County To Talk Proposed Budget, Senior Center Rebuild
By Beth Milligan | Oct. 3, 2018
Grand Traverse County Administrator Nate Alger will present county commissioners with a first look at his proposed 2019 budget tonight (Wednesday) – a plan he says is balanced, doesn’t rely on general fund allocations, won’t reduce county services or staff positions, and includes cost-of-living adjustments for employees. Commissioners will also discuss plans to move forward with Traverse City on a joint partnership to rebuild the Traverse City Senior Center and will formalize a decision to abolish the county’s planning commission.
The $38.8 million general fund budget is the first prepared by Alger since taking the helm in June. “Grand Traverse County provides an unbelievable amount and level of services to our residents and visitors,” Alger said in a memo to commissioners. “I am proud to say that our elected officials and department heads provide these services at a high level and manage their budgets very well. It is because of these determined professionals that we are pleased to present you a balanced budget.”
While no county jobs or services are cut in the proposed budget, part of how Alger and Finance Director Dean Bott were able to achieve a balanced budget – without using any of the fund balance in the general fund to shore up gaps – was by declining to add any new county positions in 2019. Departments requested a total of 20 new employees, but “we are not recommending any new positions be added to the general fund,” Alger says. Only 1.8 full-time employees are recommended to be added to the health department next year; those positions are grant-funded.
Alger is also only recommending buying only six new county vehicles next year – four for the Sheriff’s Office and two for the Facilities department – though 13 total were requested. The county’s health insurance rate increase is also “favorable” for 2019 at only 1.4 percent, while employees are also being moved from a “two-plan option for health insurance to exclusively an HSA,” according to Alger, reducing county insurance costs.
Pension debt appears likely to be an ongoing challenge for the county: The county’s current projected pension obligation is $98 million, $55 million of which is with the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS), meaning the county is approximately 56 percent funded. Michigan requires counties to be at least 60 percent funded. Alger notes the county paid $5.9 million to MERS in early 2018 and has another $5.9 million payment budgeted for 2019, bringing the county closer to those funding requirements. “Certainly our goal is to reach and exceed the required minimum funding levels, and we should budget accordingly,” Alger says.
Alger will present a multi-step process for his first budget process aimed at getting a final budget approved by November 7. Following tonight’s presentation, Alger says he’ll give commissioners opportunities to request specific budget details and also allow department heads and officials to speak directly with commissioners about impacts of the budget recommendation. Alger is recommending setting study sessions October 24 and 25 to fine-tune the budget before approving its passage November 7.
Alger says he intentionally prepared a “conservative” 2019 budget to ensure the county stays on a positive financial track. “We have seen some recent improvement in our financial status, and we believe that we should see what the next year brings and hope that improvement continues,” he says. “To that end, we are recommending that we not introduce any significant changes in services or staffing that may impact, or at a minimum not let us fully recognize, the continued improvement in our financial position that we believe is to come.”
Commissioners tonight will also follow up on a joint meeting that took place last week between county and Traverse City commissioners in which the boards agreed to move forward as partners to rebuild the Traverse City Senior Center on West Grand Traverse Bay. Leaders agreed constructing a new facility – rather than attempting to rehabilitate the existing deteriorating building – would be the best path forward. Early estimates put the project between $857,000 and $1.1 million. Grand Traverse County has $250,000 in funds previously appropriated for Senior Center furniture available for the project, while Traverse City has $414,835 set aside in a Senior Center building fund.
In a follow-up memo to commissioners, Alger clarified that some project estimates quoted at the joint meeting of $4 million to $6 million were describing a potential two-story building on the property, not the single-story building proposed. “The conversations with staff have been focused on remodeling or rebuilding at the current site with (the lower) estimates in mind,” Alger said.
Finally, commissioners tonight will repeal an ordinance establishing the county’s planning commission – an official step to formalize the decision made by the board last month to abolish the commission. The move followed a joint meeting with local townships in which leaders appeared to agree the commission was no longer needed and that an emphasis should be placed on economic or community development efforts instead. Alger notes that without a planning commission, Grand Traverse County will not be able to have a master plan; instead, in order to qualify for state or federal grants, the county “will need to adopt some type of regional plan akin to a master plan," he said. The county administrator says he’ll bring a proposal to create such a plan to commissioners at a future meeting.