Carolyn Belaen, Robert Hoffman, and Brian Howe will face off in a Tuesday, May 3 special Republican primary election scheduled to fill former 2nd District Commissioner Bill Bullard, Jr.’s county board seat. Bullard’s seat was vacated when he was appointed to serve as the county’s clerk/register of deeds following Ruth Johnson’s election as Michigan secretary of state in November 2010. The winner of the May 3 GOP primary race will face Democrat Mark Venie in an Aug. 2 special general election for the county board seat. County commissioners serve two-year terms and earn $32,093 annually.
The following are questions our staff recently posed to the Republican candidates, and their responses to those questions.
BUDGET: Although the county is anticipating higher-than-expected revenues for the next few fiscal years, budget challenges still loom. What changes in budgeting priorities you would like to see? What revenue enhancements would you support? State why you believe the budget can be balanced by addressing one side of the ledger or the other, or why both spending cuts and increased revenues are necessary.
PROGRAMS/SERVICES: The Tri-party program providing annual funding to participating municipalities for modest road improvement projects has been all but eliminated due to budget challenges. Please state whether you believe the program is worth maintaining, and when you believe it will be feasible, if ever, to ramp up program spending. Similarly, at what point, if ever, would you press for restoration of Sheriff’s Department Marine Division lake patrol and Health Division beach testing programs?
TELEVISED MEETINGS: An ad hoc committee has been appointed to study the feasibility of televising or streaming county board meetings in an economically-feasible manner. Please explain why you do or don’t support the concept.
TOP ISSUES: What are the three most important issues for the county, and how do you propose to address them?
WHY YOU? Why should voters choose you over your opponents?
BUDGET: I would be opposed to (raising taxes). I just don’t see it as somewhere we need to go, now or in the future.
I don’t necessarily know that I would want to look and find drastic changes, but there are definitely things I think we could look at and see if there are better ways to shift the money around within the pool that we have to work with. I don’t want to be critical because I haven’t been involved intimately in the day-to-day decision-making of the budget and why things were allocated the way they were, but there is a little over $700,000 allocated solely toward AIDS counseling. While that’s beneficial, we have $0 allocated toward mental health in Oakland County. Perhaps that money might fall under the auspice of mental health since it’s counseling. Make that money available so that if we don’t need it all for AIDS counseling we have the ability to use it in other ways to benefit the citizens. With what we have to work with, the commission has done a wonderful job of setting aside appropriately.
As far as budget enhancements or how to deal with spending cuts or increasing revenue, I understand employees have taken paycuts. As commissioners, I think we are given a mileage allowance. I don’t know why we need that. We could eliminate things like that. It’s pennies here and there, but if we are looking at ways we can cut back on expenditures, I certainly think it would be worth doing. I don’t think driving around our area, since it’s not that large, and driving to the township once a month or twice a month for meetings warrants a mileage allowance.
PROGRAMS/SERVICES: Regarding the Tri-party road improvement, I would definitely want to take a look at that. Part of what makes Oakland County a great place to work — beyond the fact that we have more people and a great, talented workforce — is that it’s pretty central and you can get around. We are definitely in need of continuing to maintain our roads and developing our roads that aren’t even paved yet. I was talking to the Holly Township supervisor and he was explaining to me a lot of the frustrations that he faces — it costs $1 million just to pave one mile of road. And this is a road going to one of his schools, that children are going back and forth on on a daily basis, and he doesn’t have the funds on his own to do it. Obviously, this is something where sharing the expense makes sense for all parties involved. It would help the safety of our citizens and commerce within the county itself, so I would strongly want to go back and take a look at finding a way to get that back up and running.
Regarding the beach testing … obviously the reason they are cutting it back is they are trying to manage the monies they have effectively hit the beaches that have been the most problematic over time. While I don’t have a problem with them effectively trying to utilize the resources we have, since we are again dealing with public health and safety, I would want to take a look at perhaps expanding it if there is a need. I would want to take a look at why we scaled back and see if it was sensibly done and if there is a way to perhaps expand screening so we can do a good job utilizing the money that we’ve got to work with.
Again, as the head of (the Sheriff’s Department), I think (Sheriff Michael Bouchard) had the ability to look at the areas he was able to curtail without sacrificing safety. Would it be great to have somebody out there all the time patrolling (the lakes)? Absolutely. But if those are one of the changes he needed to deal with the budgetary constraints he was working under, I support his decision. Hopefully, should we find that our coffers continue to build back up, we would be able to turn around and expand some of the services regarding public safety that we’ve had to take a hit.
TELEVISED MEETINGS: I would be in favor of it and I would hope they are looking at maybe even taking it to the next level. If we are going to stream it, since one of the issues continually coming up is when is the best time to hold the meetings — during the morning, or in the evenings when more people are out of work and can come — why don’t you just save the video and make it accessible so that somebody who isn’t able to get off work to attend the meeting has the ability to pull it down and watch it at a time that’s more convenient for them.
