It’s been nine years since LaJuan Counts testified in federal court against former City contractor Bobby Ferguson, who would eventually be convicted in the corruption trial of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
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“The only reason you still have this job is because you’re Black,” Ferguson yelled at Counts during a meeting with her boss, according to media reports of Counts’ testimony in 2012. At the time, Counts oversaw construction projects for the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Ferguson’s firm had won a $7 million contract to remodel the Heilmann Community Center — his company’s bid wasn’t even among the three lowest offers received by the City. His crew was doing substandard work, including building locker rooms that didn’t have heating or air-conditioning.
After raising questions about the quality of work by Ferguson’s company, along with its billing practices, the contractor tried to bully Counts and threatened to have her fired, according to media reports of the trial.
Ferguson is serving 21 years in prison for racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud and tax charges.
Counts, now in her 24th year as a City employee, has a trailblazing new job. Since January 2020, she’s been director of Detroit’s Demolition Department. That’s the new agency overseeing the razing or securing of 18,000 blighted homes and properties by 2025. There is believed to be no other American city with a public department dedicated to razing and securing tens of thousands of blighted homes and properties.
Since 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan has made it one of his centerpiece programs to get rid of blighted empty homes and properties in neighborhoods. The previous demolition program was run jointly by the Detroit Building Authority and Detroit Land Bank Authority. The program has been the subject of state and federal probes over bid-rigging, environmental violations and contractors who didn’t follow the rules.
Counts realizes a big part of her new job is to gain the trust of Detroiters. And the first wave of demolitions, more than 1,300, are about to begin citywide.
“With this first round of demos, I think we really have to deliver,” she said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Counts talked to BridgeDetroit about the new Demolition Department and the ways it aims to be different from the previous demolition program.
Demolitions begin soon
BridgeDetroit: City Council recently passed the first wave of demolition contacts. When can residents begin to see work on homes in their neighborhood?
LaJuan Counts: In the next couple of weeks, we anticipate them being able to see abatement activity taking place. That’s the first stage of demolition activity, so, it won’t look like the actual structure coming down. But they will start to see techs in the area moving materials, basically getting the properties ready for demolition. We hope to have actual “knocks” taking place in May.
BridgeDetroit: I tried to pay attention to the demolition contracts that City Council approved. I think there were around 1,350 demolitions. Is there an average cost for a demolition?
Counts: There were 1,331 (demolitions approved). The average cost for the demos, they are running about $20,000 (each) based on the pricing that was submitted by this round of contractors.
BridgeDetroit: How does that compare to the average cost during the previous version of this demolition program?
Counts: Prior to that, we usually ran about $19,000. So, it’s pretty much in line with what we always, you know, with the pricing that we’ve seen. You have to consider that in the past, we’ve kind of merged pricing from different types of demolitions. So, emergency demo combined with planned demo. An emergency demo requires us to do less work because of the nature of the demolition. So, that cost kind of rolled into our overall general costs. What you are seeing right now is just the cost for a planned demo.
BridgeDetroit: So, the average cost of a demo is higher?
Counts: It is. It is. Not significantly.
BridgeDetroit: Why is that?
Counts: Just the nature of the work. Our costs before were from contracts that had been bid out in 2018. So, there would have been some natural progression and increase of costs just based on inflation. I don’t really have any hard thing; it’s not because we decided we are going to require them to do a certain type of procedure that has impacted the cost.
I really think it’s about the space of time since the last time we issued contracts. It’s been such a big gap of time.
BridgeDetroit: What goes into that dollar amount? What kind of work does it mean?
Counts: All the abatement work is included in that cost, as well as the actual demolition of the structure. The removal and disposal of all of the debris from the structure. They got to completely seal off or cap off the sewer line. And then … the water lines … and then BSEED (Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department) inspections. That cost also includes whatever backfill material is needed, as well as the site finalization work.
