Republican Oakland County Commissioner Robert Hoffman will be challenged by Democrat Mark Venie in an Aug. 2 special general election 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. County commissioners typically serve two-year terms and earn $32,093 annually.
The following are questions our staff recently posed to the candidates, and their responses to those questions. You can watch video recordings of this candidate interview session by clicking on the Videos link at spinalcolumnonline.com.
BUDGET: The county executive has released budget proposals for the next three fiscal years. What changes in budgeting priorities, if any, would you like to see in the future? What revenue enhancements, if any, 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. First of all, you know the economy is still really tough. I don’t think this is the time to enhance our budget by raising taxes. I still don’t believe that properties are properly assessed at 50 percent of their true market value. If you want to spur the economy, I think that if you lower the assessments to reflect the true market value, you would create a housing boom. It does make it a little tougher for government because then they would have to cut back a little more.
ETHICS: The Board of Commissioners has created an ad hoc committee to study the need for new ethics policies for county officials. Where do you believe revised or new ethics guidelines are necessary?
DISCOUNT PRESCRIPTION DRUG PROGRAM: County officials are considering whether to switch to a new prescription drug discount card program vendor. What, if any, changes to the program would you like to see, and why?
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?
We are fortunate in Oakland County that (County Executive L.) Brooks Patterson took the bull by the horn, per se, years ago. They’ve had this three-year rolling budget for the last few years, and not only did they have a three-year rolling budget, where they can anticipate things that are happening and then do budget amendments to solve those problems, but beyond that, Oakland County is actually looking two years beyond that to get a feel for what’s going to happen. As Brooks said recently when he presented the budget to the county Board of Commissioners, we are actually seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We budgeted quite a large fund balance over the years, so we have a good cushion. We still maintain our AAA bond rating, and that’s only through the efforts of Brooks Patterson and the county Board of Commissioners and the employees. We don’t levy all the taxes that we could levy, which is a good thing, and that’s one reason for our AAA bond rating.
Every department has their task to cut their budget a certain percent. Not only do they have this task to cut the budget, but they are also rewarded if they cut that budget sooner than they anticipate. So let’s say there’s a deadline three or four or five months out to cut your budget by this percentage. If you realize those cuts and you can do it in a faster period of time, you’re actually rewarded for it, not punished. So that’s another way a lot of departments have actually done that.
There’s other ways to enhance revenues without raising taxes, and that’s to provide additional services to additional communities, which may in the long run save them money. I’ll use Pontiac for an example. We are going to start providing them with sheriff deputies and dispatchers for the police and fire (services in the city). Now, it’s not a real money-maker, but it’s probably going to help us cover some of our existing overhead and, at the same time, save that municipality quite a bit of money.
ETHICS: I’m not sure that much really needs to be changed. I think that Oakland County is pretty on top of it. I think their policies are pretty current. But another way to prevent the conflict of interest and nepotism is to continue with the transparency programs we have, where everything is open and above board, meetings are open, and things are done by committees made up of both Democrats and Republicans. There’s a lot of stuff now being published on the Internet, as far as our budget and what goes on with the county. I think that, in itself, will resolve a lot of problems, the idea of continued and more transparency.
DISCOUNT PRESCRIPTION DRUG PROGRAM: From what we’ve been presented so far, I am in favor of switching programs. There’s two programs right now, and neither one of them is a cost to the taxpayers. It doesn’t cost us anything. A few years ago, this first company came in and they made a presentation and the county got on board because, again, there’s no cost to the county. We are able to distribute some of these prescription drug cards to people that did not have prescription drug coverage in their health insurance, and they benefited by going to different drug stores and getting a discount on their prescriptions.
Now it appears that … this other company was presented to us that, and not only will the discount that citizens receive be greater than what they are realizing right now, but the county will actually receive a small commission on each prescription written. That, in itself, will help enhance the budget. It will be no cost to the taxpayers, no cost to the county government, and it will actually benefit those without prescription drug coverage.
