|Teri Weingarden has served as the township treasurer since 2008. She has completed training to become a Michigan Certified Public Treasurer. She previously worked as a European pricing coordinator for the UNISYS Finance Department, and a change management and knowledge management consultant for EDS and Andersen Consulting. She has also served as president of the Cumberland Common Homeowner Association.|
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 Weingarden, and her 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?
WEINGARDEN: The primary responsibility of the treasurer is tax collection. When I took office, I saw that we had an old-fashioned process where we basically had a form that we had a vendor complete that was very expensive, and then we had a printer put all the information on it. We had somebody else collate it and someone else mail it.
As the treasurer I realize that there are probably more cost-effective ways to handle that, so I have redone the tax book process because I think that, obviously, the most important part of the treasurer’s job is making sure that we levy taxes.
We also used to have IT Department personnel assigned to our department during tax season. I decided we could take that in-house so now we do all of our own tax processing.
In addition, with the winter and summer tax bills, you have to make sure that you’re getting all the money for the different entities. We have seven school districts and a transfer district, and about half of them levy in the summer and half of them levy in the summer and the winter. We also do collections for the parks, the county, and any special assessments or delinquent bills can end up on the tax roll, so the primary job of the treasurer is the collection of taxes.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that the treasurer actually is like the banker for the township. We handle all the money that comes in and out of the township. So that means that we’re in charge of taking money in for bonds, even court bonds, as well as letters of credit, and special assessment districts. So whenever the township decides to help residents set up a special assessment district, my office does all the managing for that. We do that for our own needs, and we do that for the lake boards, so that’s a big part of our job.
I also prepare investment reports to the township board and make sure that I’m investing any additional dollars that we have.
I do have a very comprehensive investment report that I provide to the board with detailed information. I also follow our investment policy to make sure I’m in investment types that I’m allowed to invest in. We have a Public Act 20 that’s pretty strict about how you can and cannot invest the funds of the township.
On the investment side, although it’s not the main focus of my job, it’s very important and I also use the local government investment pool and a variety of other CD’s, and I’m in some treasuries and agencies, but I’m not allowed to invest a lot because of the investment policy, so I’m limited in that.
I continue to think customer service is the most important thing in the treasurer’s department. When you have people coming to the counter paying bills, it’s not a pleasant thing for people to do and our goal is to make sure that everyone who walks up to our counter walks away with a smile on their face and feeling they were serviced by the treasurer’s department. I think that’s really improved since I took office. We now offer sort of an express line for people to come on tax days and get in and out quicker. We really go above and beyond, even with the short staffing situation, all over Town Hall to provide really good service, and I’ve been getting very positive feedback.
The next thing I have on the horizon is I’m looking into getting us to be allowed to take credit card payments over the counter. I negotiated a very good deal to do that, but I’m going to the board for approval because we want to make sure that it’s a competitive bid process. The bid will probably be out in the next few weeks and we’re hoping we’ll soon be able to provide over-the-counter credit card payments for anything — permits, tax bills, water payments, or anything, because right now we offer it over the Internet and by phone, but if somebody comes to the counter with their credit card, I can’t take it. I think that in this day in age, it’s something we have to do.
I am the current township treasurer, so I have been in the office four years. I’ve gained a lot of insight during those four years, I’m definitely a working treasurer.
The first year I worked seven days a week. It was a very hard job. Being a new treasurer is challenging, even with a good background. I had been in the finance industry, I had been a pricing coordinator for a large computer company in Europe and I had been in charge of all the pricing operations, both in Scandinavia and in England. I had also been a management consultant, going into organizations mainly in the automotive industry, but we did training development, reorganization, process improvements, general management consulting, and I’ve done that for a number of years.
When I became the township treasurer, I soon realized that there was a great deal to learn because (the) municipal (sector) is different than (the) private (sector). I took that very seriously. I went through a three-year training program and became a Michigan Certified Public Treasurer. I do continue to train myself and I’m attending an additional training that just became available in July and I’m hoping to get another certification. I’ve done training for other treasurers, and I was invited at the last Treasurer’s Institute to actually train 75 other treasurers.
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?
WEINGARDEN: We are bound by Public Act 20 and we’re also bound by the investment policy that’s adopted at the township board level.
When I sit on the pension board, I have a vast number of of investment types I’m allowed to use. I can invest in the stock market, and I can even invest in international investments, real estate, you name it. Within the guidelines of the pension system, you can invest in a lot of different vehicles and we have fund managers. But, when you’re the township treasurer, you cannot invest in those types of instruments, you have to invest in very safe instruments and that’s for a good reason.
