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In My Opinion

New jail, COA a one-two ballot punch

 

County commissioners may be doubling down in the fight that’s been going on for several years to build both a new jail and a new Commission on Aging facility.

Hired to work their corner now is TowerPinkster, the Kalamazoo-based architectural and engineering firm that composed the original facility plan document four years ago for all county-owned buildings. Now the firm that drew up the plan will be helping the effort to promote the new jail and COA building as the facilitator for what’s headlined to be an objective public input session Monday, Nov. 4. My fear is that taxpayers are being set up for a sucker punch.

“The jail is our No. 1 priority of this county and has been for a long time,” Commissioner Ben Geiger has said.

That may be Geiger’s No. 1 issue, but I’m not so sure it’s the highest priority of taxpayers. In fact, the last time commissioners held a public forum, members of the public wasted no time in sharing their ideas, scribbling thoughts on Post-it notes which spelled out the clear conclusion that citizens didn’t want a new jail; they were looking for new programs to keep people out of jail. Affordable housing, increasing the hours of the county transit and connecting service to outside venues were all top of mind for those in attendance.

To their credit, commissioners were anticipating the future when they hired TowerPinkster to compose the 2015 comprehensive long-range planning document for all county-owned properties. Of the seven projects reviewed in the facility master plan, county commissioners have already addressed three: Renovation of the circuit courtroom at the courthouse, conversion of the Courts and Law building adjacent to the courthouse, and the makeover of the former library now known as the Tyden Building.

Commissioners appear now to be putting a long-range plan on the fast track with their rush to complete two more projects, a new jail and a Commission on Aging facility. With their recent unanimous vote to commit to asking voters for the needed tax request in August 2020, commissioners now have some fast dancing to do to meet an April 1 requirement to submit ballot language to the state. That’s only five months away.

Now TowerPinkster enters the ring, hired by commissioners at a cost not to exceed $70,000 to facilitate the upcoming critical public input phase. But taxpayers should question if commissioners are allowing the fox to enter the hen house. TowerPinkster completed the original facility plan, and I’m sure the firm will top the list of architects and engineers who would eventually be bidding to be part of building a new jail and senior center. Gaining taxpayer approval in an upcoming millage vote is paramount to their business prospects.

So, should commissioners use TowerPinkster to facilitate the public input process which, if guided correctly, would lead to a successful millage vote? I wouldn’t think so.

If commissioners really want to garner public support and are genuinely interested in hearing voter concerns, why wouldn’t they hire an unbiased person to run the meeting? Several people in our community have served as facilitators in the past and hold demonstrated reputations for being independent and unbiased. Yet, commissioners are using a hired gun with a vested interest in the outcome to persuade voters these projects must be done.

Commissioners are inviting anyone interested to take part in a public discussion at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at the Barry Community Enrichment Center (Barry Community Foundation), at 231 S. Broadway in downtown Hastings. County commissioners will host the public event, but TowerPinkster will be in charge of facilitating – and guiding – the discussion.

The problem I see using TowerPinkster as the meeting facilitator is that it presents a clear conflict of interest. Commissioners are using tax dollars to sell county taxpayers on the necessity of supporting the millage. State rules and regulations don’t allow governments to use tax funds to sell or support a specific election.

County officials maintain that TowerPinkster hasn’t been hired to sell the project. But, if you’re in charge of holding public discussions to answer questions on a new jail and COA facility that could lead to financial benefit for your firm, isn’t it all about promoting the projects?

“After decades of waiting, we now have in front of us a plan – and light at the end of the tunnel,” Geiger said. “If this board leads by listening and adopts this plan, we can make sure our rickety old jail days are numbered.”

But is the board really listening or just holding the forums so it can say, “We asked citizens how they felt” about a new jail and COA facility?

For several years, it’s also been the position of Tammy Pennington, executive director of the Commission on Aging, and her board of directors that a new COA facility is needed and, for several years, commissioners have been looking for a way to fund a new COA building without going to taxpayers. Now it looks like they may roll the projects together to gain more support for a special millage. To get one new facility, you would need to vote for two.

First of all, I’m in agreement that both the present jail and COA facility need a great deal of work, and replacing them might be a better plan rather than continuing to fix and repair the old structures.

But, before we spend any more money, we need to evaluate what this new jail should look like, where it’s located and get a better understanding of how technology might impact jail population. The COA just received a new roof so we have a little more time to dig into its needs and the possibility of finding a suitable location rather than building a completely new structure.

I know commissioners want to finish these projects, but what’s more important: Checking off their list of things to do, or taking the time to really understand the issues, look at all the options and get a plan in place that an overwhelming number of county taxpayers are willing to support?

Plus, I don’t think these issues should appear on the ballot together. They should appear separately and stand on their own merits. This entire script suggests to me that a lot of elected officials in the county are looking to expand the footprint of government – all at taxpayers’ expense.

Plan to attend the Nov. 4 meeting. It may be your only chance to be heard.

 

4Fred Jacobs, CEO,

J-Ad Graphics Inc.

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