Ken Buckfire (Miller Buckfire website)
Mackinac Island— Mention Ken Buckfire’s name and the reaction is visceral from those who are involved in the tense negotiations to establish a regional water authority.
“He treats this like it’s a used car sale,” says a top aide to one of the region’s three county executives. “This is a complex political region and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s trying to play us off each other.”
Buckfire is the primo Wall Street dealmaker brought in to help push through Detroit’s bankruptcy. Key to settling the case is selling or leasing the city’s water and sewerage department to a new regional authority. The lease would provide desperately needed revenue for Detroit’s general fund.
If he can get the job done, there’s an $8 million bonus for Buckfire. But that’s becoming a big if. Buckfire’s pushy, big swinging approach to horse trading is a poor fit for a region with such delicate political sensitivities.
Principals in the negotiations, being mediated by federal Judge Gerry Rosen, say Buckfire has been a hindrance to advancing the talks, despite his rich incentive for success.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wonders whether Buckfire is really motivated to close the deal, given that he stands to make up to a $40 million commission if the regional authority doesn’t happen and the system is instead sold to a private buyer.
“That sure seems like a conflict of interest,” Patterson says.
Buckfire is one of the nation’s top investment bankers, and has been making big deals throughout his career. But his experience is mostly in the private sector, and not with government entities.
While everyone I talked with agreed he has impressive skills, they say those skills aren’t tailored to bringing together politicians who have considerations beyond the balance sheet.
Buckfire is one reason Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has asked that the water authority be removed from the bankruptcy and given to him to negotiate. He believes he, Patterson, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano could work things out themselves.
That may end up being the default option.
Buckfire’s role in the recent bargaining has reportedly been more limited, and now Gov. Rick Snyder and Patterson are talking directly.
Whether that will be a more productive approach is an open question. But the two did agree in a private one-on-one meeting during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference to cool rhetoric that had become increasingly confrontational.
Both men expressed stronger confidence afterward they could resolve their differences and find a solution that works.
But the vaunted dealmaker brought in to make rain in the water deal is not likely to be the one who closes it.
No one I spoke with had much interest in working with Buckfire.
“Buckfire’s method was flawed from the start,” the county executive source says. “He wanted regionalization for a price. We wanted regionalization for a solution.”