Traverse City News and Events

County Commission Approves Budget, Senior Center Resolution

By Beth Milligan | July 7, 2022

Grand Traverse County commissioners approved the county’s 2023 $43 million general fund budget Wednesday – five months ahead of schedule, due to a planned data migration taking place this month – and passed a resolution of county support to work with the city on obtaining any additional necessary funding to complete the rebuild of the Traverse City Senior Center after a $7 million state allocation was announced for the project last week. Commissioners also scheduled a special meeting for next week to discuss concerns over two county-appointed members on the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority board.

Budget
Commissioners unanimously approved the county’s 2023 budget early this year to accommodate a county transition to a new software system this month, which will include the migration of financial data. The $43 million general fund budget is balanced, does not include employee or service cuts, includes a $3.9 million dollar payment toward the county’s pension bonds, and covers cost-of-living adjustments for employees as well as a three percent wage increase for staff recently approved by commissioners, according to County Administrator Nate Alger.

Grand Traverse County is now 104 percent funded on its pension obligation of approximately $107 million as of 2021, compared to being only 57 percent funded in 2020, Alger said. That leap is due to county commissioners agreeing last year to bond the county’s pension debt, a move staff estimated would result in $8-$15 million in long-term savings. Alger said the struggling economy would likely impact the county’s market position and thus current funding levels, but said staff are making “contingency plans” to address that, including using excess fund balance dollars and the county’s budget stabilization fund to ensure the county remains fully funded on its pension debt. The county is also 54 percent funded on its $3.4 million debt for other post-employment benefits (OPEB) – healthcare and other benefits retirees receive besides pensions – and will make a $300,000 payment in both 2022 and 2023 toward that debt. The state requires the county’s OPEB to be funded at a minimum 40 percent level.

The 2023 budget also includes several new staffing positions, with Alger recommending filling 6 of the 12.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) roles requested by department heads. Approved positions include those paid for by millages or fees, including two homemaker aides and two universal aides at the Commission on Aging and two field technicians at the Department of Public Works. Commissioner Betsy Coffia said that while adding more staff positions at the Commission on Aging was an important step toward addressing a significant client wait list, she noted there are already vacancies in the same jobs that are being added. Alger acknowledged pay for the positions was on the “low” end of the county wage scale, with Coffia requesting that commissioners have more discussions in the future about increasing those salaries. “I don’t know that we’ve solved the problem (without raising wages),” she said. Several requested new positions that would have been paid for by the county’s general fund were not included in the budget, notably a marine sergeant, a detective, and two school resource officers at the Sheriff’s Office. Alger said that state lawmakers are looking at providing funding for school resource officers and that the county was holding off adding those positions until other funding options could be explored.

Other notable budget issues for the next year include capital improvement projects, millages, and determining how to spend $18.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding coming to Grand Traverse County. Major improvement projects including replacing the HVAC system and roof over the locker rooms at Howe Arena, upgrading the roof and boilers at the Law Enforcement Center, repairing the foundation and wall at the Hall of Justice, and renovating the shared chambers of the county and city commissions – including technology upgrades – at the Governmental Center. Coffia requested that language for four likely county millage requests this fall be brought to commissioners later this month so they can vote on them and thus make their positions known on each one before the August 2 primary. Alger said an advisory committee of community leaders working to provide suggestions to commissioners on ARPA spending will make a presentation to the board in August.

Senior Center
After state legislators included a $7 million allocation in their budget last week for the rebuild of the Traverse City Senior Center on East Front Street, county commissioners voted 6-1 Wednesday to approve a resolution affirming support for the reconstruction of the city-owned building and for continued county programming at the site through the Senior Center Network. The resolution, proposed by Commissioner Bryce Hundley, also commits the county to “working with the city to find any additional funding” needed to complete the rebuild, including by possible budget appropriation. Commissioner Ron Clous was the sole ‘no’ vote against the resolution, with Clous believing that if the county said it was willing to help with funding, it would only encourage overspending on the project instead of staying within $7 million. Traverse City Mayor Richard Lewis noted the most recent cost estimate for the rebuild is $7.5 million, meaning some additional funds will likely be needed to complete the project either way.

NLCMH Board Members
Finally, commissioners scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, July 13 at 8am to discuss two county-appointed members on the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health (NLCMH) Authority board. Commission Chair Rob Hentschel and Commissioner Penny Morris requested to have a discussion of NLCMH board members Justin Reed and Nicole Miller for possibly having “neglected their official duty or (having) engaged in misconduct in office.” Hentschel said NLCMH Interim CEO Joanie Blamer has broken board rules, and that Reed and Miller ignored the county commission’s request to address that issue and worked instead to install Blamer as permanent CEO. Coffia objected to discussing the issue Wednesday without Reed or Miller being notified in advance. Other commissioners agreed to give the board members an opportunity to weigh in next week before drawing any conclusions about whether their actions simply represented a difference of opinion from the county commission’s or rose to the level of misconduct. “I think we need to bring that to center stage and ask the hard questions,” Hentschel said.

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