What is the future of Wayne County?
For Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, that tomorrow looks ripe with equitable economic possibilities for the most populous county in the state – there’s also work to be done to move the needle forward to make that a plausible reality.
During a Michigan Chronicle Studio 1452 special on Thursday, June 3, Evans met with Digital Anchor Andre Ash and Staff Writer Sherri Kolade to discuss the state of the county and what’s ahead.
“What I want to see is more Wayne County contracts [whatever services we may be contracting for],” Evans, dressed in a navy-blue suit, said. “I want them to be from more small-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses.”
Evans is pushing for a “far more equitable” distribution of the tax dollars the county collects and the services they buy to grow beyond where Wayne County is today.
“A year from now when we see how much revenue loss has come from COVID … I think we will have a much better vision of where the county will be in four or five years down the line,” Evans said.
From improved job training and strengthening the small business sector, Evans said that come 2022 he wants to see the county revitalized.
“[We will] have a much better idea on whether my plan and vision are getting where I want to get,” Evans said.
A year ago, Wayne County’s hospitals were overflowing, as were the funeral homes with COVID-19 patients and victims who died at the height of the pandemic. Businesses were on shaky economic footing and the emotional and mental toll of the worldwide crisis has left deep scars many are grappling with.
“I think like all of us it has been devastating,” Evans, who spoke openly about the pain of losing Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napolean to COVID-19 last year, said. “Not everyone died but a lot did — officers I worked with.”
He added that the “inability for people to grieve” is another component many have not even “started to deal with.”
Evans said that to him the most important factor in recovering through COVID is the “human toll” and helping employees and community members from a county perspective.
Today, Evans said that the county (with 34 cities and nine townships) is seeing “a lot of movement” economically despite COVID-19 and things are looking up as the pandemic is looking to be on the decline.
Evans said that even prior to the pandemic the county was not on good footing financially and “all of the bets” were on the county going into bankruptcy six years ago.
“And not only did we never go into bankruptcy, but we’ve had six balanced budgets since,” Evans said, adding that “things were moving reasonably” well with the economy up until last year. “Obviously we got hit with COVID and trying to manage through… we still got a balanced budget, but it’s been challenging.”
That recovery also includes a financial component from the Wayne County Cares Program that helped employees when the state was shut down. The Wayne County Economic Development Department budgeted $4 million last year for Wayne County Cares to provide up to 8,000 cash cards to qualified workers, all Wayne County residents. While the program is now closed, Evans said that the county is still in a planning process to distribute what is left of the money which doesn’t have to all be spent in a year.
“We want to make sure the vision … is a healthy vision,” Evans said, adding it is important to consider what is going to truly help Wayne County residents down the line. “What institutions do we need to bolster and move forward to try to have a more equitable county for everybody?”
Evans added that while the push for equitable distribution is key, it’s important to cast a wide net so everyone can receive a piece of the pie, particularly through business grants. He also said in doing so, even more women-owned and Black-owned businesses get their fair share.
From continuing protests on police brutality (“the only thing that moves the needle”) to not voting for former Republican Detroit Police Chief James Craig if he runs for governor (“there is a philosophical gap void”), Evans had a lot to say about national and local issues. He brought it back by talking about new things on the way in the city, like a new criminal justice complex, coming online next fall, to replace the three county jails that is costing a lot of money to operate.
The complex will house the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office headquarters, a new juvenile detention facility, along with other city-based services, with improved parking and more. Another complex, featuring the Circuit Court, is also on tap.
Evans, who is running for one more term (his current term ends in 2023), said that he is proud that he helped get the county out of trouble and that the county staff reflects the diverse makeup of Wayne County.
“They advise me on policy, and I know what is coming and how to respond to it and that has been a blessing,” Evans said.
He said when he first started, people didn’t find it appealing to work for the county because public opinion was low, like its troubled finances.
“It was difficult,” he said, adding that he found some young, smart people that he “took a chance on” and they helped get the “ship right.”
Evans wants his final act in office to be something worth remembering from criminal reform to a firmer, stronger county structure — then, Wayne County can achieve something great.
“What I’d like the legacy to be when I leave this office is what we’ve done to leave the county better for the long-term,” he said. “Are we making improvements? Absolutely. Are we where we need to be? Not yet.”