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Fight brewing over Detroit's troubled Human Services Department

A fight is brewing between the Detroit City Council, Mayor Dave Bing, and the state.

State officials say the Detroit Department of Human Services is so corrupt and incompetent it should no longer handle federal funds.

They want the Detroit City Council to agree to that. But the Council wants to hear more specifics—and a request from Mayor Dave Bing—before they act.

State department of Human Services director Maura Corrigan told the Council last week that the city’s human services department needs to be “de-designated.”

Corrigan asked Council to agree to let the state designate a non-profit to handle those funds in the interim, while the city finds a suitable Detroit-based group to handle them in the longer term.

The state warns that if  Bing and Council don’t agree to that, they’ll suspend or even withhold federal funds intended to help poor people.

Bing wrote a letter supporting the state’s position. But Council members say he needs to make a direct request to Council.

Council member Kwame Kenyatta says he won’t introduce a resolution authorizing the move without one, because the mayor’s office—not Council—has control over city departments.

“If there’s a desire by the administration for us to concur, then we should be asked to do so,” Kenyatta said.

Some Council members were also wary of what they see as a political decision by the mayor to distance himself from a potentially-controversial move.

Council member Saunteel Jenkins adds that the Mayor and the state need to talk about what exactly went wrong—and why the city didn’t fix it.

“Instead of doing that, you say ‘Here state, take these millions of dollars that flow through the city without even trying to make the corrections that are necessary’… and then you want to do all that in the dark and have us sit here and take the heat?” Jenkins said. “It’s infuriating.”

The Council also wants to hold more hearings on the issue.

But a Michigan DHS spokesman says the department has already made its case, adding that the result of ongoing criminal investigations into misspent money at the Detroit DHS will be disclosed soon.

Council members also called for Bing to fire the heads of other departments where federal funds have been mismanaged. That includes the city's Planning and Development Department, which has accumulated a backlog of nearly $70 million in Community Development Block Grants.

The department head is calling on employees to work harder and "pick up extra work" in order avoid having some of the money go back to the federal government.

But that wasn't enough for Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. "Heads need to roll," Watson said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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