This rag has poked fun at incumbent Wayne County Executive Robert “Bob” Ficano over the years, perhaps rightly so.
Since taking office in 2003, Ficano has drawn the scorn of the public on a number of occasions: near six-figure pensions for some employees who retire in their 40s, only to come work for the county again; a years-long FBI probe that resulted in Ficano aides being sent to jail; the failed downtown jail project, even a thoroughbred horse racing track downriver that fell by the wayside after Michigan cut the number of racing days to almost zero.
So, needless to say, we were a bit surprised to hear Ficano would run again. A Livonia native and former county sheriff, a win this fall would give Ficano, 61, his third term in office. Given the amount of gruff we’ve given him, we figured now may be a time to let the incumbent candidate speak his mind. Below is a condensed response to, for the most part, similar questions asked of the other candidates in the race. It was edited for length and clarity.
Metro Times: Why are you still interested in running for Wayne County Executive?
Bob Ficano: From an early age, I learned the values of serving with integrity, purpose and honor. I was taught these lessons in my close-knit family of Italian immigrants. My parents and grandparents were proud union members who worked hard and gave back to their diverse community. My family instilled in me the importance of embracing and respecting those of diverse cultures, faiths and background. So, it’s important that folks understand where I come from and what my beliefs are. I say this also to observe that we’ve gotten past a couple very tough years, when people have me down and I’ve learned important lessons. But I’m not a quitter and as long as I can continue to bring passion and commitment to the job, I’m going to still fight for jobs and investment and to keep the state’s hands off Wayne County. The experience learned from our many successes, and yes even from a handful of defeats, has uniquely prepared me to remain County Executive. This is not a job for someone inexperienced and unprepared to make tough decisions like I have done. I respectfully request the support of the people to allow me to finish what we’ve started and can still successfully achieve.
MT: The county has an accumulated $175 million budget deficit. Is there a way to address that and avoid the risk of insolvency?
BF: The county's fiscal situation, although challenging, is steadily improving in large part because of tough choices I have made. Paid property taxes, the main source of revenue for the county's general fund, have fallen by over $100 million annually since that time, or 30% below that collected in FY 2008. Compounding the problem is that since 2008 state revenue sharing and court equity payments, along with other GFGP revenues have been reduced by $245 million. The combined total revenue loss to the county's general fund in this period has been $645 million. This is the reality that no amount of misinformation or promises by any candidate can alter. However, as detailed in answer to another question, we have made great strides in fighting off a state takeover of Wayne County.
MT: Do you have any ideas as to how the city can cut costs or raise additional revenue?
BF: The county has met the challenge of drastically falling revenue through cuts and reforms. The county's workforce has been reduced by about 1,400 positions since 2008, including a 30% reduction in my appointees since that time. Operational efficiencies of more than $57 million have been realized as a result of various measures since 2008, including concessions of 10% in salary and benefits by myself and my appointees, and many, but not all, county employees. Despite the fiscal challenges, we have submitted balanced budgets each year as required by law, and have done so without raising taxes.
MT: What would you consider as accomplishments of your record since assuming office?
BF: In addition to the economic development and job creation efforts detailed in answer to other questions, my administration has materially improved the quality of life for Wayne County residents in a number of areas. We have a strong environmental record. To highlight just a few accomplishments, in 2013 for a second consecutive year Wayne County’s Downriver Wastewater Treatment Facility in Wyandotte earned the prestigious National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) Platinum Peak Performance Award. The Platinum Peak Performance Award recognizes a facility’s outstanding compliance – 100% - with its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for five or more consecutive years. The Wayne County Downriver Wastewater Treatment Facility is the first large wastewater treatment facility in the State of Michigan to earn this designation. Nationwide, it is one of the few facilities with older infrastructure and significant wet weather flows to achieve this performance level.
In 2006, the Wayne County owned Central City Park in Westland was closed after testing revealed the presence of lead, methane and other contaminants. This site was used by the former Village of Wayne and the Wayne County Road Commission as a dumpsite in the 1950s and 1960s, and illegal dumping also took place. The county collaborated with the City of Westland and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a remediation plan over the following 6 years, at an expense to Wayne County of approximately $2 million dollars. Following completion of the remediation plan, approximately 12 acres of the site has been restored as soccer fields and walking paths. This project is an example of successful regional environmental collaboration.