One of the instruments that I did invest in when I first came aboard was the new C-DARS program. When the program first came out, the rates that they offered were fabulous. They wanted to get people interested in the program. It was basically a way to insure your certificates of deposit and they offered better than market rates, so when the program first came up I immediately jumped on and invested. We’ll look into the C-DARS program (again). Depending on the need for the money and the maturity level, I might use that.
I’ll continue to use the local government investment pool. They have the ability to invest a little bit further out of the yield curve than we do in West Bloomfield, so we’re getting pretty great rates with them. We usually average at least 1 percent.
I do like investing in agencies and treasuries, as well, because either they have the full faith and credit (backing) of the U.S. government or they’re owned by organizations that are owned by the U.S. government.
The current investment policy only allows me to do 10 percent out past one year, so because of that, I’m limited in how many of my own investments I can truly make.
I would avoid anything that seemed remotely risky right now, I think we’re kind of nearing the bottom of the market. Right now, with the rates being so low, I wouldn’t look at doing something long-term. I think we kind of missed our opportunity back when I first took office and I wanted to expand the investment policy and the board said no, and now we’re like at the bottom, but I think we’re going to come out of it.
My investment policy for public funds is very straightforward — keep the money safe and protect the investment. If you can make interest, that is fabulous and I aim to do that everyday, but the bottom line is keep the money safe. Keep it liquid, so if we have something that we have to pay, we can pay it, so we don’t take penalties and take money out of investments.
(As far as changes in the township’s investment policy) yes, yes, yes. If rates go back up again and the treasurer’s hands are handcuffed and you can’t go past one year, you can’t tell a treasurer not to invest out then yell at them when they don’t get a good rate of return. Either you need to allow them to invest properly and use the yield curve to get better returns or you say we want the money liquid, but we don’t expect you to earn money, we just want to keep the money safe. You can’t do it both ways, you have to pick.
I think that the compromise would be changing the investment policy so we can go, let’s say, two to three years out, maybe give some flexibility on the types of investments we can do. Certainly there can be some type of board approval involved, but I really think right now the township board is making it difficult to properly invest the funds.
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?
WEINGARDEN: As a township board, we were extremely proactive, and I think all seven members deserve kudos. Regardless of all the fighting, we have gotten a lot of business done in our township. We basically had a township board right before us that left some pretty hard issues for us to contend with — expired contracts, no long-term budget process, and they just didn’t leave us with a vision. As soon as we took office, we realized we had to do it and we had to step up and we worked diligently. We were having meetings every single week. We had so many budget meetings it would have blown your mind. But, the good news is, when we were done with our first budget, we had a better direction of where we were heading as a township, I think, than the previous board had in a lot of years.
We reduced personnel by 25, and we did that across Town Hall, including public safety. Basically, when people retired, we didn’t replace them. In the beginning, there was basically no backfilling. What would happen is people weren’t replaced, positions would open up and people within the West Bloomfield personnel would get to bid on those positions, so we had a lot of new people in positions and that made it really hard. Even though you had people that maybe worked in the township for years, there were a lot of new employees. We decided it would make it a little harder, but in the long run, we’d allow our people to keep their jobs and our residents not to get hit as hard.
We also had furlough days, which were unpaid days off and the offices were closed on those days. In the beginning, we had a lot, then we started trimming them and then finally, we made a promise to our employees that when things start to get a little better, we’re going to take those furlough days away, and we eventually did take them away for this year.
We also, through the negotiation process, got a lot of concessions. Health care costs were a big one. We did not have any arbitration. We were really trying to get rid of some of our legacy costs, so we said for our new employees, we’re going to change our retiree health care benefits. We kind of looked long-term, and we implemented these changes before a lot of other communities did.
Elected officials, including myself, the supervisor and the clerk, willingly gave up some of our perks, including our car allowance, and took lower benefits, because you can’t give up your salary. Some of our trustees said that they would take a portion of their money and put it towards a water benevolence fund to help our residents. So I think everyone on the board took a very positive approach in participating in the sacrifice.
We’ve cut about $2 million in operating expenses and that’s because since 2008, assessed values have dropped nearly 30 percent. So the public safety millage has made a huge difference, but also the sacrifice proactively taken to help make up that gap. We do have a balanced budget, as we are required to have by law, and we’re expecting to have a balanced budget through 2022. Our budget at the moment is in good shape. There is a healthy fund balance. Even though delaying the public safety millage vote one year cut into our fund balance by $3.1 million, we’re still in a really good place. We’re not cutting into it on an ongoing basis.
In order to keep our balanced budget and keep us trim, we’re going to have to account for declining property values, but I think if we continue with our proactive approach, we’ll pretty much be able to handle that from a budget-trimming perspective.
