Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans' 2017 State of the County address

published by: Executive on 3/7/2017
The 2017 State of the County address was delivered by Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans on March 7, 2017 at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn.

The State of the County began with opening remarks from Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly and County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak as well as an innovaction led by Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of Dearborn Heights' Islamic House of Wisdom and a group of interfaith spiritual leaders representing Wayne County's diverse faith traditions.

In his presentation, Executive Evans discussed the County's financial turnaround, plans to finish the jail project, economic development, County operations such as parks and roads, and the value of diversity to Wayne County's continued growth.

 

 

The full text of Executive Evans' speech is below:

Good evening ladies and gentleman. I hope you enjoyed that video. It reminds me of why I do what I do. My greatest pride comes from witnessing the work of our truly extraordinary residents and their public servants.

Thank you for the warm welcome Mayor O’Reilly and thank you County Commission Chair Gary Woronchak for your remarks.  I’d, also, like to thank Ford Motor Company and the Arab American Chamber of Commerce for making tonight possible. I’d also thank the City of Dearborn and Mayor O’Reilly’s team for their help. We couldn’t have pulled this together without their support.

I appreciate Imam Elahi and the other faith-based leaders who took the stage together for the invocation. Their demonstration of unity inspires me, but not just tonight.  Look closely at what we do every single day in Wayne County.  You will see for yourselves that this is just “how we roll.”   We value every life here in Michigan’s largest county.

Permit me to recognize a few of my fellow regional leaders who have honored us all tonight by their presence. First, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson. Brooks has always been generous with his support .  .   . and  jokes.  Some are even funny.   Much of what we’ve accomplished, financially, in Wayne County came with the early sanctioning by Brooks of the use of one of his top advisors, Bob Daddow. Thanks Brooks for your help, and for being here.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel is also here tonight. We’ve both served as Sheriffs and I’m honored to share the regional trenches with you as a County Executive. Macomb County continues to thrive under your tireless leadership. Thank you for being here tonight.

Although, I’m sorry Mark, that there wasn’t a better public transportation system available for your commute here tonight. I am grateful, however, that you have shown an open mind and commitment to the proposition that regional problems deserve collective action on a regional scale.

Speaking of public transportation, this year Wayne County started paying the entire cost of public transportation for every employee who uses public transportation to commute to and from work.  Providing this tax-free benefit increased the use of public transportation by County employees 300% in the first few months of the program.  Admittedly the numbers are not big.  50 employees using public transportation increased to 150. But that’s 100 fewer cars contributing to rush hour traffic, 100 fewer cars spewing pollution, 100 fewer cars deteriorating our roads. That’s a number I hope we can work to expand to increase our impact.  I encourage my regional partners, all governments and all private businesses to consider offering this relatively inexpensive, tax-free benefit to their employees.  To me, this program was a no-brainer.

Also here tonight is Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Mike, we’ve been friends for a lot of years.  I’m proud to work with you, as the City and County continue along their paths to a vibrant future. You have inspired all of us to reach beyond the boundaries of our own cities, school districts and counties to embrace solutions to problems that extend beyond our borders.  Thank you.

I’d also like to thank the other County-wide elected officials who are here tonight. They are all working hard for you: Clerk, Cathy Garret; Sheriff, Benny Napoleon; Treasurer, Eric Sabree; Prosecutor, Kym Worthy, Register of Deeds, Bernie Youngblood, and Chief Judges Robert Colombo and Freddie Burton.  Please stand and be recognized. Thank you for your partnership and collaboration as we continue working together to improve Wayne County.

I’d also like to acknowledge the County Commissioners here tonight.  Their hard work and support has been critical in helping turn things around for the County. Commissioners, please stand. Thank you.

Considering the political climate as of late, it’s fitting that we are in Dearborn tonight.  Our County is stronger and our communities more resilient, better places to live, because of the diversity of our people.  And this is in large part because of the many contributions immigrants make every day.  Dearborn demonstrates that truth.

Let’s talk about wellness. Wellness isn’t just being free of illness or fixing what ails you. It’s about reaching your full potential. At a critical point in the recovery process, it becomes less about healing and more about getting stronger. 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.

But the challenges ahead remain significant.  They require continued commitment to fiscal responsibility.  Five months ago we exited the Consent Agreement with the State, after the State Treasurer acknowledged that we had restored fiscal stability and were on a sustainable path forward.

