County stands firm, P & R, MMDC won’t be funded

September 16, 2019

The Commission room was packed for a special meeting Wednesday to hear appeals to reinstate the budgets for Parks and Recreation and the Middle
Michigan Development Corporation.

By Pat Maurer

Despite pleas from the Friends of Parks and Recreation board, the Middle Michigan Development Corporation and many audience members, the Clare County Board of Commissioners let recent budget cuts to both the organizations stand.

The County board held a special meeting Wednesday morning to hear appeals on the proposed budget for the coming year. The coming year’s budget is scheduled to be adopted at the next meeting.

During Public Comment, many cited the advantages to the County economy by both organizations.

Farwell Superintendent Steven Scoville urged the board to reconsider the decision to cut funding for Parks and Recreation. “Look at how much this brings into the county,” he said. “I encourage you to reconsider.”

The board cut both programs in July in an attempt to balance the coming year’s budget.

Harrison City Clerk Tracy Connelly spoke, “Our tax base comes from economic growth. Parks and Recreation and the Middle Michigan Development Corporation bring that economic growth.”

Clare Parks and Recreation Director Joy Simmer said the benefit that Parks and Recreations is encouraging people to come to our area. It’s in your best interest to keep Parks and Rec.”

County Commissioner Leonard Strouse said, “It chaps my ass that low-life scum takes millions and millions of dollars. It makes me mad that it takes dollars from the good things we have.”

Kristine Stevens, President of the Harrison Chamber, said, “There’s so much good happening here. I think of the improvements I’ve seen, wonderful places and events. We are always looking for reasons for coming here. I ask the Commission to reconsider.”

County Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick said, “Our biggest issue is revenue. The “good” isn’t generating the revenue stream. How do we offset that? Our revenue is going down. It’s hard to justify.”

Another member of the Friends of Parks and Rec, Dave said, “You can’t tell me that the tourism doesn’t bring in enough to pay the salary (of Don Kolander). It brings in more.”

Kolander’s salary as the Parks and Recreation board chair is $14,056 annually, budgeted by the County and now cut.

On the subject of the MMDC, Connelly said, “If we had to hire an economist, we couldn’t do it for what MMDC costs (an annual amount of $12,500). The way to change (the revenue) is through economic development and that’s what they do.”

Commissioner Dale Majewski commented, “Clare County doesn’t own the parks. The townships own the park and they will continue to keep those up. Do we go back (to the people) and ask for more money? People can’t afford more taxes. Our backs are against the wall. We have to do something.”

Commissioner Jeff Haskell said, “I think MMDC is important for the county. Can we work, find other ways (to cut)? It’s a very small amount.”

Commissioner David Hoefling raised a question. “It they (Friends of Parks and Recreation) are a non-profit can we legally fund them?”

Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis spoke saying, You (the commission) are promoting a private entity with tax dollars. I don’t believe you should be doing this.” Later she said, “The County is paying a salary for Don Kolander, who is working for the Friends of Parks and Recreation, a non-profit entity.”

Board Chair Jack Kleinhardt said, “I appreciate you people taking time to come in with your concerns. You need to know, we got a letter from the State saying our fund balance is dangerously low. Our backs are against the wall. These cuts don’t do anything towards restoring our fund balance, it just balances our budget.” He said the State could step in and take over unless the board can increase the fund balance. “All we are doing this year is balancing the budget,” he said, “We will have to address the fund balance later.”

Kolander spoke. “I’m here to try and get you to reconsider.” He added letters of support to the board packets, and noted that the group supports small businesses by promoting tourism. He outlined some of the things the Friends of Parks and Recreation does and noted that “Clare County has long been recognized as one of the unhealthiest in the state. Supporting Parks and Recreation encourages the healthy use of the parks in the county. He added that the Clare County economy depends on recreation and tourism and presented a list of project and goals.

He said, “Please reconsider this. The values are what we bring into the county.” He offered to return $1,000 of his salary to the county.
MMDC President Jim McBryde spoke to the board on behalf of their “partnership” with the county. “We have had a relationship with the county since 1999,” he said. Originally the county contributed $22,500 to MMDC. When budgeting that amount became a problem, we lowered the amount to $12,500.

He cited the grants they secured in Farwell and Harrison’s Industrial Parks. “You don’t want to cut the things that are bringing in revenue.”

Pam O’Laughlin who handles Clare County explained the work in 2019 including four new industrial building (only one with a tax abatement) which meant more jobs in the county. She said in recent years the economic growth has cut the unemployment rate here in half. In 2020, she said two major building renovations are scheduled and three new businesses proposed as well as infra structure improvements increasing tax revenue and employment.

McBryde told the board about his work with Apex Energy to promote an alternative energy project in the southern part of Clare County. This could be wind or solar farms.

He told the board, “It’s more important to us to continue our relationship rather than the amount it costs. We are willing to talk about modifying our contract further.

O’Laughlin also noted that approximately $60,000 budgeted for technology upgrades could be reduced with a grant they are working on, which could cut the cost to the county and provide funds to continue the partnership with MMDC. McBryde said, “We have been successful in securing grant funds in the last 15 times. It’s not guaranteed but there’s a definitely a good possibility.”

He said, “I’m willing to do our part and willing to discuss the cost.”
After hearing the concerns, the board discussed the cuts.

Commissioner Samantha Pitchford said, “Out of the last ten years, only five haven’t shown a deficit. In 2018 the deficit was $480,000. For seven out of ten years we have lived off our savings. Costs are skyrocketing. This is what we have to do or the State will come in.”

Kleinhardt said, “This budget just breaks even. Anything we restore will have to be cut from somewhere else.”

Fitzpatrick said, “Our head count (employees) is down from five years ago, because of increased wages and costs, we just aren’t keeping up.”
Majewski said, “How can I consciously support this (restoring funds) with the Sheriff cutting his budget by $450,000 to help.

Sheriff John Wilson said, “We have permanently lost positions. You asked up to take our budget back to 2017 levels. That’s what we did.”

Majewski said, “We already made the motion (for these budget cuts). We would have to rescind that motion.

Commissioner David Hoefling said, “I will not vote for a deficit.” He made the original motion in July.

Kleinhardt said, “If MMDC can get a grant to help fund technology, we can restore funds.” He noted that the current budget won’t end until December 31.

Other business at the special meeting included:
*A request from Marcus Atkins of the Michigan Institute of Forensic Science & Medicine to allow a presentation of their services including forensics and a medical examiner.

*Approval for Senior Services Director Lori Phelps to ask for a $500,000 USDA loan with a 15 year term to purchase property to use as a dining center and commercial kitchen for Senior meals. She noted that the loan payment to build and renovate would be less than their current lease at the Clare Castle and would save about $42,000 annually.

*Another approval was given for a USDA grant to purchase a handicap accessible van for non-emergency medical transportation.

*A board consensus to only reimburse $170 per night for hotel accommodation for conferences as outlined in the policy.

*Approval for the County Clerk to replace a retiring employee.

*A closed session for union negotiations.

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