I’m curious as to what’s going to come out of our whole IT process. We’re looking to see that we spend money wisely. We’ll continue to look at sharing with other communities and consolidation. I know the fire chief is looking at doing something like that.
When I took office, we were at a double-A bond rating with S&P, and now we’re at a double-A-plus. And I think part of that is because we’re making sure that we keep a healthy fund balance, which affects our bond rating.
I think right now, we’re pretty right with staffing. The Fire Department particularly took very progressive and proactive steps to reduce staffing. We can’t reduce there anymore. I think we’re pretty much getting to or are at a minimum staffing level all over Town Hall and in the Police Department. We will continue to review that on a continuous basis and as technology improves and we’re more integrated with BS&A, we might find that at some point that we have efficiencies, but we’re not quite there yet.
Our voters passed a public safety millage, and we do not have a right to move that money into anything other than public safety. The only thing that I would see from a hold harmless standpoint is, if we find we don’t need all of those funds, we don’t need to levy the full amount, we currently don’t levy our full millage for the township and we may or may not need to levy our full millage for public safety. I would never approve to use anything from the millage, not one penny, on anything other than public safety. I think that would be very disingenuous. We need to keep the money safe and use it the way it’s supposed to be. I consider that almost an enterprise fund. My goal would be hopefully over the next several years, if things improve, to not levy the full millage but certainly to continue to use if for the public safety department.
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.
WEINGARDEN: It’s sort of a shame, particularly in this case, because the majority of those who currently are on the township board did run together. I think what can happen in a township board situation or anything like that where you have a lot of people who are used to being leaders and being the ones with all the ideas, you’re sometimes going to have personality conflicts. And I do believe, in this situation, it’s more of a personality situation. We’re used to running our departments. A lot of us were or are very successful business people, as well, and I think that when you get all these people that are used to taking charge, sometimes it can cause pretty big conflicts.
Do I think that there’s probably a personality there in the mix — some people are maybe trying to take powers that really aren’t theirs statutorily or they’re trying to overstep. And I think part of that could be associated to certain actions people have taken. But, I think the board has gotten a lot done, despite the fact that we don’t always get along. I personally try to stay out of it. I’ve personally been called Switzerland or neutral. I’m not neutral on every single issue, and if I feel strongly about something I’ll speak up. But, for the most part, when I walk into a board meeting, I’m prepared, I know what I think, and I’m ready to have my mind changed. I’m thinking there may be someone on the board with a different perspective, because we have a very intelligent group of people on that board and we’re from every background there could be. And we have so many bright people, we have such an educated community in West Bloomfield, so I always look and think, what am I missing? A lot of times at board meetings, a lot of ideas come up that you never thought about at home, It’s just a different perspective. I really do enjoy the different viewpoints and I do try to come in and make each decision independently. I’m really not voting on a side, I’m voting on an issue. I think the residents stop listening when we’re fighting so much.
TOP ISSUES: What are the three most important issues for the township, and how do you propose to address them?
WEINGARDEN: My first one would be the whole redevelopment. We’re always called a bedroom community. Way back when I moved here when I was five, the township was pretty much farmland and although we’ve had master plans over the years, I don’t know how well we’ve really stuck with our master plans. I just think we’ve kind of developed and we’ve developed fast. And now, we really don’t have a lot more to develop. Now it’s all redevelopment.
The good news with redevelopment is it allows us to take properties that maybe don’t have the best environmental impacts and even without making stricter rules, we don’t have to, like stormwater management systems can be put in place and other cleanups can be done because we’ve improved our technologies and our knowledge over the years. So on the one hand, I think we need to continue to have wetlands and woodlands and zoning and planning and all of them really following our rules, and I also think we need to realize that we are not in a development phase, now we’re in a redevelopment phase, so there’s going to be some different needs. Just through the redevelopment, we’re going to be able to improve things from an environmental standpoint and from a visible viewpoint for people going through West Bloomfield.
When we came on board, the Orchard Lake Road project was just not going anywhere. It was a dismal failure and we were able to work very hard and negotiate and get Orchard Lake Road repaved. We’re still working really hard to get our boulevard and I will fight that with my dying breath, that we do get our boulevard in West Bloomfield.
We also have been working on redeveloping our whole little downtown business district. A few years ago it was a ghost town. Now, there’s a few vacancies but I gotta tell you, we’re really filling it in. We’re not just filling in with anything, but we’re filling in with the right types of establishments to keep a really good atmosphere in West Bloomfield — upscale retail establishments — and it’s becoming a more vibrant district. I know the Orchard Lake Mall people have been very excited with their tenant rate.
