Gas cards: Wayne County's canary in the coal mine

Wayne County Sheriff's Office's gas card problem is just part of it

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

DETROIT - Detroit is broke and the Emergency Manager is preparing to take the City into Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy.

It looks like the financial basket case of the ages. But a block over in Downtown Detroit, inside the Guardian Building where the Wayne County Executive offices are found, the specter of the same nightmarish disaster happening there looms large as well. While there have been headlines containing the furious smoke of scandal after the FBI very publically started handing out subpoenas and grabbing computers nearly two years ago, the true nature of Wayne County's overspending problem has been lost on the average taxpayer.

While it is true Wayne County's financial problems may not be as dire as Detroit's tonight, there appears no end in sight to the deficit spending that will surely lead to an Emergency Manager if the bleeding of red ink is not staunched and soon. How can we tell? Well let's take unpaid bills for a start. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office did not pay its BP gasoline credit card bill last month for the third time this year. BP did to the Sheriff's Office as it would with you or me after missing a timely payment; it no longer is taking WCSO credit cards as of today. Sheriff Benny Napoleon budgets $75,000 a month for fuel and last month he needed an additional $30,000 appropriation from the County Commission to reactivate the cards.

Tonight, his deputies and other appointees who take home their county issued cars, along with the deputies who transport prisoners between jails, can no longer buy gasoline anywhere they see a BP station. They now have to drive a half hour west of Downtown Detroit and fuel up at the Central Maintenance Yard where the Wayne County snow plows and other road equipment are stationed near Metro Airport. This is troublesome on a couple of levels. This is the third time this year the Sheriff's gasoline credit card has been shut off. One County Commissioner today called this embarrassing and rightfully so. But there is so much more to this seemingly small matter. In order to put gasoline in the Sheriff's Office Vehicles, the money must come from another budget line; in essence robbing Peter to Pay Paul. Only Paul is broke too! The following statement came from County Deputy Chief Financial Officer and Budget Director Kevin Haney "The Sheriff's Office has exceeded their budget for fuel as well their overall budget appropriated by the Wayne County Commission.

The Sheriff's office proposed transferring General Fund General Purpose appropriation from the County Jail's Budget to other Sheriff operations in order to fund the fuel budgets in those areas. This would have had the effect of increasing the deficit in the Jails. Until the Commission authorizes additional spending against this line item, the County is not able to accept any new charges on the BP cards. On June 25, 2013, the Commission, through the Committee on Ways and Means was notified that the Sheriff's Office would be over their General Fund General Purpose appropriation by the End of June. For the second time this summer, our DPS - Roads division is working to make accommodations for emergency fueling for Sheriff's office vehicles."

What Haney is deftly avoiding saying is that the Sheriff is a serial deficit spender on a grand scale. Last year The Wayne County Commission approved a $5 million increase in the Sheriff's budget because he was over $15 million last year. You might think that with five million extra dollars the Sheriff might come in a little closer to his budget this year. And you would be wrong. As it stands right now the Sheriff's Office is $30 million over budget. To give you an idea just how far off that is: This year the Wayne County Commission budgeted $80 million for the WCSO. Napoleon managed to spend every penny of that money by June 30th. With every tick of the clock until September 30th, the WCSO will be deficit spending.

Let us not give the impression the Sheriff's Office is the only problem here. No, sadly, it is merely one of many. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is $7 million over budget this year and prosecutor Kym Worthy sued to get more money out of Bob Ficano and the County Commission. Ficano struck a deal with her to split the difference between what she is spending and what she was budgeted. The County Commission said no to that deal and continues awaiting a judge's ruling on where that money will come from.

Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano, originally at the behest of former executives Turkia Awada-Mullin and Azzam Elder, is trying to build a new Wayne County Jail. It is $91 million dollars over its original $220 million budget [that did not include furniture and security systems]. When it became obvious to Ficano he couldn't hide the fact that his project had gone awry on a frightening scale he decided to stop building. He's now trying to right-size the project to its original budget. But that sleight of hand leaves the county with too few jail beds to create the economies of scale on which the original project was sold. That means having two jails instead of one and spending more money than the county can afford to house prisoners the State requires be housed. Does anyone sense a pattern building here? Oh, and by the way, the current estimate on the Wayne County overall deficit spending for the year is somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. Must we remind everyone over in the Guarding Building spending like sailors on shore leave this is TAXPAYER money?

The State of Michigan, particularly the Treasurer's office, is watching this mess closely. Everyone there must be secretly wishing they could run away and hide in the hopes no one finds them. They are tasked ultimately with enforcing fiscal discipline where it is a distant thought and memory. Bring this up to anyone at the Guardian Building and all you hear is how sincerely they want to do something serious about reigning in the spending. Then they vote on contracts that reward friends and family like Inkster Mayor Hilliard Hampton. He just had his $50,000 "community outreach" contract renewed at Wayne County Community College District so he can allegedly do public relations for the Sheriff's Department. The Wayne County Auditor General said that contract should be cancelled and the deputies used to keep another county agency safe should be sent to the Wayne County Jail to cut overtime there. [Napoleon spends $1.5 million a month on overtime at the jail] But the Commission voted 10-4 saying it thought allowing Napoleon to hire his brother's boss [Hilton Napoleon is Inkster's police chief] is a better idea.

The Wayne County Commission has taken three stabs at coming up with a deficit reduction plan with the State of Michigan and so far each has been rejected. It is difficult to make anyone follow a budget when those in charge refuse to. Thus, when the Wayne County Commission tried to get Napoleon to cut his budget last week he offered to shave $2 million off of a $30 million deficit. A 6% cut? Did they think he would do more? We now begin to see that equating this kind of deficit spending to drunken sailors is an affront to tipsy swabbies everywhere!

The entirety of Wayne County's government should be embarrassed not only by unpaid gasoline cards, it should be ashamed of the utter disregard and lack of respect it holds for taxpayers and their dollars. The FBI will be the final arbiters of whether the public trust has been violated here. But voters in Wayne County, just as in Detroit, need to demand more fiscal responsibility of their elected officials, As of now there is no such thing as bankruptcy for a state, but if we keep on in this spendthrift fashion we may force its invention. Can I get $25 worth of unleaded?

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