Traverse City News and Events

Third Director Leaves County; Departures Could Fund Animal Control

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 6, 2018

A third department director has resigned from Grand Traverse County this week, an exodus County Administrator Vicki Uppal says could help balance the “top-heavy” organization. Meanwhile, funds freed up from the salaries of the departing executives could go toward restoring staffing in the county’s animal control department.

After a Wednesday announcement that County Planning Director John Sych and Facilities Director Marty Dunham were resigning, Uppal sent an email to county commissioners Thursday informing them Human Resources Director Bill Hendry was also resigning, effective immediately. HR Specialist Lane Messer will also leave the department, according to the memo.

To fill the gap created by the departures, “LeAnn Skiff, from our finance department, is being to promoted to human resources analyst and will begin working in human resources effective Monday, January 8,” Uppal wrote. “On Monday, January 15…Zachary Juett, PHR (professional in human resources) will be joining us as a personnel specialist.” Juett, who comes to the county from Munson Healthcare, “brings a wealth of HR knowledge and experience,” according to Uppal.

Uppal tells The Ticker there are no plans to hire a new HR director. “The thinking is we need more hands-on people working in the field rather than high-level supervision,” she says. The county has roughly 600 full-time, part-time, temporary, on-call and elected employees. “We can manage the supervision (in administration), but we need people working day-to-day with employees and vendors and citizens to ensure all their customer satisfaction needs are being met.”

Uppal hopes the restructuring will help avoid situations like a $142,000 accounting error that surfaced in December, when staff discovered health insurance premiums had accidentally been paid out for more than a dozen employees who opted out of county medical coverage last year. “We’re working on process improvements to avoid problems in the future,” says Uppal. “We’ll have a close connection with administration and finance to ensure there are good audits going on (in HR).”

The departures of three department heads within the same week follow two other leadership exits at the end of 2017, including former Deputy Administrator Jennifer DeHaan and former Finance Director Jody Lundquist. Interim Deputy Administrator Jean Derenzy is also in negotiations to leave the county and take over as CEO for Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Uppal says the individual departures are “unrelated,” but acknowledges the pattern may have roots in a cultural shift within the organization.

“Any time a new administrator comes in, I’m sure department heads are watching to see what the direction is going to be,” says Uppal. “I’m a believer we might be a little top-heavy. That concept or influence may have been picked up along the way through different conversations.” Citing the facilities department as an example – which will undergo a similar restructuring as HR – Uppal says the county needs “more facility manpower, more individuals out blowing snow and maintaining buildings, rather than someone directing all of that. We’ll have oversight of that (through administration).”

The departures will free up room in the county’s budget that could go toward bonuses or salary increases for employees who’ve gone years without a raise, as well as toward funding the county’s animal control department, according to Uppal. On Wednesday, county commissioners – who have met regularly with citizens on an ad hoc committee the past several months to discuss options for improving animal control – expressed their desire to see staffing levels boosted within the department. Previous budget cuts have left animal control solely reliant on dog licensing revenues to fund operations, dropping 2017’s budget down to roughly $135,000. After costs including vehicles, sheltering contracts, veterinary visits and other expenses, that left only enough funding for one full-time staff member – Deb Zerafa (pictured) – and a seasonal employee who worked for the department for six months last year.

That funding level is not nearly enough for the program to operate in “the right way for the community,” according to County Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger. With commissioners set to review a proposed structure and budget increase for animal control in the next several weeks – which could see the department become fully funded either under the health department, the sheriff’s department, or as a standalone department – Hirschenberger is proposing increasing animal control’s budget to just over $286,000. That level would be enough to hire two full-time animal control officers and a supervisor, who would ideally have a combined animal control and law enforcement background, according to Hirschenberger. Under the proposed structure, the supervisor – in addition to overseeing operations – could serve as a liaison to organizations like the Cherryland Humane Society and engage in community outreach programs, such as promoting increased dog license registrations.

“It’s been really challenging the last few years to have (animal control) funded at a level that isn’t adequate to do it justice in any way,” says Hirschenberger. “We’ve tried every size BandAid in the box, but the bottom line is it didn’t have enough funding to support the hours it needs. Wherever it lands, however it looks, I just hope it’s funded at a more appropriate level, so we can take a better shot at doing the job that’s needed for both the animals and the citizens.”

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