Opinion
10:48 am
Fri August 16, 2013

Merging Wayne County and Detroit could fix both

Lessenberry commentary for 8/16/2013

  Everybody knows that former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was thoroughly corrupt. He currently is sitting in jail waiting sentencing in federal court on his latest round of convictions.

His political career is dead and his chance at being free is over, at least for years to come. But you can easily make the argument that, at least in terms of cost to the taxpayers, the administration of Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano is worse.

Certainly Ficano has wasted far more of the taxpayers’ money than Kilpatrick’s grubby crimes cost Detroit. One of the enduring mysteries of state politics is why this man is still in his job. Michigan’s largest county has lurched from scandal to scandal.

There was the case of Turkia Awada Mullin, the crony who somehow was vaulted over far more qualified applicants, made head of the airport authority and given a two hundred thousand dollar “severance” to go from one job to another.

Now there is the half-completed new Wayne County jail, which will never be finished because tens of millions in cost overruns were approved with apparently no oversight by the proper authorities.

Taxpayers have lost at least one hundred and twenty million on this boondoggle alone, and probably more. Yet while an FBI investigation is going on, not only has Ficano not been indicted, there has been little pressure for him to step down or be removed.

Even if he does eventually go, it is clear that Wayne County government is riddled with corruption, just as the city of Detroit is riddled with incompetence and dysfunctional bureaucracy.

This is terrible, but also presents us with a terrific opportunity to fix both Wayne County and Detroit.

Detroit is under an emergency manager and about to go through bankruptcy, as we all know. But the governor and the proper authorities also need to find some way of assessing and cleaning up the Wayne County cesspool.  Then, when that is done, it is time for a radical but necessary step. The legislature can and should pass a law merging Wayne County and Detroit into one combined entity.

As I have noted in the past, where this has been done, in places like Nashville and Indianapolis, it has almost always made both entities stronger. In our case, it is both just and necessary. Kept within its current boundaries, with its current problems, Detroit is simply not viable. Yes, you can, with draconian cuts and bankruptcy, get rid of the twenty billion dollar debt and balance the books. But then what? Hard to imagine the city, in its present weakened state, being competitive.

However, when you combine Detroit and Wayne County, you get something that in size and demography resembles Detroit at its prosperous peak, when the rest of the county was pretty sparsely populated. Yes, it would cost Wayne residents to build up Detroit. But it costs them now to share a county with a city in ruins.

And Wayne taxpayers are paying hundreds of millions for the messes made by their dysfunctional government. The word crisis in Chinese contains the characters for both danger, and opportunity. By now we know a lot about danger, and failure. Now, we have a sudden opportunity to build a future.

Let‘s take it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.