The Detroit News launched a hit piece on Michael G. Ford, the CEO of the Regional Transportation Authority of Southeastern Michigan this morning. Reporters Robert Snell and Christine MacDonald breathlessly review Mr. Ford’s expense accounting and employment contract details over the 33 months since he was appointed CEO of the RTA.
The closest they get to finding any real improprieties is Mr. Ford’s car allowance and mileage reimbursement, but that does not stop them from reporting salacious details of hotel room charges and his very generous employment contract. No illegality or budget overruns are found, but the tone of the article is supremely negative. Mr. Ford’s contract happens to be up for renewal and the RTA Board tabled a $ 16,300 raise for him two weeks ago.
A special meeting of the RTA Board of Directors was held this morning, including a closed session. Public bodies operating under the Open Meetings Act are only allowed to close meetings when deliberating personnel matters and contracts. It is not much of a leap to speculate that Mr. Ford is today’s main course at the RTA Board meeting.
The Detroit News duo filed an FOIA request for Mr. Ford’s contract details and expense reimbursements shortly after Paul Hillegonds, Governor Rick Snyder’s appointee to the RTA Board, began reviewing Mr. Ford’s expenses. Coincidence? Hardly.
What is going on here?
Mr. Ford is being fitted up for dismissal after the RTA millage went down to defeat on November 8th. Southeastern Michigan’s movers and shakers had a lot invested in that millage’s passage and the unsatisfactory outcome clearly rankles them. The Detroit Regional Chamber applied the hard sell at their 2016 Mackinac Conference and then put upwards of $ 6 million into an ‘information campaign’ before the vote. Both the Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press endorsed the RTA millage. A fit of pique, perhaps?
A successful $ 3.3 billion RTA millage was the sine qua non to divert another $ 1.3 billion from road taxes. A tidal wave of contracts would have been unleashed whose vig would support a lot of year end bonuses for those movers and shakers. It didn’t matter that you could buy every RTA rider a new car and pay all the related expenses for this kind of money.
Now, the movers and shakers have to wait until 2018, if ever, to get the $ 4.6 billion gravy train rolling.
Mr Ford was hired as CEO of RTA precisely because he had brought in fresh millage dollars at the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. He persuaded 70 percent of their voters (in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township) to approve a new 0.7 mill property tax to fund the AATA in May 2014. But his golden touch failed on November 8th. Probably the zeitgeist on November 8th, but the Southeastern Michigan movers and shakers are taking no chances. They have a lot on the line here.
The RTA millage defeat strands the three mile M-1, ‘QLine’ rail system to nowhere on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. This is quite ironic, since federal funds for the QLine were predicated on the creation of the RTA. Movers and shakers expected to turn this $ 187 million white elephant over to RTA in 2022, but this can’t happen if RTA doesn’t have millage funding. RTA’s finances are so precarious they had to cancel the RTA Board of Directors Retreat next Wednesday. Administrative state perks like this only get canceled when a financial abyss beckons. Could RTA be headed for bankruptcy? At best we are looking at another Detroit People Mover here.
The M-1 rail line is expected to cost $ 5 million or more to operate annually, but like most such government estimates this one is certainly low balled. Messers. Ilitch, Penske, and Gilbert clearly want to get out from under M-1 before it collapses financially, but their Plan B is a Tax Increment Financing district in Detroit. Their Plan C is turning the white elephant over to DDoT directly. Plan C is not without some humor. Detroit abandoned the street railway business back in 1956 as uneconomical, when Detroit was a real city. Plans B & C are more than a little bit shaky, given that the City of Detroit has a $ 491 million pension black hole to fill in 2024. Tax dollars are going to be in very short supply in Detroit throughout the next decade.
So Michael Ford has to go. His contract is a total non issue. The RTA Board approved it in May 2014; they signed off on it. The attack on his expenses is ridiculous. His expense spending at RTA is little different from his past expense spending at AATA. Five day conferences requiring $ 500 a night hotel rooms are a staple of the administrative state. A $ 10,000 car allowance for the CEO of a mass transit operation? The administrative state worships at the feet of Franz Kafka. Why government delivers much less than we pay for and far more than we need.
Mr. Ford clearly ignored subtle hints to resign, so he is getting the modern version of the ‘bums rush’.
Will replacing Mr. Ford guarantee a successful RTA millage in 2018? Probably not. Paul Hillegonds is the most likely successor. He was a Republican West Michigan state legislator before he went over to the Dark Side in Southeastern Michigan, after his speakership. But even a competent political mechanic is going to have a challenge selling RTA in 2018. There will be no Presidential race in 2018 to boost low information voter turnout, and RTA is now selling damaged political goods. Mass transit ridership is collapsing. And Leon Drolet is not going away.
Just maybe, road taxes will be used to fund the roads. Stranger things have happened in Michigan.