|Attorney Gene Farber is the owner and operator of a private practice law office. He has served as a township trustee since 2008. Farber is a former township planning commissioner, and chaired the commission from 2007 to 2008. He represents the township for the Huron River Watershed Council. Farber previously served on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Oil and Gas Advisory Committee.|
West Bloomfield Township Trustee Gene Farber is challenging incumbent West Bloomfield Township Treasurer Teri Weingarden in the Tuesday, Aug. 7 Democratic primary election. With no Republican candidates filed for the position, the candidate receiving the most votes in the Democratic primary election will be unopposed in the Nov. 6 general election. The township treasurer serves a four-year term and is currently paid $106,224 annually.
The following are questions we recently posed to Farber , and his responses to those questions.
TREASURER’S ROLE: What do you see as the primary responsibilities of a township treasurer? What specific changes, if any, are needed in the way the West Bloomfield Treasurer’s Office conducts business? What are your qualifications for this position?
FARBER: The primary responsibilities to me are twofold: First, the treasurer prepares and sends out and collects the taxes for the township, the county, the schools and parks and recreation, and whatever other millages there are. The second job is to invest the surplus funds of the township to maximize the interest that we earn.
The specific items I would concentrate on are first, to prepare an accurate cash flow because different investments have different rates of return and you have to know how much money you have available for what period of time in order to know what you can invest in.
Based on the cash flow, I would keep as little money as possible in the checking account and make sure that we are fully invested as much as possible.
I would also make sure that we have the rate of return for each of our funds listed as part of the quarterly treasurer’s report so that the public and the other elected officials can know exactly what we are earning on our investments at all times.
I have served on the township board for the past three and a half years. Prior to that, I was on the Planning Commission for seven years, serving as the chair of the commission for the last year.
I have headed the labor negotiations committee for the township where we negotiated contracts with all seven of the unions, and in that process had to get very deeply into the numbers of the township, the costs and the cash flow, in order to do those contracts.
I also serve on the audit committee of the Huron River Watershed Council, which is a non-profit association. I’m the township representative to that and I was chosen to serve on their audit and finance committee. I’ve been on that for the last three years.
I have been a consultant to small business, so I’m familiar with cash flow and investments and rates of return.
INVESTMENTS: Which available investment instruments would you prefer to utilize as treasurer and which would you try to avoid? Please describe your investment philosophy for public funds? Is there a need for any changes in the township’s current investment policy or practices?
FARBER: Whoever is treasurer is bound by Public Act 20, so you don’t have any discretion to invest in anything that does not meet the act’s very strict requirements. You can’t invest in the stock market, for example; you’re limited to the guaranteed investments.
The local government investment pool has been very attractive in a very difficult environment for short-term funds.
The treasurer and I have a basic disagreement on the utilization of the non-interest bearing checking account. While we do get some earnings credit in the account, the local government pool, for example, which Teri said was paying about 1 percent, that’s more than double what our credit would get on the checking account.
In terms of the agencies and other things, I agree those are certainly proper investments. With C-DARS, the rates have gone way down on that. While it’s a great tool to use in the right environment, it doesn’t make a lot of sense at the present time, but it will be a more attractive vehicle when rates go up.
Within the limitations of PA 20, I believe that it is the duty of the treasurer to maximize the return available whatever the market conditions are, and you can only do that if you have an accurate cash flow and how much time you need to invest because there are different rates of return for different investments.
(As far as the pension board is concerned), the pension board gets an actuarial report and we have to make contributions based on that. I have a very strong disagreement with some of the assumptions, such as the assumption that we are operating under an indicated 3 percent pay increase for employees and that’s built-in. We haven’t had a pay increase since 2008 and we have contracts through 2013, and by not updating these assumptions, in effect, it’s costing our taxpayers more than we would otherwise have to contribute because it’s assuming costs that do not exist. At sometime in the future, when things improve, we certainly want to give our employees a raise, but for the foreseeable future, an average raise of 3 percent does not seem to comport with the reality we are facing.
