Forecast Better days are ahead for the city

June 15, 2009
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To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Al Mooney has seen the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times came during his nearly 21 years as treasurer for the city of Grand Rapids; the worst of times is now.

Revenue from income taxes has been projected to drop by 16 percent for the fiscal year that begins in two weeks, while state revenue to the city has been forecast to fall by 30 percent.

"This is the most significant change that we've ever encountered year-over-year. When you go back over the last six or seven years and look at the amount of decline in terms in some of the revenue base, it's certainly the worst we've seen," said Mooney.

But Mooney also referred to a recent comment made by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the decline of the nation's economy was beginning to stabilize. Mooney is seeing better days ahead for the city, too.

"We've got an amazing amount of development in the health-sciences area. We still have the great philanthropists here in the community and they have immensely helped the city to diversify and enhance the community," he said.

"And we have Renaissance Zones that are going to start coming back on the tax roll. … So a lot of the things the city paid a price for in those 12 years are going to at least come back and pay some dividends at a critical time for us. That's a very hopeful sign."

Mooney has been the city's treasurer since August 1988 when then-Mayor Gerald Helmholdt and commissioners appointed him to the post. He replaced J. Paul Brownridge, who left for Chicago.

Up until that time, Mooney had spent more than four years as deputy treasurer under Treasurer Earl Hoenes. He also served as acting treasurer for eight months after Hoenes went to Austin, Texas, and before the city hired Brownridge.

Mooney came to the city in 1984 from Lansing, where he was an operations analyst for that city after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in finance. Following graduation, he made a decision that shaped his future. Mooney turned down a job offer at R.R. Donnelly in Chicago, then the world's largest printer, to go to work for the city of Lansing.

"So I cast my lot in municipal public service," he said.

After Mooney was settled here, he resumed his pursuit of the master's degree he began at MSU while working in Lansing, and earned an MBA in finance and commercial law from Western Michigan University.

"When I transferred to the deputy treasurer's job in Grand Rapids, I ended up putting it on the back burner for a while just because of all the new job responsibilities. But I made a commitment to myself to get an MBA and I got that done while I was here in Grand Rapids," he said.

Although Mooney was appointed to his post before John Logie was mayor of the city, he considers working with the former three-term mayor, who is still a practicing attorney at Warner Norcross & Judd, his biggest career break.

"John was respectful of the City Charter and the authority of different positions within the city and was such a great leader to work for and to try to follow his lead," he said.

Mooney said his position at the city changed during Logie's tenure.

"He was receptive to trying to make the delivery of services better and did not allow preconceived notions of who could do what influence or alter his decision-making."

As for the best part of his job, Mooney said he gets a lot of satisfaction from showing edgy taxpayers that a trip to the treasurer's office isn't nearly as nerve-racking as most perceive it will be.

"I appreciate the great staff I have that help me change those perceptions that people have. A lot of people, when they think of coming in and dealing with government offices, kind of brace themselves for the prospect of something less than a pleasant experience, and probably especially so when they walk into our office," he said.

"But my goal is to change that. I want them to feel that they know more about the world they live in and what we're doing here at the city, and understand the wheres, whys and hows in terms of some of the different taxes, fines and other amounts we collect for city services."

There is one thing, though, that Mooney would like to change about his job. But not even Mayor George Heartwell and city commissioners can help him with that switch.

"I guess I would change it so I could have 30 hours in a 24-hour day," he said, laughing.

"The process is such that you're starting to pick which items potentially are going to have to languish, while trying to attempt the things that have the highest priority — and that can be a source of frustration."

When Mooney took over the post, the state and local taxing structure was much simpler than it is now. Back then there were abatements only for commercial and industrial firms. Since then, though, the state legislature has added other tax-exempting laws, including the Renaissance Zone, the SmartZone, brownfields, the Neighborhood Enterprise Zone and about a half-dozen more. Having that many exemptions makes figuring out who owes what, when and how much a constant juggling act.

"Some of the things that are well and good for development and for providing an ability to incentivize the rebirth of the city has made the job exponentially more complex. Tax appeals go through and adjustments need to be done. There used to be three or four tax rolls and now there are 10 to 12 tax rolls, and they've all got different elements to them that really make it a challenge here," he said.

Al Mooney
Organization:
City of Grand Rapids
Title: City Treasurer
Age: 52
Birthplace: Lansing
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Laurie; sons Matthew, Tim and Andrew.
Business/community organizations: Michigan Municipal Treasurer’s Association, Kent County Treasurer’s Association, Association of Public Treasurers and the Government Finance Officers Association.
Biggest career break: Working with former three-term Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie.

Recently retired City Manager Kurt Kimball took over the city's top executive post in 1987, a year before Mooney became treasurer. So Kimball had a front-row seat to see how Mooney adapted to the constantly changing and ever-challenging number of tax rolls. He said Mooney passed each new test with flying colors and called him a "loyal and conscientious member" of the city's top executive staff.

"He is exceptionally knowledgeable about all treasury functions and, very importantly, he is detail oriented. Beyond that, Al has demonstrated exceptional customer service skills. He approaches every citizen with the utmost respect and demonstrates genuine interest in helping them solve whatever problems they may have. He is a popular boss that supports his hardworking staff," said Kimball.

"The city is most fortunate to have had Al Mooney in the important role of city treasurer all these years," he added.

Laurie Mooney would second that statement. She married Al 27 years ago, after facing him on a Lansing softball diamond. Back then, Laurie, also an MSU grad, worked at the state Department of Treasury and played on its team, while Al was on Lansing's finance roster. The teams met at a nightspot after that game and they chatted for the first time.

"The next day I went down to the rec department and looked up how she spelled her last name. Then I looked her up on the state directory and called her for an innocent luncheon date, and that was how we met," said Al.

Al and Laurie have three sons: Matthew, Tim and Andrew. Matthew is employed at Accenture, an IT consulting company. Tim just graduated from Boston College and starts a new job at DeLoitte Consulting in Boston next month. Andrew will be a senior at Catholic Central High School in the fall.

Not only is it fair to write that Mooney is a big baseball fan, as he roots for the Tigers and Whitecaps, he also loves sports in general. He served as president of St. Paul the Apostle's athletic board for years, worked on board fundraisers, and coached baseball, basketball and football when his sons played those games.

"I was pretty active with my three sons, and they're nine years apart, so as one would finish up, I'd start coaching the next one," he said.

"I coached baseball and worked in the Southern Little League. My youngest son was involved in football so I was an assistant coach with Dan Barcheski for five years in the Rocket League, the elementary football league. It was a fun time. We all have great memories of that."

Mooney also runs, golfs, plays basketball and does yard work when he isn't in the office or on the field coaching. He and Laurie also volunteer at Kids Food Basket of Grand Rapids, a hunger-relief agency that provides dinners to nutritionally deprived children. 

As for the coming year, Mooney is looking to upgrade his department's ability to accept electronic payments and also step up the collection of parking fines owed to the city.

"We take in right now about 15,000 electronic payments a year for about $500,000 a year, I see us getting an e-commerce solution that will hopefully allow us to double and triple that volume," he said.

"I also see us helping out the city by doing a better job of getting our parking fines collected. We've got (former city) commissioner (now State Rep. Roy) Schmidt working on legislation to allow for a hold to be put on driver licenses that reach a three-ticket threshold. Years ago, it used to be six."

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