The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office recently had a major makeover. Some say it was long overdue.
Trouble is, funding for the $7.7 million renovation was never secured before the work was done and has put the cash-strapped county further in the hole, according to some county officials.
The prosecutor’s office contends that it was given the green light to refurbish the old offices, which badly needed updating.
Last year, the Wayne County Commission agreed to issue up to $50 million in bonds to pay for improvements to nearly 20 county-owned properties, including the prosecutor’s office, which occupies the top three floors of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit.
But when Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano took office in January, he advised the commission not to issue the bonds; he cited the county’s budget deficit, estimated to be $46 million. Ficano says that had the bonds been issued, payments would have added $2.5 million to this year’s shortfall.
“It would have been fiscally imprudent to float the bonds,” he says.
The commission agreed to hold off. No work was done on any of the county properties — except for the prosecutor’s office, says Sharon Banks, Ficano’s press secretary.
“The prosecutor’s office was the only one that spent money before there was any available,” says Banks.
Yellow and black tiles grace the entrance hall floors of the prosecutor’s office. Freshly painted walls and new carpeting brighten once-dreary quarters. Well-designed workstations better accommodate 200 or so attorneys. The remodeled offices are tasteful, but not posh. Duggan’s own office is fairly modest, but for his private bathroom and shower.
But should Duggan have gone ahead with the overhaul before the money was secured?
Rebecca Tenorio, press secretary for the prosecutor’s office, says the project was on the up-and-up.
“The money was approved by the County Commission last August, 15-to-0,” says Tenorio. “They have to approve things like that and no one had a problem with that.”
But County Commissioner Ilona Varga says she and her colleagues only approved the company contracted to do the work.
“We authorized him to use a specific firm, but never in a million years had we thought he [Duggan] would start the project before the bonds were issued,” says Varga.
Varga adds, “I will take his word for it that he believed we were going to sell the bonds. Believing that the bonds were going to be sold, he did nothing wrong. At the same time, I don’t spend my money until I get it.”
Commissioner Kwame Kenyatta says Duggan should not have had the renovation done until the bonds were secured.
“So on that basis I am saying it was not a good thing, but it was not out of step with common practice,” says Kenyatta, who explains that money is sometimes spent in anticipation that a bond sale will later cover it.
In fact, in a resolution authorizing its intent to issue bonds for building improvements, the commission states, “It is anticipated that the county will advance a portion of the costs of the project prior to the issuance of the bonds, such advance to be repaid from proceeds of the bonds upon the issuance thereof. …”
But bonds may not be used to pay for work done more than 90 days ago, says attorney Ben Washburn, the commission’s legal adviser. The renovation is nearly completed and the contractors have been paid, says Don Shalibo, senior vice president of Jomar-Barton Malow’s Detroit office, which did the construction. If and when the bonds are sold, it is ultimately up to the Internal Revenue Service, which regulates bonds, to decide if the renovation will be covered, says Washburn.
In the meantime, Ficano is asking Duggan to devise a plan to pay for the $7.7 million renovation, which, according to county records, originally was slated to cost about $5.6 million. Duggan’s office claims that request is improper.
Varga suspects that Duggan went forward with the renovation before the bonds were issued because he could get away with it under former County Executive Ed McNamara. Duggan was deputy executive to McNamara from 1987 to 2000.
“He probably figured that he better do it with the outgoing administration because he won’t get it done under the current administration,” says Varga. “If the new administration would have heard that he was spending money without issuing the bonds, they would have stopped him.”
Ficano says he is not just clamping down on the prosecutor’s office. He wants to ensure that every department has a balanced budget.
Last week, the county executive called for 10 percent cutbacks in every department for fiscal 2003-2004, which begins Oct. 1. Ficano says he has already reduced the projected deficit from $54 million to $46 million by cutting salaries to top officials by 14 percent and not filling vacant positions.
Ficano also refused to approve some appointments, which, in one instance, resulted in a lawsuit. Duggan sued Ficano last month for failing to approve his appointment of Jeriel Heard as his educational outreach director. Heard, who was director of community justice under McNamara, is slated to be paid $129,000.
In the lawsuit, Duggan says Ficano’s refusal to appoint Heard is politically motivated.
“It’s not politics whatsoever,” says Ficano. “We are trying to hold everyone to the same standard.”
That standard, he says, is balanced department budgets.
Ficano says that in addition to devising a plan to pay for the renovation project out of his current budget, Duggan must account for $1.4 million in operation costs for which the prosecutor’s office is also projected to be over budget.
That’s a grand total of $9.1 million. Duggan’s budget for the current fiscal year is $29 million, according to Banks, who also says the county budget is $505.2 million.
Duggan’s office declined to talk to Metro Times about the lawsuit, claiming that Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Pamela Harwood, who is presiding over the case, prohibited both parties from talking to the press.
“I’m not aware of any gag order,” says Ficano.
Attorney Sam Nouhan, who represents the county in the lawsuit, also is not aware of a gag order.
“I don’t know of any gag order formal or informal, written or not written,” says Nouhan. “If a judge imposed such a requirement, the judge would surely let me know.”
The judge says that she did not enter a gag order of any kind.
Though the lawsuit was filed over Heard’s appointment, the prosecutor’s office is addressing budget issues in its pleadings, claiming its projected deficit should not include the renovation costs.
“In my 11 years as budget director, we never once charged the capital costs of a major project to a department’s operating budget,” writes Pat McKinnon, in a letter attached to the lawsuit. McKinnon was chief deputy director of management and budget under McNamara and now works as finance department chief for Duggan. She also writes that the prosecutor’s office may be over budget by 4.6 percent in the current year, but that, “we are committed to holding sufficient vacancies and taking other steps necessary to balance the budget in the course of the year.”
Ficano says that since the bonds were not issued, he is including the renovation costs in the prosecutor’s budget deficit.
“I’m not trying to make it the executive’s office versus the prosecutor’s office,” says Ficano. “That doesn’t help anyone. We are trying to set a standard that pertains to everyone. We want the same standards across the board. We are not going to do things the old way.”
The commission also will change its ways, says Varga, who heads its Ways and Means Committee. She says she has learned from this.
“In the future, we will not approve anyone’s contract for anything if the funding is not there,” she says.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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