COUNTY TREASURER

October 5, 2020

 

ROBERT WITTENBERG
DEMOCRAT

Wittenberg resides in Huntington Woods and holds a bachelors degree in business management. He is currently a State Representative, first elected in 2015.

ROLE OF TREASURER

What is the primary role of the Oakland County Treasurer's Office? What prior experience and skills do you bring to the job to fill the role of treasurer?


The county treasurer is the banker for the county government, manager of county debt and steward of taxpayer dollars. The treasurer's office and staff, under the leadership of the county treasurer, have many roles within the county government, including the management of the property tax foreclosure process. As a third-term State Representative for southern Oakland County, I've demonstrated trustworthy leadership in the execution of my duties. In my previous career as a life and health insurance specialist, I garnered firsthand experience navigating the challenges of operating a small business. Additionally, I currently serve as treasurer of the community coalition for the Berkley and Oak Park school districts. I believe an effective public servant should be both fiscally responsible and socially conscious. As treasurer, I will be a compassionate steward of resources for all residents across Oakland County.

INVESTMENT OUTLOOK FOR COUNTY

In revenue terms, what do you see as the impact on county investments and investments for local communities that the county helps manage given the turmoil expected in the current economy? Over the past three years, how has the county investment portfolio performed? Provide specifics.


The county treasurer invests funds of the Oakland County Local Government Investment Pool using a conservative investing strategy outlined in state statute and the Oakland County investment policy. Through careful analysis of every investment decision, I commit to never losing a penny of invested funds under my fiduciary responsibility. Each month, the county treasurer's office generates transparent, publicly accessible reports spelling out their performance. Because the investment pool is well diversified with laddered maturities, the county's investments have been performing strongly in recent years, millions of dollars in interest being generated each month for our local communities and outperforming the benchmark. Simply put, our taxpayer dollars have been put to work to maximize return for the further benefit of the taxpayers, while still following the requirements of safety first in every investment decision, then looking to liquidity needs, then finally to yield. Markets presently continue to show resilience in the face of recent economic turmoil, and as treasurer I will be vigilant to ensure that we follow the Oakland County Investment Policy and swiftly adapt to any changes or turmoil the economy presents.

OFFICE STAFFING PLANS

A large part of the success of the Oakland County Treasurer's office has been that over the terms of the last three treasurers they were able to assemble a strong and experienced staff. Have you already started to assemble a staff and will some of your organization plans include key staff members already working for the county?


I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism of the experienced staff in the Oakland County Treasurer's office. My organizational approach to managing the office includes incorporating as many staff members already working for the county as possible. It would be presumptuous of me to assemble a staff this far ahead of the elections, and I will wait until a more prudent juncture to set more concrete decisions in regard to staff. However, I can promise that if elected, I will ensure our office reflects the diversity of the residents of our county when staffing decisions are made.

COUNTY BOND RATING

Oakland County has for years maintained a AAA bond rating. What efforts can, and will, the treasurer's office make to ensure that Oakland County maintains this high rating?


Maintaining the AAA bond rating is one of my top priorities. Our strong rating helps save taxpayer money by reducing the county's borrowing rates when bonds are sold to fund capital projects within Oakland County. It has been and can continue to be put to work, benefiting our local units of government when partnering with the county. A critical effort by the county treasurer in maintaining the AAA bond rating is ensuring the county continues multi-year balanced budgets, strong tax collection and a diversified local economy. As county treasurer, I will be a strong leader on advocating for balanced, long-term budgeting and forecasting.

TAX DELINQUENCIES

Given the current economic challenges faced by many county residents, do you envision an increase in tax delinquencies similar in nature but not necessarily in scale as experienced during the recent Great Recession? What can the office of county treasurer do to assist county residents in terms of an economic downturn that is expected?


It is very likely that we will see an increase in tax delinquencies, but I don’t think it will be to the level of the Great Recession. For most people, their home is the largest investment they will make in their lifetime. I will ensure that people are able to stay and thrive in our neighborhoods. I will actively engage with all taxpayers facing financial challenges to help address their needs and set them up with resources while developing collaborative plans to help prevent foreclosure. I will also leverage relationships in the private sector to implement public-private partnerships to create small business and homeowner relief funds to address the lasting impact of COVID-19. Currently, I am working with treasurer Meisner to draft legislation giving county treasurers more flexibility to help struggling homeowners stay in their homes. Either way, I am eager to proactively tackle the problem before it becomes an even larger issue for our residents.

