Opinion
9:59 am
Fri November 1, 2013

Selling a billionaire a jail

Lessenberry commentary for 11/1/13

If you’ve been following what’s been going on in Wayne County government, you may be either scratching your head or banging it against the wall. There was the case of the country employee who got a two hundred thousand dollar severance to move from one well-paid job to another running the airport, something for which she had no experience. Eventually she was fired, but they then had to pay her another seven hundred thousand.

Then, there is the jail. County Executive Robert Ficano and the Wayne County Commissioners decided they needed a new one. Unfortunately, they apparently decided to allow the contractors and subcontractors to approve their own cost overruns. In June, the half-built jail was so far over budget that the county canceled the project, meaning taxpayers are out $155 million dollars.

You would think the people who approved this project would either be arrested or at least forced to resign in disgrace. But no, they’re at it again. Last night I was on a television show with Kevin McNamara, one of the commissioners. 

He wasn’t exactly hanging his head in shame, he was excited. Seems they are about to sell the abandoned jail to billionaire Dan Gilbert, the Rock Financial and Quicken Loans guy, who has been buying large amounts of property in downtown Detroit.

Gilbert isn’t just buying the jail, but four nearby justice facilities, including the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice courthouse. How much is the county going to charge him for all this?

Fifty million. That price seems a bit low, when you consider how much the county lost on the jail. It seems even lower when you consider a Toronto-based group offered one hundred million. But McNamara said Gilbert had the right of first refusal, based on a previous deal the county cut with him.

I wondered, what if Gilbert been willing to pay only a dollar?

McNamara isn’t worried. He said Gilbert planned to build an entertainment complex that would create thousands of jobs. Indeed, Gilbert’s Rock Ventures company claims that within five years, the complex will be generating twenty million a year in property taxes.

Commissioner McNamara is used to this sort of thing. This father, Ed McNamara, was the county executive for sixteen years, and while the FBI did investigate him, he was never indicted. His son, a former salesman, told me he was thinking about running for his dad’s old job next year.

To be fair, some commissioners are skeptical. Ray Basham, known for integrity in the state senate, says he needs to know more about why the jail project failed, and he definitely wants more details about the pie-in-the-sky entertainment complex.

Unfortunately, he’s not likely to get them. Wayne County Commissioners are going to be asked to approve a preliminary deal six days from now, even though McNamara said they may not get the plan until the night before. By the way, what does the county plan to do about a courthouse and a jail? Spend millions more to renovate an abandoned state prison, and stick them there.

There’s talk in Lansing that Wayne County may soon need an emergency manager. I can’t imagine why.

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

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