15 April 2013

Napoleon: Wayne Co. jail project a 'mess

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Detroit — Hyped as a state-of-the-art money saver, a new Wayne County jail instead is an over-budget "mess" whose plans are changing daily more than a year into construction, Sheriff Benny Napoleon says.

The $300 million facility was slated to open in September 2014, but no money has been budgeted for furniture, technology or fixtures, Napoleon said.

It'll be so small — about 2,000 beds — that county officials likely will have to keep open a Hamtramck jail that was expected to close, reducing an anticipated $20 million in savings.

"It's very, very bad," said Napoleon, whose three county jails average 2,200 daily inmates. "If it's not going to be large enough to hold the prisoners we now have, what was the point of it? … It's not going to be the jail we intended to build."

Aides to Executive Robert Ficano acknowledged the project is at least two months behind schedule and faces budget problems, but they blame some of the issues on Napoleon, who is running for Detroit mayor.

Plans once included five private bathrooms for his top aides, a 300-square-foot terrace patio and 51 computer tablets that cost $2,400 apiece for guards, said June Lee, Ficano's chief of staff.

Those plans were dumped — and Napoleon is sore, Lee said.

"When they are adding change orders and defending portions of the project that include private executive bathrooms, it doesn't help," he said. "(Ficano) has taken the lead in making this project work. (Napoleon) is standing by and letting the CEO do all the hard work."

The plans went awry when commissioners privately told Ficano last fall they wouldn't borrow another $65 million to increase the jail to 2,300 beds and fund other improvements. Since then, a committee has met to revise the scope of the jail in downtown Detroit — changing materials and debating whether to build a full-service kitchen and laundry.

The jail is the biggest building project of Ficano's tenure — and it's been dogged with controversy, accusations of favoritism and questions about oversight. The FBI is investigating the project as part of its probe into county corruption.

The plan's two prime movers, former Ficano aides Azzam Elder and Turkia Mullin, are under investigation by the FBI and are no longer with the county. The project manager, former Mullin aide Anthony Parlovecchio, was fired in December 2011 over concerns about a contract that would pay him nearly $2 million. He's now suing the county.

"This isn't about a patio or computer tablets. This is about them screwing up," Napoleon said. "They knew they screwed up and now they are trying to cover their tracks. They know it was Azzam and Turkia who screwed up but they're afraid to say it because of lawsuits."

Some commissioners complain they were misled about the true cost of the project.

"It's not a good way to do business," said vice chairwoman Alisha Bell, D-Detroit. "Why would you not have a total amount of the project before you came to us? The sell to us was this was going to close three jails and open one facility that is updated and state-of-the-art. If those savings aren't realized now, the question is: How are we going to pay down the debt?"

The commission is relying on the "rumor mill" for information, Bell said. It gave up its oversight to the Wayne County Building Authority with a 2010 resolution.

Sheriff's officials also have little say, said Jeriel Heard, chief of jails. Napoleon aides are on a committee overseeing changes to construction but are "bystanders to the discussions," he said.

"The CEO is going to build a building and hand the keys to the sheriff," Heard said. "And the sheriff will have to live with the construction and quality of the facility."

Lee argued that it's "an effort to cover someone's backside." He said Napoleon has chosen not to attend weekly meetings about the project, sending a representative while Ficano attends.

Goals at risk

When officials broke ground in September 2011, the county issued a press release touting the jail across the street from the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on St. Antoine as a high-tech money saver.

It would close three county jails, build 2,192 beds, makevideo conferencing available to inmates for visitation, and save money on transportation costs. The project was supposed to save $20 million per year, enough to pay the debt and have about $3 million left over.

Now, many of those goals are in jeopardy.

The Hamtramck facility probably will remain open to house federal and county inmates. The jail is now 2,000 beds but could be even less. Video visitations may be scrapped, but the jail will have technology for video arraignments. Planned staff reductions of 127 guards may be revised, as well as savings from reduced transportation costs.

Overall savings estimates are being recalculated, although officials still expect the facility will save money, Lee said.

"The project has challenges and we are working through them," Lee said.

Lee said the project will include money for furniture and other accessories, but it would come from a separate fund whose costs he couldn't cite Friday. Lee said Napoleon staffers wanted the best of everything.

"We're not trying to build the Taj Majal," Lee said.

Napoleon said he and his staffers spent years researching the best practices of jails nationwide to design the facility that is now being revised on the fly.

Riddled with controversy

The snag is the latest in a project that was beset with controversy from the start.

Commissioners have complained they were pressured to approve bonds for the project in late 2010 to take advantage of a federal program that offered low interest rates on bonds. They approved the jail despite warnings from their staff.

"It is still unclear how this project would benefit Wayne County from a financial perspective," a commission analyst wrote in a 2011 report.

Ficano's former deputy executive, Charlie J. Williams, made $420,000 in brokerage fees in 2011 from Greektown Casino for selling a parking lot to the county for $14 million for the jail.

Mullin, who was then the county's economic development director, signed off on the deal. Two weeks after it was completed, Williams was a member of a Wayne County Airport Authority team that nominated her to become CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. She was fired amid the FBI probe.

The general contractor, Walbridge, was selected over objections from contractors who complained the process favored the Detroit company. Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. served on the board of a nonprofit led by Mullin that paid her a $75,000 bonus atop her $200,000 salary with the county. The nonprofit and its business members are named in FBI subpoenas to the county.

After the county approved the deal, Detroit officials backed away from verbal commitments to house about 200 inmates at the facility for about $30 million.

"The lesson here is poor planning brings poor results," Napoleon said.

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