By Mary Kindig
“I’m not privy to union information…but, in the rumblings that I’ve heard, it is turmoil in this courthouse. Turmoil,” Clare County Administrator/Controller Tracy Byard said at Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.
At issue was an e-mail that Chairperson Don David sent to all County employees, stating, “There is no more to cut and we are still almost $700,000 short of revenue [for the 2012-13 budget cycle],” and asking employees if they would “personally want to take a cut of 2.5 hours per week” or would they “want the Board to cover some of the revenue shortfalls by layoffs?”
David said he did not intend the e-mail to be anything other than asking for input from employees. “It was my idea. I didn’t talk to anybody about it,” David said, adding, “The union is contending that it’s unfair labor practice because it’s an ‘either/or, choose it’ letter. I think by the fact that I put in there three times that I wanted their input, doesn’t make it an ‘either/or’ letter. That certainly wasn’t my intention.”
David told the Board he received about 15 responses to his e-mail from the 107 County employees he sent it to, both union and non-union. He read portions of some of those responses to the Board, citing criticisms for making “bad financial decisions”, not being a “working Board”, complaints that the Board had not cut their own pay (the Board has not voted themselves a raise within at least the past six years, and several members have refused to take per diems and mileage for periods of time), and complaints that the Board recently voted to give a benefit increase to two units of retirees (which currently cost the County nothing, as the money in the MERS pool for those retirees was already funded at an adequate level).
David replied to the last criticism, “That group of ladies, many of them are in their eighties and nineties, many of them are widows, many of them worked in the era when they made about $12,000 a year. I talked to one that makes the most money out of all of them, and she got a bump in pay of $30 a month.”
David asked the other Commissioners to make a motion to the effect that the e-mail was his idea and that it did not represent the consensus of the Board. The motion was made, and passed 6-0. Vice Chair Jack Kleinhardt was absent and excused from the meeting.
Later in the meeting, UAW Unit 1 Union Chairperson Corinne Turner read a statement to the Board regarding David’s e-mail: “This kind of direct dealing with County employees is in violation of union contracts currently in place in Clare County, and it’s inexcusable. We find it intolerable that on the heels of signed contracts negotiated in good faith just a few weeks prior, that the Clare County Commissioners would focus the budget shortfall on the backs of union employees who provide the public with the service they need, face to face, which is mandated and necessary to conduct County business on a daily basis.”
Turner also stated that union employees agreed to a wage freeze and the cost-sharing of increases to health insurance premiums, and they considered it a “slap in the face” to read in Board minutes and newspapers that non-union employees were receiving wage increases. “Union employees did not create the unbalanced budget. It is the responsibility of County Commissioners and the County Controller/Administrator to create a working and balanced budget,” Turner said, and suggested that the Board make cuts “from the top down.”
Commissioners had no immediate response to Turner’s statement.
During the Committee of the Whole meeting, Byard, David and other Commissioners discussed the seriousness of the budget problems they expect to be facing, and how State employees and other counties have already had to institute “furlough days” in order to meet their budgets. As reported in the Morning Sun, Gratiot County employees “took 6.5 furlough days last year and are now going to be paying 20 percent of its health premiums.”
“Part of it, like Corinne said, we negotiated in good faith and we talked to them. Of course, we did not know what the revenues were going to look like when we started negotiations. I mean, we had an idea, but not like this,” Byard commented. “How are we going to cut if we don’t look at people or hours? How are we going to cut? We’re just spinning our wheels,” Commissioner Jim Gelios noted. “Yeah, there are few options,” David replied. “I think it’s a lousy option, asking employees to support County government,” David said.
Administrator/Controller Byard commented, “We asked departments to come back with a cut in their budget of five percent, and many of them didn’t comply. So how does that look?”
Commissioners are very aware that the State could send in a Financial Manager if the County were to end up in the red, as has already happened in school districts and towns across the State. Commissioners are finding themselves somewhere between the “rock” of a mandated balanced budget with less revenue, and the “hard spot” of departments, employees and unions that feel they have eliminated, cut and conceded all they can. Still, the Board must somehow come up with a balanced budget by September 30th.
In other business, Veronica Romanov from Compassion Counts Community Nutrition Network addressed the Board about the group’s plans to offer residents free food and nutrition, shopping and cooking tips. “While there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in combating obesity, we’ve also found out that a lot of people in the County don’t have enough food,” Romanov told the Board, adding, “We also found that the group that we’re targeting, up to half of them can’t read.” Romanov said that many people may be eligible for State services, but have not signed up.
Their first food distribution will be Saturday, September 24th at the Clare County Building parking lot in Harrison, beginning at 11:00 a.m. Romanov said that much of this first food distribution will be fresh produce, but the group is in search of a loaned or donated refrigerated truck in order to be able provide many other types of food for their subsequent once-a month distributions.
Further actions of the Board of Commissioners during Wednesday’s meeting included:
*accepting of two $15,000 grants from the USDA for the purchase of two patrol cars for the current fiscal year, with the remaining funds to come from a yet-to-be-determined budget source.
*hearing from Clerk/Register of Deeds Pam Mayfield that the auto-redaction of Social Security numbers from deeds has been completed.
*hearing from Treasurer Jenny Beemer-Fritzinger that the no-minimum-bid land sale will be in Beaverton on September 30th.
*sending the Memorandum of Agreement from Michigan State University Extension to the Committee of the Whole for discussion, following questions about the length of the proposed contract.
*approving nine budget adjustments from various County departments.
*authorizing the purchase of two patrol cars at $38,152 each, to be offset by the two $15,000 USDA grants, with paperwork and reporting to be done by September 30th.
*allowing Lori Ware to increase an employee in Senior Services from 30 hours to 37.5 hours, and to hire the Title V employee at 25 hours per week, with funds to come from Senior millage dollars and non-County funding, by a 5-1 vote with Commissioner Leonard Strouse dissenting.
*approving a lease agreement with Pitney Bowes for a new postage machine at $502 per month, which includes payoff of the existing lease with Neopost.
*reappointing Paul Geoffrey to the Board of Appeals Construction Board for a two year term to expire on October 1, 2013.
*reappointing Anne Smith to the Department of Human Services Board for a three year term to expire on October 1, 2014.
*approving the expenditures for the month of August 2011 in the amount of $1,369,116.35, with the General Fund expenditures totaling $754,107.42.
The next meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners is scheduled for Monday, September 26th, when they hope to finalize and adopt the 2012 budget.