Our County Lending Environmental Assistance to Neighborhoods (CLEAN) illegal dumping cleanup program is in its 10th organizations with blight removal. In 2013 the CLEAN program cleaned up 73 illegal dumping sites.
Our Land Resources Management Division held four Household Hazardous Waste day events in 2013 that included collection of computer and e-waste materials. More than 7,800 residents participated in the events and more than 850,000 pounds of material were properly disposed of or recycled. I have also actively opposed the storage of pet coke downriver, and the MDEQ so far has sided with us in denying a permit.I have proudly been part of the struggle for equality, illustrated by my diverse administration that proudly serves the people, the Executive Order I issued in February expanding non-discrimination in the Wayne County workplace on the basis of not only race but also gender and orientation, and my support for increasing the minimum wage. I'm very proud of the folks that work in my year of assisting community administration, they are a group of professionals that look like Wayne County. My lifelong commitment to diversity is reflected in the group I've hired regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, orientation and religious and political beliefs.
No other candidate in this race can show a record of support over the years for Democratic candidates, both with significant financial help and with members of our team in the neighborhoods, campaigning for the election and re-election of President Obama and other Democrats. My administration has always aggressively pursued proactive strategies like our Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program that helped thousands of county residents fight foreclosure and stay in their homes in the worst years following the 2008 recession. Wayne County still assists its residents faced with mortgage or tax foreclosure through participation in the Step Forward Michigan partnership with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). An accessible portal to assistance from this program is found on the county website. Keeping people in their homes helps keep families together, protects our housing stock and promotes payment of property taxes.
MT: If current plans with Bedrock Real Estate Services to redevelop the downtown Wayne County Jail site fall through, how would you address the failed project?
BF: In June, 2013 I took the appropriate act of stopping work on the new jail downtown when it was discovered the project could be as much as $90 million over budget because of unapproved contractor overruns. The state just last month stopped construction on one of its buildings when millions in overruns were also discovered, so my action was consistent with their prudent approach. In December, the Commission approved an agreement between the county, the Wayne County Building Authority and Rock Ventures providing a 180 day period to do due diligence to explore the potential of repurposing the state's Mound Correctional Facility to be the new jail. A move to Mound would require a new criminal justice center adding facilities for the court and Prosecutor's office in addition to the built-out jail. The county would be able to make use of existing precast cells, generators and other equipment. Under that proposal, the downtown site would then be sold to Rock Ventures for about $50 million. Last month my administration reported to the Commission on the advantages and obstacles of finishing a revised design at the downtown site or moving to Mound. The Commission is currently reviewing these acceptable options in a series of Committee of the Whole meetings. It is a complicated situation, with many competing factors. However, there remains $140 million in available bonds to complete a new jail. In addition, under my direction the county sued the architect/design and construction contractors to recover its losses. Negotiations to settle that suit with a substantial return to the county look promising. There is also strong continuing interest among stakeholders to seek the participation of the state to help broker and provide supplemental bonding for the renewed project. After completing its review, the Commission will make a decision. Moving the jail to either Mound or finishing the downtown structure will lead to significant economic development in the surrounding area.
It is easy to criticize, but my opponents don’t have a plan other than to say “wait until I get there and find out the inside information and I will figure something out.” That’s not good enough. One of the pending acceptable alternatives will be selected and the new jail will be built.
MT: You’ve indicated the downriver wastewater treatment facilities could be sold to compensate for the budget deficit. Why do you feel that’s a viable move?
BF: The Deficit Elimination Plan passed by the County Commission in May and conditionally approved by the State Treasurer contains a proposal for the local communities to create an authority to own and operate the county’s three wastewater treatment systems, including the downriver system, without further county involvement. This was an invitation to engage in voluntary discussions to see if a win-win consensual agreement could be reached for the new authority to acquire the systems from the county. A value for a potential sale has yet to be determined. It is a dynamic process. If circumstances warrant, additional cost cutting measures may be needed to replace portions of the DEP that do not get implemented because of unwillingness of other stakeholders to go along. Once misinformation and intentional distortion of our proposal, like claims the county seeks to impose a $121 tax on the local communities, get answered, folks are more interested in coming to the bargaining table to see what we might accomplish together.