The county doesn’t negotiate the prescription prices. This other company does that. For whatever their size or relationships are, they have been able to negotiate a larger discount with these pharmacies and drug companies. Along the same lines as this prescription drug program, there are also great companies in our community like Meijer — I’m not sure of the other ones, but they do provide prescriptions to people at no cost, or they have a certain list of drugs that the maximum you’ll pay is $4 for your prescription. I’m thinking Meijer has written thousands and thousands and thousands of prescriptions for some particular drugs for absolutely no cost. What a benefit to the community to have a company like that which — obviously they make money, and we hope they make money, but what a way to give back to the community, especially in these hard times.
TOP ISSUES: We’ve already discussed the main one, and that’s the budget, because that drives everything.
You’re nothing without a job. You have to have a job, and Oakland County is the leader in finding creative ways to expand our economy beyond manufacturing. We have Automation Alley, which Brooks started years ago and brings high-tech companies to Oakland County. There’s a lot of Fortune 500 companies with their headquarters here. Another one is the Emerging Sectors of our economy, which would be nanotechnology, maybe military research and development, maybe even manufacturing. And the latest one that the county has been supporting is the Medical Main Street initiative, where, in conjunction with the colleges and hospitals, there’s creative programs and instruction and classes and that type of thing that’s going to put us out on the forefront. I think that’s a very important thing. That’s on the big scale.
But I think, on the smaller scale, too, it goes back to the jobs. We need to make it easier or possible — and Oakland County does this now with the one-stop shopping in the Planning Department. You can go in there and get a lot of your questions answered, get a lot of the research done. I was just with Brooks this morning up in Holly, and I own property up there with my brother, and I’m a big promoter of Holly, which is also in our district. Seven new businesses opened there, so we had a ribbon-cutting for seven different businesses today. Just having those seven small businesses open created 45 or 50 jobs. Not only did that create jobs for those people that are going to go to work every day, but … they spent thousands and thousands of dollars, so that put electricians and contractors to work. Then, after that, you’ve got all the support staff. You’ve got a beer distributor now who’s selling his products to another entity up there. You’ve got people selling the breads, and the cleaning people. It just goes on and on and on.
It’s like spending a dollar in the economy, and it probably recirculates seven or eight or nine times. I still believe that small businesses are the key to our success. But between all the programs that Oakland County is promoting and what individual communities are doing — and it’s not just Holly, but lately Holly has been on the forefront of a lot of development, and I think people are realizing the value of that little Norman Rockwell community — but you still have the Ferndales and the Birminghams and the Royal Oaks and the Milfords. And I think people are almost getting back to that, which is nice to see.
The other one would be shared services. There’s nothing better than a bad economy to force governments to downsize and share services. Not only do we have the opportunity here, like the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, to share services with other communities who want us, but up in Holly, Holly has an excellent police department, and they are well-positioned to do shared services with the surrounding communities if the surrounding communities agree to it because, as Mark had mentioned, if the State Police post closes, there’s really no police protection in Rose Township or Holly Township. But this would also, if they agree with the other communities and work out some kind of shared agreement, that would enhance the village of Holly’s police department because it would help share the costs and cut their overhead.
WHY YOU? It’s an absolute honor and a privilege to be our Oakland County commissioner. I take the job seriously. I am experienced in business and government. I am not a “yes” vote for the administration. I represent the residents of my district first, and Oakland County second. Again, I take this job very seriously and I would appreciate the citizens electing me in August to continue on. I hope that, when it’s all said and done, after I’m gone, that I’ve helped make Oakland County a better place than when I got there.
MARK VENIEBob did touch on one thing, the shared services contract. I think we need to investigate that a lot further, especially in District 2. The problems that they are going to have in Holly, with the closing of the State Police station there on Dixie Highway — how are they going to have enough police protection for those communities, those townships? So a shared services contract would benefit both of those communities, and provide some revenue for the county, as well. The task force that was supposed to bring those three townships together with the village of Holly hasn’t been able to make a whole lot of headway, so they need to kind of move this along there a little bit and bring this to a conclusion so all of the essential services are covered, taken care of, and nobody misses out and nobody is left out there.