TAX FORECLOSURE RULING
 
Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner lost a major Michigan Supreme Court case recently when the court ruled that the county could not sell a home in tax foreclosure and keep the proceeds of the sales beyond the tax amount that was due. Meisner says he was strictly following the law and would work to have the law changed to allow treasurers more discretion to avoid tax sales when small amounts of overdue taxes are owed. Would you support a change in the law? On smaller amounts of overdue land taxes, is there another means of collecting the overdue tax without forcing the sale of a property? Ultimately what will be the cost to Oakland County if this court decision is applied retroactively to past such sales and what will be the annual average loss from not being able to keep the excess sales money?


Not only do I support changing the law, but as a state Representative, I introduced legislation to facilitate the change (House Bill 5935). Oakland County homeowners deserve a tax foreclosure system that serves them better. If enacted, my legislation will give county treasurers discretion to protect taxpayers from foreclosures due to a deminimis amount. I also introduced House Bill 5936 which would allow county treasurers to waive up to 75 percent of interest associated with delinquent property taxes for homeowners who lose their job and are facing financial hardship due to COVID-19. Even if these bills aren’t enacted, there are innovative policies I would implement as treasurer to strengthen our communities. One example is a public-private partnership to create a relief fund to cover tax bills for homeowners in financial need. I will leverage relationships with organizations to offer grants that help cover tax balances for those facing financial hardship on the front end, preventing residents from needlessly losing their homes. Although we want everyone to be fiscally responsible, things happen that are out of a person’s control. While foreclosures are devastating to a family, they are also costly to taxpayers, and we should do all that we can to prevent them. The legal and financial implications of this suit are challenging — and also uncertain. My duty and promise as our next treasurer will be to safeguard the taxpayers’ funds, so I’d be committed to shielding and limiting any potential future liabilities or financial threats for Oakland County.

KEY ISSUES

What do you believe are the key issues facing Oakland County at this time? Why? How would you work to resolve the issues?


I believe my top priorities as treasurer will address the key issues facing Oakland County. My priorities include the financial security and well-being of every resident, helping to recruit new businesses while supporting existing ones, and maintaining our AAA bond rating. I will be an innovative and proactive leader on these issues. My plan as Oakland County Treasurer is to continue the proven, trustworthy leadership I've delivered as a state representative. For example, I developed innovative programs that can increase access to capital for small businesses in Oakland County – ultimately giving them a better chance to succeed.  The financial security of many residents and businesses will be challenged by the lasting effects of COVID-19. That is why my plan to implement public-private partnerships to create small business and homeowner relief funds, will go a long way in helping people who are facing hardships. I intend to responsibly and thoughtfully make our taxpayer dollars work the absolute best for our residents.

WHY VOTE FOR YOU

How do your skills sets prepare you to represent the county better than your opponent?


My proven track record as an elected state Representative, along with my experience as a licensed life and health agent and as treasurer for our multi-community coalition, positions me best to serve as the next county treasurer. I love helping people, and that is why I am in public service. I believe our treasurer should be accessible, reliable, and trustworthy. These are all traits that I have exhibited as a state Representative. I have been on this campaign trail since September, and I am proud to have the endorsement of the current treasurer, Andy Meisner, all the Oakland County Democratic state legislators, and numerous county commissioners, mayors, and city council members. Being raised in Oakland County helped shape me into the person I am today. And as a current homeowner, husband, and father of young children in Oakland County, I'm committed to strengthening the quality of life for all residents throughout the county.

 

 

JOE KENT
REPUBLICAN

Kent resides in Oxford and has an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and a masters degree in business from the University of Michigan.  He has been involved with several local community groups.

ROLE OF TREASURER

The Oakland County Treasurer is tasked with receiving and safeguarding the nearly $1 billion in property taxes and fees collected by the county.  A detailed record is also to be kept of all disbursements. A key function of the treasurer’s office is the collection of taxes deemed uncollectible by local municipalities, and advancing these amounts to the municipalities so as to ensure the continuation of day-to-day local government operations. The treasurer likewise decides if and when to foreclose on and seize properties. My education (University of Michigan MBA), licensing (US Treasury) and 25 years advising hundreds of county businesses and families as an expert in business management and taxation make me ideally suited. I am well known and proven as a highly capable, trusted, and prudent voice who loves Oakland County and is committed to protecting it for future generations.

INVESTMENT OUTLOOK FOR COUNTY

Investments under the Oakland County Treasurer are strictly prescribed to be of the most conservative possible.  Specifically, they are limited to bank deposits together with obligations backed by the federal and state government. As such, current economic turmoil is not likely to cause any appreciable change in performance. Regrettably the public has insufficient tools with which to evaluate the performance of these investments. Indeed, the investment reports available through the offices of the current treasurer are especially unhelpful as they show only the allocation of the county’s funds without disclosing performance. Reported yields of employee retirement funds (not managed by the treasurer) serve only to further confuse uninformed observers. This lack of transparency is of great concern to me and calls attention to my future administration’s commitment to providing disclosures that set a national standard for clarity and thoroughness.

