Warren C. Evans delivers 2017 State of the County address

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published March 16, 2017

 Warren C. Evans

Warren C. Evans

DEARBORN — Metro Detroit residents crowded into the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn March 7 to hear Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans present his State of the County address for 2017.

Evans presented a vision of the county as on the right track for improvement, but said it still faces a number of challenges as it heads into the future.

Evans said that the county is operating with a recovery plan that stresses collaboration and cooperation, and a more efficient use of county facilities and resources to achieve positive momentum. It also is selling unused real estate to cut down on costs and provide one-time revenue sources. From a financial standpoint, Evans said the county is moving in the right direction, although there is much work to be done. 

“At a critical point in the recovery process, it becomes less about healing and more about getting stronger,” Evans said during his speech. “That’s where we are today with Wayne County’s finances. We’re fiscally healthier than we’ve been in a long time, and I’m committed to continuing to make the tough decisions that will make us, and then keep us, financially strong.”

The county exited the consent agreement it had with the state of Michigan in November after the state treasurer acknowledged that Wayne County had restored its fiscal stability. Evans made a special effort in his address to thank those who had to make sacrifices in the 14 months while engaged in the consent agreement — notably both the union and nonunion county employees.

Evans also said that the county was able to increase its total operating surplus of $80 million, adding to the $36 million it had banked previously. Additionally, he touted that Wayne County’s unfunded health care liabilities were reduced by $1 billion. He warned that this does not mean it is time for the county to start spending again, and that there is still $635 million in unfunded pension liabilities, among other expenses that different departments still have to be concerned about.

Among the biggest concerns for the county, Evans said, is the construction or maintenance of several county resources.

“While we have righted the fiscal ship, there is no sugarcoating the truth,” he said. “The county needs to renovate or build many facilities — and we’re going to have to foot the bill for construction or improvements in the years to come.”

Evans said the most notable example is the unfinished Gratiot Jail, calling it “an unfinished mess that continues to be a black eye for the county.” 

He said the county does need a new jail and now stands at a crossroads. Wayne County is currently negotiating with Rock Ventures for a criminal justice complex at East Forest Avenue, where the county owns land. The proposed plan would see the county contributing $300 million and several existing jail parcels — including the Gratiot site — to Rock Ventures in exchange for three new buildings: a jail, a juvenile detention facility and a new criminal courthouse. Meanwhile, Walsh Construction is continuing its work to finish the Gratiot Jail. Evans said the county will have to decide what the best possible decision will be moving forward.

He added that once the problems relating to the jail project and other county facilities in need of improvement are dealt with, he is committed to giving back to employees.

Evans told the crowd that the biggest stumbling block to solving these concerns is the issue of how Michigan funds its local municipalities. Vital services such as public safety — including law enforcement personnel — snow removal and road construction are among the areas that require better funding, he said.

“Michigan ranks dead last in the funding it provides its cities, townships and counties,” said Evans. “We are the only state whose municipal revenue decreased over the last decade. Today, Wayne County operates at about 70 percent of the revenue it had less than a decade ago. During that time, the need for services has not decreased.”

Evans added that supporting businesses, fixing roads and bridges, and a more resident-friendly Department of Health, Veterans & Community Wellness are among the other improvements the county has made in recent months. He called the failure of the Regional Transit Authority millage on last November’s ballot a disappointment and a negative to the efforts of revitalizing Wayne County.

He cited several businesses that are making positive strides in the county. This included Chinese glass manufacturing company Fuyao, which is opening facilities in the county that will bring 500 jobs and a $66 million investment with them; online giant Amazon, which is bringing 1,000 jobs to the county and investing $90 million in a new distribution center; and Kerkstra Precast, a concrete producer and manufacturer that is investing $16 million in new operations and adding an unspecified number of jobs.

He singled out Ford Motor Co. for continuing to grow its long-standing presence in the Detroit community, including a $700 million investment in its Flat Rock Assembly Plant.

The sale of the Warren Valley Golf Course has been a contentious issue in Wayne County, and Evans discussed it during his speech as well. 

“It will provide the county the $1.8 million sale price and the millions of dollars in property taxes from the planned development. It just seems inevitable the course will have to close in the near future,” said Evans. “The sale would convert a money-losing, county-owned golf course into an attractive residential community that will create property tax revenue for both the county and Dearborn Heights. It’s a difficult decision and one we don’t take lightly.”

Evans closed his speech by touching on the topics of diversity and inclusion, something he said he knew to be on the minds of many Wayne County residents following the controversial executive orders on immigration signed by President Donald Trump. 

“Recently, I met with members of the Muslim and Hispanic communities to discuss their concerns. I also proudly attended the demonstrations at Metro Airport and joined the American Arab Civil Rights League in opposition to the president’s reckless recent executive orders,” said Evans. “If anyone needs a lesson in how diversity makes us stronger, look no further than Wayne County.”

Timothy Killeen, the Wayne County District 1 commissioner, stated that he agreed with much of what Evans said in the speech and agreed that the county is making progress financially.

“Overall, with the Evans administration, finances have improved drastically,” he said. “We’re a little bit above water in our budget now, but I still caution people; it’s tenuous. Of our county budget, about $1 billion is state and federal grants, so while we’re not drowning anymore — we’ve got a nostril above water — but if a boat comes along and our monetary situation is altered, things could change.”

Killeen also stated that he agreed that the issue of the Gratiot prison is perhaps the biggest issue facing the county. According to the commissioner, it needs to be resolved as soon as possible, and he said that time spent further debating the matter will mean more money spent. 

He also said that progress in rebuilding the county has been slowed in recent years by the collapse of the housing market in 2008. 

“The county lives off of property taxes, so for the last eight years we’ve been about $70 million a year since then. Plus, Proposal A caps how quickly we can recoup that revenue. We’re in sort of a permanent downsize condition, and we have to do everything we can do to provide services in that situation. The Evans administration has been fairly successful, and he has provided good leadership, although there are still other issues in the future that we will have to deal with.”