Article

Minding the Bank • The Saginaw County Treasurer’s Candidate Forum

Politics in Review
Posted In:Politics, Local, Candidates | From Issue 834 | By: | 13th October, 2016 | 0


Another significant position to be determined locally during the November 8th general election is that of Saginaw County Treasurer. Essentially, the County Treasurer functions as the county’s ‘Banker’, with all departments depositing monthly revenues with the treasurer. Responsibilities of the office include acting as a custodian of all county funds, signing all checks, collecting all delinquent real property taxes and dog license fees, responsibility for the Delinquent Tax Revolving Fund, administrating the Hotel-Motel Tax, and acting as chair of the Saginaw County Land Bank Authority and managing tax foreclosed properties and the tax foreclosure process.

The total amount raised from the Hotel/Motel (Accommodations Ordinance) varies from year- to-year, but the average amounts collected are $2,600,000 per year with $1,600,000 of that amount distributed to the Saginaw County Convention & Visitors Bureau and $900,000 distributed to the Frankenmuth Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Currently Democrat Timothy M. Novak serves as the Saginaw County Treasurer and is seeking re-election to another 4-year term and his Republican challenger is Heather McLeod. Other boards the Treasurer serves on include the Economic Development Commission Board; the Revolving Loan Fund Board; the Building Authority Board; the Apportionment Commission; the Board of Elections Commission and the Plat Board. & Land Bank

The Controller/Chief Administrative Officer (not the treasurer) is the financial manager of the County and supervises budget preparation and control, accounting, personnel, administration, data processing, grounds, and other miscellaneous services of the County. The Controller, appointed by the Board of Commissioners, acts as consultant to the Board of Commissioners and advises all appointed and elected officials. The Controller is responsible for the safeguarding of assets and reliability of financial records.

We hope you find this Candidate Forum both informative and helpful when it comes to deciding which candidate is best suited to serve Saginaw County in this pivotal position.

Review:  Please state your educational & professional background and why you feel it best qualifies you for the position of Saginaw County Treasurer.

McLeod: In 1997, I received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Northwood University, with an Accounting major and Mathematics minor.  I have worked in accounting since graduation.  One of the functions of the Treasurer is collecting property taxes that become delinquent at the Township level.  While working for Knight Facilities Management, Inc., my collections skill set was developed.  At that time, I was responsible for billing over $1 million per month to customers and collecting unpaid invoices.  Our customers were mainly the big three auto companies.   These responsibilities allowed me to develop tailored collection procedures for each plant, resulting in an increase in collections of 10%.

Novak: I graduated from Nouvel Catholic Central. I earned a BA in Political Science Pre-Law from Michigan State and a Teacher’s Certificate from SVSU.  I was a member of the Board of Commissioners for 10 years.  This enables me to understand how the departments of the County are interrelated.  It has helped me understand the importance of collaboration to most effectively complete a task, and share resources to be efficient.  My 6 plus years as a teacher (5 ½ years at Nouvel CC) have helped me build my skills as a multi-tasker and understanding that results come from hard work and preparation yet still be able to improvise.   I have past experience operating a small business.  I learned it is important to understand the best use of resources.  During my first term as County Treasurer I have demonstrated my ability to improve our community through private and public partnerships.

Review: Insofar as the County Treasurer functions essentially as the county’s ‘Banker’, with all departments depositing monthly revenues with the treasurer, as a custodian of county funds why do you feel you are better qualified for this position than your opponent?

Novak: As a member of the Board of Commissioners for ten years, I gained valuable experience providing me with the knowledge of how County departments interact and work together. In addition, it helped me understand the importance of building partnerships with local municipalities and other groups to solve problems or share resources.  In addition, this understanding helps to monitor for fraud and to utilize best practices for investment. Having managed a small business has enabled me to best understand the relationship between revenues and expenses.  The County has an Investment Policy outlining the priorities of investments: Safety, diversity of investments, diversity of institutions, and yield.

Mcleod: My background in accounting and finance has put me in positions where I was dealing directly with large amounts of cash with signing rights to company bank accounts as well.  I have learned through direct experience how to manage, budget and invest money.  I have direct work experience with developing, following and implementing effective internal controls for cash and other accounting processes.

Review:  Additional responsibilities of the County Treasurer include responsibility for the Delinquent Tax Revolving fund, administering the Hotel-Motel Tax, acting as Chair of the Saginaw County Land Bank Authority and managing tax foreclosed properties through the tax foreclosure process.   I would like to explore separate questions pertaining to two of these areas:

 • The total tax levy for Saginaw County for 2015 was $177 million and $14 million of that was delinquent as of March 1, 2016, representing 8% of the total. Revenue derived after collections within a year is approximately $2.2 million dollars and total sales from the 2015 tax auction was $514,000 from 54 properties.  Do you feel any tangible approaches exist for closing this gap and/or improving the return ratio on tax foreclosed properties at public auction?

McLeod: There are always steps that can be taken to improve collection ratios.  The current processes can be looked at and improved upon.  As Treasurer, I will build relationships with the Township Treasurers.  They are on the front lines of property tax collection and are doing a great job.  They need to know that their work is valuable to the County as a whole.  I would like to identify the Treasurers in the County doing the most effective job and form a team to build a best practices manual for tax collection County wide. 

Novak:  We can increase the amount of taxes paid and avoid foreclosure by working with non-profits such as Community Home Solutions to help homeowners manage budgets and find programs to help. Step Forward Michigan helped homeowners behind on their mortgage or property taxes.  Other programs can offer home improvement loans or aid for veterans.

