Cavanagh, 52, currently serves as a representative in Michigan's legislature. Son of former Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, He's graduated with multiple degrees from University of Detroit Mercy and Aquinas College, and volunteers with groups such as Focus:Hope and Motor City Makeover.
Metro Times: Why are you interested in running for Wayne County Executive?
Phil Cavanagh: As the son of former Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, public service is in my blood. I was taught that public service is an honor. Too many politicians see it as self service. I served as a Wayne County Commissioner for four terms, and I am currently in my second term as a State Representative. I am currently the Minority Vice Chair for both the Judiciary and Financial Liability Reform committees, and I am a member of Health Policy. I am running to restore Wayne County to the economic engine our state, and to ensure that Wayne County is a safe and productive place for my three daughters. The people of Wayne deserve leadership they can count on. I have the experience and the educational background to put our county on the right path. For too long we have been held back by incompetent handling of our tax dollars. I am the best candidate to balance the budget and restore funding to core services such as the sheriff and the prosecutor’s office.
MT: The county has an accumulated $175 million budget deficit. Is there a way to address that and avoid the risk of insolvency?
PC: It certainly helps the Wayne County Treasurer recently discovered or suddenly deemed it appropriate to disclose $300 million that he has amassed on the interest and penalties of late tax payments. This will help address the debt we have accumulated. I will eliminate $30-40 million Wayne County accumulates each year as part of its structural deficit. It is imperative to start prioritizing funding. We need to fund public safety and constitutionally mandated core services before anything else. These offices include the sheriff, the prosecutor and the clerk – basic services that are essential to a functioning government and a safe county. Funding these services before pet projects is a simple step toward solvency and fiscal security. I will streamline services, and will eliminate unnecessary appointment positions. Transparency will be key to my efforts, and all county job descriptions and salaries will be posted online. I will bring all parties to the table to openly discuss what is needed in the county. The tendency for the current administration to do their budgeting through litigation is unproductive and costly. My policy of transparency, inclusion, and prioritizing funding will result in efficient, effective government.
MT: Do you have any ideas as to how the county can cut costs or raise additional revenue?
PC: As mentioned above, I will stop prioritizing funding for pet projects and I will trim County appointees. Right now the County wastes money on paying for the same services twice. Once I bring parties to the table to develop the budget, we will also save money on litigation costs. I will aggressively go after unpaid taxes and be compassionate about those who have unpaid taxes. I currently am sponsoring two bills in the House regarding taxes. One bill would enable county treasurers to establish payment plans for financially distressed individuals.
Right now the County has ongoing litigation with the Sheriff, the Prosecutor’s office, and it is suing AECOM for losses on the jail site on Gratiot. Poor management in all areas has resulted in added costs to the county through litigation, all of which can be avoided.
Laws in the State of Michigan currently set an interest rate of 18% charged on delinquent taxes in the second year of delinquency. In our stable communities that rate seems well designed to encourage taxpayers to make payment and, should they not, foreclosure and sale of the property brings in the revenue. However, that is not the case in our distressed communities. In communities where unemployment is high, property values and populations have declined, and tax foreclosures are commonplace, we have homes that won't sell for $500 and with the 18% interest rates homeowners often owe $4,000-8,000 in taxes, fees, and interest. The 18% is driving people from their homes, the property becomes vacant, the property is stripped in a matter of weeks, and there is no longer value to the property which then is a blight on the community.
It is essential to establish a program that will effectively incentivize residents to pay their taxes, and to provide an avenue for them to maintain ownership of their home should they fall under a financial hardship. If the delinquent tax interest rate is reasonable, more taxpayers will pay and revenue should increase for the distressed communities.
My other bill would specifically target the ongoing problem of speculation in Wayne County, where it has recently been reported nearly 80 percent of 18,568 properties bought at foreclosure auctions in the last two years are again delinquent on their property taxes. News reports indicate that the city of
Detroit is owed $70 million in taxes from the properties. I worked with the Michigan Association of County Treasurers to come up with the best language. My bill would require individuals to be current on their taxes before new parcels are transferred to them. This will thwart buyers who have no intention of ever paying taxes on their property, and will allow the County to better manage foreclosed properties.
