Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 7, 2013

Another View: Financial tale of two counties

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — When it comes to fiscal matters, it’s clear that Livingston County Republicans and Democrats live in different worlds.

Republicans are so proud of their frugal money-management policies that on even-numbered years they purchase billboard space to proudly proclaim that the county government, run by an all-Republican board, boasts the lowest property tax rate among Michigan’s 83 counties.

Democrats don’t think that is such a badge of honor. They argue that the low taxes and high bond rating only tell part of the story. Missing, they say, are services that cost money but would make the county a better place to live.

But high taxes and more spending don’t necessarily mean better government. For a troubling example, one need only look a little bit to the east where Wayne County — the most-populous county in the state — is staggering under a huge deficit and questionable management.

And, yes, the county is run by Democrats.

The contrast between Livingston and Wayne counties is striking. Livingston has a balanced budget, levies the lowest property tax rate in the state and boasts the highest-possible bond rating — a stature that reflects prudent a prudent spending philosophy as well as providing savings when the county and area townships borrow money to pay for projects.

Wayne County levies a higher tax rate but still is a financial nightmare. It is running a huge deficit. It has underfunded pension obligations. It’s bond rating has been reduced to a tick above that of junk bonds. Its response in part has been to propose a tax hike and blame the state for not giving it enough money.

Where has Wayne County’s money gone? Some of it has gone into ridiculously generous sweetheart deals for those most connected to the highest seats of county power. A Wayne County official in his 40s with less than nine years of service qualified for an immediate $96,000-a-year payout. An economic official who willingly left for a lucrative job running the airport was given a $200,000 severance package — although that was returned when the smelly deal was publicized.

Who spends money like that? Well, obviously, it’s the elected power elite in Wayne County.

Is that the only reason Wayne is in a mess? Of course not. Property values, particularly in Detroit, have fallen sharply, which means that a proposed tax hike would only bring revenues up to higher levels. Wayne County has suffered mightily because of foreclosures as well.

But it is not as though Livingston County doesn’t know the pain of foreclosures and declining property values. The difference is that the county leaders here define their job as managing the county’s finances, as opposed to raiding the taxpayers’ bank account.

Despite falling revenues from property taxes and from the state, Livingston County balances its budget and maintains a healthy reserve.

That’s because the people calling the shots don’t live in Wayne’s world.

Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, Howell