The 2016 Election Cycle is proving to be one of the most interesting in recent memory. Ranging from races that are contested to those that are actually contentious, the ballot is full of candidates vying both for open and occupied seats.
In Bay County much of the Election action traditionally is in the primary elections, as the area has leaned to the Democratic side for so long; and this is the case in the race for Bay County Executive, where the office holder for the next term will be decided in the August 2nd Democratic Primary.
The contest features two of the most well-known names in Bay County politics, incumbent Tom Hickner and former State and US Representative Jim Barcia. Joining them on the ballot is self-described outsider Mark McFarlin.
We asked the three candidates three questions each about the County and the job as County Executive. Here are their answers:
Review: What is an area where it is clear that Bay County is “getting it right” in terms of how a County Government should run?
Barcia: Our Bay County cities and townships have been effectively using Downtown Development Authorities (DDA) to recapture tax dollars that are being reinvested to spur economic development. This has been evident within Bay City along the riverfront. As State Senator, I successfully passed the Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act legislation to create incentives to redevelop business and condominium properties along the Saginaw riverfront which has helped us keep tax rates low across the county.
Unfortunately, these partnerships are in jeopardy in some areas. This potentially will have an impact on job loss of up to 800 jobs across our community. We need to continue to actively promote economic development and collaborate with private investments to further promote Bay County. This will not only help grow investments in Bay County but also help us generate future job growth for our next generation of leaders.
Hickner: There are numerous examples of how Bay County government is "getting it right."
First, our finances. We have had 23 years of balanced budgets with no County tax increases. Our credit rating and fund balances have improved significantly and our pension system is fully funded.
Second, our labor relations. We have 13 bargaining units and have enjoyed excellent labor-management relations. We strongly support the right of our employees to collectively bargain.
Third, economic growth efforts. As County Executive I was one of several individuals who worked actively to establish Bay Future, our private-public partnership that was established to retain, expand and attract jobs to Bay County. Bay County is the largest investor in Bay Future. I have supported efforts to retain the Monitor Downtown Development Authority and other programs and policies that assist in job development efforts.
Fourth, support of numerous public safety and emergency services. We have maintained county funding to the Bay County Sheriff department, the Courts and the Prosecutor's office because we recognize that public safety is essential to an improving quality of life. Our 911 system is state of the art and we have provided equipment to our local public safety agencies. We have regular emergency service exercises so we are prepared in the event disaster strikes our community.
Fifth, our Public Health Department’s improvements to our quality of life. Bay County’s Health Department offers ever increasing services in the form of clinics to serve the underinsured and uninsured as well as those needing mental health treatment, immunizations and chronic health issues. These expanded services have come at little to no additional cost to residents, as the County has been aggressive in locating and obtaining significant grant funding to offset costs to the taxpayers.
McFarlin: This is a difficult question. It is difficult because the County system in Bay County is fundamentally broken. On the surface it may seem functional, the current Bay County Executive, Thomas Hickner is stating that he has balanced 23 budgets with no increase in taxes. First of all, it is mandated that budgets be balanced, secondly the current taxes are excessively high. Therefore, one can claim that the County is getting it right with the budget and therefore establishing a level of stability, yet it is being accomplished via liberal tax and spend policies. Better stability can be achieved through fiscally conservative policies by slashing out waste line by line from the budget. Getting it right via high taxes can give the appearance of stability, yet it is extremely reckless and is at the expense and burden to taxpayers.
Review: What do you see as the most obvious area for improvement in the operations of the County Government and its Departments.
Hickner: Our administration has endorsed the business practice of "continuous improvement" in the ongoing operations of county government. We have implemented numerous changes to how we provide services to the People of Bay County. Today our major challenge is our property tax system because of the provisions of Proposal A. Revenues are down by over 7% county wide because of the housing market collapse in the 2008-2012-time period and will not rebound to their previous high point for many years to come. Our challenge is providing needed county services in a situation of limited financial resources.
McFarlin: The most obvious area of improvement is enacting solid accountability and transparency. One of the primary duties of the County Executive is to appoint directors to unelected departments in the county. These directors need to be qualified and their backgrounds vetted. The last 23 years under the current administration has been plagued with blatant cronyism. Department heads are appointed by the County Executive and then approved or confirmed by the County board. They are, most times, appointed because of their close associations to the County Executive. The Board just gives their blanket approval. These political favors are exchanged all the time between the County Board and the County Executive. Essentially, the County Executive agrees to not veto what the board may politically want and the board approves agendas that the County Executive wants, such as political appointees and salary increases for the County Executive.