MT: Is there any aspect of the incumbent’s record that you believe are commendable accomplishments?
PC: I was glad to see a Deficit Elimination Plan submitted to the State and County Commission for review. However, aspects of the DEP should have been considered years before now. The administration should have reached out to the Treasurer for money in the tax delinquency revolving fund long before this, and issues with the downriver wastewater treatment facility have also been long overlooked.
MT: Do you have any criticisms of the incumbent and how his administration has ran?
PC: I feel that budgeting through litigation is ineffective and costly. He has mishandled the jail project and is on the verge of getting us into yet another jail debacle. He completely mishandled the Pinnacle Racetrack project. His purchases have been costly and unnecessary; specifically moving County offices to the guardian building and purchasing a parking lot was completely unnecessary. Based on the federal indictments, many of his appointees were clearly not right for the job. The Pension fund was over 100% funded when I left the County Commission, and is now less than 47% funded, the County has a near junk bond credit rating and verging on financial ruin. We are in desperate need of new leadership.
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?
PC: I have actually done quite a bit of analysis of the jail project, and my white paper on the issue is available on my website: Cavanagh4Ceo.com. There are many things that are not being said in the limited discussion about the push towards Mound. Sheriff Napoleon has an ongoing lawsuit before Judge Kenny (the single member of the Grand Jury investigating possible criminal activity of the construction of the jail thus far). Judge Kenny’s Opinion will probably be released before the end of the fiscal year, September 30, 2014. There is a strong possibility that the judge will order the closure of Division I jail house, built almost 100 years ago. Division III, Dickerson Facility in Hamtramck, is already at maximum capacity so the closure of Division I would force Division II to open all floors, which have had zero maintenance since 2010. The closed floors in Division II have cell doors that do not lock and the heat and air conditioners rarely work. The conditions are deplorable and unacceptable for anyone to work or “live” in. Financial conditions have changed since Wayne County Commission first approved $300 million in bonds for the jail project (only $200 million were issued). Detroit has filed bankruptcy, Wayne County is now near junk bond status, and Greektown Casino is under new ownership. The governor, favoring the wishes of the new casino owner, will only help the county move to Mound Road and that help will probably only come in the state backing the newly issued bonds by capturing Wayne County’s revenue sharing. In addition to these problems, there are more disadvantages to the Mound facility than advantages. The facility would require numerous structural changes, which would put a severe strain on the existing infrastructure. The location is difficult to access and would create a hardship for individuals legally required appearing in court, but who may not have access to transportation. The proposed housing model for the facility has been proven to increase behavioral problems among inmates, so the proposal is to knowingly create an unnecessarily dangerous environment for inmates and staff.
The due diligence report issued by Rock Ventures estimates initial costs at Mound to be $372.5 million spread over two phases, 1(A) and 1(B). Phase 2 would include construction of a family court, Friend of the Court and a juvenile Court. Phase 3 would include construction of a civil court. However, the report does not detail what the expected cost of these added facilities would be, and they are vague as to general financing for the development, stating “It is premature to outline specific financing plans or options...until we have an agreed upon development plan.” It does not seem prudent to enter into a massive project that will fundamentally change criminal justice service without the financing for all phases clearly expressed. Our previous jail debacle was born of similar rhetoric – the promise of cost savings and economies of scale after an initial investment in a new facility. Ultimately, the reality of Wayne County’s financial situation and what is in the best interest of all individuals who will make contact with the justice system, it is clear that
Wayne County’s best option is to finish construction on the jail site on Gratiot. At this stage, the County must push forward with better oversight of the Jail project, and avoid wasting any additional money.