At the present time, the treasurer can invest 10 percent of the money. According to the quarterly report that we have from the first quarter of this year, there’s only about 2.58 percent that is invested over one year and back in December I think it was 3.8 percent. So we are not fully utilizing the 10 percent limitation and until we are fully invested at the 10 percent long-term, that’s when we’d look at it. But at the present time, the full width of the investment policy has not been taken advantage of, so I think it would be premature to change it.
BUDGET: Years of revenue decline prompted by falling home values and other reasons have forced a variety of budget cuts. What changes in township budgeting priorities or processes do you advocate to deal with these hurdles? Where could the township’s budget be trimmed back? What, if anything, in the budget should be held harmless from the budget ax?
FARBER: At the point that the current board took over at the end of 2008, we started making changes. We have reduced personnel through the contracts, we have reduced our overall compensation costs, and we have eliminated legacy costs for retiree health care for new employees. We have set up a long-term budget projection going out up to 10 years, and we have implemented the types of changes that other municipalities are just waking up to and we’re really ahead of the curve in that regard. We are financially stable at this point. The voters approved a public safety millage increase, which should allow us for the next decade to be financially stable.
Obviously our top priority is public safety. The voters have said so and I don’t think there’s anybody that disagrees on that particular issue.
Right now, we are in the process of having an evaluation of the whole IT Department. We are looking at all of the functions and what it is doing and that process is not complete, but I think there are some serious savings we can look at in that department.
The Fire Department is always looking at ways to increase efficiency through inter-governmental agreements and other things. I think in the next four to five years during the term of the next board, we will come up with some efficiencies in the Fire Department. There has been some talk about combining dispatch with other cities, either bringing in some other cities or combining with other communities. We have not produced anything concrete, but I think that’s an area that’s going to be looked at in the future.
The state is putting pressure on all municipalities to work together wherever possible. Police, fire, dispatch are areas. We have a very good police and fire department, I do not want to give them up and will not give them up. But there are areas where certainly increased cooperation (is appropriate). The police department works on some joint task forces with other cities, which has been very effective and I see that kind of inter-governmental cooperation increasing because, quite frankly, all of the cities are strapped and cannot increase additional officers on their own, so they’re going to have to work together on some projects.
In Town Hall, we have reduced the number of employees over the past four years and most of the departments, I think, are running with pretty lean staffing compared to four years ago, and we still manage to provide good services.
One of the things we do on a yearly basis is look at every item in the budget and because we have software that gives us a line-by-line printout, we have the ability to look at every single expenditure and we have done that. We have cut back lots of things and it’s an ongoing process.
We got the public safety millage increase. The voters approved it, so I think we have a fiduciary duty, a promise made that we’re not going to cut those services, regardless of what happens, because we said to them approve the millage increase and we will keep those services. I would say we have no idea what’s going to happen in the future, or what the state’s is going to do to us in terms of requirements or cuts, but clearly, public safety is an area that we made a promise to the voters that we’re going to provide that service and not cut it.
A majority of the board voted to wait until 2011 to ask the voters for a tax increase (the public safety millage), we did take a one-year hit in our fund balance, which is often called a rainy-day fund. It was not only raining, it was pouring, and if it was one year that we could use some of that money and give the taxpayers relief, I wanted to do that, so that was the reasoning behind that. Obviously you can’t do that every year, and we didn’t. When it became clear in 2011 that we would run out of money if we stayed on that path, we asked for the increase.
POLITICAL DIVISIVENESS: Much as with the previous incarnation of the township Board of Trustees, the township’s governing body has formed into factions, resulting in divisiveness, bickering, and even members suing one another. Do you see the divisiveness of the past several years as cases of personality clashes, or are there other issues at play? Explain how you would work with the township board’s personalities and egos, and what you would do as township supervisor to address the board’s fractured nature to ensure civility amongst its members.
FARBER: That is a question that I think about daily. I ran independently, I didn’t run on any slate last time, so I’m in a somewhat different perspective. When I came on the board and I had certain opinions, I lost a lot of votes 5-2 and 6-1, and over time, a couple members have come around to agree with me.
My experience has been that people who were elected to public office, many of them, not all, really take themselves far too seriously and really think that because we were given a public trust that somehow we know everything and we’re better than the rest of the people. It’s just not true.