The other thing is that we don’t want to raise taxes if it’s possibly avoidable. We have to find creative ways of increasing revenue. That is by attracting new businesses. The only way you can do that is by making sure that we have a place where people want to live. When these businesses come in, we have to remember that they are bringing in their employees and their families, as well. So we want to make sure we have a decent road system and good school systems to make this area attractive for businesses to come work.
I’ve read studies over and over again, and one of the last things that businesses think about when looking at an area to move their business into is taxes, the business taxes. They look at a lot of other things. Are the road systems good to move their products, move their employees? Is there a good school system for their employees? These are the factors that are considered much sooner than what the business tax is. If we can make the quality of life attractive in Oakland County, we can attract a lot more businesses. We’ve done this with Automation Alley, the other programs that we have here — and that’s what’s going to hopefully solve our budget problems, the increase in revenue.
This idea of the Woodward light rail — the way they were talking about it was just in the city limits of Detroit, but I believe that thing should go the whole length of Woodward Avenue because we have to move people to and from work, so customers have the chance to go to businesses that they might not get to if they had to rely on driving. Once again, those kind of enhancements are going to attract new businesses to settle here. That, I think, is the biggest way we are going to solve our budget problems now and in the future.
ETHICS: Of course, there’s always the issue of nepotism and cronyism that we need to make sure isn’t part of the hiring policy. That doesn’t do anybody any good to bring in people who aren’t qualified, just because they are friends of somebody. And we want to also make sure there is no conflict of interest in decisions that board members have to make. So I think those are the areas of ethics we need to address.
DISCOUNT PRESCRIPTION DRUG PROGRAM: That sounds good. I don’t know all of the details of the prescription drug (program) and I would want to make sure that the county has the right to negotiate prices to make sure that it’s getting the best deal possible. We also want to make absolutely sure that, once again, there is no cost to the people.
TOP ISSUES: Jobs is the main thing we have to focus on here. We should have a micro-lending program to help small business entrepreneurs get started, like the seven just mentioned that are going in Holly and the jobs that they provide. We can do a lot of good in helping these new businesses get off the ground here with judicious micro-lending.
Also, I believe we ought to do things like Gratiot County is doing with things like wind farms. They just started a whole new program. They are setting up these wind farms. It provides electricity that they are selling to Detroit Edison and it provides income for the farmers, and that money is obviously going to circulate through the local economy. We can do the same thing in Oakland County. I think with a program like that — we can do not only wind, but solar — we can bring in new businesses and create new jobs.
And the other is I think we missed the chance on the TARP money — but we still may be able to do it — to establish a land bank to rehabilitate foreclosed properties. Once those properties are back up to scale and we can collect taxes on them, now we are getting revenue and making the county more attractive for businesses to move in. So if we rehabilitate those foreclosed properties, one of the things I’ve heard they are doing out in Los Angeles is that they are requiring the lender to maintain the property, to bear the cost of maintaining the property so that they are less likely to want to foreclose so quickly, and the municipality doesn’t have to bear the cost of doing that. So everybody benefits that way — the foreclosure might be less likely to happen in the first place, and the property stays kept up. So I think we need to explore that possibility, of requiring that.
WHY YOU? In my work, I’m a technical writer. I have to learn technical data very quickly and be able to work with it, use it to teach others about it. I would be able to handle the technical aspects of the job. I’ve been an elder in my church for 30 years, and we’ve done a lot of work counseling people, preparing budgets, and working with others to get things accomplished. And I’ve been a life-long Oakland County resident. My grandchildren are growing up here now in Oakland County, and my main focus is to try to make Oakland County as good a place to grow up in for them as it was for me.
Robert Hoffman was appointed to the Board of Commissioners late last year to serve a portion of the term vacated by Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard Jr. He previously served as a county commissioner when filling in for Dennis Powers after Powers was appointed to the 52-2 District Court bench. Hoffman is also a former Waterford Township supervisor.
Mark Venie is a technical writer. He has been a Democratic candidate for county board seats several times over the past decade.