Republican Marty Knollenberg is challenging incumbent Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, a Democrat, in the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election. The county treasurer serves a four-year term and is currently paid $138,999 annually.
The following are questions our staff posed to Knollenberg and Meisner, and their responses to those questions.
TREASURER’S ROLE: What do you see as the primary responsibilities of a county treasurer? What specific changes, if any, are needed in the way the treasurer conducts business? What are your qualifications for this position?
TOP ISSUES: What are the three most important issues for the treasurer’s office, and how do you propose to address them?
WHY YOU? Why should voters choose you over your opponent?
TREASURER’S ROLE: The primary responsibilities of the county treasurer to act as a banker for the county. All of the money that comes into the county comes in through our office. All of the money that leaves the county is dispersed through my office. In addition, the surplus cash is invested on a daily basis, so I manage a portfolio of about $1 billion at any given time, and in compliance with Public Act (PA) 20, to make those investments.
As county treasurer, I administer the deliquent property tax system, and part of the job is to work with deliquent taxpayers on providing the opportunity for payment plans. Right now, we have 2,410 payment plans that have brought in $11.1 million this year, so that is an integral part of the responsibility.
Under Public Act 123 of 1999, the county treasurer is directed to collect the deliquent taxes from the taxpayer. In the instance of the taxpayer not being willing to pay, to not even take a $25 per month payment plan, PA 123 requires county treasurers to tax-foreclose on that property, and to offer that property at a series of two auctions. The first is statutorily set in the August timeframe; the second is statutorily set in the October timeframe.
In addition, the county treasurer serves as treasurer for a number of county entities. For instance, I serve as treasurer for the Oakland County Retirement Fund, which can also be called the pension. I also serve as treasurer for the Oakland County Building Authority, the Zoo Authority. I serve as treasurer for the Oakland County Economic Development Corporation, and the Business Finance Corporation.
Those are the traditional and core responsibilities of the office.
When I ran for county treasurer in 2008, the premise of my campaign was that the Oakland County Treasurer’s Office needed to grow to meet the challenges of the time, to grow beyond those core responsibilites that I outlined and to help Oakland County grow in terms of some of the challenges it was facing relative to the mortgage foreclosure crisis. It was my contention that the county treasurer had the opportunity to take a more active role in mortgage foreclosure prevention. My predecessor, who I consider a friend and a very classy gentleman, Pat Dohany, had a difference of opinion.
The changes that I think are needed for the county Treasurer’s Office, and that I have undertaken during my first term, including, No. 1, fighting mortgage foreclosure. Within the first six months of office, I started a free mortgage foreclosure prevention program that any county resident can access at fightmortgageforeclosure.com/oakland. I have created a public/private partnership with the local realtors to work on not only mortgage foreclosure prevention, but also connecting tax-foreclosed properties with families. Forty-eight percent of the properties that were tax-foreclosed this year, by the way, were bank walk-aways, so we are having a number of properties that we need to get back on the tax roles.
In addition, I felt that the county treasurer could do much more to protect property values, so that’s why I started the foreclosure prevention program, and that’s also why I helped secure a $14 million grant for neighborhood stabilization, to demolish dangerous and blighted structures; to build new, energy-efficient housing; and to promote the redevelopment of our areas like Pontiac, that have been hit hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Lastly, I have seen the role of the treasurer as protecting property values and fighting foreclosure, but third, to recover a lot of the money that they have lost as a result of the mortgage foreclosure crisis and the drops in property values. That’s why I initiated a first-in-the-nation lawsuit against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Working with my colleagues at the county, we initiated this lawsuit to go after millions of dollars that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weren’t paying in real estate transfer taxes, and that lawsuit has now been replicated in 82 other counties in Michigan and in 40 other jurisdictions around the country. There are other legal avenues of recovery that I am pursuing.
Those are a few of the things. In final conclusion, customer service and humble public service was something that really needed to be driven home at the Treasurer’s Office, so I was the first to create a mission and vision statement, as well as a strategic plan, to ensure that all of the members of my staff treat all of the members of the public with courtesy, compassion, and then instead of saying “no,” we try to think of innovative ways we can problem-solve, working with our taxpayers as well as our private sector/public sector stakeholders.