I haven’t sued anybody. I think that we’ve happened to be upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals. Even if we weren’t, suing your fellow board members is not a good way to run a board because we have to get together. It is very difficult if one side is suing you instead of talking to you. I try to always talk to everybody, I will say that I’ve made efforts in the past and it takes two sides to compromise and reach an agreement. The best you can do is come to work and try to get the job done that you were elected to do.
By and large, if you look at the number of votes, 85 percent of the stuff is unanimous. The other 15 percent makes the paper. I think there is a fundamental belief that the supervisor has the powers of a city mayor, and a township government is very limited and all seven members are equal, and I think that is part of the problem.
I try to have every issue that I vote on based purely on the merits of that issue and not on the personality of the people. If I disagree with somebody, I try to do it on the merits of the issue and not refer to them as a bad person or question their motives. That is the only thing that is in my control. I can’t control what other people do.
TOP ISSUES: What are the three most important issues for the township, and how do you propose to address them?
FARBER: Issue No. 1 is we have a stable funding source for hopefully the next decade. The only way that’s going to work is if we continually watch it, update it quarterly when changes have to be made, and recognize them early on so that any change that can be made does not surprise you. It is my personal opinion, based on what some of the real estate people are telling us that we have bottomed out, that we’ll be at a flat rate and then maybe even up 1 percent in a couple years. If that’s true and we can roll back the millage rate or give the employees a raise that they haven’t had for five years, great, but we’ve got to continue to watch that.
The second issue is redevelopment. We’re an aging township, and there’s very little unbuilt space. It’s important to encourage redevelopment, and upgrade and refurbish a lot of things. A lot of the concepts that people thought really were great 40 years ago, people now think they’re not so great, like a series of strip centers as far as the eye can see. The idea today in urban-suburban planning is more walkable areas. We have plans for the downtown area, Orchard Lake (Road) between Maple and 14, to try to redevelop that and encourage that. I was on the Planning Commission as the chair when we started that process and the board has approved it. It’s a very slow process, because developers are not sure they want to spend that much money to bring about the types of changes we think would make it a lot more walkable.
One of the tools we can look at to encourage redevelopment is using Brownfield tax credits in an appropriate way for appropriate projects. One of the mistakes, in my view, that municipalities have made is they give tax credits on these vague promises that something’s going to happen. I would tie it to doing specific things that would involve upgrading the area and making it more walkable and pedestrian-friendly.
There are certainly parcels that have been vacant a long time, like Pella Window on Haggerty Road and the nursery on Maple. Audette Cadillac would be a perfect site for the right creative person to come up with something fantastic.
I had wanted to pass a corridor improvement authority that’s similar to a DDA for townships. When we came in, the property values crashed. It’s been on the backburner, but I’ve been talking to our planning director, Sara Roediger, and she’s continuing to do some planning for that. I think next year’s the time. I think we will have leveled off and if we pass it next year, it will take a few years to get an effect, but we can do that.
The third main issue is increasing transparency. Certainly we televise our meetings, even if it’s a special board meeting at noon.
What I would do specifically in the treasurer’s office is on the website, I would post all the investments. You can find them on the (board) agenda in the quarterly report, but I would make it easier. I would post our rates of return. I would post all of the information that the board gets on the website, so that it is more accessible and easier for people to find.
WHY YOU? Why specifically should voters choose you over your opponent?
FARBER: I think it’s been clear from our conversation that neither of us are running because we don’t like the other person or think the other person is a bad person, or not trying to do the best job possible.
Specifically what I think I could bring is I could maximize our returns with a cash flow, which we don’t have, and I would reduce the amount of money in the checking account because 1 percent or half a percent is better than zero. I would maximize the investment policy and invest up to 10 percent in the long-term investments. The rates aren’t great, but according to our own reports, they are a lot better than the 1 percent we’re doing. I think that those types of changes would make a difference in the number of dollars that we’ve generated and would have a positive effect for the township. I would make sure that all the information that is required by the board is filed in a timely manner so that everybody could review it in a timely manner. Those would be the main changes and the main reasons that I’m running for treasurer.