Wayne County Sheriff Napoleon makes his case

Published On: Sep 06 2013 06:48:57 PM EDT

The Sheriff, who is running for Detroit mayor, has faced serious budget problems in his department. Rod Meloni sat down with him to hear more of his side of the story.

DETROIT -

On Local 4, and particularly here on this blog for the past six months, we have hit hard the budgetary disaster that is Wayne County government and its largest financial problem; the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.

Usually when we do these stories Sheriff Benny Napoleon is either too busy or otherwise indisposed and we usually get a written statement from one of his media relations people taking on the subject du jour. We felt that was inadequate and asked during about a month’s time to actually sit down with the Sheriff himself and discuss the issues of sheriff’s vehicles whose gasoline cards have been cut off because of lack of payment, having to use the Maintenance yard near Detroit Metro Airport to fuel those vehicles, the fact that the Sheriff has 32 appointees, many making six-figure incomes with six-figure benefits packages to go with them along with their take-home cars and gasoline cards.

We have questioned the fact that there are 90 gasoline cards and 166 Sheriff’s Department vehicles. [It owns a 1931 Model A for promotional appearances, a dozen Harley motorcycles for motorcades, and dozens of vehicles confiscated by the now closed down drug unit].

Napoleon says worrying about these issues is small beer.

"You’re swatting at flies when there's a lion in the room. The lion in the room is 1,000 people a day [inmates] I’m responsible for that I have absolutely no control of getting rid of," Napoleon said.

So let’s talk about the lion. Napoleon is responsible for three jails. Since the 1970s Wayne County has been under a consent agreement with the state of Michigan that put a judge in charge of the jail. That judge tells the Sheriff he must be capable of properly housing 1,800 inmates every day [The actual number is 1,778 but we’re rounding here].

The problem comes when Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano and the Wayne County Commission put pencil to paper at budget time and see that number and budget accordingly. The jail Friday was actually housing 2,210 inmates and another 600 are out of the jail but on house arrest with electronic tethers on their ankles. Those prisoners are monitored and have a cost attached to them too. So in the end Napoleon says a $30 million deficit is baked into his cake every year by a jail population that he must, by law, house. This is why he ends up looking so bad with his spending. He says he’s in the process of making significant cuts to his 2014 budget to address the kinds of spending we have hit him for. He says unless the Wayne County Commission and the executive start giving him the money he needs to manage 2,800 inmates, this problem will persist, as it has under pretty much every Wayne County Sheriff for the past 40 years and that includes when Bob Ficano was Sheriff.

What’s more, Napoleon told Local 4 "that I believe that they know it, it’s like stuffin' money under the mattress but acting like it ain't there. But at the end of the year, you’re short, 'Oh I’ve got some extra money; I put it under the mattress.' They know they’re gonna have to pay for this."

They do and they pay. But here is the real problem with this: For all of the beatings Napoleon has taken this summer from us, the fact of the matter is he is just a member of a team that simply doesn’t get it.

We are not saying Napoleon doesn’t get it personally. The jail is the biggest boat anchor in the county’s budget and it is not being properly managed. In fact, the entirety of the Wayne County financial situation is being mismanaged. There are staggering numbers such as the County’s pension is 50 percent underfunded, the "fringe factor" the amount of benefits each of the 3,500 employees above their regular pay is 93 percent.

So, in essence, employees are making in benefits what they are making in salary. These are the numbers the state of Michigan’s Treasurer’s office is watching. The county is teetering on the edge of financial management. For all of the finger pointing we see here, for all of the desire to let someone else's line item make up for the deficit spending on mine, the whole entity is in serious danger.

The team is in the process of trying to budget for next year and I have been told it doesn’t balance and likely will not. Bob Ficano flew a trial balloon of a $70 million tax increase to deal with the problem. But with $120 million in the ground with a failed jail construction project and a pending FBI probe coupled with the current economic environment, good luck with that tax hike at the polls.

There is serious trouble brewing on the horizon and there is no one person at fault but someone, anyone in the Guardian Building needs to DO something and soon.

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