Many sacrifices were made during our 14 months under the Consent Agreement and I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize those who were required to sacrifice. All the employees of Wayne County, union and non-union, had their benefits reduced and their health care premiums increased. My appointees took a five-percent pay cut. Needless to say, it hasn’t been easy on anyone who works for Wayne County. Unfortunately, there was no painless way to overcome our financial problems. Yet, we needed a plan that would ensure we never again teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. I recognize the pain and sacrifice that our public servants made.

Despite the difficult decisions to regain the County’s financial footing, County finances have continued to improve. For the second straight year, we have an operating surplus. We project this year’s surplus to be north of $44 million.  This brings our two-year accumulated unassigned surplus to more than $80 million.

Tonight, I’d like to share some more positive financial news.

As of September 30th we reduced our unfunded health care liabilities by  $1 BILLION. That’s billion with a “B.”

 When I took office, the County’s unfunded health care liabilities stood at $1.3 billion.  Today, they are about a billion less. This type of progress is the only way we’re able to begin to tackle the challenges that remain.

We’ve also had many bond rating upgrades.  Improving our bond ratings will save millions in future borrowing costs.

I’d like to acknowledge the work of my Deputy CEO Rick Kaufman and our Chief Financial Officer Tony Saunders. They spend more time talking about fiscal responsibility than I thought possible .  .  . my eyes may glaze over but they keep talking and talking and talking. Rick and Tony, thank you for your tireless commitment to Wayne County and its taxpayers.

And while I’m at it, I’m going to recognize other members of my team:  Wayne County’s Chief Operating Officer, Genelle Allen.  Corporation Counsel, Zenna Elhasan.  Director of Economic Development, Khalil Rahal. And our Director of Communications Jim Martinez.

Brooks, Mike and Mark, I know we all think we have the best team of top staff but I’ll let you in on a little secret.  MINE’S THE BEST!

Now, a lot of people may hear about our financial recovery and see an accumulated surplus of $80 million and think: “Oh boy, it’s time to spend again.” I understand that sentiment, but we can’t go back to the old ways of doing business in Wayne County.

These surpluses are by design.  They are a necessary part of our Recovery Plan. While they put us in a better financial position, they don’t change the fact that we still have nearly a billion dollars in unfunded liabilities, between pensions and health care. They don’t change the fact that we’re still facing an infrastructure crisis anchored by the unfinished Gratiot jail.

While we must stick to the Recovery Plan to meet our facility challenges, we are committed to protecting existing County pensions. With some careful fiscal planning, we put ourselves in position this year to contribute about $10 million to our pension system beyond the required annual payment.

When you’re facing about $635 million in unfunded pension liabilities, $10 million doesn’t seem like a lot. When I took office, however, Wayne County’s pension system was only 45% funded. Today it is at 54% and trending upward.  I’m not going to even think about getting comfortable until our pensions are more than 80 percent funded, which is more in line with industry standards. And protecting pensions is a goal I share with the County Commission.  We will continue to work together to fix our underfunded pensions.

I started my tenure as County Executive with an honest discussion about Wayne County finances. That candid conversation needs to continue. While we’ve been good fiscal stewards and made tremendous progress during the past two years, we need to stay focused and continue to make the difficult decisions that helped us get to where we are today.

Finishing the jail, or building a new one somewhere else, is a tremendous challenge.  But it is not our only infrastructure challenge. While the partially built Gratiot jail is the most visible example of how facilities were mismanaged and neglected under the previous administration, there are many other facilities that require immediate attention and improvement. We need a new home for Juvenile Court. The Guardian Building, despite all its grandeur, is an inconvenient place to offer services and conduct County government. It’s not accessible, efficient or customer-friendly.  And we have made a commitment to the Circuit Court that we will do our best to build them a new Civil Campus by 2020.

While we’ve righted the fiscal ship, there is no sugar-coating the truth. The County needs to renovate or build many facilities – and we’re going to have to foot the bill for the construction or improvements in the years to come. We can’t ignore it.  We’ve all seen what happens when you let a problem fester.  It only gets worse.

None of our facility issues are more visible than the unfinished Gratiot jail.

It’s an inherited mess that continues to be a black eye for the County. I’ve never seen anything define the morale of a county quite like this jail. It’s the most significant obstacle to the prosperous future we want for Wayne County.

