In an affable session during which Republican Marlene Chockley repeatedly praised the incumbent Democrat Catherine McClary, the candidates for Washtenaw County treasurer responded to questions at an Oct. 8 forum moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
Chockley – a former county commissioner and current chair of the Northfield Township planning commission who’s long been involved in the county Republican Party – said she’s running to highlight how tax increases are affecting the most vulnerable people in this county. She’s concerned that government is too large, and is worried about projections that show a growing population of senior citizens who’ll be more vulnerable to higher taxes.
McClary, who was first elected treasurer 16 years ago, pointed to her track record of managing the county’s investments and creating foreclosure prevention programs that she said serve as models for the state.
The candidates answered nine questions selected by a league committee from a pool of questions submitted by league members and the general public. Topics included goals for the office, perspectives on customer service, and suggestions for improving operations. The forum was moderated by Rosemary Austgen, a league officer.
Some issues affecting the treasurer’s office didn’t arise during the forum, including a recent move by the county board of commissioners to shift control over administering the county’s 5% accommodation tax from the county treasurer’s office to the finance director. An initial vote on that action took place at the board’s Oct. 3 meeting. The treasurer’s office will also be pivotal if the board decides to change the county’s approach to dog licensing. That issue has been raised this year during meetings of the board’s animal control policy task force. A recent task force report includes a proposal to adopt a civil infractions ordinance for unlicensed dogs, which McClary had previously recommended.
Information about both Chockley and McClary, including brief answers to four questions about their background and approach to the job, can be found on the League of Women Voters Vote 411 website. The county treasurer is elected to a four-year term and oversees an office that’s responsible for a range of services, including tax collection and dog licensing.
The Oct. 8 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and will be available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. It was the second of three forums on Monday evening – others covered the races for water resources commissioner and county clerk/register of deeds. The full schedule of candidate forums this week is on the league’s website. The forums are broadcast live on CTN’s Channel 19 starting at 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 was the last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election. Information on local elections can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. The league’s Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Each candidate was given one minute to make an opening statement.
McClary: She began by thanking the League of Women Voters, saying they’ve always been involved in exemplary educational programs for voters. McClary cited her track record of preventing foreclosure and safeguarding public funds. She asked voters to re-elect her.
Chockley: The reason she’s running isn’t to attack McClary, Chockley began. She said that McClary has done a great job, and there’s way too much negative politics in general, so she didn’t want to do that. Chockley cited her own experience as a Washtenaw County commissioner for six years. She spent most of that time working on committees focused on at-risk youth, poor families, health concerns and population data. She currently chairs the Northfield Township planning commission. She’s running because she wants to make people aware of challenges they’ll be facing in the future, and how taxes might impact those challenges.
According to SEMCOG [the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments] and census data, over the next 25 years the area’s senior population is projected to increase 150%, Chockley reported. Of those, 43% will be living alone. Many will be on fixed incomes. How many will lose their homes? she asked. Over those same years, the population under 18 will decrease by 6%. “It’s clear that the demographics of our county are changing dramatically,” Chockley said. Are our tax policies helping to produce an underclass that’s dependent on government for their very existence? Is government going to meet those needs by dragging even more citizens down with more taxes?
Explain the primary duties of the county treasurer.
Chockley: The county treasurer receives monies from the other units of county government, and invests them wisely, she explained, adding that this is what McClary has done. Those funds are then distributed as requested by the county board of commissioners. The office also administers dog licenses, and deals with tax foreclosures and other issues, she said. Chockley added that she was sure McClary could explain the role even more, since she’s been doing the job.
McClary: The treasurer’s primary duty is to safeguard public funds. The office receives, deposits and accounts for all the money that comes into the county. In any given year, money coming in and going out totals $1 billion, she said. The second main responsibility is to manage the county’s investment portfolio. Currently, McClary said she manages $150 million – which is invested with safety and prudence in mind, she added. She reported that the portfolio is earning returns that are around benchmark levels. The third important duty is to collect taxes, she said, and with that comes the responsibility of foreclosure. McClary said she’s developed tax and mortgage foreclosure prevention programs that are been used as models across the state.
What professional experiences led to your run for county treasurer, and what was the most significant in preparing you for this office?
