County board allows Hackel’s budget vetoes to stand

By: Jeremy Selweski | C&G Newspapers | Published October 2, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY — Signs of compromise were shown between the Macomb County Board of Commissioners and County Executive Mark Hackel when the board chose not to override vetoes that Hackel made against cuts to his office in the county’s 2014 budget.

When the 13-member board adopted the $631 million budget on Sept. 12, it included a series of 17 amendments to the original document submitted by Hackel and his colleagues. Among these changes were about $200,000 in reductions to the Executive Office: $150,000 from salaries and benefits, and $50,000 in funding for contract services. Board members stated that they were hoping to trim some of the fat from county government, while members of the executive team accused the board of targeting Hackel’s office for reasons of political retaliation.

On Sept. 24, Hackel issued vetoes for the three budget amendments that directly affected his office. In the past, the board has elected to override many of Hackel’s vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote, but its members took no action at the board’s Sept. 26 meeting.

As Deputy Executive Mark Deldin explained, “We were able to come to an understanding with the board. They saw merit in keeping our funding at the level that we recommended, and we saw merit in the other amendments that they made. Now, we can both continue moving the county forward in 2014.”

Board Chair Dave Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, noted that the board has 30 days to take action on the vetoes before they take effect, but at this point, there is no interest in overriding them.

“If the Executive Office adheres to all provisions and line items in the new county budget in both spirit and intent, then we will all reap the benefits,” he said. “The real winners here are going to be all the people who require the services and programs of Macomb County.”

The additional $200,000 in funding for Hackel’s office should have little effect on the overall county budget. According to Flynn, by the end of 2014, the budget will feature a fund balance of more than $80 million, which amounts to about 42 percent of its total general fund expenditures of $191 million. This number is well above the commonly recommended benchmark of 15-20 percent.

Other amendments that the board made to Hackel’s proposed budget included providing $222,000 in extra funding for the Macomb County Clerk’s Office, allocating $250,000 in supplementary revenue to the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office, restoring $168,000 in funds lost by the federal sequestration cuts to the county’s senior nutrition program, channeling $65,000 from a voter-approved millage to directly serve military veterans, providing $60,000 in staffing for the county’s Ethics Board and allocating $66,000 to the board for independent financial audits.

Flynn pointed out that Hackel’s decision not to veto any of these changes played a big factor in the board allowing the executive’s vetoes of the cuts to his office to stand.

“The Executive Office made a significant attempt to respect the amendments made by the board with regard to Macomb County seniors and veterans, as well as the Clerk’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office,” he said. “They understood that the board did a very thorough job of analyzing the budget and trying to address the needs of more people across the county. This budget is a product for all of us to be proud of.”

According to Deldin, if the board’s $200,000 in reductions to the Executive Office had gone through, they would have required layoffs for three of the office’s nine employees.

“We were concerned that these cuts would force us to lay off all of our support staff,” he said. “If you don’t have good support staff, or any support staff at all, then it becomes impossible to run an office efficiently. It didn’t make sense to us why the board would single out the Executive Office for these cuts, taking away some of our funds and giving them to other county departments.”

Deldin added that about 450 county positions have been eliminated since 2006. Because of those cuts, he said, many other departments besides the Clerk’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office are in need of additional funding.

In his veto message to the board, Hackel stated that the cuts to his office would prevent him from performing the executive duties defined by the Macomb County charter. Without his three support staff members in place, Hackel argued that there would be no one available to provide the administrative duties of his office, which range from answering phone calls and greeting visitors to scheduling appointments and preparing documents for the board.

“While some have suggested that the charter allows no more than five staff members within the Executive Office, that is not an accurate reading of the charter,” Hackel wrote. “Moreover, if the charter is read to prohibit these three support staff positions … it must also be read to prohibit the commission from employing its six support staff (positions). Surely, the commission would argue that it could not function if funding for its support staff were eliminated.”

Flynn, though, was not sold on the claim that the cuts to the Executive Office would have required layoffs. He contended that Hackel could have made reductions in other areas besides staffing, lowered the salaries of some executive staff members, or relocated his three support employees to other departments within the county.

“Obviously, the board sympathizes with cuts made to any county department that may result in layoffs,” Flynn said. “However, in this case, that wasn’t a major factor for the board. The executive had a multitude of options at his disposal here, so there would have been no need for layoffs if these cuts were handled responsibly.”

Still, both sides agreed that this budget compromise was a positive step toward a stronger relationship between Macomb County’s legislative and executive branches, which have constantly butted heads since the Executive Office was created in January 2011 and the Board of Commissioners was downsized from 26 members to 13.

“The board is always willing to cooperate and believes in the spirit of compromise,” Flynn said.

Deldin pointed out that in his meetings with Flynn and other board members, he offered to have the executive team sit down with the board to work out next year’s budget, a solution that proved amenable to both parties.

“Why should we spend months and months creating a comprehensive Macomb County budget only to have the board pick it apart at the very end?” Deldin said. “It makes a lot more sense to work together from the start. This is not about wanting a fight; it’s about getting things right. There are still a lot of gray areas within the charter, since it’s such a new document. We will get it right — it’s just going to take some time.”