TOP ISSUES: No. 1 would be the budget, making sure we are continuing to spend our dollars as wisely as possible.
No. 2 is to continue to focus on job growth. As a commissioner, I don’t see why we couldn’t be facilitating our own mini-LinkedIn network where we are bringing together different landlords and different bankers and different entrepreneurs so that they can get together and shorten the whole process of meeting up with those people they need to meet up with in order to get things done and do it right here in Oakland County.
Education I think is another thing. We’ve got some great universities in Oakland County. I don’t see why we couldn’t take a lesson from (Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff) Joe Arpaio and start utilizing some of the work that gets done at the county level that maybe isn’t critical and sensitive and start having some of the college kids come over, donate their time to the county to do some of the work. They can, in turn, receive credit toward their education so that we are creating a draw for kids who maybe don’t have all of the funds to get a higher education. They are going to come to Oakland County. They are going to get their education. They are going to have a good experience, and they are going to stay. And we’re going to have a really educated workforce retained here for other future employers to come and pull from.
WHY YOU? I’m a fresh set of eyes to this position. I’m extremely enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity of getting to move from behind the scenes in politics into the firing line, where I’m going to be held accountable for the decisions I make. I’m not just going to have opinions that I share with my friends, but I’m going to put them into practice and answer to the voters. That’s what I do in my day job — I’m held accountable for hitting budgets and meeting goals. This would be the same type of situation, where I’m going to promise I’ll do one thing and then I’m going to have to do it or face the firing line. I don’t have any obligations to anybody within any political office because I’ve just been working behind the scenes, doing my own grassroots activities. So I’ll be able to go in and be independent and come at it from a perspective I believe I stand for, and I will vote accordingly.
I have been involved not just in politics behind the scenes — I’ve been on the DDA with Bob. I’m on the board of directors for them and the state party. But I’ve also been director of volunteers for Operation: Homefront for the state of Michigan and been involved in my community, so I do think I bring a well-rounded perspective. I’m a mother. I’m a working woman. I’ve been in business. I bring a wealth of experience, but not necessarily the political background that would taint me from making decisions that might be best, long-term, for the county.
BUDGET: These are very tough times and I am opposed to raising taxes at all. Oakland County is not levying the maximum amount they can levy, which is a good thing. Oakland County has balanced the budget through 2014 with increased efficiencies, a lot of it through attrition and early retirements. Those are the kind of things that, to me, still need to be focused on without any type of tax increase. It’s still my opinion that our properties are being over-assessed. But fortunately for us we have leadership like Brooks Patterson and the employees of Oakland County who saw this thing coming a few years ago. We are probably one of the only counties in the nation that continuously have a AAA bond rating and it’s only through their leadership — and it’s not just Brooks. He does a great job and is ahead of the curve on everything, but we also have a great Board of Commissioners, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. They are all on the same page when it comes to maintaining services at the best reasonable cost we can, and they all represent Oakland County quite well.
They’ve dealt with the budget in an aggressive, positive way, so why change something that works? If things get much worse, you may have to start cutting employees more, but employees have taken paycuts. They are all paying co-pays and that type of thing now. We’ve changed the pension system in Oakland County so it’s not defined anymore, it’s a contribution-type. A lot of things that are happening now or may happen in the next two years aren’t going to be a surprise because they’ve already anticipated a lot of this stuff.
We need to be as efficient as we can and do it from that side of the budget and the ledger where you can make the cuts and become more efficient, and Oakland County is a leader in that.
I have never, ever taken a car allowance. So I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how much it is a mile. I don’t know how many take it and how many don’t, but I’ve never taken it and have no intention of ever taking it.
PROGRAMS/SERVICES: The Tri-party agreement — that is absolutely the very best way to improve roads because the road commission pays one-third, the county government pays one-third and the municipality pays one-third. The problem now is that all three groups are strapped for money. Over in Waterford … sometimes we would take the (Tri-party) money, and let’s say we’re not going to spend it this year or the second year, but the third year, we would take that total of three years, and that way you could get more bang for the buck. Until the economy improves or they find another source of revenue for roads, I don’t see the situation improving. When it comes to roads, that would be the very first priority, to implement a Tri-party agreement because everybody’s sharing in the cost.
As far as the Marine Division, I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with contracting for those services. It’s not any different than we do for (road) patrol in Highland, where the township board decides what they need. There are some lakes that you don’t ever need to see a sheriff’s boat out there, and I’m not sure there are that many big ones in our district that would demand that. I think that was probably quite appropriate when Sheriff Bouchard reviewed his budget and had to meet the budget task … and (he) probably made a wise choice.