I am a certified public finance administrator. Certified public administrator is a certification that’s granted through the Association of Public Treasurers of the United States and Canada. My predecessor, Pat Dohany, was a past president of the Association of Public Treasurers, and in meeting with Pat, and spending many months with him during the transition, Pat strongly encouraged me to pursue this certification. It’s about a 3.5-year program that requires extensive training. You get some credit for some of your educational and professional experience, but this 3.5-year program as a certified public finance administrator, all of the curriculum has been strictly focused on my work as county treasurer. Whether it is exploring innovative methods of collecting delinquent taxes; whether it is exploring the investment world and really drilling down deep on some of the permissable investments under Public Act 120; looking at my role as my treasurer for the pension fund, my role as a certified public finance administrator is, I would say, a very important credential, and very specialized.
Secondly, much of the work that is done by the county treasurer is done according to the terms of state law. I served as a state representative for six years, served four years on the Tax Policy Committee, which is the committee responsible for writing the Property Tax Act and revisions to that state law.
In addition, I’m an attorney. My role as an attorney not only helps me better understand a lot of the state law mandates that drive my work as treasurer, but it also allows me to observe the gameboard of administering a county treasurer office a little differently, and it allows me to see some opportunities that others might not see.
In addition, as an attorney, and as a former corporate communications director for a real estate firm and somebody that has done some consulting, and somebody who is a former Congressional aide and vice president of a national non-profit organization in D.C., I have the private sector experience that gives me insight into how the private sector operates and how the office of the Oakland County treasurer can be an effective partner for the private sector.
As vice president of a national non-profit organization, I’m also to partner very effectively with non-profit organizations. We have properties that don’t sell at auction, and I work with a lot of non-profit organizations and churches on connecting those charitable organizations with tax-foreclosed properties to put them to productive use.
My range of experience in the private sector, in the non-profit sector, and in the public sector have proven to be an excellent blend that has helped me to succeed in our mission of protecting property values, fighting foreclosure, and securing Oakland County’s financial future.
TOP ISSUES: The top issue is sacrifice. When I became county treasurer, we were in a time of financial crisis. There were a number of perks that were available to the county treasurer that I felt were inappropriate, so I was the first county official to refuse a taxpayer-funded car for myself and my chief deputy, county taxpayer-funded gas, and cell phone. I have taken a voluntary paycut every year that I’ve been in office, and right now they are trying to office us a $500 bonus, which I am refusing. When people are sacrificing as they have during a tough economic time, I believe that sacrifice is critical.
Second, cutting wasteful spending. We need to have our financial house in order. As Brooks Patterson said at his State of the County address last year, he and I don’t agree on everything, but we agree on the need to balance the budget and make sacrifice. To cut waste and cut wasteful spending, I have cut $1.7 million out of the county treasurer budget and made the difficult decisions so that we live within our means. I have cut staff. I have cut the fat, and have got the county Treasurer’s Office operating in a way that is lean and efficient.
The third most important is to protect property values by fighting foreclosure and making smart investments in neighborhood stabilization. Within six months of taking office, I started an innovative foreclosure prevention program called the Oakland County Foreclosure Prevention Initiative to prevent both tax- and mortgage foreclosure. We have helped prevent hundreds of mortgage foreclosures and thousands of tax foreclosures as a result of our effort.
When I took office, property values were tanking and mortgage foreclosures were skyrocketing. Today, Oakland County property values are stabilizing. In addition, mortgage foreclosures are down, and although the number of tax foreclosures has increased, under the tax foreclosure system, there is a 3-year lag, so this year, we are experiencing tax foreclosures from tax deliquencies from 2009, which was the eye of the storm and really the peak of the financial crisis, so we would expect there to be a modest uptick in the number of tax foreclosures. Fortunately, through our tax foreclosure prevention efforts, we have been able to hammer out thousands of payment plans, and in the unfortunate instance where the bank walks away from some of these properties and we’re required to sell them, we have been very effective at running our auction like a business, incorporating some of the best practices from commercial and financial real estate, creating a public/private partnership with the local realtors association. For me, the combination of making the sacrifices that are needed, which I have done throughout my career, including voting to eliminate my own lifetime health care benefits as a legislator; cutting government waste; and fighting foreclosure and protecting property values to secure our financial future.