Barcia: Collaboration among all county elected officials, departments, employees and local municipalities across Bay County. All of those involved, especially elected officials, have as their primary duty to work for each and every constituent of Bay County in a courteous and prompt manner while providing a quality service through government. The County Executive MUST set that tone not only across all of county government but as well with interactions with every local unit of government across Bay County. We need to unite our collective resources in a manner to meet our mutual challenges together.
We also need to assure Bay County is getting its fair portions of resources from both the federal and state governments to maximize our return. I worked tirelessly at both the Congressional and Michigan Legislative level to assure we were apportioned critical grants, categorical funding and other innovate funding streams. Those resources allow the county to further our infrastructure and bring economic opportunity for all of Bay County’s citizenry.
Review: The County Executive is responsible for operations of the County Government, which includes many diverse departments and a large of number employees. Describe your approach in managing such a large and varied organization.
McFarlin: The responsibility of managing the operations of Bay County is complex. It is manageable if it is departmentalized and with plenty of proper oversight. First, let us approach the responsibilities of elected departments. These departments are somewhat independent and managed by duly elected officials, so these departments are outside the scope of the County Executive. The County Executive is not directly involved in the management of these departments, yet is responsible for final budgets and oversight of any wrongdoing. The 12 departments that are unelected departments are solely under the direction of the County Executive via the appointments of department directors. My approach to the management of these departments is to determine if departments can be consolidated, ensure that appointees are qualified and then create a written protocol and system of oversight in order to protect the public from corruption and abuse of power. Also, would create citizen boards giving citizens input into their own local government.
Barcia: As County Executive, it is critical that we recruit and maintain expertise and talent to help guide the decision making of the county. No County Executive can be an expert in all topics but must position key department leaders to effectively guide based on the strategic direction we set for Bay County. The Executive needs to be a unifier of all aspects of county government and respectful of the roles and duties other county-wide officials have been elected to serve.
County government, as established in the Michigan Constitution and with corresponding statutes, sets the basis for the roles and functioning of our county structure. While required to act as an “agent of the state” in several aspects, we are granted authority to carry out a level of programming to benefit our population. We must strike an adequate balance of meeting both needs to make progress. As required by state law, we must do both while maintaining a balanced budget. While serving the community at both the federal and state level, I have first-hand experience of not only the complexities of many of the agencies, but bring knowledge of where we can partner across agencies to bring a higher level of service availability for Bay County.
We must look to organize our work around 4 areas county government is key to maintaining: 1) Public Safety; 2) Economic Development & Infrastructure; 3) Health & Human Services; and 4) General Government Services.
Hickner: Under Act 139 the County Executive is responsible for the operation of 11 departments. Since 1993, we have had a policy of hiring the most qualified and experienced job applicants to manage each department. The same has occurred at the division and program level. I have never hired or appointed any Department Director or Division Manager on the basis of their political affiliation. There is no room for political appointments and cronyism when it comes to hiring administrators. I have had the policy of not micro-managing each Act 139 department. Instead, we establish annual goals and objectives and make sure we implement them on an ongoing basis.
The County Executive also must work with the other 6 county-wide elected officials who manage their statutory duties. We strive to provide each office with the financial resources to fulfill their responsibilities in an efficient and effective manner.
Editor's Note: Subsequent to publishing this exchange between the candidates, The Review received the following statement from Amber Johnson. Johnson is the attorney for Bay County.
Johnson: I would like to comment on one statement made in this article/candidate forum by Candidate Mark McFarlin. I am current Corporation Counsel for Bay County. This makes me one of the "department heads" to whom Mr. McFarlin refers. Prior to applying for my position, which was posted to the general public with a very specific job description, I had never met nor spoken to the County Executive Mr. Hickner. I went through two extensive rounds of interviews coordinated by the personnel department and was required to submit a writing sample and undergo drug testing and a background check. I had no prior relationship with any individual who was involved in the county government or in my interview process. Never at any time did anyone ask me what my political affiliation was, even though it is within the right of the county executive to politically appoint a person to my position. I was hired after an extensive vetting process based on my qualifications alone.
I have since been involved in the interview process of other department heads at Bay County and the process has been conducted in the same manner every single time. Any allegation by Mr. McFarlin that Mr. Hickner, our current executive, hires or appoints individual department directors or ANY employee based on anything other than their experience and qualifications is a complete and utter falsehood.