DETROIT (WXYZ) - Facing a $160 million dollar deficit, Wayne County officials are slashing their upcoming budget and everything is on the table. But while he demands sacrifice, is the county executive hiding his highly-paid staffers?
Bob Ficano claims he only has seven employees on his staff. It looks good on paper, but county insiders tell us the real number is three to four times that size. Now, amidst an Action News investigation, many are wondering if the county executive's office is playing a shell game with your tax dollars.
As staff size questioned, Ficano pulls funding for water park
As temperatures soared into the 90's last week under a scorching sun, the Chandler Park Aquatic Center was the salvation for thousands of Detroit families.
Ficano announced last week that he wanted to shut it down to trim the county's ballooning deficit. Chandler Park is the city’s only water park.
"We have nowhere to go," said one local mother who brought her children to the park. "They've taken everything else from us. That's how I feel," she said.
Ficano says the county just can't afford the million dollars a year it takes to run the water park.
But before he turns off the spigot, there's evidence that his own staff may be larger than he's claimed in public.
Sources: Ficano hides employees in budgets where they do little or no work
Insiders say Ficano has been hiding appointees who work primarily for him by paying their salaries out of other county departments. Action News tried to catch up with one of those employees, Kwame Finn, as he left for work one day in July. He declined to speak to Action News.
According to sources, Finn works for Ficano as a liaison to the County Commission. Our cameras saw him recently at several commission meetings, but his almost 80 thousand dollar salary is paid by the Wayne County Department of Environment.
When Action News called that department, staffers told us they'd never heard of Finn.
Finn has no office in the Department of Environment, because he doesn't work there. Instead, he works at the county-owned Guardian Building on the executive's 31st floor with other Ficano staff members.
Still, you won't find him in Ficano's budget.
"It would be tough to explain an increase in the number of employees you have in the county executive department," said former Wayne County Auditor General Brendan Dunleavy.
In his seven years as the county's top watchdog, Dunleavy uncovered waste and corruption throughout Wayne County, landing one official in prison. He sued and received a settlement after his contract wasn't renewed by the county commission in 2004.
Action News Investigator, Scott Lewis asked Dunleavy recently, “Is this a shell game with the employees?,” to which he replied “Yes.” Lewis went on to ask, “Is it a way to hide people?,” and again Dunleavy confirmed, “Yes, absolutely.”
Kwame Finn is just one example of Ficano’s hidden employees and salaries.
Press aides, Lynn Ingram, Dennis Niemiec and Tom Downey as well as executives, Roger Handy and Valerie Denha are all paid around $100,000 a year. Reliable sources tell Action News they all work for the county executive but their salaries, like Finn’s, are paid out of other departments.
Budget games can come at a cost to taxpayers
Why should you care? Remember, other county departments are being slashed and Detroiters are on the verge of losing their only water park. Dunleavy and others say when Ficano pays his appointees from other county budgets it siphons off money that could be used for critical services.
"If you have revenue that's designated to fill potholes and you start using it for other sources, then you can't fill as many potholes," he said.
Dunleavy isn't the only one troubled by this. Action News obtained a 2008 memo written by a top official at the county's department of environment, complaining that Ficano's then-press secretary and assistant were being paid out of his budget at a cost of more than $100,000.
"I did not sign the approval to pay (them), nor will I." wrote then Deputy Director Butler Benton.
Eventually, the two salaries were moved to other budgets.
County's auditor general concerned, but commissioner comfortable
Even Wayne County's current auditor general is speaking out.
Willie Mayo is worried that paying Ficano appointees out of certain budgets like the county's roads fund could actually be illegal. In a recent memo, Mayo says he believes the county is misusing "legally restricted funds" and asked for an outside legal opinion.
But just yesterday, the head of the commission’s audit committee dismissed her own auditor’s advice, saying there will be no request for outside counsel.
"I’m convinced the Ficano administration has done nothing wrong," said Wayne County Commissioner Ilona Varga.
Meanwhile, the Ficano administration insists its budgeting process is above board and honest. Ficano told us in today's tough environment, people need to multi-task and that's why employees are rotated in and out of different county budgets.
Ficano declined to speak to Action News on camera, instead issuing this statement that says, in part:
"It is disappointing that Channel 7 continues to suggest that Wayne County is using improper accounting practices despite the fact that a variety of third party validators, internal and external auditors and even our Commission have said the county is doing nothing wrong. Unfortunately, your story is based on information from former disgruntled employees for this latest attack on our administration."
We should note, the employees featured in this story have no control over what budget their salary is paid from. Some of them didn’t know before Action News informed them. All these decisions were made by the County Executive’s office.
If you have a tip for the Action News Investigators, contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.
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