As far as the Health Department, I have to believe that if there is some kind of emergency or demand for their service, they would be there. I’m sure, like anything else, they probably cut that back a little, too. Some of that could probably be put on the shoulders of the lake boards where they might want to pay for additional monitoring, especially in our community. This used to be a cottage community and there are no sewers. So those that live around the lake have to be a little more conscious about what’s going on.
TELEVISED MEETINGS: I’m 100 percent in favor of it. A lot of people refer to Oakland County government as “the invisible government.” People say, “As a commissioner, what do you do?” Then you have to explain to them how the county government might touch your life but you might not even know it, from the courts to the Sheriff’s Department, from the mental health to the Health Department. There’s no secrets there. The meetings are already open to the public, but (televising or streaming meetings) would allow for more access for people. I think the cost would be insignificant.
TOP ISSUES: The biggest priority will always be the budget because everything derives from that budget. Only about one-third of the budget comes from property taxes. A lot of the budget is reimbursement for services, fees we collect, and grants. And it probably helps, to a certain degree, that we are not 100-percent dependent upon property taxes to fund the government or we would be in a lot more difficult times than we are. That leads me to my next thing, which I think is extremely important.
The law says that your property shall be assessed at 50 percent of the market value. I don’t think it’s being taxed at 50 percent of the market value, and if you want to create an incredible housing boom — maybe it won’t be what it was a few years ago, but if you put those tax assessments more in line with the true market value of that property, people are going to be able to afford that home. So if you could align some of those values, I think the housing market would take off.
Thirdly, Oakland County does a great job with economic development. They have the one-stop shop. They help developers. They coordinate things with other communities when it comes to zoning so everybody is on the same page. But to take that a step further, you could coordinate the approval process through different communities. I know they can’t be the same because Highland, Rose, Springfield and Holly are very rural. You can’t have the same requirements, per se, that you might have in West Bloomfield or Bloomfield Township because they’re more densely populated and have more regulations. But if you could have maybe a uniform application process, when some builder goes into Holly or goes into West Bloomfield he knows basically what he needs to do. I would say that (is needed) even in the court system. From one court to the next, the rules vary a little bit on who can serve the papers and whether the proof of service has to be notarized. People should know what they are up against. They should make it easy to perform and walk out of there with their permits and eliminate any new layers of duplication. Hopefully, because the economy is the way it is and Gov. (Rick) Snyder is suggesting actually rewarding some of these communities for consolidation, people could work together and do some of those things.
WHY YOU? I have the experience in and out of government to do a good job, not only for the constituents in my district but for all of Oakland County. When I was appointed in 1998, I left after six months, and two or three of the commissioners — Shelley Taub, Fran Amos, Sue Ann Douglas — used to tell me I was the best temp they ever had, and that’s because I took the job seriously. I’m a quick study. I know what’s going on. I’ve been on both sides, in the government and out of the government, so I see a real perspective. I’m — like a lot of the other commissioners — not real partisan. One thing I learned early on is that the commissioners represent Oakland County first. We might have our philosophical differences. We might not agree on some of the appointments, but I can honestly tell you all of those commissioners put Oakland County first. I have the experience, the temperament, the time to continue to do a good job. I have no aspirations to go any higher. I like local government. I like going home at night, and I like doing stuff in my community. Not only have I held elected positions, but I volunteer. I’m the chairman of the Highland Equestrian Conservancy. I’m on the ZBA in Highland. I’m on the DDA in Holly. I’ve rehabbed historic buildings in Holly. I’ve used my home for different types of public events at no charge — horse shows for fund-raisers, and I had Patriot Day last year with Judge Warren. I think I’m a well-rounded, dedicated and experienced.
BUDGET: As I was doing my research and decided to run for this job, I was impressed by how big the budget is, at $761 million. That’s probably bigger than the operating budgets of some states in the south. It’s amazing, realizing that we are the only government entity in the whole country that has a balanced budget three years into the future. That’s why I think county citizens are very impressed with the leadership of Mr. Patterson, the forward thinking, the proactive thinking. That’s why everywhere else we are taking hits — the federal level and the state level, watching gas prices go up, which is frustrating for everybody — but county services are maintained and the budget is balanced. It’s amazing, talking to people out there, how many don’t realize what a great job they’re doing because they haven’t really taken any hits as citizens.
I agree on the mileage. The average citizen doesn’t get a mileage allowance for their job, unless they are working two or three jobs and they might be able to claim it on their taxes. Our district is big. You go out to Holly, all over to Springfield and over by Clarkston — that’s part of the job, even though $4 a gallon is frustrating when your gas gauge is dropping.
In terms of taking paycuts, perhaps small, it’s a good step. I think it’s hard at times, too, because even as public servants, you rely on that money. It’s part of your income.