MT: What are some of the mistakes you’d say you’ve made since assuming office?
BF: An executive's responsibility is important, but so too is a person's level of responsibility for their own behavior after being hired. As Executive, I have been accountable for the few county employees who betrayed the public trust. They were removed and replaced. We fully cooperated with authorities and four people were sentenced to prison. Disappointments like this when people let you down unfortunately happen in large organizations, as we've seen in other municipal and private corporations. But hard lessons have been learned and the test should be, what does a person do when they've been knocked down? I've moved forward, rebuilt our team and rededicated myself to make things right. With the help of former U.S. Attorney and now Deputy Executive Jeff Collins, we've put in place a tough new county Ethics Policy. The county website now shows detailed budget and other information and recently earned the top rating for open government in the state. You don't have to take my word that progress has been made. In the opinion of the Free Press on February 20, 2014: "Ficano has built a solid new team, with sharp ideas and the kind of determination that makes things happen." We have aggressively pursued economic development and job creating projects.
The overwhelming majority have worked out well- with our record of help, Wayne County has enjoyed more than $8.6 billion in new investment over the last four years. Our economic development efforts in 2013 alone totaled 80 projects in the advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, automotive, life sciences, technology and agriculture/food processing sectors. Over 5,000 new jobs are associated with these projects. Overall, our administration has helped hundreds of businesses locate or expand here including the Detroit Medical Center, Ford Wayne Assembly Plant and GE Tech Center. However, the Pinnacle Race Track in Huron Township unfortunately didn’t make it when the state cut horse-racing dates substantially.
It was disappointing that we had to halt construction of the new jail when we learned the contractors were almost $100 million over budget. Check out further information on our jail plans in answer to another question.
MT: What have you done personally or professionally to help advance regional cooperation, or other significant causes?
BF: Of the area County Executives, I have a documented record of promoting collaborative regional solutions to our problems. I led the effort that created the Aerotropolis around Detroit Metro Airport to bring investment and jobs along the I-94 corridor. According to the Business Leaders for Michigan on July 18, 2013: “The creation of an Aerotropolis, envisioned long ago by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, was an important component of the Road to Renaissance strategy to help grow the economy for the entire Detroit region...In 2008, Ficano created a public-private Task Force to guide development of the effort.” With about $500 million invested with thousands of new jobs in the last couple years alone, this economic engine has potential to create 64,000 jobs. I also fought the efforts of Brooks Patterson and others to take Detroit’s Auto Show, by supporting the expansion of Cobo Center and a new authority to run it. In addition to helping lead the legislative fight to create the authority that runs the Cobo Center, I also supported the creation of the Regional Transit Authority, to bring coordination to our mass transportation efforts. The creation of a regional water authority is next.
MT: Would you support the creation of a regional water authority to oversee the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department? If not, why?
BF: I am proud that Wayne County remains unwavering in its commitment to create the Great Lakes Regional Water Authority, on terms that make sense for its customers, municipal stakeholders including the City of Detroit, and the system's employees. I have led the effort to keep the regional water authority initiative alive, when others tried to kill it. Under my direction, in April the county filed a motion in the Detroit federal bankruptcy proceedings for court supervised mediation, after Oakland and Macomb counties signaled they were pulling out of further negotiations. The motion was granted, and further due diligence and discussions continue under the direction of Judge Sean Cox. While these talks are on-going, the county has also filed objections along with Oakland and Macomb to the Emergency Manager's plan that could include the sale of the DWSD system to a private company, without further local input or consent. That is unacceptable and we are the only local government in Wayne County fighting in court to protect the ratepayers. I remain hopeful that a regional water authority, roughly modeled after the successful Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (Cobo Center), can be created. There are many compelling reasons that creation of a regional water authority makes sense, including enhanced public participation in governance of the system, an improved and fairer rate structure and resolving decades' long operational problems with the system, including ensuring adequate investment in infrastructure. A sustainable system is necessary to assure safe water for our citizens, and at an acceptable rate.
MT: A number of communities in Wayne County have either faced the prospect of emergency management, or have seen Lansing appoint one to handle their finances. What are your thoughts about the current emergency manager law, PA 436?
