Why merging Detroit and Wayne County makes sense for both

Aug 19, 2013

Last week, I said merging the governments of Detroit and Wayne County was a sensible solution to both their crises.

This idea was not wildly popular. One woman said I was out of my mind, and added Wayne County “just need(ed) to have their crooks behind bars.”

A more thoughtful man said I was “operating from the usual liberal impulse of having successful entities transfer resources to unsuccessful entities,” something he indicated didn’t work.

Well, that gentleman is right. It usually doesn’t work. That’s what has been happening with revenue sharing.

What I am proposing is creating an entirely new entity, writing a new charter and creating a combined county government. I am not suggesting Wayne County simply absorb Detroit.

Among other things, the fact is that Wayne County government seems so pervaded by a culture of corruption that simply removing one or several officeholders won’t mean much.

The county jail is a case in point. The commissioners charged the Wayne County Building Authority with providing oversight for the project. But the authority turned oversight over to the subcontractors themselves, which makes no sense. 

They did hire someone to keep an eye on things for the county, but they fired him almost two years ago because of his ties to another county scandal. And he was never replaced. 

Not surprisingly, the subcontractors did little to keep costs down. Next thing we knew, the cost overruns were so huge the jail had to be canceled, wasting at least $125 million taxpayer dollars.

This has been how Wayne County has operated for a long time. The system goes back at least as far as the late Executive Ed McNamara, who once, when taxpayers voted funds to build a new youth prison, used them for something else, and got away with it.

Thanks to years of this, Wayne County may not be that far away from eligibility for emergency manager status itself.  It is financially healthier than Detroit.

But the contention that merging a stronger entity with a weaker one never works isn’t true either. If you want proof, go to Berlin. I was there before and after the wall came down. 

The contrast between east and west was in many ways greater than between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. But today the city is unified, and that has been an unchallenged success.

There’s a mistake both Detroiters and those living outside the city tend to make.  We talk as if cities and counties were totally autonomous entities, like Italy and France.

That is wildly inaccurate. Detroit and Wayne County are, legally, administrative units, subdivisions of the state. The legislature can create local governments, dissolve them or recombine them, something it has always done. Based on everything I know, combining the city and the county into an entirely new government would give both a clean slate and a chance at a better future. 

This would take lots of hard work. 

And it is easy to say a new idea can’t work. That’s what they said about airplanes, and, for that matter, representative democracy.

But what nobody can deny is this: What’s been happening in Detroit and Wayne County hasn’t been working in either place.

Why not take a chance on trying something new? 

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.