When Candice Miller first arrived on the job in 2017 as the new Macomb County public works commissioner, she found more problems – corruption, cronyism, incompetence – than she ever encountered in Washington as a congresswoman.
Some 2½ years later, she is still trying to clean up the mess created by her predecessor.
As the overseer of Macomb’s sewers and drains – a position previously viewed as a low-key job -- Miller was immediately tossed into the muck, dealing with a massive sinkhole in Fraser, failing sewer pipes and neglected drains that flow into Lake St. Clair. Longtime public works commissioner Tony Marrocco, shortly after losing re-election to Miller in November 2016, fled to his second home in Florida and left the stench of his administration behind.
It’s still unclear whether Marrocco will face charges in the FBI criminal investigation which led to a widespread probe in 2017-1, racking up nearly two dozen corruption convictions of elected officials and contractors in Macomb County. What is abundantly clear is that Marrocco’s tough-talking “bag man,” Dino Bucci, still faces 18 felony counts of bribery, extortion and embezzlement while speculation abounds that his recent agreement to cooperate with federal investigators could be very bad news for his former boss, Marrocco.
In his 24 years as public works chief, Marrocco gained a reputation as the “godfather” of Macomb County politics. Friends and family were hired despite a lack of experience. Bucci, for example, was a former tuxedo salesman who was named the operations manager of the engineering unit. At one point during the probe, nearly a dozen public works employees were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury about the ethical lapses of the previous administration.
While the disastrous 15 Mile Road sinkhole was fixed (on time and under budget) and the county’s drain system is finally receiving extensive attention, Miller is still playing Mrs. Fix-It. Clearly, the Marrocco legacy goes beyond pay-to-play allegations that he demanded substantial campaign contributions from construction firms seeking public works contracts.
On a more basic level, Marrocco, a Ray Township Democrat, failed at department finances and cleanup of drains.
Last month, Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, refinanced the bonds that paid for four prior sewer projects dating as far back as 2006, for a savings to county residents of $4.4 million. The lower interest rates secured by Miller through refinancing efforts since 2017 will net a combined savings of $11.1 million.
One of the first surprises for the former congresswoman surfaced when a detailed audit revealed that Marrocco had spent $8.3 million on legal fees from 2013-16 with little to show for it, except lining the pockets of attorneys, including a New York City law firm that charged $1,115 an hour. Miller cut the cord by settling several languishing lawsuits at minimal cost. She also sold unused public works-owned property, including a large Hall Road parcel.
Uninspected for a half-century
In keeping with the secretive ways of the public works office under Marrocco, it was exposed that the agency had been handing out lucrative contracts without bids, simply by way of “handshake deals.” That system was overhauled by Miller’s engineers and administrators who created a transparent bidding process with oversight of contractors’ costs and timetables.
As for work done in-house, Miller’s team ascertained that some underground county drains had not been inspected in as many as 50 years.
One work crew had been routinely lounging in a department storage facility, where furniture, a sofa, TV and space heater had been set up for their comfort while on the clock.
After the cronies and slackers were removed from the payroll, an inspection team last year came across a 19-ton “fatberg” in the county’s sewer system, located in an 11-foot diameter pipe — a clog of fats, grease and oils disposed of by households and restaurants.
This particular fatberg, located in Clinton Township, was 100 feet long, 11 feet wide and as much as six feet tall.
Miller’s staff has also uncovered two illegal pipe connections that dumped raw sewage into storm drains, where the contamination flowed into Lake St. Clair. Above ground, long-neglected drains, essentially weed-infested streams, were unclogged and refurbished to prevent flooding or pollution.
The biggest project calls for upgrading 2½ miles of the Sterling Relief Drain in Sterling Heights into a butterfly sanctuary and nature area by planting thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers.
Next comes the hardest part: Big, expensive infrastructure projects that will replace outdated pipes and equipment and could largely put an end to the pollution that fouls Lake St. Clair and routinely closes the county’s beaches.
After four decades in politics, Miller certainly has learned the ins and outs but she never experienced such a steep learning curve as she did in her current job. Dirty politics is not easy to clean up. And much like the underground sewers and drains, what lingers down below, out of sight, is where the stink lies.