What, sometimes, gets lost is that Wayne County desperately needs a new jail. As a former sheriff, I know how badly a new facility is needed. I recognize the present condition of our jails and how they are not suitable for inmates, employees and visiting families. For our County to thrive, we need a fully functioning county jail and criminal justice facilities. I intend to see that through to completion.

Here’s where we stand: The County is negotiating with Rock Ventures for a criminal justice complex at East Forest Avenue, where the County owns land and buildings.  The broad strokes of the proposed deal include: the County contributing $300 million and a transfer of the existing jail parcels, including the Gratiot site, to Rock Ventures. In return, the County would get three new buildings – a jail, a juvenile detention facility and a new criminal courthouse.   This proposal gives the County another viable jail option, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket. I’ve instructed my team to take the same thoughtful, deliberate approach in vetting the Rock Ventures offer as we did with the County’s fiscal crisis.  And while we negotiate the Rock Ventures option, Walsh Construction is completing its response to the County’s RFP to finish the jail at the Gratiot site. We expect to have a proposal from Walsh by May.  Assessing both options does not delay a final solution, so we decided the prudent course was to vet both options. We will soon have, what we believe to be, the best solution for our criminal justice challenges.

Let me be clear about one thing: Timing is important. While the Rock proposal remains worth considering, that doesn’t change the fact we are closer to building on Gratiot than at East Forest. The County is making good progress with Walsh toward finishing Gratiot. The Rock proposal is going to have to get better and move faster. At the end of day, Dan Gilbert may have good intentions and be willing to adequately fund the three new buildings the County will need if we move to an alternative site. But the question remains: “At the end of which day?” Rock has a lot of work to do to meet our timetable. This isn’t posturing, or hyperbole, and it’s not anti-soccer, it’s just where we are today.

Two years ago this County would have had difficulty borrowing money to buy a used car. We are now in a position to borrow up to $300 million to solve our jail and facilities problems.  That didn’t happen by accident.

The cooperation between the County Executive and the County Commissioners, over the last couple years, was key to solving our fiscal problems. Yes, we had skirmishes and disagreements. But none of those issues stood in the way of us, together, solving the County’s financial problems.

The positive actions of the Wayne County Commission were critical in solving our financial problems:

The Commission approved the Consent Agreement with the State which was absolutely critical to our success;

The Commission passed realistic budgets.

These are just two of the examples of the cooperation between the County Executive and this Commission which, together, allowed us to achieve fiscal stability and move toward solving our jail problem.

Also, cooperation between my administration and the other elected officials allowed the submission of significant cost savings in their budgets.  Instead of lawsuits between the County and the Sheriff, the County and the Prosecutor and the County and the Circuit Court, we have adopted and achieved a cooperative approach that has worked well and saved money.

Four years ago Dan Gilbert offered the County $50 million for the partially-built jail on Gratiot and adjacent County land. Today he offers, at least, $120 million, and the responsibility for cost overruns in the construction of 3 new facilities.  This may still not be good enough.  But I don’t believe, as a County, we get this   more generous offer, without the cooperation between our two branches of government.  The work we’ve done together is paying dividends.

So our County still has obstacles to overcome in order to fully restore its fiscal health. Infrastructure is key. The jail project and other County facilities desperately need improvement. Once we have solved these final major challenges, I’m committed to giving back to our employees. While it won’t be everything they have sacrificed, it will be meaningful.

In addition to the impact on our hard-working loyal employees, some of our salaries are not competitive, making it difficult to recruit and retain staff.  We must correct this as soon as possible to better compete for good talent.

Although the jail, facilities needs, inadequate wages and our unfunded liabilities are the County’s major remaining obstacles, another issue jeopardizes our financial future.  It affects communities from as far north as Copper Harbor all the way down to the Monroe County line and from the shores of Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. I spoke strongly about it last year.  And I raise my voice again tonight.

Michigan’s system of funding local governments is broken. The problem will get worse if nothing is done.

If we are going to be successful in truly turning this County around, and in giving all other local governments in Michigan the same opportunity, we need an honest conversation with Lansing and the public.

This is not just a Wayne County problem. The circumstances of the distress are, often different. Some have done better than others managing their finances.  But the struggles so many of our communities are facing cannot simply be attributed to poor management.