I’m totally against raising taxes. We’re all conservatives, and that would be against our ideals. Nobody needs their taxes raised right now. I want to spend my own money. I don’t want the government having all my money. Obviously if you don’t raise taxes, you’ve got to find a way to make it work on the other side (of the ledger) and that’s the job every year of going through the budget with a fine-tooth comb and making sure essential services are provided. People don’t want to lose those.
PROGRAMS/SERVICES: I moved out here on April Fools Day in 1976 as a sixth-grader and never thought much about the roads. I wasn’t driving. Now that I’m a little older — especially in the Highland area, it’s amazing that Lone Tree Road is still dirt. That’s a major thoroughfare. I don’t know where we stand now — I always said that we were the third-wealthiest county, and it always amazes me that, as wealthy as the county was, we have all these dirt roads. You talk to people and they say, “When are you going to pave Rose Center Road?” I said, “Well, I have no idea.” That’s a major thoroughfare. We’ve got to find a way, but it can’t be something that drains all the budgets of the townships. It can’t become an albatross around our neck.
I think, obviously, Sheriff Bouchard is a great sheriff and has done a great job. He knows how to run his budget. I think his budget might be bigger than some other places around the country. It’s sad, on the other end, though, that the lakes aren’t being patrolled because we know stuff is going on out there. It’s something that needs to be looked into, but it’s not my job to go to Sheriff Bouchard and say, “Here’s how your budget should be run.”
It’s frustrating when you see on the news on how many beaches are being shut down. Everybody’s got their private lakes and so on, and they don’t want that intrusion of the government, so it’s a touchy situation. Everybody wants their kids to go out in the nice, clean lakes. It’s too bad that sacrifices have to be made in certain services. It doesn’t affect me as much, but I’m sure as a beach-owner, I would want my water to be clean.
TELEVISED MEETINGS: I support it. I think it’s a great concept, especially in times like this. Meetings are open to the public and a lot of people wouldn’t travel that far to go to a meeting unless there is something of interest to them. I think if it was advertised well enough, you’d get your diehards that would watch and see what’s going on. Obviously if there was something so serious that it shouldn’t be televised and we need to have the meeting behind closed doors, just like at any level, I’m sure there would be that opportunity to do that. It would be a way for the people to get a look at what’s going on, and hopefully they would keep the TV on and keep watching.
TOP ISSUES: I think the budget is always a big one, and we kind of covered it in the first question. It’s important to keep that AAA bond rating. It’s saving us money
and that’s important.
I think the second one is obviously keeping the programs going to bring in jobs. We are not really a job creator, per se, but (we have) the Emerging Sectors program and things along those lines where we are fostering the ability to bring businesses back to our county. It’s a great county with a lot of great businesses, but it’s frustrating when you drive down the street and see how many places are gone. How you do it, I don’t know, but you’ve got to find a way to get some of those storefronts filled again.
Third, I think a big thing is constituent service. The people in our district, in all districts, want somebody that will come out and talk to them and listen to them. As I’ve been out campaigning, people like to talk. And you listen to them. They are very passionate about their government. We explain to them what we do and some of them don’t understand because they haven’t used (the services). But I think it’s important to know that when the phone call is made or when the e-mail comes in or whatever that you go out. We are public servants. On the campaign trail they are calling me a politician. I go, “I’m not a politician.” I’m a high school teacher that’s running for a government job, for a public service job. That’s important. It frustrates me when I send a letter to a legislator at a higher level and they’ll send me something back and it’s not even the same topic I sent my e-mail on. It’s frustrating as a citizen wondering whether they even read my stuff. People get frustrated because people get into politics and they forget about those that got them there.
WHY YOU? I love Michigan and I love Oakland County. I’m a Milford High School graduate and it meant a lot to me back when they were still the other name than they are now — proud to be a Redskin back in the day. I love living in the area. I’m a hard worker. I have never held public office. I’m not a politician. I’ve taught over 20 years of high school government. I know how the government operates and how it works. I like working with people. I want to be a good public servant. I’m a people person. I was told that in high school. I’m a good listener and I have been ever since. I do a lot in the community. My kids do voter registration drives at Lakeland, all our seniors, and we got that incorporated at Milford, too. I got them to get on board. We bring the townships in and they register all the kids to vote. Veteran’s Day is top-notch. By the way, we do the Patriot Week. We did that this year and it was amazing. Every day it was another Founding Father we were talking about. But our Veteran’s Day ceremony, it’s always a day before Veteran’s Day. I walk with the veterans the Sunday before Veteran’s Day. I’m a fresh face, somebody new, and the people I’ve been talking to think I’ll do a great job because that’s just the kind of person I am. That means that sometimes going in without any experience isn’t a bad thing. (When) people (ask me), “What can you do,” I say, “I don’t know,” but every job I’ve ever held or got, somebody trains you. There’s got to be a little mentoring process.