McClary: Like Chockley, McClary said she had served on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. She also pointed to her past experience in the private sector as an investment banker and stock broker. She has certification in public finance and the investment of public funds. But the most important training for the county treasurer’s job was her experience managing a Wall Street investment firm’s Ann Arbor branch office. She said she was involved in internal controls and the supervision of staff. That’s helped her create very strong internal financial controls in the office of county treasurer.
Chockley: Her only experience is with government, as a county commissioner, Chockley said, noting that she hasn’t had the experience that McClary had in investment banking and as a stock broker. “I’ve just been managing my money, which is challenging in these times – making sure my taxes are paid on time, and my credit score is high enough to get done what I need to do.” She said she’s out there just like any other family or couple, working to maintain her personal finances. She described McClary’s background as “tremendous,” and added that she wanted to make sure people are looking at ways to reduce government costs.
What is your immediate goal for the treasurer’s office, and what are your long-term goals?
Chockley: Her immediate goal would be to look at processes inside the office and see if there’s any way to streamline operations to reduce costs.
She’s concerned that government is too large, and she wants to ensure that the office isn’t doing anything that’s unnecessary and costing taxpayers. Her long-term goals would be focused on the same issue.
Chockley would look at how money is flowing and make sure that the government isn’t extracting more from its citizens than is needed for the actual operation of the county.
McClary: She began by noting that early on, she and Chockley had agreed that they’d run positive campaigns and only talk about their own personal attributes. Regarding the question, McClary said the county is facing scarce resources. Her office includes a chief deputy and 10.5 other positions. When you face tightened resources, she said, you need to make sure your staff are very well-trained and well-motivated, and that you implement technology whenever feasible. Those are the short- and long-term goals, she concluded: maintaining customer service and adequate internal controls with reduced staffing.
What would you do to improve the operation of the treasurer’s office?
McClary: It goes back to staff, she said. McClary said she’s hired, retained and motivated a small team who are very caring, compassionate and competent. With scarce resources, the county needs to employ people who can provide the highest quality customer service, she said, and to employ technology when it’s feasible and cost-effective, and when it will make improvements in the operations.
Chockley: She’d like to look at what’s available online so that people don’t have to come into the treasurer’s office – saying she imagines that some of that work is being done already. She wants to make sure those kind of options are available. Chockley noted that she already takes advantage of some of the county’s online services, such as GIS mapping and aerial views of properties. She again stated that she assumed the treasurer’s office already offered online services. At that, McClary replied that there’s more that can be done. “There always is,” Chockley responded.
How does the county treasurer’s office provide customer service?
Chockley: One way is by providing services to townships in the county, to make sure they have their monies invested properly. She noted that she’s never actually had to go into the county treasurer’s office. “That’s because you pay your taxes in a timely manner,” McClary quipped.
McClary: The treasurer’s office is trying to do more online, McClary said. A couple of years ago, the office started selling dog licenses online. Now, 41% of the population that purchases dog licenses does it online. One thing the office hasn’t yet been able to do is to have a way for people to pay delinquent taxes online. The county does have a system that can automatically debit a customer so that they can make partial payments toward back taxes. The county brings in almost $70,000 a month that way, she said. McClary said she’d like to do that online, but the technology doesn’t yet work for that.
What would you do to improve the county’s tax foreclosure system?
McClary: The treasurer’s office already has a model program to prevent foreclosure, she said – both for mortgage foreclosure and tax foreclosure. Each year, she withholds property from tax foreclosure for between 250-300 people who are in financial hardship. The next phase in the mortgage foreclosure era is something she calls post-foreclosure. The peak of foreclosures is over, though it will take many years to recover fully. She has started initiating conversations with partner agencies – including the Housing Bureau for Seniors, Legal Services of Southeastern Michigan, and the local MSU Extension– to provide post-foreclosure counseling and resources.
Chockley: She said she’s heard of a good program in another county – she couldn’t remember where. She described it this way: If a homeowner is having difficulty paying their mortgage and isn’t able to refinance at a lower rate, the county would take over the mortgage, and reduce the rate so that the homeowners could pay. It’s not letting owners off the hook, she stressed. It’s just allowing them to pay a lower interest rate. That would be an interesting thing to look at, she said.
What values or beliefs do you hold that would influence your conduct as treasurer, or impact the choices you’d make on behalf of your constituents?
Chockley: “I’m an honest person,” Chockley began. She said she works hard – and she has a good work ethic, and is honest to a fault at times. She has high integrity, she said. And there’s nothing she can imagine doing that would put the public at risk.