WHY YOU? When I ran for county treasurer, I promised to protect values, to fight foreclosure, and to help secure our financial future. Since that time, Oakland County property values are stabilizing, foreclosures are down, thousands of tax foreclosures have been prevented, thousands of properties abandoned have been connected with families who care for them and send their kids to the local schools. We have maintained our AAA bond rating, and for all this business about not working with Brooks Patterson, every year for the last three years, Brooks and I have gone to meet with the rating agencies, and we have sat side by side, defending Oakland County’s AAA bond rating, and we are absolutely on the same page on that, and many other issues.
I have operated in a non-partisan way. One of the first things I did when I got elected was to name a conference room in the Treasurer’s Office after my Republican predecessor. Brooks Patterson was at that ceremony — and he was one of the speakers at my swearing-in ceremony. So there’s the time we’re working together, and everyone’s message changes a little bit around election time, but I have brought the office of the county treasurer out of the shadows. I have made it a force for job creation, economic development, foreclosure prevention, and to secure our financial future, and anybody that comes to our office is greeted in a way that is courteous. We have a culture of humble public service. You might see me out there bringing a taxpayer a cup of coffee or a drink of water. We have, for the first time, a mission and a vision statement that are proudly displayed on a wall, which let my staff know that humble public service is what our office is all about. Whether it’s serving our taxpayers or partnering with the 61 local treasurers from the cities, villages and townships around Oakland County, or working with our private sector partners, we go out of our way to be respectful, courteous and flexible.
We do personal property tax collections in our office. My personal property tax collectors have a specific message that I send them to businesses with: “Thank you for being a job provider in Oakland County.” Secondly, “We would like to work with you for a flexible payment plan,” which we’ve done thousands of times over. And third, “Oakland County has some fantastic resources that are available to assist you. As Oakland County treasurer, I serve as treasurer for the Oakland County Economic Development Corporation and the Business Finance Corporation.” People are paying the taxes, so they might as well get the benefit of the services that are offered. We have worked to connect those businesses with the services that we offer, including business loans, whether it be small business loans through our micro-loan program, or larger loans for companies, that’s something that I have been integrally involved with.
I have taken the office of the county treasurer out of the shadows and into the biggest fights facing Oakland County today. Working with my colleagues, I initiated the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac lawsuit, which is making them pay. It is taking those responsible for the mortgage foreclosure crisis and making them pay and holding them accountable. In contrast, my opponent has received generous financial support from the same folks that are responsible for the foreclosures, including Trott & Trott, and supported legislation in Lansing that would allow banks to foreclose on families twice as fast, cutting the statutory redemption period from six months to three months. My opponent maybe doesn’t appreciate that mortgage foreclosures are the cause of why our property values have dropped. Instead of trying to speed foreclosure, I’ve dedicated the office to preventing foreclosure and its negative effects while continuing to maintain the AAA bond rating, working with my partners, fighting foreclosure, and cutting wasteful spending. If I have the privilege of representing Oakland County as treasurer for another term, I will continue to build on the strengths of our first term, and continue to reach out and explore new ways of leveraging technology for greater functionality for taxpayers, working to make tax payment more easy and convenient, and working in a way that is apolitical and non-partisan to serve the people of Oakland County with the humble public service that they deserve.
TREASURER’S ROLE: I’d like to first start off talking about my qualifications and why I’m running for this office. If you look at my background, I served on the county Board (of Commissioners) for two years. I’ve got countywide experience. I served as a state representative for almost six years now, so I have state experience. I served as chairman of the Banking Committee, so I understand banking issues. One of the things that the county treasurer does is act as the county banker, so I feel my experience on banking — we’ve dealt with a variety of issues. We dealt with the robosigning bill. We dealt with mortgage fraud bills. We dealt with (state Attorney General) Bill Schuette’s mortgage settlement lawsuit that he was involved in. We dealt with the 90-day moratorium law. As chairman of the Banking Committee, I dealt with a lot of the issues that I think will be helpful in my role as treasurer.
