In My Opinion
Commissioners seek a scapegoat Hopefully, folks who attended the county board meeting two weeks ago checked their pockets on the way out the door.
No sooner had financial auditor Joe Verlin of Grand Rapids-based Gabridge & Company delivered glowing praise for the efforts of commissioners and staff to keep the county financially stable than some commissioners already began planning how to spend down some of that security.
The primary focus for their sticky fingers was the $9 million tax umbrella fund, a reserve fund used to cover ongoing county budget obligations, such as an unfunded pension liability that still stands at $15.5 million and to insure against other possible unexpected emergency contingencies. Some commissioners, though, are looking for a way to fund a new Commission on Aging building without going to taxpayers following 2018 defeat of a $5.4 million millage request for a new building.
Commissioner Ben Geiger was salivating over the possibility of bypassing taxpayer approval for a new building, asking County Administrator Michael Brown at the June 25 meeting how much of the tax umbrella fund would be available to build a new COA building.
Noting that the current $9 million figure in the tax umbrella fund includes $1.2 million over its designated “cap,” Brown noted that “the fund is there for a purpose. If you choose to spend below the cap, then there are implications that occur.”
One of those implications could be putting the county’s financial stability in jeopardy, the exact point made by Verlin, the auditor, when he told commissioners “You guys are rare” for the level of fiscal responsibility he sees -- even beyond the dozen other counties he also audits.
That praise was certainly earned by Brown. For some commissioners, it seems to have just triggered more sticky-finger thinking.
Following Verlin's accolades, commissioners immediately turned the meeting conversation over to proposal options from the architectural, engineering and interior design firm of Tower Pinkster for a new COA building. The county, for a second time, has hired Tower Pinkster to review and compose a utilization plan for several county building facilities. An original plan had already been submitted in 2015 – at a cost of $50,000. This time, the firm has been asked, originally, to focus on space utilization concerns at the Barry-Eaton District Health Department, the Friend of the Court building on South Broadway and at the COA building on Woodlawn Avenue. Also on the docket will be planning discussions for a new jail, another subject commissioners have been discussing for several years.
Now, after spending another $50,000 in consulting fees, commissioners heard Eric Hackman, senior project manager at Tower Pinkster, say that his company had no recommendation on the best option for the county.
“I thought it would be clear-cut,” Hackman said when outlining how to best design space for both the Friend of the Court and COA building. The variation in the four options he did present for consideration came down to a difference of around $800,000.
Hackman's best guess would be to build a new 20,000-square-foot COA building as described in the 2015 report at a cost of $6.05 million. There also was discussion on consolidating the health department with FOC or the health department and COA, but the firm's best projections on costs and the least amount of disruption and energy savings would be to build a new home for the COA.
As the numbers clicked upward in the minds of those in attendance, Hackman reminded commissioners before he left that his company would get started with the second project – plans for a new county jail.
I don’t fault commissioners for planning, but I have grave concerns about how this latest round of preparing for the future is being conducted.
For one, voters have already rejected a new COA building, and it now appears commissioners are looking to subvert the vote with plans to pay for a new building out of reserve funds specifically earmarked for other purposes.
Two, by hiring a big and prestigious firm like Tower Pinkster to be part of the planning, commissioners – in a typical political maneuver – are also employing assistance to help convince taxpayers to say “yes” to their plan.
Geiger suggested at the June 25 meeting that the county could absorb the cost of constructing a new COA building if it sold bonds or dipped into its reserve funds. That kind of subterfuge is exactly why politicians hire an “expert” as a scapegoat to convince voters that these projects must be done.
What folks didn’t hear at the June 25 board meeting is that these two projects could cost taxpayers upwards of $30 million or more. According to commissioner Jon Smelker, who sounded like he was seeing through the smoke, “No matter what you do, you’re going to have to go for a millage.”
Someone once said, “A good scapegoat is almost as good as a solution.”
Well, here we are nearly five years after the first Tower Pinkster planning report – and after spending over $100,000 on these experts – and the options are anything but clear-cut.
The COA recently took bids for a new roof, giving the county and its taxpayers some time to really dig in to identifying the COA's needs and what a new facility must look like to continue serving seniors today and tomorrow.
That can be a productive opportunity, though, only if COA administrators and county commissioners come clean and tell taxpayers what the real plans are for a new COA and jail. At Tuesday's county commission meeting, it was revealed that the COA – as it was asking the county commission for $25,750 in roof repair funding – has actually stockpiled nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in fund balance and its own building fund. Why the request for more taxpayer money when there's so much taxpayer cash already being accumulated? And why did the COA present bids from just one company for the project?
Only when our county leaders can assure us of total transparency will they gain the trust of taxpayers. Only when the real costs for a project are disclosed and only when a plan to responsibly meet those costs -- along with an accounting of all stockpiled funds – can we move forward.
America celebrates another birthday
Today, our nation once again celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of our nation – the official sign of American freedom which came 243 years ago. On that momentous July 4, John Adams said he believed it would be “the most memorable epoch in the history of America.”
As we gather to celebrate our independence, let's not forget what our founding fathers suffered so we could be free, and let's not forget what it's allowed us to achieve.
In a speech given in 1989, former President George H. Bush Sr. said, “After 213 years, Americans can say that the experiment is a resounding success. The Fourth of July is a time to rejoice in this success, which has inspired all who seek to break the shackles of totalitarian rule and breathe in the life-giving air of liberty.”
Throughout our history, presidents have talked about the importance of liberty and freedom and the honor deserved by those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend liberty and freedom.
“This doctrine of national independence has shaken the globe – and it remains the most powerful force anywhere in the world today,” President John F. Kennedy said. “There are those struggling to eke out a bare existence in a barren land who have never heard of free enterprise, but who cherish the idea of independence. There are those who are grappling with overpowering problems of illiteracy and ill health and who are ill-equipped to hold free elections. But they are determined to hold fast to their national independence. Even those unwilling or unable to take part in any struggle between East and West are strongly on the side of their own national independence.”
Amid all that inspiring and glorious history, though, the promise of freedom, liberty and justice for all has come into question in recent years, as our political landscape has gotten ugly, with little or no concern of the basic promise we all enjoy – the ideals upon which America was built.
In the same speech, Kennedy went on to suggest that politicians seem fixated on what’s best for them rather than our nation. “Politics is a jungle, torn between doing the right thing and staying in office,” Kennedy said.
Those words might be considered an uneasy fulfillment of the warning another great American president made nearly 100 years earlier:
“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” Abraham Lincoln warned. “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Let’s celebrate the best of what we have as Americans with the understanding that our system isn’t perfect, but it's still proven to be better than any other form of government known to man.
Happy Independence Day, America!
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.