The State can no longer continue to solve its budget problems on the backs of local government and, make no mistake about it, that is what they have done. The chronic disinvestment in local units of government throughout the state has made it difficult for many communities to fund a range of basic services. In the most tragic examples, Flint and Fraser, it’s hurting people’s health, homes and livelihoods in ways we should not allow.

Michigan ranks dead last in the funding it provides its cities, townships and counties. We are the only state whose municipal revenue decreased over the last decade. Today, Wayne County operates with about 70 percent of the revenue it had less than a decade ago. During this period of time the need for services has not decreased. Across the state, local governments have been forced to eliminate more than 5,000 police and firefighters.

Additionally, enduring $7.5 billion in cuts to revenue sharing since 2002 has put many local governments at risk of not being able to fund their retirement commitments. This issue could push many municipalities to the brink of bankruptcy in the coming years. Any cut in state revenue before dealing with our municipal funding crisis is bad public policy.

As I said last year and I repeat today: We need to fix our municipal funding system. Resources meant for local units of government have not found their way into these budgets.  Vital services our citizens need and expect, like public safety, snow removal and road construction need to be better funded.  Municipal employees have already endured a decade of cuts to their salaries, lower employer contributions to their retirement, while often being asked to contribute more to their health care.

The current system prioritizes the State over local communities. Each year Michigan ignores state law requiring certain levels of revenue sharing and uses those funds to patch its own budget. That has to change.

As I promised last year, I toured Michigan connecting with other local elected leaders and conducted numerous meetings on this subject. Along the way, I was helped by well-respected research and policy institutions, many of whom had, already, been exploring solutions for improving local government finance.

Allow me to recognize and thank those invaluable partners: the Michigan Townships Association, Michigan State University Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy, the Michigan Municipal League, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Michigan Association of Counties and SEMCOG.

We traveled from Trenton to Grand Rapids to Marquette to Lansing to Traverse City to Flint and more. We had candid conversations with local elected leaders across the state.

What I heard over and over again is that we all agree, our funding system is not working for Michigan communities. We need more local control and more varied sources of local revenue. We need a system that isn’t overly reliant on property taxes and a larger share of state revenue needs to be returned to local communities.

With our tour concluded, my team is developing the solutions, we believe, would address the issue. We’re going to take these to Lansing and the public to help drive the conversation and, hopefully, make some progress.

First and foremost, the state must provide our communities with the required statutory revenue sharing.

Next, there needs to be a mechanism to protect local government revenue when property values fluctuate.  Proposal A protects property owners against rapid tax increases when property values rise, which is good, but it limits local governments’ ability to recover as the economy improves.

Third, we need to strengthen protections against unfunded mandates. If the state is going to pass legislation requiring increased local services – the state should provide the funding for it.

Fourth, local governments with more than 15,000 residents should have the ability to ask voters for special assessments to fund police and fire services. Under the current system, Michigan’s smaller townships and cities have been able to ask their residents to approve a special assessment to maintain these critical services, larger local governments have been denied this option.

Fifth, the state should use its borrowing power to establish a loan fund to make it easier and less expensive for local governments to manage their pension and retirement costs. The state’s drastic reduction in revenue sharing pushed many local governments to financial instability. It should play a key role in putting them on a solvent path over the long term.

Wayne County has a unique perspective on this.

After doing all of the “right” things on the cost side, and even with a budget surplus, the County still lacks the resources necessary to adequately address all our needs.

We ask sheriff deputies to guard our jails for low wages. We have difficulty recruiting and retaining CDL-licensed snow plow drivers when I can’t offer a  competitive starting wage.

We’ve worked extremely hard to right our fiscal ship but we are playing against a stacked deck. For things to truly be sustainable, municipal financing in this State needs to dramatically change.

The good news is, if we continue to make progress under our Recovery Plan, and get some sensible municipal finance reform, the sky’s the limit for Wayne County.

Wayne County is changing its culture and the way it does business. We are building a more operationally and fiscally responsible government.These efforts go hand in hand.

As I announced last year, the County began a dramatic overhaul of its procurement system that infuses state-of-the-art technology and best practices from the private sector that will help the County save millions of taxpayer dollars. The system will be fully implemented by June.

As called for in our Recovery Plan, we have begun to manage County facilities more efficiently.

One has to look no further than the Guardian Building to see that this isn’t the same old Wayne County. We’ve increased occupancy from 73% to 92%. For the first time since the County bought this building, its operations are in in the black.