McClary: Saying she wished she had answered the question first, McClary also said she’s an honest person. Honesty and integrity are probably the most valuable traits for any elected position, she said – and it’s even more important as treasurer. She also cited her strong work ethic, and said she’s very frugal. She feels that’s reflected in her management of the treasurer’s office budget, and her staffing and resources.
What’s your long-term vision for this office? What projects would you like to start now for the next 10-20 years?
McClary: She’d like to see a stronger use of technology, adding that “it sounds easier than it really has been to implement.” When she became treasurer 16 years ago, someone asked her while she was campaigning whether she could get every single unit of government using the same tax software that the county was using. She thought that was far-fetched, yet it was accomplished within her first four years in office. Now, she’s working with the townships to upgrade that software so that it’s all Internet-based. That would allow data to be shared more easily, she said. Sometimes people want to come into the treasurer’s office, but to the extent that they don’t want to come in, McClary said, her staff is trying to make it easier for people to pay for things and conduct county business by fax, by phone, and through the Internet.
Chockley: She said she didn’t have an answer for that question.
Running for Office
Why are you running for county treasurer?
Chockley: She’s running so that she can talk about concerns regarding taxation. She’s afraid there will be more foreclosures because of the aging population on fixed incomes. They’ll be forced out of their homes because of increasing tax rates. It’s not just property taxes, she added. There are taxes and surcharges on almost everything. So as those costs go up, people are less able to pay for prescriptions, rent, mortgages. “I’m just concerned that we’re pushing people over the edge by having too many taxes, and we’re not thinking small.” The county treasurer’s office is probably not the position for her, she said, indicating that more of a policy-making position would be better. But she’s running for treasurer so that she can make people aware of these issues.
McClary: “I love being county treasurer,” McClary said. She enjoys the money management, but really enjoys the interactions with people. It’s given her incredible gratitude when her office has been able to save people’s homes from foreclosure – between 250-300 homes each year from tax foreclosure. She’s asking voters to support her again. She’d love to continue this work. She enjoys the public service at the county level – she doesn’t have interest in running for state office.
The last question of the forum asked candidates if there was a question they wanted to answer that hadn’t been asked. Both candidates indicated that they didn’t have a response for that.
Each candidate had the opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
McClary: Re-iterating that she enjoys the job of county treasurer and public service, McClary asked voters to re-elect her to the office. She cited her proven track record in helping prevent foreclosures, and the programs she’s developed for that.
She said she’s also very adept at the treasurer’s other responsibility of money management: Protecting and safeguarding county funds and assets, managing the investment portfolio, and making sure that all the money flowing into and out of the county is receipted, deposited and accounted for with very strong internal controls. She asked for voters to support her on Nov. 6.
Chockley: Her concerns aren’t about the job of treasurer, Chockley began. If elected, she would certainly look out for the interests of citizens and perform the job to the best of her ability. But first, she wanted to advocate for fair and appropriate taxation. The tax burden on citizens is too high, she said. It reduces their ability to save for their future or provide for their current needs.
Renters are burdened even more, Chockley noted. A lot of people don’t think about that, but landlords pay 18 mills more in taxes than homeowners. That’s passed on in the rent. She said she knows this because she now owns a rental house. The poverty rate in Washtenaw County is one in seven, Chockley said. When looking at ballot proposals on Nov. 6, voters should carefully weigh the impact on those who might already be struggling to pay for their prescriptions, food or rent, heat their homes or buy gas to get to work. In a day when we pay taxes or surcharges on nearly everything, she said, people are lucky if they can afford it. Think about others who are less fortunate, she said, and how they will fare if you vote yes or no on a particular proposal.
She also wanted to advocate for county and state government to prioritize only services that are necessary for a vibrant community, and that can’t be done – or done well – by the private sector. Finally, she wanted to help anticipate the needs of the aging population in the form of services. Many people haven’t saved, or haven’t been able to save enough. They’ll have health, housing and transportation challenges that the community will have to deal with. What policies will empower citizens to care for themselves, and which ones will heap on more burden? The best outcome will be for seniors and all citizens to be able to provide for their own needs. “We must not handicap them by extracting more in taxes than is necessary to provide needed government services.”
Chockley concluded by thanking McClary for her service as treasurer, saying she’s very knowledgeable. She urged voters to think about the effect of millages on those less fortunate.
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