News Column

OPINION: Dan Gilbert not only solution for Wayne County's fail jail

July 11, 2014

By Nancy Kaffer, Detroit Free Press



July 11--For Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert's offer to buy the new Wayne County jail site must have seemed like a life preserver.

Construction on the jail was halted last year after an audit of the project found that the $300-million project was nearly $100 million over budget.

The "fail jail" has been a major black eye for Ficano, who is running for re-election this year. The project was headed up by two of Ficano's former top deputies -- Turkia Mullin and Azzam Elder -- tied to the ongoing FBI corruption probe into county dealings. To date, four former high-level county officials have been sentenced to jail time.

With the county in over its financial head, Gilbert's offer to buy the site and other county-owned properties in Detroit largely used to house criminal justice operations and move the county jail to a largely unused Mound Road facility seemed like a clear path forward. And the $50 million that Gilbert offered to pay for the land would have helped the county defray the costs associated with the jail.

Moving on from the site would be a boon for Ficano, for whom resolution of the jail controversy is key to assuring voters that he is still the right man to lead Wayne County, a job he's in danger of losing in the Aug. 5 primary. Polling puts the longtime executive last among the front-runners in the race.

Yet, as details emerge, it's not so clear that selling the land to Gilbert is the best way for the county to manage this problem.

Last month, the Wayne County Commission reviewed a report by Ficano's staff on the jail options during the first of three scheduled meetings on the matter. But commissioners expressed frustration with the process, indicating that the executive's team hadn't given them sufficient information. (Ficano's staff countered that the commission had asked for options, not a decision, and that further information would be related at later meetings).

Finishing the jail at Gratiot and St. Antoine is an option, though it would cost the county at least $100 million more than it planned to spend, cost overruns that Ficano blames on project manager Aecom. In October, the county sued the project and construction managers, claiming that cost overruns hadn't been approved by the Wayne County Building Authority, and that Aecom had been contractually obligated to keep the project's costs within the $220-million budget.

But retrofitting the Mound Road site to accomodate the county operation -- and building the courts complex that would be required if the sale of downtown land to Gilbert is successful -- won't be cheap. Nor would renovating the county's existing jail, one option that's on the table. It's possible that the cost of either option will approach the total price of the fail jail, cost overruns and all.

Ficano has touted the tax benefits of selling the 15.5 acres of downtown property, including the jail site, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and Wayne County Jail Division 1 and 2 on Clinton Street, to a private owner like Gilbert. But most of the sites included in the prospective sale are in the Downtown Development Authority's tax capture area -- additional revenues generated by private business at those sites wouldn't acrue in the county or city general fund.

So what to make of all of this?

The jail project has been characterized by bad decision-making involving astronomical sums of money. And now there are more costly decisions to be made, not just in terms of finances but of how downtown Detroit develops. There's merit in moving the jail away from an area of increased investment, but there's also something to be said for careful deliberation, for not getting the county further into hock in an effort to revamp its jail operation -- and for considering how a 15.5-acre, Gilbert-driven entertainment district would fit into, and shape, downtown.

None of these choices should be made in the frantic run-up to an election. It's tempting to see Gilbert's offer as a tidy resolution to a sprawling mess -- and maybe it is. But without more information, the county can't take further risks with public money.

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)


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