We are, also, selling unneeded real estate.

We are in the process of finalizing the sale of 640 Temple for $11 million after relocating County departments to other owned or leased County space.

The County is also working to finalize the sale of the Downriver Sewage Disposal System to the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority (DUWA). In June of 2016, we announced a $57.5 million sale of the system to DUWA and we are making steady progress to close this complicated transaction.

Setting the sewage system rates has been a point of contention between local communities and the County, but soon that should be a thing of the past. The communities will own and control their own system. It’s an example of one of the themes of my Administration: collaboration and cooperation work much better than confrontation.

Our goal of increased efficiency and working smarter is taking hold across all departments.

There’s probably no area of government people notice as much as the County’s Department of Public Services.

From a pothole to a perfectly paved road, from Lightfest to a quiet Saturday morning jog in Hines Park, DPS touches the lives of Wayne County residents and visitors in many ways.

Over the past year, we continued to work in partnership with our cities and townships to fix roads and bridges, completing 16 capital improvement projects in 15 different communities.

This year the Roads Division has 12 capital improvement projects ready to go. Some of the key projects are improvements to Pelham Road in Taylor and Allen Park, as well as Outer Drive in Detroit.

Then there’s the Jefferson Avenue Draw Bridge. I promised the people and businesses of River Rouge and Ecorse that the project would be a priority as it serves as a critical thoroughfare to businesses and communities Downriver.

Last August, we reopened that DAMN bridge after it’d been closed for three years. It turned into a full-on community celebration. I couldn’t have been prouder when the first vehicle to cross the bridge was a Wayne County roads truck.

Wayne County is also proud of its parks.  I thank the voters for renewing the parks millage this year, which passed with overwhelming support.

The people of Wayne County understand the importance of parks and their role in the community. Unfortunately the RTA millage did not fare as well. The effort fell short in convincing the entire region how it would benefit from a robust connected transit system.

This defeat doesn’t change my thinking on this.

Regional transit is a quality of life issue. It connects people to jobs, education, and health care. It opens doors for people at all stages of life.

It’s also an economic driver that creates jobs and attracts investment dollars. I think we’re already seeing this with the interest and excitement around the QLine.

While the defeat was difficult and narrow, I’m not deterred. We need to revisit the plan and look for reasons it failed and have a candid conversation about where to go from here.

A connected regional transit system goes hand in hand with building vibrant, healthy communities.  We can’t give up on it.

Speaking of connecting people … our department of Health, Veterans and Community Wellness continues to move forward with our “No Wrong Door” service delivery model.

We’re working to make it easier for residents to find the County service they need rather than getting bounced around a bureaucratic maze.

People are now more likely to get the treatment they need, prevent further illness and use the resources available in our health department.

We are proud of the progress: 78% of families served at the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinics were referred to one of our Federally Qualified Health Centers; 2,500 more families than last year received WIC benefits, and

We’ve seen a 17% increase over last year in the number of immunizations administered through our wellness clinic to children under the age of four.

The benefits of this integration are tremendous and we will continue working toward a healthier community.

Last fall we opened a dental suite inside the Wayne Health Center on Van Born Road. Stemming from the federal grant that funds the Federally Qualified Health Center, this dental suite provides access to life-changing care that can dramatically impact wellness across the community.

Through a partnership with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, patients are able to get basic oral care that prevents serious and more expensive health issues later. The response has been remarkable. So far, we’re treating over 200 people per month at this dental suite.

Let’s talk now about the recent economic development successes in Wayne County – a key component of any thriving community.

Look no further than Ford Motor Company for proof of that.

Recently Ford announced major investments that are game-changers.  Ford will help maintain Wayne County as a hub of automotive innovation. Their plans to transform its Dearborn facilities into a modern, green and high-tech campus will be at the center of their transformation to a mobility company not just an auto company.

Ford is also making a $700 million investment to expand its Flat Rock Assembly plant to build high-tech autonomous and electric vehicles, along with the iconic Mustang and the Lincoln Continental.  This will create 700 new jobs.

As the automotive industry innovates its way into a new era, the big blue oval will be quite prominent. This will keep Dearborn and Wayne County right at the center of it all, as Ford and others, once again, redefine the way the world moves.

