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Wayne County woes

Jack Lessenberry

If you’ve studied biology, you may know about a phenomenon called protective coloration. Snowshoe hares, for example, are brown in the fall and white in the winter, so they can blend into their surroundings and not be easily seen by predators.

In my case, I am an ordinary-looking white man in late middle age. I have shortish hair and always wear a suit. Similarly-attired people assume that I think the way they do, and tell me things they’d never tell a woman, a minority, or someone who looked like a radical protestor.

Based on this, I can tell you that there are boatloads of white people who believe that Detroit was run into the ground by irresponsible and lazy black politicians with no self-discipline and no ability to manage anything.

They are all greatly relieved that a powerful white mayor is back in charge now, but given the demographics of the population, these folks are not too optimistic about the city’s long-term success. But there’s now a delicious irony at work. In what was perhaps yesterday’s least surprising news development, a state review team found that Wayne County is in a financial emergency, which could be the first step towards another state takeover.

What’s ironic about this is that Wayne County was run into the ground by politicians who happen to be white. Though Michigan’s largest county is 40 percent black, it is white politicians who have run the show. It was they who blew more than a hundred million dollars on a jail that sits unfinished because the county paid no attention to cost overruns.

Wayne County piled up unacceptable levels of long-term debt and failed to fund its health care obligations under white county executives, the last of whom seems to have had no idea how to set up or balance a budget. There was, by the way, far less excuse for Wayne to end up in this predicament than there was for Detroit. Wayne has some very affluent areas.

Yet the politicians managed to squander their assets. And now the county and the state are looking to Warren Evans, a recently elected new black county executive, to have the sense and the maturity to figure a way out of this.

The ball is now in the governor’s court, and he could conceivably move towards a state takeover and appoint yet another emergency manager. If this were a year ago and Bob Ficano was still executive, that probably would happen.

But there is far more confidence in the leadership abilities of Evans, an attorney and former police chief and sheriff with a long background in law enforcement and considerable administrative skills. Odds are that the county will enter into a “consent agreement’ with the state, which will give Evans more power to get the county’s finances and budget under control.

If that works, it would be highly preferable in all sorts of ways to yet another state takeover and emergency manager. Yesterday, Warren Evans said, “We have a plan that allows us to solve our own problems and we have a responsibility ... to get it done.”

We should all hope he can do just that. Because if you think that Michigan’s largest county will be the last to face severe financial difficulty, think again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays 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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