must continue to find ways to close those gaps to ensure long-term financial health. Additionally, we must be diligent and maintain our fiscal discipline in a collaborative way.

Over the last two years, my administration listened to the county’s other elected officials about their budgetary concerns. In the end, by working together, we ensured the sheriff, the prosecutor, the clerk, the register of deeds and the treasurer had the resources to properly serve residents without breaking the bank.

The consent agreement gave me, as the county executive, the power to impose new contracts on our employees. Instead of doing that, my administration sat down with labor leaders and renegotiated new agreements with 12 of the 13 bargaining units that represent our employees. Our employees’ sacrifices played a key role in getting the fiscal house in order, including a 5 percent pay cut for the top executives of my administration.

Rather than just cutting, we also looked for creative ways to reduce costs without sacrificing vital services to our residents. We are partnering with our cities and townships on road projects to stretch our road dollars and direct them toward the worst problems. We also eliminated the controversial “EDGE” department and replaced it with a more modest, results-orientated economic development strategy and created a way to keep “Meals on Wheels” going.

But chief among these reforms was the consolidation of multiple departments and divisions into the new Department of Health, Veterans, and Community Wellness. This restructuring reduced overhead and allowed us to provide a more holistic approach to health care delivery. We’re also bringing many of the department’s services to underserved populations with the new Wayne Health Center and our “Wellness@TheCommunity” program.

After all, a financially stable government isn’t worth much if it isn’t using its limited resources to do the most good in our communities.

As we exit the consent agreement, rather than spiking the football, I’d like to thank everyone who came to the table and worked collaboratively toward a solution. This was a true team effort. Wayne County is stronger for it.

Warren Evans is the Wayne County executive.