We have also considered the corridor improvement authority. I agree it would be a wonderful program. I’m not sure I agree with the brownfield credits. It would have to be for a specific site. Audette Cadillac, I would consider looking at something like that for a brownfield credit. The township board was recently brought a proposal for a brownfield that didn’t fit the grade, so you don’t just jump in and give up your tax revenues unless you think it’s a property that has to be completely redeveloped. I’m not saying I wouldn’t consider brownfield credits, but I’d really have to be convinced. It would have to be a very specific case.
I think it’s important that we continue to look at the master plan and make sure we’re redeveloping. We’re never going to be a Birmingham. We’re really a non-sidewalk community, but we can continue to make sure that we really develop and spruce up our business areas. We have our walking and biking paths so people can get to places better, so I think that people are starting to frequent our establishments more, and I do see over the next couple years us filling in the few vacancies we have remaining and hopefully with upscale places.
No. 2 is neighborhood stabilization. Again, this is something we’ve been working very hard on as a board. When we first got into office, our property values were going down and our neighborhoods were starting to fall apart. A home falls apart quickly when it’s vacant and it can also increase crime. We have blight issues. We as a board pulled together and passed a lot of really important ordinances, such as a rental inspection program, because we realized that some of our rental properties were not up to snuff. We also realized that some homes were becoming rental properties because as people are having foreclosures and other hits on their credit, a lot of people can’t purchase a home for three to seven years. So more people are renting homes and we had a vacant home registration that we put into place to make sure that we knew about the vacant homes. We have a lot of vacant homes that are not being maintained, so we made it expensive for them not to maintain those homes. You’re going to get charged $250 where it would be much cheaper to sell it and let someone else take care of it or have a property management company come in and maintain it.
So neighborhood stabilization continues to be important. It really impacts real estate values. We as a township really need to continue to educate.
I grouped with a team that was made up of bankers, financial advisors, and real estate agents, and we recently held a seminar at the library talking about foreclosure, talking about short sales, educating people on loan modifications and other options that they have. There are programs out there that that people don’t even know about that have federal dollars available to help people, and I think part of it is educating our residents and making them get the resources they need and making sure that we’re doing our job to maintain those properties, keeping the neighborhoods intact and getting people moving into those homes. We did have foreclosure events where we highlighted our homes that were for sale, and that was good. I’d like to see more of those.
The last thing would be continuing to improve customer service. I think we’ve gone a long way. I think the customer service in my department has gone up. I know the supervisor instituted a program with her department heads to check customer service. I really think we’ve been making a huge attempt to have more customer service at Town Hall.
We’re revamping our website. Right now our website is hard to manage and instead of just fixing it a little bit, we’ve been really taking a look at how to improve it for the long term. We want to have more information out there and easier to get to, where somebody can find out about a meeting, immediately click on a meeting and live-stream the meeting, see the portion of the meeting that discussed (their issue), click to all the associated documents and have it all in their hands pretty much instantaneously. We also want to have all of our standard forms available where you can just go and pay for a dog license right on our website. I want them to be able to make water payments and access all my reports right there on the website. Currently, you have to go through so many layers, it’s not just there for you and we want it to be easy to use. So we do have a committee that I’m working on, and we’ve definitely made steps in the right direction. It’s not going to be done in a day.
WHY YOU? Why specifically should voters choose you over your opponent?
WEINGARDEN: I feel I’ve proven myself the last several years. As I’ve said, being a treasurer is a big job. When you get elected, it doesn’t mean that you’re 100 percent ready to do the job, and I think I’ve done a very good job. My first year, I had to work a zillion, trillion hours to do a good job, but I learned a lot and I think I accomplished a lot. I came into office when the banks were failing around me and we had a severe recession, and I feel that I rode the storm out. It was like trial by fire. I literally was thrown in the boiling water and either I was going to stay in and find a way to cool the water or I was going to jump out. I stuck with it, I did a lot of research, I trained myself. I speak with a lot of other treasurers. I do a great deal of reading and I really feel that I’ve come to a point where I’m a really good treasurer. I’m very well respected in the treasurer community with the other treasurers, and that makes me really proud. I’m always out there trying to get the best information from people and share the best information with people.
I feel that I serve really well on the pension board, too. We are doing an RFP for actuarial services and reviewing our consultants. I’ve been going to pension board trainings to try to improve my skill base on the pension board.
I really feel that I earned my stripes over the last three and a half years. I’ve become a certified public treasurer, and I continue to improve my own background. I came in with a bachelor’s and a higher degree. I’ve always excelled educationally. I’m going to try to educate myself everyday.
I think that the voters will find that I’m a very involved, working treasurer. I care about the residents and go above and beyond for them and I will work my hardest for them for the next four years to continue to prove how much I appreciate the trust they have put in me as their treasurer.