By any reasonable measure, the last few years have been a time of great progress for metro Detroit. Hardly a week goes by it seems without more indications of the city’s robust economic recovery.
Rising household incomes and property values, investments in downtown development now accompanied by steep financial commitments to neighborhood revitalization, even the leveling off the crime rates. The Motor City is on the move.
Yet, the city is not the only local government seeing progress after years of financial instability and stagnation. Quietly, and without much fanfare, Wayne County government has been experiencing its own recovery. It follows years of financial instability, tumbling credit ratings, and organizational woes that saw it on the brink of bankruptcy and harshly criticized from all quarters for the long-stalled jail project on Gratiot near Greektown burdened by such profound cost overruns that it was decided not to continue with the project.
The fiasco came to symbolize the dysfunction in the Wayne County Executive’s Office at the time, and felt eerily like what had been going on in Detroit City Hall not too much earlier.
“In my mind, Detroit was just coming out of bankruptcy,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. “If the county defaulted and ended up in a rough financial way all that negativity would be pushed upon other communities. So, it was really important to have a good recovery plan.”
He said thanks to the ingenuity of his young Chief Financial Officer Tony Sanders, who crafted his financial plan, the county was able to ride out the tide and is now on a firm financial footing for the first time in many years.
“We have $100 million in our rainy-day fund in case of a downturn. When I first took over, we only had enough money in that account to last a week,” Evans said. “Our pension fund was in terrible shape; 43 percent funded, but now at 56 percent. Eighty-percent is the standard, but we’re getting there.”
To reach that goal the county will need surpluses for several years to keep paying into retirement in order to ensure payout to its retirees. “So, we can’t just put everything we have into getting out of debt,” he said. “We still have to be disciplined enough to put some money against the deficit.”
Reflecting back on his first term during his second inaugural address last week at the Second Ebenezer Church, Evans said among his major achievements were:
- Striking a $533M deal with businessman Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures to build the County a new state-of-the-art criminal justice center, with Rock responsible for any construction cost overruns. Abatement work underway, other work starting soon. Completion 2022.
- Demolishing of the failed jail at Gratiot, one of the region’s most notorious signs of government failure. Now ready for Rock to invest $250M plus in a mixed-use project at a gateway to the city of Detroit.
- Closing of the sale of the former McLouth Steel Plant in Trenton. The complex deal took, great collaboration with locals. Named Real Estate Deal of the Year by Crain’s Detroit Business.
- Approval of the agreement to transfer the Downriver Sewage Disposal System (DSDS) from the County to the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority (DUWA) for $57.5 million, funds from transaction to go to unfunded liability
Bishop Edgar L. Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Church who hosted the inauguration said because of Evans low key style he does not get the credit he deserves for putting the county back on the right track.
“The most important things he did was bring Wayne County back from the brink of bankruptcy,” he said. “Just like Detroit went down, GM went down, Chrysler went down, and Wayne County was on its way down. But Warren was wise enough to know there would be no grand bargain for Wayne County. So, he had to be strategic in coming up with a solution to save the county from bankruptcy and he got it done.”
Referring to the stalled jail site as a “morass,” Vann said that was perhaps one of the more signature accomplishments of Evans tenure because the site stood as a monument to local government failure and was costing taxpayers money every day.
“When you see him work out a solution to the morass of the jail site and negotiate with Mr. Gilbert and his group to come up with something equitable to the county, city and also agreeable to most people in the community … you realize he is a solution-oriented type of public servant,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean people will always agree with you and there won’t be disappointments,” Vann said. “But Warren Evans is a courageous individual who sometimes throws caution to the wind to get the job done.”
And for Evans getting the job done in his second term as Wayne County Executive will be about “rebuilding,” he said. “We’ve got to get the jail done, a civic courthouse and I want to re-tool our park system.”
His vision is to connect the county parks with the city parks and even link up with the Huron and Clinton metro parks. “To create bicycle paths so communities can be separate and distinct but have some connectivity that people can enjoy with health.”
Evans, 70, said as he looks forward to his second term, besides bringing stability and growth to the county he also wants his legacy to be that of a leader who inspires other young African Americans to believe they can be leaders in their communities too.
“Black kids see someone that looks like them achieving something and they know innately they can do it” he said. “They are the folks I’m trying to set a framework for to run the city and county for the next 20 to 30 years.”