Recognizing Ford brings me to the ethos of my economic development strategy. And that ethos is simple: Let’s put communities first and focus on the existing businesses that are here. Let’s support those businesses that have kept the lights on the last 20 or 30 years and let’s help them grow.  As many businesses know, most of your growth usually comes from your existing customers.  Let the word go out far and wide to all Wayne County business, Wayne County is here to help you prosper.

My team is focusing on our own backyard first. Before we’re going to spend resources chasing shiny objects across the world, we’re going to focus on helping our local businesses and communities create jobs and investment. It’s a back-to-the-basics approach to economic development.

So what does that philosophy look like? First, let’s be collaborators not competitors.  My team is reaching out to more than 300 businesses in Wayne County. I’ve asked them to engage all 43 townships and cities and ask a very simple question: “How can we help?”

In doing so, we focus on the core functions of government: Infrastructure, public safety and services. The LED lighting project we supported in the historic Avenue of Fashion business district shows how my administration focuses on projects that directly impact residents, businesses and investors. With this type of approach, we not only help businesses, but often make necessary improvements that benefit the community. After all, what business owner is going to choose to drive down a road riddled with potholes under burned-out street lights in neighborhoods people are moving out of? The answer is they don’t, and communities miss out on jobs and investment because of it. That’s why we’re so committed to the basics.

Whether it’s adding a traffic light or turn lane, navigating the permitting process,   working with local partners to win a federal grant or increase a tax abatement, there is a lot Wayne County government can do to help expand our existing businesses.

This cooperative approach is already paying dividends.

In Trenton, we agreed to forgo property taxes over ten years to complement the city’s much larger abatement. In doing so, we helped strengthen a deal to assist concrete producer and manufacturer Kerkstra Precast expand its facility. As a result, the company is investing more than $16 million and creating new jobs.

By teaming up with Trenton and our friends at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Kerkstra selected Trenton over a site in Ohio.

I’d like to thank Mayor Kyle Stack and her team for their partnership.

Last year, DTE Energy informed us that their coal plant in River Rouge will be shutting down, taking jobs and delivering a devastating blow to the tax base.

We immediately looked for a proactive course of action. Teaming up with our local and state partners and our congressional delegation, we pulled together a grant application and submitted it to the Environmental Protection Agency. The result was a $200,000 grant which will allow us to plan the redevelopment of the site as well as several others in the city.

I’d like to thank River Rouge Mayor Mike Bowdler and his team for their collaboration and leadership on this project.

I’d also like to acknowledge DTE, again for being a proactive partner helping every step of the way in planning for the closing of this plant.

We’ve also had a big win in Plymouth. By offering to make a few infrastructure improvements to Sheldon Road, we were able to help attract Fuyao (Foo-YAO) –China’s largest automotive glass manufacturer which will bring with it a $66million investment and more than 500 jobs. This deal was further made possible by the City of Plymouth offering to coordinate and fund a traffic study that will be required as part of the site plan review. I’d like to thank Mayor Dan Dwyer and his team in Plymouth.

We didn’t stop there; we continued our streak of collaboration in Livonia and managed to attract Amazon for its new distribution center. Amazon is investing $90 million and will create more than 1,000 jobs. Our team will provide key infrastructure improvements to ensure commuters and employees can travel the roads safely and effectively near the facility. Again, it’s a double dividend. Better roads for the community and the infrastructure Amazon needs to adequately compete.

In addition to our friends at the MEDC, I’d like to thank Mayor Dennis Wright and his team in Livonia.

As you can see, economic development is truly a team sport, and we’re proud to participate in making sure all our communities win in the end.

We’ve come a long way over the past year. While putting the County on a fiscally sustainable path, we’ve simultaneously rebuilt a new economic development program that is already producing results.

I’d like to thank our director of economic development Khalil Rahal again for his work. No one works harder. He’s emerging as a star in economic development circles. Please stand Khalil.

I’m proud of the progress we made in Wayne County. I’m proud of my team, my fellow elected County officials and the communities that are working with us to make Wayne County better.  And I hope you’re proud too.

Before I close, let’s talk honestly about the Warren Valley Golf Course. Whether the County sells it is an important issue to many County residents, but how we discuss it as a community is important to all.

Almost two years ago, we identified selling Warren Valley as part of our Recovery Plan. It’s another difficult decision that will help us right our fiscal ship over the long term. We have an offer to buy the golf course property.  We think it is the right decision to sell it.