How to keep track of demolitions in your neighborhood
BridgeDetroit: What is the best way for residents to keep track of when demolitions will happen in their neighborhood, or, if demolitions will happen in their neighborhood?
Counts: We’re trying to be more proactive and provide that information up front. So, with this first round of 1,300 properties, they’re all listed on our website. Residents can go to the website and look up the address that they’re interested in on that list.
Once they see it there, they know that if it’s in that first 1,300, we anticipate those coming down this year. As far as moving forward, all of these that were approved, we’re having district meetings every month, and we’re updating them as to where the progress should be in those contracts.
Our first round of meetings with the districts are taking place this month. We’re talking about and explaining what an abatement looks like. A lot of times people think that abatements are people coming in and stripping the properties. And so we’re educating the residents; this is what it looks like once we get there and actually start to work.
Every time that phase moves to the next stage of demolition, we’re going to make sure that we update the residents.
So, they already have the list of properties. They know where we’re going overall. And, then they can identify where we are in the phase of demolition, based on what we’ve taught them and what they see that’s going to be happening outside.
BridgeDetroit: These demolitions that are about to take place, are they in areas where the City could not get to before because of the limitations of the earlier demolition program?
Counts: Some of them are. It’s pretty widespread across the city. We hit every district.
Homes that will be secured instead of demolished
BridgeDetroit: In terms of homes that will be secured. Can you give an update of where that’s at in terms of those contracts?.
Counts: On the 15th of February, we received those bids. We have to go through and vet for capacity for all the contractors, as well as certify or pre-qualify each of the contractors. Then we can go through and review and analyze the bid information that was submitted. And then make our recommendation.
We hope to send our recommendations to the Office of Contracting and Procurement in the next two weeks. By the time it gets to City Council, that’s maybe another two weeks, because the contracts have to go through the Law Department. There’s another process that has to be implemented before it can get to City Council.
Dealing with criticism of the program
BridgeDetroit: The first wave of contracts, there was a delay for nearly half of them after City Council didn’t approve them, and then a week later, approved them. Several City Council members and the ombudsman brought up issues of transparency in the program. That’s something the previous program faced accusations and investigations about. So, how is that able to be addressed? And what do you think about the ombudsman’s comments about the program?
Counts: Well, he actually had some very positive comments about the current program, about how we were very responsive. He reached out to me. It was a two-hour conversation in which I walked him through all the properties that he had questions about, and he appreciated that.
I don’t like to say I’m in agreement with him, but I understand what his points were about the prior program, and that’s the history we’re using to improve the current. I understand where those shortcomings were.
One of the main things I think the program lacked: We didn’t engage with the community. We (have now) made a very valid effort to get out and make sure we were connecting with the community. It was very slow in the beginning. I think now we’ve got a cadence in place where the community expects us to come out, they know that we’re going to be there for the district meetings, they know that we’re going to provide them answers to the questions when we’re there.
And sometimes they don’t, you know, the answers they don’t like. But, that’s a part of being transparent, right? I’ve got to be able to tell you what the truth is. Understand that you might not always like the answer, but this is what the truth of the reality is. And they know that they can expect that from us.
BridgeDetroit: That phrase you just said – “even if they don’t like the answer.” I’ve seen you in Zoom conversations in public meetings. Obviously, this is a very passionate subject for Detroiters, of having homes demolished and secured in their neighborhood. And at times, the meetings can be filled with people who just don’t like the answers from any City official. I applaud your patience when you are in those situations.
Counts: I find myself in a position that I did not expect to ever be in, in the sense that I always thought that my presence meant that I was coming to help. Because, at the end of the day, I serve the community. I’m a public servant. And to get to some place, and they’re like, ‘No, you’re telling me a lie.’ I’m like, ‘I’m honestly telling you the truth.’
If there was something more that I could do, I definitely would do it. But, we’re limited to certain ordinances and regulations that we just cannot violate. And a lot of times, people just think, ‘Well, you got the money.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got the money. But we still have rules we got to follow.’