In addition, I think that my experience really primarily has been in the private sector. I’ve got 25 years of experience in the private sector. I’ve been an insurance agency owner for 25 of those years. I also have been a laundromat owner for the last eight years. I’ve been involved in business all my life. I’ve turned around companies. I’ve turned around struggling companies. I know what it takes to create jobs. I’ve hired people. I’ve had to deal with the challenges that the everyday person has to deal with. If my business doesn’t succeed, I have difficulty like everybody else making my mortgage payments, car payments, insurance payments, and whatnot. I take great pride in the fact that I’ve been a small business owner.
Fortunately for me, I’ve got some great employees that have been running my businesses while I’ve been able to serve as county commissioner, as state representative. Without great employees, I would not be able to serve, and I’m very blessed to have been able to have served, and I obviously want to continue my service, as well.
I think if you look at the role of the treasurer, the role primarily is administrative, so I have that executive and administrative experience. I come home every single night as a state representative. I feel like I’m grounded. I’m not part of that Lansing bubble. I’m part of what all small business owner has to go through, what every family has to go through, what every person that has to pay their property taxes has to go through. I know the challenges that are out there. I live it, I see it every single day. Obviously my business interests are diverse. Owning a laundromat in Hamtramck, you see people that suffer. You see that struggle they have to go through. Even though it’s not in Oakland County, you do have some communities in Oakland County that have similar demographics and similar challenges.
I think as I’ve been in business for 25 years and I’ve looked at pursuing this particular office, the first question that always comes to my mind is, “Why am I doing this, and who is my customer?” In business, the first thing you do is figure out who your customer is and what they need.
I view this position as having two primary customers: The customer is the taxpayer, and then also working with the other local units of government you have to deal with. I see what’s happening with our taxpayers. We are obviously still marred in a foreclosure crisis — a mortgage foreclosure crisis and a tax-foreclosure crisis. How can I best serve those customers?
What would I do differently? One of the things that I had done in the private sector is, in my coin laundromat, there are two things we tell our employees. We stress customer service and keeping the place clean. You take care of the customer and treat them the way they want to be treated, they will continue to come back — a business obviously being a profitable one when customers come back.
One of the things that I’ve done in my insurance agency — we’ve been doing this for years and years and years — is that we run reports every single week of all of my customers that are late. We kind of reach out to them before their policies lapse, before they get into a problematic situation. You wait to long with some of these folks, it’s too late. As it relates to the Treasurer’s Office, I’ve been knocking on doors for months and months and months. I’ve talked to thousands of people. If you’re delinquent in your property taxes, you may not know that you’re deliquent for two years. By then, for most people, it’s simply too late. I would run reports much earlier in the process so that, if people are behind, we catch it much sooner, which allows them to remain on track. If you wait too long, you’re not going to be able to get caught up, and obviously the property tax bill is a pretty hefty bill, so it’s difficult to come up with it if you’re not aware of it. So I think we need to do a better job of making these folks aware of it.
On top of that, with the excessive interest and penalties that are associated with that, so not only is the bill high, but the penalties can be excruciating. I think a little commonsense, we need to catch these problems earlier in the process. We have a great county that we live in. It’s a great place to work. It’s a great place to live. It’s a great place to play. I think Brooks Patterson has done an outstanding job of running this county, and he wants me as part of his team, and that’s what this is all about. We need a treasurer that will work with Brooks Patterson, and Brooks and I can do that. Brooks wants me to work with him, not against him. We need to have that type of integrity and that type of spirit. It shouldn’t be a political position. This is not really a partisan position, and I think we need to take politics out of the Treasurer’s Office and get it back to what the job really is all about, taking care of the customer.
TOP ISSUES: The most important thing is taking care of the customer. I have 25 years of business experience, and in business it’s important that you understand who your customers are and you take care of them.
No. 2, obviously we have a tax-foreclosure crisis and we have a property value crisis. I’ve got a plan to kind of stem the tide. What we’ve seen in the last four years is more foreclosures and decreased property values. What’s been happening the last four years hasn’t worked.
The third thing is working with the current county executive, not against the county executive. We need someone who can provide integrity to the office of the treasurer. This is not a political position. It should not be run like a political office. The current treasurer is using the position as a political office, and it’s a shame to abuse the privilege of this office in that way.
