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State to Wayne County: Scrap half-finished jail project

Wayne County

 Governor Snyder has suddenly jumped into the middle of Wayne County’s jail mess.

The county has a half-built jail sitting on the outskirts of downtown Detroit. It halted construction on the project in June because it was massively over-budget.

But now Snyder isurging the county to scrap the jail, sell the land, and lease space from the half-empty former Mound Road state prison in northeast Detroit. He’s offering it for just $1 a year.

The state wants to develop an “integrated criminal justice center” on that other Detroit site. But it’s still unclear who would pick up tab to build out that center—the state isn’t offering any money, and it’s far from clear Wayne County could afford it.

County officials admit they don’t know what the total cost of this switch would be. But Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano thinks the state’s proposal makes sense.

“I think what you’re seeing is we’re trying to set up a win-win for everybody,” Ficano said. “The value of that [current jail site] has dramatically gone up in terms of where it was just three years ago. And the best part, it can go on the tax rolls.”

Governor Snyder made no bones about why he wants the current project moved. “This proposal recognizes the resurgence of downtown Detroit and the significant economic benefits that would come from having the jail’s prime downtown location available for private sector development,” he said in a statement.

Wayne County officials say they’ll spend the next 60 days evaluating offers for the downtown site, plus several other county-owned properties clustered in that area.

The County has already sunk about $120 million into the project. Officials had originally estimated constructing the new jail would cost $220 million; now, they estimate that if the county proceeded, it would cost $391 million.

Ficano says with that with the downtown land sales and eventual tax revenues, it’s possible the state’s deal could “even out” for taxpayers.

County Commissioner Laura Cox calls that “a lie.”

“For anybody to think that is foolish,” Cox said. “We’re going to walk away from probably $140-160 million. And there’s going to be more additional costs on top of that.”

The new jail  s closely tied to two former Ficano aides, Turkia Mullin and Azzam Elder, who spearheaded the project. Both are now subjects of an FBI investigation, as is the project itself.

Governor Snyder says he wants to put the state’s proposal “on an exceptionally fast track,” but it’s unclear how quickly a deal could get done. It depends on how quickly the county can sell the downtown land, and the County Commission would likely have to approve that sale.

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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