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Barry County commissioners wrangle over who should pay for COA roof repair

A request for $25,750 to repair a leaky roof at the Barry County Commission on Aging sparked a disagreement between commissioners Tuesday about who should pay for it.

It came as no surprise to commissioners that the COA building had sprung another leak.

But, when COA Executive Director Tammy Pennington asked commissioners to cover the repairs, Commissioner Jon Smelker asked why these repairs wouldn't be paid for out of the COA fund balance.

“We are spending out of the fund balance on a regular basis to provide services to seniors,” Pennington said.

Then Smelker asked how much was in the fund. Pennington said about $314,000, but that doesn't include the new building fund, which is an additional $380,000.

Those funds need to be maintained to keep services where they are, she told commissioners.

Commissioner Ben Geiger entered the discussion at this point.

“We've known the COA is falling part,” Geiger said. “It's ranked our worst facility; it's tied with our Barry County Jail.

“...I don't want to put more money in this money pit. I want a new COA building.”

Since voters have already said no to a millage for a new COA building, Geiger suggested an amendment to the motion that recommending board approval to pay True Colors Industrial, LCC, which submitted the only bid, for the roof repair, to be paid out of the county building rehabilitation fund.

The amendment added: “And to direct County Administrator (Michael Brown) to determine financing costs of building a new COA building using existing reserves, bonds or USDA loans.”

“Let's just find out how much it's going to cost if we paid for it without public millage,” Geiger said. “How much can the COA absorb? We've got to look at it sometime and it seems like this a logical place to do it.  How much is it going to cost us without a millage? We have rough figures, what would it look like in our budget?”

David Jackson supported Ben Geiger's motion.

During the discussion, Smelker pointed to a problem of county board consistency. “We put roofs on Charlton Park. Now we're going to put a roof on COA. Transit has had a roof put on. Can they come in and ask to be reimbursed for that? Thornapple Manor, 911... are they all going to come in and ask for a roof when they have a fund balances?”

“The millage-based departments  around here don't seem to watch over the buildings that they're in,” he said. “We're opening a can of worms here. By putting roofs on buildings when there are fund balances.

Also, on the motion you proposed. The voters voted down the millage. Now you're going to bypass the voters and try to go a different way to get the building. You think that's what the voters wanted?

“Yes,” Geiger replied.

“I don't,” Smelker said.

“They said 'no' to paying more taxes,” Geiger maintained. “So we're going to find a way to do it without more taxes. I don't think they said 'no' to the building.”

Smelker responded, “So you're going to want the COA to make payments on this building when they couldn't pay for the roof?”

“No,” Geiger replied. “What I'm saying, Jon, is we need to know how much it's going to cost every year.”

“We can determine who pays for it later,” Geiger said, eliciting a short laugh from Smelker, who said: “I thought it was a $6 million building.”

That was the figure for a new COA building that commissioners were given last week by Tower Pinkster, the consultant hired to analyze options for a new COA building.

“What can the COA absorb in their budget?” Geiger pointed out. “That we don't know. If … we sold bonds to bondholders and used the building fund money that they have, maybe some of the above-the-cap dollars. Put a down payment on a loan. What would the monthly costs or annual costs be?

“Do you think it's right to go back to the voters and ask for it again?” Geiger asked Smelker.

“I don't know (on) that point,” Smelker said. “... we can put a roof on that building. Then I believe we can go back to our master facilities plan. We can bring the jail up next … and that you know you're going to have to go for a millage.”

Geiger told Smelker they were debating two different issues: Geiger was talking about different sources of funding for a COA building project. Smelker was focused on paying for the roof repair out the COA budget.

“As it should have been years back, when it started leaking,” Smelker remarked.

Pennington corrected commissioners, saying that the COA has paid for roof repairs in the past.

Jackson said he agreed with Smelker that the county board is in a position of setting a bit of a precedent, adding, “It's important that we take care of the emergency fixes like this.”

But he supports looking at some creative ways to approach the issue of a COA building.

“We've done a ton of this work,” Jackson pointed out. “In business, it's called low-hanging fruit. Why not look at the resources available in the county? Let's give the taxpayers a gift and not throw a millage at them. Look creatively to get the groundwork moving on the COA and then focus on the jail.”

Geiger remarked, “We don't need any more studies. We know how much a new building is going to cost.”

When the commissioners had a voice vote on the recommendation to repair the COA roof with the Geiger amendment, it failed, 3-3, with Chairwoman Heather Wing, Howard Gibson and Smelker against it and Commissioners Dan Parker, Jackson and Geiger for it.

When the vote was taken on COA roof repair, though, the ayes had it, but Gibson voted against it. Gibson later said he was steadfast in his view that the COA, with its fund balance, should cover the cost of the repairs.

Smelker pointed out that the vote on the repairs was only a recommendation from the Committee of the Whole; board action won't be taken until the board meeting next Tuesday.

Geiger's proposal to recommend asking the county administrator to determine financing costs for a COA building using existing reserves, bonds or USDA loans was approved on a voice vote with no dissension.

In other business, the commissioners:

• heard a presentation from Kevin Schoen, CEO of about a “Connect Michigan Communities” broadband project that would involve applying for government grants to fund gigabit fiber for homes in underserved areas, such as Barry County.

• recommended the purchase of a new 2019 GMC Terrain for the county Trial Court Family Division replace a vehicle that was totaled in a June 20 accident. No one was injured in the crash and the county employees were not at fault, according to county officials.

• recommended replacement of a 2020 Lund Model 1800 Alaskan marine patrol vessel for the sheriff's office for $25,128. The 2001 Lund vessel it replaces will be sold by sealed bid to the highest bidder.

• recommended approval of changes and additions to the county Information Technology security policy.

• recommended the purchase of new furniture for the Adult Specialty Court Office for $14,901.60 to Interphase Interiors and $665 to Office Depot and office dividers for the Family Division clerical office for $2,199.86 – a total of $17,766.46 – to be paid from the Capital Replacement Fund.






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