Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano has dilemma

Rod Meloni takes closer look at Wayne County Veteran Services Division, Bob Ficano

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®
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DETROIT - After four of his appointees wound up arrested for corruption, after airport director Turkia Awada Mullin and Deputy Wayne County CEO Azam Elder left the Ficano administration under a cloud, Bob Ficano would have you believe he simply is having a string of bad luck.

Repeatedly he has apologized to the taxpayers of Wayne County for, as he describes it, putting his trust in undeserving people. They betrayed his trust. He wants anyone who deserves it convicted. Fair enough. Still, now that he is being sued by Mullin and Elder and in the aftermath of a no confidence vote from the Wayne County Commission, he reiterates the notion that the measure of good leadership is how a leader responds to trouble. He claims he has attacked all of these problems head on. More than anything else though, Ficano has also told me over and over, Wayne County is running well; "the trains run on time" he said. This appears a case of wishful thinking on his part.

I turn your attention to the Wayne County Veteran Services Division. After getting my hands on a Wayne County Auditor General's report on the Division's problems, it's looking like the 7am Detroit Local is running several days behind!

Watch: Wayne County leaving vets out in cold?
Watch: Rod Meloni digs deeper into Wayne County vets controversy

My first story on this came Memorial Day. I pondered the irony over how the Wayne County Veteran Services Division could be sitting on more than four million dollars of tax money [collected specifically to assist indigent and homeless veterans] at the same time Bob Ficano marched down Michigan Avenue in Dearborn in the state's oldest continuous Memorial Day parade. He smiled widely, waved to anyone who would wave back, and hoped no one would notice his administration is failing miserably the neediest of veterans. The Soldier and Sailors Relief Fund is there to help indigent veterans get some small comfort; maybe food assistance, clothes, temporary housing, transportation to Veteran's services, anything to make their burden lighter. Yet there is no program to disburse the money from the fund. The tax keeps getting collected and the bank account keeps growing; yet the Director of Veterans Services, Joseph D. Howard, does absolutely nothing to assure the money is spent. It's not that he's misspending. That would be egregious enough. It's that is he is doing NOTHING! He does no marketing, makes no contact with indigent Veterans service providers like Emmanuel House in Detroit, gives his four person staff positively no direction on how or where or when to make sure the money is properly used. Your tax dollars' inaction!

Here is Ficano's dilemma: is it that he doesn't know what his marginally skilled or less than trustworthy appointees are doing? Or, is it that he knows and does nothing about it until after the horse is out of the barn? Those are the choices his public pronouncements leave him facing. There can be no middle ground. So which is it Mr. Ficano? Is this train really running well and on time or is it that you simply have no real control? I ask this question because when I found Mr. Ficano on the parade route and started asking him questions about his Veterans Services Division he acknowledged he had seen the Auditor General's report [issued in January and just now out at the end of May] and he was going about the business of fixing the department. He said he would have the fix completed by June 15th. I did ask him if he thought it looked particularly bad on Veterans Day for this kind of information to come out. He said kept to the script, that he is fixing the problem now that it's known. But, it's back to his dilemma. Why does it take an Auditor General's report to tell a CEO whether one of his departments is getting the job done? Shouldn't a CEO who is on top of his organization know whether one of his appointees is effectual on his own? How can a department head be as ineffectual as Joseph D. Howard is allowed to continue on the job?

You may think me overly harsh on Mr. Howard [did I mention a Ficano appointee?] until you consider what I found out for today's report. It turns out Mr. Howard runs the Veterans Services Division out of offices on the 17th floor of a secured downtown office building. He employs four other staffers. The county spends half a million dollars a year to run this operation that's blithely sitting on more than four million dollars in the worst economy in 75 years. Much like the exhortation of that old Ginsu knife commercial "but wait there's more!" Mr. Howard drives a county provided car [an older Ford Taurus] and the county picks up his gasoline tab. [Nice perk if you can get it!] You might wonder how a county division director, who enjoys these kind of travel perks, spends to help veterans get transportation to the emergency services they need. In case you've not been paying attention the answer is a big fat zero in 2009, he got a little better in 2010 and 2011, by spending all of about $9,000. That's less than two tenths of one per cent of the four million dollars Howard's allowed to sit and collect dust. So we ponder yet again Mr. Ficano's dilemma; is this bad luck brought on by the untrustworthy or does The County Executive know and only moves in after the horse is out of the barn? If Harry Truman is correct about where the buck stops does it really even matter?

The only good news here is Ficano is making big changes at the Veteran Services Division. It will move out from under the Health and Human Services Department and back to the Department of Senior and Veteran Services. Joseph D. Howard will get a new boss, his name is Kevin Kelley. A new outreach worker joined the department today and will start distributing the money to needy veterans. But in case you think this is Bob Ficano managing a situation once it is known think again. Joseph D. Howard still drives his county owned Taurus. Kevin Kelley, Howard's new boss, does not enjoy the same perk. How does this work? Bob Ficano's dilemma remains the same and Crain's Detroit Business editorial page from last week made the point particularly well "but one thing we know for sure: Ficano should be grateful he's not in the private sector. He'd be unemployed by now."

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