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Macomb County

June 25, 2013

County board, Hackel butt heads on budget transparency

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

MACOMB COUNTY — A pair of new ordinances passed by the Macomb County Board of Commissioners are intended to provide greater transparency within the county’s budget, but County Executive Mark Hackel believes that they are merely a politically motivated power grab.

Hackel stressed at press time that although these ordinances were unanimously approved by the 13-member board on June 13, he still has the ability to veto them if he feels that they are not in the best interest of Macomb County.

“Just because they’ve adopted a new ordinance doesn’t mean that it becomes law — I still have to sign it,” said the Macomb Township democrat. “They could pass an ordinance stating that the county executive has to wear a blue suit on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear a blue suit on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

The first transparency ordinance 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 the Hackel administration. 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.

According to Board Chairman David Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, “The board feels very strongly that all of these expenses need to be broken down individually in as much detail as possible. Under the current system, not every single line item is visible to us — or to the public — within the budget plan. We firmly believe that the taxpayers are entitled to know exactly where their money is going.”

Commissioner Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, who serves as chair of the board’s finance committee, said he agrees wholeheartedly. He pointed out that the timing of these new ordinances stems from the fact that this year will mark the first time that the Board of Commissioners will adopt a combined budget by Sept. 30. In previous years, the board has always passed its special revenue funds in September and its general fund in December. Macomb County’s 2014 budget is projected to total about $590 million.

“The Board of Commissioners is the eyes and ears of the public in Macomb County government,” Miller said. “These ordinances are our attempt to ensure that we are being as transparent as possible with our finances. Right now, we have several line items that are millions of dollars, or even tens of millions of dollars, without any further breakdown.”

Hackel stated at press time that he has not yet had a chance to look over the ordinances in detail. He said that he would consult his legal counsel, and if the ordinances do not conform to the Macomb County charter or to existing budget laws, he would veto them. If he does, the board could override his veto with a two-thirds majority vote. If Hackel takes no action, the ordinances would automatically go into effect, even without his signature.

The county executive insisted that these budget transparency measures are superfluous. “Everything they’re asking for, every single line item, is already available to the public,” he said. “(The board is) trying to provide another level of bureaucracy that’s just not necessary. They want to restrict what all of our department heads can do in their day-to-day operations by controlling where this money goes after it’s already been appropriated. It’s a major overreach.”

Flynn disagreed with Hackel’s assessment of the board’s intentions and was confused by his strong resistance to the new ordinances.

“I think these requests are very simple, so I don’t know why anyone would be opposed to them,” he said. “If you look at the things we’re asking for, none of them are unreasonable or excessive or out of the ordinary. This isn’t about a power struggle — it’s about good government.”

The chairman noted that about a year ago, the board “bent over backwards” to reach an amicable solution with Hackel that would improve budget transparency without having to adopt any legislation, but the two parties were unable to reach an agreement. Miller added that the new ordinances were designed to go into effect by the time the Hackel administration presents its 2014 budget proposal to the finance committee on July 1, which would then be followed by the committee’s budget presentation to the full board on July 11.

“I’m of the opinion that more information is always better,” he said, “and I feel that the county can and should strive to be more transparent. For me, the bottom line here is that the public deserves to have a more comprehensive breakdown of where their tax dollars are going.”

Hackel, though, contended that the Board of Commissioners is a poor model of openness in government. He accused the board of not making its complete agendas available for public viewing before meetings take place. He also believes that the board is trying to cling to the same level of power that it held prior to the November 2010 election, when the county executive’s office was first established.

“There is zero transparency and zero communication coming out of that board,” Hackel said. “Nobody knows what they’re doing until after their meetings are already over. So the real intent (with these ordinances) is control, not transparency. They want to maintain total control of county government, but that’s not what the voters said three years ago when they voted to create a new county government with an executive branch and a legislative branch.”

Flynn countered by pointing out that all agendas for the Board of Commissioners and its various committees are displayed on the Macomb County website prior to each meeting. In addition, audio and video recordings of every full board meeting are made available shortly after they are held.

“These (budget transparency) ordinances were actually posted online seven days in advance,” Flynn said. “Our board also meets in public, and that’s an inherently transparent way of conducting government. So I’m not really sure what (Hackel is) talking about. People are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts.”