Wayne County's financial shell game continues

DETROIT – If you've not followed the $160 million Wayne County Jail fiasco you should understand that part of how the project went so miserably and expensively awry was the fact that Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano cut out the County Commission from oversight.

Now, the county commission is not the be-all, end-all, but its function is oversight. It's committees, such as the audit committee, provide a modicum of adult supervision along with the political wrangling you might expect. But Ficano never gave the Commission the chance to see the inner workings because he exported the entire jail project to the Wayne County Building Authority. Its volunteer board members, who only meet once a month instead of the Commission's daily session, were charged with jail oversight and to be there to ensure that if there were any so called "change orders" [altering the scope and the cost of the project] they would review them and give them thumbs up or down.

Well, strangely enough, there were millions of dollars of change orders allowed yet we now know the Building Authority was never once even shown a change order on which to vote! We are still waiting to see the audit report on the jail disaster that found criminal wrongdoing. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy shipped it to a one-person grand jury, a judge, and he is conducting his own investigation.

Remember that when you hear about Wayne County Auditor General Willie Mayo's audit report today. It was a month-long deep dive into the county's parking operations. Knowing the jail project's construct you won't be surprised to learn a similar management decision moved the multi-million dollar parking lots [there are three of them] away from the County Commission and over to the Economic Development Commission. Mayo's parking audit is rife with problems.

View/download: Parking operations audit

First and foremost, Mayo claims, much like the Wayne County Building Authority, the EDC has never seen the paperwork it was supposed to on the parking garages. He claims the EDC is violating its contract by not doing the proper oversight. He also says the EDC's original structure is insufficient to the task of overseeing the parking garages and needs to change. The EDC Board has never conducted hearings or signed off on management decisions the way it is supposed to on annual reports or even purchases the outside manager and subcontractors have made. The audit also found a non-county employee working at one of the lots receiving county healthcare benefits, management companies buying things like golf carts without authorization, those same subcontractors giving away parking spaces or deeply discounting parking rates for friends or preferred companies, a county parking lot near the Masonic Temple was being used for parking, patrons were paying, but the guys in the reflective vests collecting $10 and $20 per car were NOT county employees.

The county lost untold sums in the process. We will never know how much because there are no records and the EDC's management appears so distant it did not even know! The First Street Garage took in $1.6 million and had $1.3 million in expenses. No major renovations were done in the garage over the past three years which begs the question: Why does it cost that much to operate?

Moreover, the math done inside the audit shows the county netted a mere $150,000 last year. County commissioners say they were promised the parking garage purchased for more than $14 million in 2010 would net a whole lot more money than that.

Are we sensing a pattern here? Can you spot which shell the pea us under?

Wayne County is broke and its management, or the lack thereof, appears to be contributing mightily to this problem. The EDC's new director says he agrees with a lot of the problems cited in the audit and he is willing to work with Willie Mayo to correct the problems.

But Audit Committee Chairman Ray Basham and member Tim Killeen today wondered aloud whether the county's core competency is parking garages. They don't think so and think selling off the entire operation is the right answer considering the county is deeply in debt. Clearly this is a problem that they will be revisiting in the days and weeks to come.

It's worth mentioning that the governor and the treasurer are still watching -- you know, the people who decide whether an emergency manager is needed!

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