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home : columnists and contributors : columnists and contributors May 26, 2016

5/14/2014 12:01:00 AM
Commissioner's Corner: Seeking out and encouraging public engagement in major municipal decisions

Charlie MacInnis
Emmet County Commissioner

Editor's Note: Charlie MacInnis is the Emmet County Commissioner for District 3, which encompasses the City of Harbor Springs, Little Traverse Township and a small portion of Bear Creek Township. We invited MacInnis to submit an occasional column from his seat on the board as a way to keep his district, and our readers, apprised of county government issues.

By Charlie MacInnis

Emmet County got good news in March when a bond consultant said the county is healthy enough to borrow up to $15 million at a great interest rate.

It makes sense to borrow money through bonding for long-term capital projects. Last month, the county board reviewed a number of plans that have been in the works for quite a while:

$7 million for a building with an observatory at the Headlands;

$250,000 for restroom facilities at the McGulpin Point Lighthouse;

$150,000 for a maintenance garage and storage facility to service parks and store the historic boat "Welcome" that the county recently bought for a dollar;

$2.5 to $3 million for ambulance facilities;

$1 million for trailer bay reconstruction at the transfer station;

$2 million for upgrades to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the county building.

The bonds can be issued without a vote of the people unless a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the county's voters is submitted within 45 days of a public notice published on April 14.

No new taxes are proposed. Funds to pay off the bonds would come from several county accounts. The transfer station amount, for instance, would be covered by payments from the Department of Public Works. Future growth in local taxable values would also help.

The first-year bond payment in 2015 would be in the range of $550,000. It would rise to about $1.4 million in 2018. Regardless of which accounts the money come from for the payments, it all ultimately comes from county taxpayers.

This simple financing process is quite a contrast to what our public schools go through, with their very tight budgets. In Petoskey, it took three tries and a reduction in scope in the late 1980s to narrowly win voter approval for $9 million in bonds to build a new middle school. A much more recent proposal for athletic facilities was rejected.

Harbor Springs Public Schools spent two years meeting with community members before gaining approval in 2001 for a $34 million bond to build its new middle school and renovate Shay Elementary and part of the high school. In 2012, after a year of discussion, voters narrowly passed a $3.9 million bond for buses and technology.

In 2006, North Central Michigan College's request to simply renew a one-mill operational levy passed by only 748 votes out of 13,200 votes cast.

There are enthusiastic supporters for the $7 million event and observatory building to be built at the county's northern tip and it's certain to be a spectacular facility. There are also many skeptics who don't see this as a core county function.

County funding for local ambulance service is needed and renewal of the current 0.25 mill operational levy is likely this August. But the advisory committee that has been studying the issue for more than two years still needs to come up with a written plan for the $2.5 to $3 million from the bond for buildings and equipment.

Meanwhile, the county's roads are crumbling because the state's declining gas tax revenues have left the Emmet County Road Commission without enough money to function. The road commission has asked the county board for $135,000 for this year and next to cut the grass along the sides of the roads. That would allow more township money to be dedicated to road surface improvements.

All of the proposed uses for the bond money seem reasonable. However, I think the public engagement process that our schools have to go through when they plan capital projects is a good and useful one, even if it can be painful. I have come to prefer it.

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