New safety measures
BridgeDetroit: I get asked a lot of questions about how are you all going to monitor contractors in terms of safety guidelines. It’s been a big issue.
Counts: We have been very intentional in how we structured our new team.
We had to make sure that we had someone present for every demolition. We had to deal with making sure that all of the required paperwork was provided. There were components that were not completely worked out prior to (in the previous program) that we felt like we needed to address. We need to make sure that we have adequate monitoring during the abatement phase.
Do I feel like we have the structure to address the demos? Yes. And we can adequately say we’ve got eyes on them. We couldn’t always say that in the past.
One of the most basic things we’re doing is we’re going to have our own uniform. So you’ll be able to identify my people from the contractors. I think that’s like step one, that you understand that we are actually there. We were always on site. The residents just didn’t know that we were not the contractor.
Why she took the job
BridgeDetroit: You’re a native Detroiter and you have been a longtime employee of the city. What was your previous title?
Counts: Where you want to start? I’ve worked for the city for the last 24 years. I started as a construction inspector with City engineering. I worked on road crews. I had every intention of only working for the City for five years. Then I was going to go work for Walbridge and do international construction projects.
The city has a thing that’s called getting vested. So, when I was five years in, somebody says, ‘Well, if you work another five years, you can get vested,’ and I said, ‘OK, I guess it would be nice to get a little pension from someplace, right? I’ll work another five years.’
In that five-year time period, I was able to handle some of the larger projects for the City. By that time, I went to Housing, and I had worked for the Recreation Department. For housing, I did the Jeffries high rises, which is now called the Woodbridge Estates. I went to Recreation and I built the Farwell rec center and the Patton rec center and the Heilmann center.
I realized that my talents were really needed right here at home. And so I felt like, well, I was put here for a reason. I’m having a good time, I enjoy working for the City, especially at Recreation. Even though I was working hard, the kids were having a great time for all the work that I was doing. And so it just seemed like home. And it became a good fit for me, especially once I realized, I really am a public servant.
BridgeDetroit: The very last title you had before this was director of General Services Department. You had just been named that (in October 2019), and prior to that you were deputy director of General Services for three years, is that correct?
‘They got a lot of scandals going on over there.’
BridgeDetroit: That meant you still were in charge with park development. And I think that means public reaction for at least part of the time was enthusiastic and happy about what you were doing. What attracted you to this new job?
Counts: My current boss, who was my same boss at the time, Brad Dick, he says, ‘Well, I recommended you for the demolition director.’ And I said, ‘Why would you do that?”
He says, ‘Well, I really feel like if anybody in the city can fix it, it’s you.’
I said, ‘You’re probably right. But, you know, they got a lot of scandals going on over there, and I like my life under the radar. I get a lot of work done, and, I get to see how people enjoy the work that we do.’
So, I go home over the weekend to kind of think it through. I realized I purposefully kept my head down for the last 10 years. I had stayed out of the way. I realized that meant the kids in my community didn’t know that I existed. They didn’t have an opportunity to see someone who looks just like them, you know, climbing the ranks of the City, and doing all of these amazing projects. I felt it was necessary for not only the kids, but you know, other Brown girls just like me, to know that this is a possibility. I never planned on getting into the construction business. It was not what I set out to be when I was a little kid. But, it was a fit for me, it was a really good fit for me.
And I never know who the next LaJuan is going to be. I didn’t want her to miss an opportunity because she didn’t know it existed for her.
BridgeDetroit: Has it fit the bill so far?
Counts: It has been every challenge that I thought it was going to be since I’ve gotten here.
But I feel like we are getting to a point where we are starting to kind of turn the corner on the trust issues with the community. I don’t think that we have completed it at all. But I feel like people believe us when we come out and we say that we’re going to do something.
With this first round of demos, I think we really have to deliver. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. We’ve definitely got to come in and do what we say we’re going to do if we are to keep building trust with the community .