It’s interesting that Andy mentioned Brooks and Bob Daddow and applauded their work ethic and their leadership. They both oppose the land bank. So the pet project that Andy is a big believer in is opposed by two of our smartest and brightest people in Oakland County, Brooks Patterson and Bob Daddow. The Wayne County executive now recently said they shouldn’t have a land bank. So there’s a difference of opinion on these land banks. It does compete with the private sector, no question. There’s a difference of opinion on that. Andy is a believer in more government involvement. That’s his political background. He’s got a voting record when he was in the Legislature of supporting more government programs. It’s just another government program at taxpayer expense. So if you lived in Commerce, or you lived in Waterford or West Bloomfield or Troy, you’re subsidizing these projects that are going on in Pontiac. It’s a taxpayer subsidy for these projects.
WHY YOU? I think the first thing you need to look at is our backgrounds, our experience levels. Andy worked for Congressman (Sander) Levin for six years. He was a state representative for (four) years and treasurer now for a little over three years. He has very little private sector experience. He’s never owned a company. He’s never started a company. He’s never had to deal with paying personal property taxes. He’s never had to deal with paying real estate taxes on a commercial building. He’s never had to pay Social Security taxes. He’s never had to hire people in the private sector like I have, and that’s something I’m proud of.
I’ve got 25 years of it, and I’m running because I want to give back to the community. I was on the county board for two years and I’ve been a state representative for almost six years. I’m not doing it because I need a job. I’m doing this because I want to give back to the community, and if this election doesn’t turn out the way I hope it does — and I think it will — I’ll just go back to the private sector. I’ve got my businesses I can fall back on or go back into. I don’t need a job. I don’t need a government job.
That’s a big difference between myself and my opponent. I’m doing this for the right reasons. I take the privilege of trying to take care of who my customers are in the private sector, and I will do the same in the public sector. It’s all about the people I serve, and I think based on my experience in the private sector, and I have that experience in the private sector. I have had experience in the public sector and I want to continue that.
I think there’s a number of things that we can do. The office is one that I take seriously. It shouldn’t be used as a partisan office, as a political office, and it is. We’ve got a treasurer that’s taking credit for things that he should not be taking credit for, like the AAA bond rating. The AAA bond rating was here long before Andy Meisner lived in Michigan, so he’s trying to take credit for this AAA bond rating when he wasn’t even living in Michigan. He’s taking credit for a lawsuit that wasn’t his lawsuit — it was a taxpayer lawsuit. There were a number of other parties involved, like Brooks Patterson, like Bill Bullard, like Corporation Counsel, like outside counsel. He played a role, one piece of the puzzle, and we need to acknowledge that. So I take exception to somebody using the position to further his name. I’m not going to do that as county treasurer.
I’m going to do the job of county treasurer; I’m not going to use this as a political opportunity to run for something else in the future. That’s exactly what my opponent is using his position for, for personal privilege and gain. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do the job that’s bestowed upon me by the taxpayer.
There’s a number of things I think we can do better. We need to prevent this tax foreclosure crisis. We can’t wait until they are into foreclosure and deliquency status; that’s too late. We need to get involved much earlier in the process, and I will do that. I will get involved earlier in the process. I do that in the private sector. We don’t allow people to get into a problem after the fact. We need to provide solutions much earlier in the process.
I’ve lead by example. I’m the guy that introduced legislation that got rid of lifetime health care benefits. That was my bill that Andy said he voted for. That was my bill. I introduced that seven years ago. I ran on that platform and we finally got it done. I’ve also reduced my pay 10 percent as a state representative. I’ve reduced our office allotment by about $5,000. I don’t use reimburse myself for cell phone usage. I believe you got to lead by example, and I’ve been doing it a lot longer than my opponent has, and I will continue to lead by example.
We need somebody that can be respected, somebody that will bring integrity to the office, somebody that will respect people, somebody that won’t take credit for things one shouldn’t take credit for. I’m going to give credit where credit is due.
Andy Meisner was first elected Oakland County treasurer in 2008. Prior to that, he served two terms in the state House of Representatives. He is also a former staffer to U.S. Rep. Sander Levin and has worked in the private and non-profit sectors.
Marty Knollenberg is a state Representative first elected in 2006. He owns an insurance company and a laundromat in Hamtramck. He previously served on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.