MT: The incumbent has indicated the downriver wastewater treatment facilities could be sold to compensate for the budget deficit. Would you support the move?
PC: Other options should be explored before this is used as a final resort. I wrote an editorial regarding this issue in which I expressed concern that no appraisal was been done on the wastewater treatment facility before the proposal was made - another oversight from this administration that could have costly implications. As an alternative to selling one of our greatest assets, there are proven examples of public systems contracting with private companies to operate wastewater facilities, while the public still retains ownership and the county is guaranteed a steady revenue stream. This model also allows unionized employees to remain employed and secure in their jobs and retirement. Several Michigan communities have utilized this model, saving millions from their operating budgets. Pontiac and Brownstown are both prime examples, each with savings in excess of $2 million. The plan to contract with a private company would limit the rate increases for residents. The private company will also be responsible for upkeep to the facility, removing that burden from the taxpayers as well.
MT: What have you done personally or professionally to help advance regional cooperation, or other significant causes?
PC:Because I have served in County government and in the State, I have developed strong relationships throughout various levels of government that will help promote regionalization. I served on SEMCOG, the governing body of Southeast Michigan and gained great insight into regional issues and regional management. During my time in Lansing, I have served on the Attorney General’s Commission on Human Trafficking and the Governor’s Mental Health and Wellness Commission. As a key member of both of these commissions I have been able to help change and modernize Michigan’s laws regarding these critical issues, both of which are much more prevalent in Wayne County than in other areas of the state.
MT: Would you support the creation of a regional water authority to oversee the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department? If not, why?
PC: I will bring all interested parties to the table for an amicable discussion would be a preferable path to the one we are on at the moment. We must deal with the aging infrastructure and long term financial problems facing the department. However, if this will be dealt with through the bankruptcy process it is important to maintain strong regional partners by bringing them fully into the conversation.
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?
PC: I think that the citizens of Michigan made their feelings very clear about emergency managers when they repealed the first emergency manager act, PA 4 in the 2012 general election. It was underhanded and a clear violation of public will to then pass a replacement law mere weeks after the citizens voted against PA 4. Citizens in underprivileged and minority cities have been the disproportionately affected by these laws, and I have heard from my constituents about their opposition to a law that disenfranchises them and takes away power from democratically elected leaders. I voted AGAINST both emergency manager laws in Lansing, which, like much of the legislation we have seen recently, passed along party lines. PA 4 passed by a slim margin of 62-47 and PA 436 passed with a vote of 63-46. However, I am confident that should as the next Wayne County Executive I will be able to prioritize funding and balance the budget, thus eliminating any need for an emergency manager in Wayne County.
MT: What’s your favorite book and movie about politics?
PC: “It’s A Wonderful Life” has a great lesson about the importance of treating everyone with dignity and recognizing the humanity in people as opposed to just the bottom line. “All the President’s Men” is a great book showing the important role of media in politics.
MT: What’s the best restaurant to dine at in Wayne County?
PC: I like Mario’s on 2nd Ave for fish and steak and La Pita in Dearborn for excellent Arab cuisine.
MT: What did we miss? Anything you’d like to touch on?
PC: Wayne County is on the brink of an emergency manager and desperately needs new leadership to stop that. I have the relationships at all levels of government, relationships established over years of service, which will help stop an oncoming emergency manager. I am the only candidate who would be able to step onto the floor of the House and Senate as a CEO, and would be able to make direct contact with my colleagues in Lansing for issues pertaining to Wayne County. I have a good relationship with the Lt. Gov, as we have worked closely together on the Mental Health and Wellness Commission for over a year. These relationships will be important as the County moves forward.
We also need someone with the education and experience at the federal the county and state level. I am the only candidate with a degree in accounting and an MBA. When I was on the Detroit Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency board as a County Commissioner, I eliminated an $18 million deficit. I have a deep understanding of how Wayne County’s problems have developed and what is needed to fix these problems.
Click here to go back to the 2014 Wayne County executive election guide.
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