Board overrides Hackel’s vetoes of budget ordinances

By: Jeremy Selweski | C&G Newspapers | Published July 9, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY — It only took a few hours after County Executive Mark Hackel vetoed a pair of new budget transparency ordinances adopted by the Board of Commissioners for the board to decisively strike him down.

On June 27, the 13-member board voted 12-0 in support of a resolution overriding Hackel’s vetoes. Commissioner Kathy D. Vosburg, R-Chesterfield Township, was absent from the meeting.

With its vote, the board ensured that the ordinances, which require much more detailed information to be included in the county’s annual budget and quarterly financial reports, will remain in place for the time being. However, Hackel has said that he will not abide by the terms of these ordinances and did not follow their guidelines when he submitted his 2014 budget proposal to the board on July 1.

In his veto messages, the Macomb Township democrat called the new legislation “an attempt … to assert authority not possessed by the (Board of Commissioners).” He stated that the ordinances violate the Macomb County charter and the Michigan Uniform Budgeting Act by trying to take away his office’s authority to prepare the budget, “which is a responsibility that I cannot delegate and will not cede.” Hackel further accused the board of attempting to “impose responsibilities on the executive branch … that go beyond those set forth in the charter.”

When reached for comment, the county executive said that he vetoed both ordinances based on the recommendation of former Corporation Counsel George Brumbaugh, who he referred to as “the people’s attorney.” Brumbaugh retired as Macomb County’s top legal counsel on July 5 and will be replaced by Gabriel Orzame Jr. following official confirmation from the board.

“This is not Mark Hackel vs. the Board of Commissioners,” Hackel contended. “This is a violation of the county charter and state law that I will not follow — it’s as simple as that. The charter states that only I can prepare and administer the budget; the board does not have that authority anymore. Only the charter can direct the executive to do anything, so the board cannot tell me how to prepare and administer the budget.”

But Board Chairman David Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, said he believes that the Uniform Budgeting Act and the county charter are on the board’s side. He pointed to a section of the charter which states that all budget proposals from the executive office must contain any information required by the board, county ordinance, or state or federal law.

“State law and the county charter are both crystal clear with regard to the board’s right to create ordinances that require certain rules to be followed within the budget,” Flynn said. “I understand that there are different opinions here, but in the legal sense and the practical sense, we have every right to demand greater budget transparency.”

The two ordinances were originally passed by the board on June 13. The first requires that a full personnel breakdown — including employee salaries, fringe benefits, overtime pay, pension contributions and more — for each county department be added to the county budget, as personnel costs make up the largest portion of its annual expenditures. It also calls for all capital improvement projects totaling more than $250,000 to be listed in greater detail, as well as the inclusion of any fixed costs paid for by the county and any grant funding that it receives.

Meanwhile, the second ordinance outlines similar expectations for the content of the quarterly financial reports that are presented to the Board of Commissioners by Hackel’s office. It also mandates the addition of details related to changes in personnel, a list of line-item transfers, and comparisons of current revenues and expenditures with those from previous quarters and years, among other information.

The timing of these ordinances was based on the fact that this year marks the first time that the Board of Commissioners will adopt a combined budget by Sept. 30. In previous years, the board had always passed the county’s special revenue funds in September and its general fund in December. The proposed 2014 budget that Hackel submitted to the board totaled about $631 million.

According to Flynn, the main purpose of these ordinances is to provide a more comprehensive look at personnel costs, where line items totaling millions or even tens of millions of dollars are currently listed without anything more.

“We’re not talking about pens and pencils here — these are very large line items that deserve to be included in far greater detail,” he said. “We believe that a further breakdown of these line items will give Macomb County taxpayers a much clearer idea of how their money is being spent.”

Hackel, though, asserted that labeling this issue as one of budget transparency is merely a front to attract the attention of residents and the media. He believes that what the board is really trying to do is regain control over budget line items after they have already been appropriated.

“Everything that the board is asking for is already available to them and to the public — it’s just not in the document where they want it,” he said. “During last year’s budget review process, they received over 3,000 pages of information, so how is that a lack of transparency? The board used to be able to get their fingers on this money and control how it was spent after the fact. That’s what they used to do, but that’s not their responsibility anymore.”

Last year, Hackel ignored another veto override issued by the Board of Commissioners with regard to a new county ordinance in which the board required that it must approve all government contracts exceeding $35,000. This action led to a lengthy legal battle in Macomb County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals that ultimately resulted in a victory for the board.

“The county executive made the same arguments last year about those government contracts,” Flynn said, “and the court ruled against him. They upheld that the board fully understood its role in the new county government that voters approved (in November 2010), and that has not changed. We’re preparing several strategies right now, but we do not believe this is a matter that needs to go to court.”

Hackel sees things differently, however. “Let’s be adults about this,” he said. “Let’s have an independent body decide what is legal here. If that has to happen in court, I have no problem with that.”