The County privatized operations of the golf course years ago to try and keep it open. We’ve limped along ever since. The company running the golf course is losing money. And they took over from a prior company that was losing money. The County owes about $7.2 million in bond debt on Warren Valley. The financial operating results of the course over the past few years, the need for future capital improvements, and the declining popularity of golf, makes selling the golf course property the prudent fiscal decision. It will provide the County the $1.8 million sale price and millions of dollars in property taxes from the planned development.  It just seems inevitable the course will have to close in the near future.

This 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 tough decision and one we don’t take lightly.

The County Commission is doing its due diligence now and reviewing the proposal. There will be more discussion to come.  I’m willing to consider alternatives to the sale that recognize the County’s financial challenges in continuing to own and operate Warren Valley.  Maybe the County works out an arrangement with Dearborn Heights to take over operation of the course or, at least, partner with Wayne County. Maybe we establish a Wayne County Park Foundation, similar to what other communities have done, to  enhance our park system.

But the final decision of what happens to Warren Valley is separate from an even more important issue, which is, how we as a community discuss difficult issues.

Consequently, I can’t ignore what occurred at a town hall meeting in Dearborn Heights last week to discuss the sale of Warren Valley.  Some of what occurred at that meeting was unfortunate, but it provides our County a teachable moment.

Throughout the meeting, many residents expressed their passion for the golf course and how its presence enhanced their community.  Many raised valid concerns about the sale and my staff did their best to answer them. I applaud those residents who expressed their views in a dignified manner.

Unfortunately, some of the comments and behavior of those attending were disruptive and inappropriate.  And a few comments were offensive and outright racist.   One audience member yelled at a speaker of Arab descent, “Go back to your own Country!”  Some members of the crowd were more concerned about who might move into the new homes in their neighborhood or who might sit next to their child at school, than about retaining a golf course in their community.  And those who host such a meeting have a duty to address such disruptive and inappropriate behavior and, more importantly, call out the racist comments for what they are. There is just no place for these types of comments. We ignore them at our own peril.

Unfortunately, our present political climate seems to encourage rather than discourage such discourse. Whether it’s a town hall or a tweet, we shouldn’t let our discourse pit neighbor versus neighbor. We all, especially our elected officials, have an obligation to speak up when it occurs.

Recently I met with members of the Muslim and Hispanic communities to discuss their concerns. I also proudly attended the demonstrations at Detroit Metro Airport and joined the American Arab Civil Rights League in opposition to the President’s reckless recent executive orders. And I congratulate the County Commission on passing a resolution expressing their opposition as well.

I think these challenging times present an opportunity. And everyone who shares my views, should ask themselves a question.

Why do we oppose divisiveness and intolerance?  Well, one of the best answers to that question is WAYNE COUNTY.

Look at the person next to you. Look at the people packing this auditorium tonight. Feel the energy in the streets of Southwest Detroit, Dearborn, Livonia, Hamtramck and beyond. We have a great community. We have a fantastic story of diversity to share. It’s what makes Wayne County a place we want to live, work and raise our families.

If anyone needs a lesson in how diversity makes us stronger, look no further than Wayne County. So let’s tell our story.  The story of how immigrants innovate, create jobs and bring differing perspectives, experiences and culture to our community. How immigrants and their families fuel our world-changing work ethic and embody the American Dream …All of which makes our lives richer.

And have we just forgot the principle of our country embodied in the Statue of Liberty?  “GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE”.  Are we really going to abandon the humanity this Country has demonstrated throughout history?  Are we really no longer going to be that beacon to the world?

We must be smart and sensible and take reasonable measures to protect ourselves in this dangerous world. But we should not abandon our humanity and our kindness in the process.  If we do, we will not have much left worth protecting.

The strength of our diverse community can serve as a guiding light for thoughtful immigration policies. We can show the value of diversity.

These divisive times are going to test us. But I believe we are up to the challenge. I believe in the power of a good story.  And Wayne County has a hell of a lot of good stories to tell about diversity and immigrants.  One college graduate, one small business owner, one faith-based leader at a time. One smiling little boy who can laugh in two languages or a little girl, who had no choice from where she came, but now dreams excitedly of her future. Immigration policy should not forget these people.

Let’s share our stories. Let’s do it together.  Let’s celebrate the pride we have in our community.

Thank you for coming. Good night.

 

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Warren C. Evans
Wayne County Executive
(313) 224-0286