Traverse City News and Events

Infrastructure, Housing, Mental Healthcare Top Survey Priorities For County ARPA Spending

By Beth Milligan | June 2, 2022

Supporting critical infrastructure needs, increasing attainable workforce housing, and enhancing mental/behavioral health and other social services topped the priority list of 1,841 people who responded to a survey on how Grand Traverse County commissioners should spend $18.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. County commissioners discussed the survey results at their Wednesday meeting, where they also approved adding another community police officer in Garfield Township and deferred requested raises for the Grand Traverse County Road Commission after citing concerns with the board’s autonomy and community responsiveness.

ARPA
After giving the public one month to respond to a survey on how Grand Traverse County should spend $18.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, 1,841 respondents – 93 percent of whom were county residents – identified infrastructure, housing, and mental and behavioral health services as their top three categories for funding. Respondents also listed the Traverse City Senior Center as their number-one priority when asked about specific programs and projects that could receive support.

County commissioners had their first look Wednesday at the survey results gathered by Public Sector Consultants, a consulting firm hired by commissioners to guide them through the ARPA spending process. More than half of survey respondents – 69 percent – were 50 years or older, while one third were between 20 and 49 years old. Less than one percent of respondents were under 20. Respondents came from all 13 townships in Grand Traverse County, its two villages, and the City of Traverse City – though answers were skewed toward the most heavily populated urban areas, including the city (34 percent of all respondents), Garfield Township (16 percent of all respondents), and East Bay Township (13 percent of all respondents). Most respondents took the survey online, though 23 filed paper responses.

“The survey was designed to gauge public sentiment on priorities for spending of the county ARPA funding,” County Administrator Nate Alger reminded commissioners Wednesday. Respondents were asked to rank eight categories of potential spending from most important to least important. Starting with the highest priority and moving toward the lowest priority, survey-goers ranked the categories accordingly: Support critical infrastructure needs, increase attainable workforce housing, enhance mental and behavioral health and other social services, increase child care and capacity, support public safety, stabilize the healthcare system, enhance small business support and economic development, and increase the number of skilled employees to fill in-demand jobs.

Alger said the survey results are “one of several tools that will assist this board and county leadership in making funding decisions.” Noting that the survey was open to anyone and nonscientific – the county recently completed a separate scientific community survey rating the region’s livability and challenges that will also be considered in ARPA spending – Alger said the survey will not be “exclusive” in determining spending priorities but will help shape the discussion.

“It’s a thumbnail, it’s good information…but ultimately this board will determine what the priorities are going forward with the ARPA funding,” Alger said. He also noted some weaknesses in the survey results, particularly the lack of rural participation and low participation from people under 34. “We don’t know what the correct approach is (to address that), but we are looking at that, because they are significantly underreported,” he said of the under-34 demographic. “And those are people of child-bearing age. That would certainly lead us to believe that the availability of childcare would be important to them.” Commissioner Betsy Coffia added: “And housing. They’re in the starter home phase.”

Commissioners are expected to discuss the survey results in more depth at a July 27 study session, pending availability from Public Sector Consultants and members of a local 15-member community advisory group to participate in that session. A Grand Traverse County timeline indicates the county will start accepting community applications for ARPA funding in August, have the advisory committee review and categorize those applications in September, and present applications to the commission in October, with commissioners voting to approve projects for funding in November.

Also at Wednesday’s commission meeting…
> Commissioners approved a request from Garfield Township to add a fifth community police officer (CPO) for the township at the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office. Townships cover the labor costs of CPOs at $89,396, according to Alger, while the county covers costs for CPO vehicles and equipment. The Sheriff’s Office has 22 CPOs, who perform regular road patrol duties in addition to working with community-oriented programs, schools, businesses, and leaders in their assigned township. While Sheriff Tom Bensley supported adding the CPO, he voiced frustration that his office continues to struggle with recruiting regular county-funded officers. Of 26 such positions in the department, nine are currently vacant, he said. Bensley blamed the vacancies on more robust salary and benefit packages offered by competing departments like the Traverse City Police Department, Michigan State Police, and Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office.

“We have some pressing needs for personnel that should be prioritized,” Bensley said, noting that commissioners control the department’s budget and wage levels. He added he’d be requesting funding for two school resource officers in the 2023 budget. Alger, however, told commissioners that staffing struggles are taking place everywhere and pointed out that commissioners recently approved wage increases for all county employees. “This situation the sheriff is in is not unique to him, it’s not unique to any other department or office within this county, it’s not unique to anybody within this country,” Alger said. He added that staff would continue to look at possible wage adjustments for employees in the upcoming budget. Grand Traverse County plans to go through an early budget review process this year, with commissioners meeting for study sessions on June 8 and either June 22 or 29 to begin planning the 2023 budget, instead of waiting until the fall when past budget processes have typically taken place.

> Commissioners deferred a request from the Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC) to increase salaries for road commissioners until the county commission’s July 6 meeting. After recently completing a salary study of GTCRC staff and commissioners, the road commission asked to increase the chair’s salary from $6,500 to $9,000, the vice chair’s salary from $6,000 to $8,500 and other board members’ salaries from $5,500 to $8,000. While the county commission agreed GTCRC “performs a very important role,” in the words of Coffia, commissioners expressed concerns about complaints they received from the public and some municipalities about GTCRC’s lack of responsiveness and collaboration in addressing road projects and challenges. Coffia pointed out that GTCRC members are appointed, not elected, to six-year terms and control their own budget, meaning they often operate autonomously from the county without voter oversight. County Commission Chair Rob Hentschel said commissioners could vote to change the model so that GTCRC members are elected, not appointed – an option Coffia said she wanted to explore. Staff will bring more information on that option to the July 6 meeting, which GTCRC members will be requested to attend to discuss their operations and the salary increase proposal.

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