BF: I’m not in favor of a law that allows state takeover of local governments and guts the authority of democratically elected representatives. Last December, the Governor stated on local TV that after the first of the year the state was planning to send a financial review team to the county. In our continuing work this year to achieve fiscal stability, we have made substantial progress to put distance between the county and state intervention. The state review team has not come to Wayne County. There is absolutely no current indication that one is coming. I appointed Mark Abbo, former Supervisor of Northville Township, as the new Chief Financial Officer late last year. Working with the State Treasurer's Office, he developed an innovative Deficit Elimination Plan (DEP) that was passed by the County Commission in May. We are in the process of implementing the DEP. Most notably, working with the Wayne County Treasurer an additional $150 million from the delinquent tax fund recently boosted the general fund.
Other parts of the DEP have been or are very close to being implemented, with Sheriff [Benny] Napoleon implemented cost saving measures in jail operations. But it is a dynamic process. If circumstances warrant, additional cost cutting measures may be needed to replace portions of the DEP that do not get implemented because of unwillingness of other stakeholders to go along. The bottom line is that we have fought off the state’s threatened takeover. Wayne County is not headed for either an Emergency Manager or bankruptcy, unlike the unfortunate Detroit situation.
MT: What’s your favorite book and movie about politics?
BF: I was greatly influenced as a young man by Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. As a student of history, the stories of American Senators who did what they thought was right although not politically popular still offers lessons to us today. I have to admit I immensely enjoyed “All The President’s Men” with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as I was never a fan of Richard Nixon.
MT: What’s the best restaurant to dine at in Wayne County?
BF: You’re going to get me in some hot water with this limitation, but let’s go with three of my Italian favorites. The Rugiero Family does a nice job with their Antonio's Cucina Italiana in Canton, and I've enjoyed many meals either there or at their other restaurants. Of course Mario’s in midtown is a favorite too, as is Joe Vicari’s Andiamo restaurants.
MT: What did we miss? Anything you’d like to touch on?
BF: You don’t ask any questions that provide an opportunity to point out any shortcomings of the opposition. While they bash me at every turn, I’m at the point where I’m wondering whether the media will provide coverage of some of their background and baggage.
For example, Mr. Evans was my appointed Under Sheriff. Later he was appointed Sheriff. He then quit so he could be appointed Detroit's Police Chief in 2009. Only a year later the Mayor fired Mr. Evans because of his inappropriate relationship with a subordinate and his self-promoting endorsement of a reality TV show that was filming a police raid that resulted in the death of a young girl. He left town and has admitted publicly that until recently he lived for a couple years mostly in Anderson County, South Carolina, running a horse ranch (www.willowcreekequineservices.com). He claims he’s a “life-long Detroiter” but he’s also had a horse ranch in Washtenaw County where he lived for some years previously, registering his vehicles there to avoid the high insurance rates Detroiters endure.
Mr. Wild pushed through a 2.5 mill tax increase in Westland this year to pay for pensions (Westland Observer, "Retirement millage increase expected in Westland," March 20, 2014). Also, Mr. Wild's group of appointees working for the City of Westland lack diversity. He has the endorsement of Nolan Finley, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and many deep pocket Republicans. His signs are found on lawns throughout the suburbs along with those of different Republicans running for various offices. He does not have a record of progressive causes like publically opposing the Right to Work (for less) state law like I do.
Mr. Cavanagh liked to boast that he led the state takeover and creation of the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority (DWCMHA), now separated from county government. The DWCMHA recently cut over $9 million for jail and prosecutor mental health services for this vulnerable population. Mr. Cavanagh doesn’t mention his key role in causing this mess any more. He should also be asked what promises he has made to gain the extensive financial support of Mr. Matty Moroun and whether he has offered to appoint people to various county posts in return for campaign contributions.
Mr. McNamara remarked at a County Commission meeting earlier this year that he didn’t know anything about retiree health care, and wasn’t interested in learning about the subject. To his credit he has candidly admitted at some public forums that he doesn’t know very much about other county issues as well.
In general, my opponents engage in blatant pandering for votes, promising to do things once elected that they cannot possibly accomplish if they had any real understanding of county finances, legal constraints on what can and cannot be done, and reflect any semblance of a commitment to intellectual honesty.
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