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Our Editorial: Consent agreement right for Wayne County

The Detroit News

Now that Gov. Rick Snyder has confirmed Wayne County is in financial emergency, the question becomes what’s the best course for ending it and giving the county a chance at long-term stability.

The Wayne County Commission has four choices: a consent agreement with the state that spells out specific remedies, an emergency manager, mediation or bankruptcy.

The best option is a consent agreement, and that is what County Executive Warren Evans has requested.

Appointing an emergency manager, which is what happened in Detroit when its consent agreement with the state failed to produce results, would be premature. Evans has shown a willingness to make tough decisions, and has a solid plan for wiping away the county’s $52 million annual structural deficit.

But he needs some help convincing labor unions to go along.

Evans is asking the unions for pension and wage concessions. That’s a tough request, considering that county workers have made givebacks in the past to answer financial crises.

But unfortunately, there are few other places to get the money to balance the budget. Evans believes the leverage of a consent agreement would move the unions to agreement. It should. Because the alternative is an emergency manager who could impose much harsher measures.

Better to settle this issue at the bargaining table.

The other steps are either too weak or too harsh. Mediation with unions and creditors are likely to be drawn-out affairs that would not produce the desired savings. And there’s no reason for a bankruptcy filing if a workable restructuring plan is implemented.

Any such plan must also resolve the issue of the unfinished Wayne County Jail. Construction on the project was suspended in 2013 amid huge cost overruns. Now, there’s no money to finish the jail, which sits on a prime piece of downtown real estate.

That state is offering an option that should be included in any consent agreement. The plan would be to move the jail and all other criminal justice facilities, including county courthouses, to the abandoned Mound Road state prison site on Detroit’s east side.

The jail site and other downtown facilities would be sold, along with the county-owned Guardian Building and its parking garage.

That would provide the county with a cash infusion needed to start the work. Unless the county can come up with another plan, it should accept the Mound Road proposal.

The financial emergency process is not likely to end as positively for Wayne County as it did for Detroit, without considerable cooperation from the labor unions.

In Detroit, the state and foundation and business communities rallied to craft a bailout package to preserve pensions and protect critical assets, most notably the Detroit Institute of Arts.

No such saviors exist for Wayne County. It will have to fix its financial emergency the old-fashioned way — with painful cuts and concessions. A consent agreement will aid in that process.