Mary Balkema takes her job personally. She knows every nickel and dime coming into the county’s coffers and oversees big things such as the county’s budget and smaller things like dog licenses.
But this hometown girl is more than a bean counter: Through her job, she has become pivotal in the community development of the county by working to rehabilitate tax-foreclosed properties and get them back on the county’s tax rolls. If you’ve been to Riverview Launch, you’ve seen her work firsthand. And remember the abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium on Blakeslee Street? Thanks to Balkema and the Kalamazoo Land Bank that is now a housing development for seniors.
How did you get where you are today?
I am a Western Michigan University graduate in accounting, so I am a bean counter. I started in banking at 18 simply because someone hired me for no real reason other than she had an opening and I applied for it. I started in trust accounting, then went to brokerage and then to First of America’s securities department. The year First of America was bought (1998) was the same year I ran for city commission and won. I never should have won. But I knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors. Everyone was surprised, including me.
I served on the city commission for three terms, and then the county treasurer retired abruptly so that job was open. In an elected job that’s open, the hire is made by the county’s clerk, chief judge and prosecuting attorney. I was picked and served for a year and a half and then ran for the position and won for a four-year term and ran again and won.
You became treasurer around the time of the economic downturn. What was that like?
In 2009, the county had 1,500 mortgage foreclosures and 350 tax foreclosures, which was the highest our foreclosures had ever been. I was able to get a lifeline grant for $100,000 from a foundation and United Way to help a ton of people save their homes. Now we have less than 400 mortgage foreclosures and 180 tax foreclosures, of which half are vacant lots. The economy is really improving, which is good news.
How do you choose where to focus your efforts?
If you shot a shotgun at the whole county — ping, ping, ping — it would be very hard to pick up all the bullets. That’s the way it is in development, too. If I did just all this scattered stuff, you’d be like, “Mary, you spent a lot of money, but we really can’t see an impact.” So we decided to narrow it and have a really targeted focus, and that targeted focus is Edison and the Washington Square corridor.
Edison is the county’s largest neighborhood, with more than 10,000 residents. We are focusing our investment there to improve housing stock and give them services they need. On Alcott Street, we’re going to build a new healthy living campus that will have a family health center, the (county) Department of Health and Community Services and (the state) Department of Human Services. Right now, if you had to take the bus to go to the health center and then Health and Community Services and then the Department of Human Services and you had two children with you, it is almost logistically impossible to get to all those places in one day. We’re seeing that people aren’t getting immunized, not because they object to immunizations, but because, for them, it is a logistical nightmare to do so.
What do you like most about what you do?
I like community development the best. It’s important, especially in the neighborhoods we work in. There’s been a lot of disinvestment there in 50 years.
When I worked on the Northside and built a bunch of new houses on Willard and Rose streets, people said, “You’re crazy. You build that in Texas Township, and you’ll have a stable market and stable family.” The first house I sold on Rose was to a white schoolteacher who I told, “You know this is the wrong side of the tracks for most people,” and he said, “I absolutely want to live here.”
The second house I sold there was to a professor and schoolteacher, and everyone I’ve sold a house to is still there. It speaks to “If you build it, the middle class will come.” They pay their taxes, and they are current on their mortgages. That’s stability.
What do people say when you tell them what you do?
A lot of people think it’s very interesting because no two days are alike. The variety of things you can do is wide because I don’t have a boss. I report to the people.
But it’s more than about taxes. It’s about people. People tell me their stories. When I’m in my office and I have all the power and you have nothing, people are generally very honest. I say, “Tell me the truth about how you got here, so I can figure out how to help you.” When someone has worked hard to own their own home and they have kids, I have a hard time kicking them out of their house because they can’t pay their taxes.
I have found there’s always someone who will help them. Recently a donor gave me $60,000 to do home repairs for homeowners who have kids in Kalamazoo Public Schools but can’t afford the repairs. We picked two families on the Northside and one in Oakwood, and they are getting new roofs and windows. The family in Oakwood consists of an older gentleman whose son is in jail, and he has seven grandchildren living with him.
What would you do if you didn’t do this?
I would work in community development in some way, shape or form. It’s like a puzzle. You see a nasty abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium, and you think, ‘How can you put all the pieces together to make something happen here?’ So you work with people and you get creative and it becomes Prairie Gardens, a mixed-income, mixed-race development.
What word would you use to describe yourself?
Enthusiastic … maybe passionate. If you’re passionate and can share your vision, you can bring a lot of people with you. If you aren’t personally engaged, it probably won’t happen.
What was the most influential moment in your life?
I must say it was the birth of my first son. We had waited a long time to have him, and I was literally on “cloud nine” for days.