You’re more likely to see him on stage than in the news: Kent County Treasurer Kenneth Parrish has developed a passion for local theater.
“Probably my No. 1 hobby these days is community theater,” he said. “I’ve gotten involved, principally as an actor. I’ve done, I think, 11 plays in recent years as an actor. I’ve also directed a show and have been involved backstage with a number of other shows.”
Parrish calls the Thebes Players in Lowell his home theater group, but he also has performed with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids and Circle Theater. One of his favorite roles was that of Albert Soady in “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” the Yooper deer-hunting comedy written by Jeff Daniels. “It was such a funny and fun show to do. And that was actually my first speaking role in a play in community theater. So that’s probably the one I hold the closest.”
His other favorite role is that of Jake in “Jake’s Women.” Playwright Neil Simon penned that one and Parrish said it was one the toughest roles he has taken so far. “I was on stage the entire play and it just ran the gamut of emotions. … It was a very challenging role and I loved it because it was such a challenge.” His directorial debut was the female version of Simon’s “Odd Couple” in which Oscar and Felix are transformed into Olive and Florence.
“It’s a creative outlet for me. Being a numbers guy and a math guy and all of that, I never really have done a lot on the creative side. I just found that I can be somebody else. I can try different things and be different characters,” he said.
“I suppose being in politics as long as I have means there is a little bit of ham in me, as well. I feel very comfortable being in front of an audience, having been in politics and doing what I do for as long as I have. I’m comfortable with public speaking, and I think theater is kind of along those same lines. While I do get some nervous energy when I do a show, so far I’ve never had stage fright. I enjoy entertaining.”
Over what has turned out to be a pretty vigorous career, Parrish felt his biggest break came when he was successful in his first election campaign. In 1988, he won a trustee race for the Cascade Township governing board, which helped him set a direction for the rest of his career.
“It got me the exposure to public service at a very basic level. It also got me very intrigued by public service, and that’s what kind of led me down the path to doing the job I have today,” he said.
Parrish was a trustee for four years. But in 1990, halfway through his township tenure, he ran for county commissioner against the incumbent and lost. After the county’s districts were reshuffled, he ran again in 1992. This time there wasn’t an incumbent in his district and he won. He became the incumbent two years later and was reelected. In 1996, instead of seeking a third term, he ran for county treasurer and won.
“Up until that point, I really had two careers. I had my professional career — I was working with my brother at Parrish Accounting Service as a CPA as my regular job — and I had the county commission as my political career. I saw the treasurer’s position as an opportunity to combine two careers into one job,” he said.
Parrish won again in 2000, 2004 and 2008. He is in his 14th year as treasurer. What he likes best about his post is working on issues that range from managing investments for the county and other municipalities with a value of $350 million to starting a countywide land bank authority from scratch.
“I think it’s probably the variety that I work on. Being the actual treasurer, I’m seeing things at a higher level in terms of policy decisions and that sort of thing. I don’t necessarily handle every transaction that comes across the counter. But I deal with the unique situations, I guess you can say, that come up,” he said.
“Things like the land bank: I learned something new there and brought something new to the county. So every day is different in terms of what I’m working on and who I’m working with. It’s a very interesting job.”
One of the more pleasurable aspects of his job is that he travels to New York with other county officials every April to make a case with representatives of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to keep the county’s bond rating at the highest level. He said he always looks forward to those two meetings where he gets to sell the county’s financial condition and its economy to some pretty bright Wall Streeters.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to kind of sing the praises of Kent County, mostly from a financial management point of view. But a lot gets wrapped into that, including things that are outside the purview of Kent County government but are happening in Kent County,” he said. “We meet with them to show them how we are being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
It seems Parrish has been able to make that exact point with the agencies because the county has held a triple-A rating on its long-term bonds since 1998. And he said the controversy that emerged when S&P and Moody’s were allegedly caught rubber stamping worthless mortgage-backed securities with good ratings hasn’t made him cynical about the agencies.
“The reality is they are the two major players in the credit-analysis market. We’ve never felt like, when we’ve worked with them, that anything is simply a rubber-stamp process. We present them with a lot of information and they put us through the paces. They monitor what goes on in Kent County throughout the year,” he said.
In contrast, one of the least pleasurable aspects of his job is compiling the property-tax foreclosure list every year. This year’s list is 50 percent larger than last year’s, with 159 parcels compared to 102 last year. But the list wasn’t official and available to the public when the Business Journal spoke with Parrish about it.
“We’re still scrubbing the list and we have to do the right of first refusal with the state and local governments. We prefer to try to get that handled first so that anything taken by the state or local governments isn’t advertised to the public as being for sale,” he said.
County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio has worked with Parrish for as long as he has been treasurer. Delabbio said when Parrish took over the position, he was already knowledgeable about government in general and the county in particular.
“This background allowed him to hit the ground running when he was elected treasurer. What has also served him well was being a small business owner. Thus, he has a combination of public- and private-sector experience,” he said.
“He represents the county well when he makes presentations to the credit-rating agencies. He has done it for 14 years, and the representatives from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s know his work and have confidence in it, as well as in Kent County,” added Delabbio.
Grand Rapids Treasurer Al Mooney said Parrish has done a masterful job of carrying on the county’s legacy of prudent fiscal management, which he said goes back to the days when John Damstra and Jack Boerema held the post.
“Ken does an excellent job of handling the wide range of responsibilities with which he has been charged,” Mooney said. “One little known fact about Ken is that he stayed true to his fiscally conservative nature and kept property taxes lower by publicly stating years ago that Kent County did not need an additional millage to pay for the new county courthouse. Over the past eight years, that act alone has kept millions of dollars annually in the pockets of people and businesses in Kent County.”
Parrish said he has always had a desire to work in the field of finance. “It’s in my blood, frankly. My father was an accountant. He and my mother owned their own accounting practice that they started in 1967. One of my older brothers is a CPA. So I was just always exposed to numbers and accounting. I’ve always had a good aptitude for math,” he said.
“I knew when I went off to college that I wanted to major in accounting and that’s what I did. I was one of the rare students who actually stuck with a major from beginning to end.”
Parrish earned his undergraduate accounting degree at Michigan State University and his MBA from Grand Valley State University. Today, his brother Jim runs Parrish Accounting Service on 28th Street SE. It’s the same business his late parents, Harold and Grace Parrish, started 43 years ago.
Parrish is a member of the Grand Rapids Rotary Club and serves on the boards of directors for Broadway Grand Rapids, Alternative Directions and the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. He has been involved with the Children’s Museum since it opened, back when his daughter, Kristen, was about 10.
“Theresa Thome, who was the longtime executive director, has been a friend for many, many years. So when she called to ask if I’d be interested I said, ‘Yes, that would be great.’ So I guess I was sort of recruited to the board,” he said.
“Kristen is now 23. I haven’t been on the board that long. I was familiar with the Children’s Museum from when it first opened. I’ve actually been on the board for, I believe, five years now.”
Parrish expects his relationships with the museum and the other organizations will continue for the immediate future and the same goes for his relationship with the county and its residents. But there could be a change coming soon to the personal side of his life, and it’s one he eagerly welcomes.
“Fortunately, I’m not up for re-election this year. So, on the professional side, I don’t see anything changing,” said Parrish. “Kristen is graduating from college next month — the University of Cincinnati — and she hasn’t landed a permanent job yet in today’s job market. So she may be coming back home for a while. That will be a little bit of a change but a positive one, to have her back home and be able to spend more time with her again.”