OFFICE STAFFING PLANS

I admire the standards and performance of the administration of L. Brooks Patterson.  I likewise admire and am deeply proud of his administration’s commitment to providing levels of service that became benchmarks for county governments across the United State. The treasurer’s office is populated by a great many women and men who exemplify these standards. I similarly believe that stability is a hallmark of well-run organizations, especially those dealing with financial matters. I am in communication with current and past Oakland County government personnel so as to be in a position to ensure that taxpayers receive the highest possible caliber of service without disruption.

COUNTY BOND RATING

I stand in firm opposition to tax increases.  Oakland County’s AAA bond rating is a central concern.  This rating bears directly on borrowing costs for the county. There is in turn a domino effect on local municipalities. If borrowing costs rise, then a case will be made for higher taxes – both at the county and local levels. The county’s past practice of issuing “fiscal notes” to disclose the cost of budget changes was greatly admired by bond rating authorities. Last year the new Democrat majority of Oakland County Commissioners voted to discontinue issuing fiscal notes. I will advocate for their return. It is unacceptable for a curtain to be drawn around the books of Oakland County government.  It is similarly unacceptable to expect commissioners to make prudent and informed judgements in the absence of this information.

TAX DELINQUENCIES

While I do not expect an increase in tax delinquencies on par with what was experienced during the Great Recession, COVID-19 has caused financial devastation. I commend the Oakland County Treasurer in the establishment of the Oakland County Foreclosure Prevention Initiative in collaboration with United Way, Lighthouse of Oakland County and other entities. I similarly support the treasurer’s Taxpayer Assistance Meetings as a means of counseling with at-risk homeowners. We do not benefit as communities when people who wish to retain ownership of their homes are unable to do so. As treasurer I will seek to expand these services by placing a special emphasis on communication.  Current practices allow months to pass and fines to accumulate when collection responsibility is handed off from local municipalities to the county treasurer’s office. Errors by homeowners and lenders go undetected far too long. I will enact new procedures to close this information gap.

TAX FORECLOSURE RULING

It’s important to recognize that even though Michigan law specifies the process that county treasurers have to follow when they sell a property to collect delinquent taxes, the law does not force treasurers to conduct such a sale. Otherwise treasurers would have zero discretion in how they collect delinquent taxes. This is clearly not the case. Options available to the treasurer include helping the owner set up a payment plan, or asking the taxpayer’s local municipality to get involved. I do not support a change in the law.  As Oakland County Treasurer I will closely monitor the status of delinquent properties so as to protect the rights of property owners and avoid extreme remedies such as occurred when the county sold a property for which $8.41 was owed. I further believe it is unethical for county governments to profit by auctioning properties and retaining funds received over and above the delinquent tax. This practice incentivizes county governments to auction properties so as to produce an income stream above and beyond the property taxes and fees that are supposed to fund government operations.

KEY ISSUES

The key issues of the Oakland County Treasurer’s race are the protection of taxpayers, the restoring of integrity in county government and securing the county’s financial future.  These issues rise to the top because they collectively represent a departure from the standards that Oakland County residents justifiably expect. The need to protect taxpayers is evidenced by the recent Michigan Supreme Court case over the seizure and sale of an Oakland County residence over an $8.41 property tax mistake. Integrity is called in question by steps to hide financial details. The county’s financial future is jeopardized by sharply increased spending. Disclosing financial data is the starting point for getting the county back on the path that L. Brooks Patterson so ably mapped out. The public has a right to know. Next comes a commitment to best practices as defined by the financial community rather than by political expedience.

WHY VOTE FOR YOU

My life is driven by a love for God, family, country and community. I built a thriving business based on the premise that customers deserve the highest caliber of service, and that no person should pay more in taxes than the law requires. I hold the tax profession’s most sought after license. I hold an advanced business degree from the university that stands for being “leaders and best.” I do the hard things that prove I’m committed to what I say. In 2015 I crisscrossed my township campaigning against Proposal One to increase Michigan’s sales tax. In 2016 my team and I knocked on 17,000 doors as I ran for the State House of Representatives. I came up 15 votes short, but was endorsed by L. Brooks Patterson, the Michigan Bankers Association and the MI Association of CPAs. I am the right person to be Oakland County’s next treasurer.

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