Saginaw has made changes to our auction process to improve it.  We have one auction where properties sell for the minimum bid or higher.  We avoid a second auction by bundling the properties that don’t sell at the first auction, requiring an all or nothing bid. This auction saw out-of-state speculators offering little improvement to our community.  In addition, we saw a number of these properties return to auction.  Lately, we have seen the price paid at the first auction increase for properties purchased.  The properties can then be sold to local people.

Review:  95% of the properties comprising the Land Bank inventory come from those that do not sell during public auction. Some are beyond salvation and end up on the demolitions list, which are demolished from revenue generated from grants & foreclosure auctions.  Can more be done to secure returned commercial & residential properties once the Land Bank receives the property so that it doesn’t deteriorate to gross disrepair and end up requiring demolition?

Novak: Most of the properties the Land Bank owns come from tax foreclosures.  They require major repairs such as roofs, windows, and foundation work. The Land Bank takes time to inspect, board and secure properties to prevent further damage.  The Land Bank sells a number of houses each year, stressing owner occupancy.  In 2015 the Land Bank sold 40 houses or commercial buildings.  In fiscal year 2016 the Land Bank had over $260,000 in property sales.  The Land Bank tries to return properties back to productive use, which has the added benefit of returning properties to the tax rolls.  A website is being developed that will feature a list of properties for sale and have applications online to apply for the purchase or lease of a property.  Lastly, the Land Bank continues to work with preservationists to identify potential buyers of property and which houses to sell or demolish.

McLeod: My vision is to involve community partners in securing and improving these properties before they deteriorate beyond repair.  The people who live in the community have a vested interest in it and, I believe, are willing to help.  We could put together a building trades program for at risk youth in which they learn while securing and improving land bank owned properties.  There are many churches and other community partners who would get involved with a program like this.

Review:   Recently developers came forward that offered to purchase and acquire a pair of historic buildings in Downtown Saginaw at 206 & 220 E. Genesee for $150,000 and pledged to secure the buildings and make them safe; yet the decision was made to demolish the buildings at an estimated cost of $300,000.  Isn’t it more prudent to mothball these historic structures than demolish them, especially when developers agree to abate & address the safety issues and the added expense of demolition can be avoided?

McLeod: There is far too much demolition of historic buildings occurring in Saginaw.  My great grandmother came to Saginaw from Lithuania in the early 1900’s.  My grandparents started their Christmas business on the corner of Hess and S. Washington in 1955.  My parents still run that business today.  My roots run deep in Saginaw and I have a passionate love for our history and our historic buildings.  When a building is demolished we lose more than that building.  We lose a tangible link to our past.  I also believe it is important to make sound financial decisions and spending an additional $150,000 to tear a building down is not a sound financial decision.

Novak: The buildings at 220 and 206 E. Genesee were dangerous and in very poor condition.  On two occasions, bricks fell from the corner building into the street.  The building at 206 had mold, rusted beams, flooded basement, roof damage and masonry in need of repair so that it didn’t fall into the street.  No offer to purchase these buildings was ever made.  Agreed upon deadlines to provide a developer agreement to the Land Bank were not met.  The Land Bank did not feel that spending a minimum of $150,000 of taxpayer money to barely make the buildings safe was a good use of limited resources. The Land Bank could not neglect the fact there was structural damage between 220 and 206 caused by water running from the roof of 206 into the adjacent wall of 220.  The decision to mothball should be weighed using cost, safety and potential end use.

Review: Similarly, recently Saginaw County purchased the historic Michigan Bank building next to the Governmental Center on S. Michigan when it went up for foreclosure auction and have demolished that structure in Old Town Saginaw.  Do you feel this was prudent or should this structure also have been mothballed and sold to an appropriate developer?

Novak: Saginaw County has made it a priority to improve the neighborhood surrounding the Governmental Complex for residents and people visiting Old Town and the Courthouse. The County explored the idea of renovating the bank for an alternate use. Based on costs to renovate, discussions with County personnel about potential uses, and potential plans for the Governmental Complex in the future, the decision was made to expand the grounds of the Complex for future purposes.  There is also a parking lot across Cass Street that the County received when the bank was purchased, making it possible to move services into a more centrally located area of the County.

Preservation of historic structures adds a benefit to the community but safety and limited resources also play a role in decision making.  Saginaw is in a stage of rebirth.  A combination of partnerships and developments, public and private, will be needed going forward.

McLeod: When buyers or developers are available, I believe it’s prudent to explore the possibilities surrounding historic buildings.  I would always err on the side of revitalizing a neighborhood by finding occupants for a building and saving money by avoiding demolition, however, that isn’t always possible.  In this case, if all due diligence has been done, abatement was found to be too cost prohibitive and no viable alternatives were found then demolition was the right decision. 

Review:  Feel free to add any addition thoughts or comments on any area that I might not have touched upon.

Novak: I am a lifelong Saginaw County resident.   My priorities as County Treasurer should I be re-elected are: Foreclosure Prevention: continue to work with homeowners and organizations to maximize the help available for residents.  Neighborhood Stabilization: As the Chairman of the Land Bank Authority, continue to work with neighborhood organizations, churches, municipalities and residents to help clean up blight and find ways to make safer and more desirable neighborhoods.   We continue to search for grant money to aid in demolition of blighted houses.     Financial Efficiency and Safety: As the County’s banker, work to keep     taxpayer money safe and find ways to efficiently use technology and             streamline any processes for our residents to pay for County services.

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