The Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees on Monday, September 9, rejected claims by trustee David Buckley that the township is in the midst of a financial crisis and is in need of new management in order to provide fiscal oversight and accountability.
While the board didn't take any official actions, five of the seven members said during a special study session that they weren't interested in restructuring the township's administration by creating a township superintendent position to oversee the day-to-day operations of the township,which would essentially supplant the duties and powers of the township supervisor position.
Buckley in August proposed a resolution to establish a superintendent position. Under the proposal, the superintendent would head the township's budget process, oversee all departments in the township, serve as personnel director and essentially be responsible for the daily operations of the township. The elected supervisor position, which is currently responsible for those duties, would be restricted to running board meetings and conducting ceremonial duties.
The proposal followed results of an August 6 special election in which voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2.3-mill special assessment district (SAD) that would have been used in part to pay for unfunded liabilities related to police and fire retiree benefits. The township is currently carrying about $165 million in unfunded OPEB (other post employment benefits) liabilities dating back several decades. Under state law that went into effect in January of 2018, the township must pre-fund at least 40 percent of the benefits, equating to about $64 million. Previously, the township had paid its OPEB costs as they came due each year, with the first pre-payment advances to the fund made in 2016. The board is now taking steps to close an annual funding gap of about $5 million related to OPEB funding requirements.
Trustees at the board's August 12 meeting agreed to hold a study session to discuss the proposal. Buckley started the discussion by saying his proposal stems from previous board discussions prior to current Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie's appointment in 2011.
"I would propose removing some of my first comments on the resolution, as they aren't pertinent moving forward, and the election results aren't pertinent," Buckley said.
However, Buckley later cited the election and reiterated his previous comments when it became apparent during the study session, as well as the regular board meeting that followed, that his proposal failed to gain any traction among other members, with the exception of trustee Dani Walsh.
"You're really going to do this to the public," Buckley said, after the board members remained silent after the matter was opened for discussion.
"I thought we agreed in good faith that we would talk things out and get everyone's opinion," Walsh echoed. "Strange we would agree to this and not discuss it."
Trustee Michael Schostack eventually started the discussion by inquiring about the differences between a township superintendent and township manager. However, the majority of board members subsequently said they weren't interested in changing the township's style of government.
"I like it the way it is," said clerk Jan Roncelli. "You have consistency when you elect someone for four years. ... there is nothing in the rules or procedures about qualifications except age and residency, and those qualifications come across when you're campaigning. We have never had a superintendent here, and I like the fact we have had consistency in our supervisor, clerk and treasurer roles. I think it brings stability when we haven't had a lot of turnover.
"With a superintendent, some have success and some don't. I don't see the necessity for it. You're taking away all the powers of the supervisor and giving them to a superintendent. At least with a supervisor, if you don't like the way they are doing things, you can cast your vote."
Buckley said a superintendent position would take direction from the whole board, allowing for more engagement on township matters. He then referenced the results of the August election, saying he wasn't confident that renewal of a general fund millage in 2020 would be passed by the public if changes weren't made.
"I'm sorry, but we owe it to the residents and voters to give some ideas," he said. "I apologize to the public if our elected officials don't have an opinion."
"You don't have to apologize to me, I don't agree with you," trustee Neal Barnett said. "We have a financial issue we have to address, but I don't believe we are in a financial crisis."
Barnett also pointed out that Savoie was the first supervisor to begin funding OPEB liabilities in advance.
"He started the funding for unfunded liabilities and the previous supervisors didn't," he said. "It should have been done years ago. I believe the voters should be making decisions, and if they're not happy with the supervisor, vote someone else in, and the same for the clerk or any of us. I think that's the best form."
Treasurer Brian Kepes said any discussion of changes to administrative duties also should include the treasurer and clerk position.
"I think as a community we have been very fortunate to have very qualified people filling those seats. From a funding standpoint, we have a funding issue, and that one ballot issue wasn't passed, and resoundingly," Kepes said. "That doesn't mean you look at throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One problem and one issue doesn't mean you say the whole machine is broken because I don't think it is."
Recognizing a lack of support for a restructuring of the supervisor position, Buckley suggesting an emergency financial manager may be needed.
"We may need to look at a financial manager or an emergency manager because of this crisis, because we haven't seen a plan to move forward," Buckley said.
In Michigan, a local government can request a financial emergency manager from the governor if certain triggers occur for a preliminary review, per Public Act 436 of 2012, including missed payroll; creditor's written request; missed pension payments; local petition of five percent of gubernatorial election voters requesting one; deficit-elimination plan breach or lack of such plan within 30 days of its due date; board requesting a review via resolution; or a legislative request. Only the governor can appoint an emergency financial manager, who takes control of the governing body, completely supplanting them.
Buckley's suggestion came weeks after township administration announced the refinancing of general obligation bonds that will save the township about $370,000 annually, as well an additional $280,000 a year from the elimination of the animal welfare division, the township's annual open house event and special recycling and hazardous waste collection events. The township also is expected to cut health care costs by more than $1 million annually under changes approved by the board at its meeting later that evening. Savoie said additional cuts will be brought to the board in presentations by township department heads in coming months.
Savoie said he views the proposal as combining two separate issues.
"We have the issue of a superintendent, and we have an issue of me. I think the superintendent position has been talked about by all seven people up here. We aren't in a financial crisis. You were quoted as saying this was a no confidence vote on me," Savoie said to Buckley. "I don't think that's the case either. The people were given a choice and we asked them to make that choice, rather than deciding for them. That's all we did."