By: Benjamin J. Gohs, News Editor
Elected leaders from all over Charlevoix County gathered on Monday Jan. 28 for the third annual Charlevoix County Elected Leader Summit meeting.
The event, organized by local officials and the Michigan Township’s Association, was an opportunity for the county’s elected leaders to network among one another and brainstorm on issues facing Charlevoix County.
“We are loyal to our constituents,” said Charlevoix County Sheriff W. Don Schneider in response to a group exercise intended to highlight positive attributes of the county’s elected leaders. “We’re energetic … we’re also accountable … we’re dedicated … we’re efficient because we’re all looking at our budgets … and we’re responsible.”
Robin Hissong Berry, the emcee of the event, said local governmental officials are unique in that they are more accountable to their constituents and must balance their budgets. She said she hoped this year’s summit would energize officials and get them ready for a year of serving the voters well.
“Being a leader is not a single thing. It’s a combination of a lot of stuff,” she said. “We are the grassroots. This is where the buck stops. Our people come to our meeting and yell at us. They come and find us in the grocery store and the library … we are accountable.”
Attendees then moved to different tables in an effort to get them to work with people who they normally may not work with.
The groups then discussed ambulance services, water quality, a county manager, broadband internet, recreational trails and health insurance.
Statements that came out of the various groups on those different topics included:
At least one table discussed health care. One township official claimed he has an employee whose medical insurance costs taxpayers $1,600 per month.
Health insurance costs continue to increase and will continue to be a major factor in governmental budgeting.
A couple tables discussed ambulance services and how those will continue to be funded into the future.
One of the big concerns is that townships do not have equal say in what they pay the cities for ambulance services.
Replacement costs on expenditures for equipment like ambulances and high-end medical devices continue to be a concern as well.
One solution proposed would be to create an ambulance authority across townships to help equalize costs and give each entity an equal say.
“The City of Boyne City and Boyne Valley (Township) have entered into a working agreement, also with six townships, and the funding mechanism for it is apportioned across the six townships, Boyne Valley and Boyne City,” said Boyne City Mayor Ron Grunch. “The model is based on how many homes there is and the population that is served in those homes based on two-and-a-half people per home.”
Grunch said they don’t have a handle on future funding yet, but that the model seems workable.
Broadband internet topics included the need for surveys of the citizenry, especially in rural areas.
Look for ways to reach citizens with the request for information and to determine the number of service providers.
A debate over whether broadband should be a private business venture or to what degree governments should be involved.
The over arching issue may be that there are simply not enough people in a sparsely populated to entice private internet vendors into serving such areas with high-speed internet.
“At the county we’re up and running with (high-speed internet) and we’re moving at speeds never seen before,” said Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen.
Now that the fiber optic backbone has been installed at the county, Christensen said, there are offers by private companies seeking to provide service to the cities but not the rural areas.
“As governmental agencies I think we need to band together and focus on how we can work together to try to proliferate broadband and internet throughout the county as a whole,” he said. “It’s not longer just about internet, it’s about … telephone, cable television—and whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you’ve got a 1:1 initiative in the schools in Boyne City, you’ve got 700 iPad minis in East Jordan and there onto a new program in Charlevoix … so this is a multi-pronged effort now where it’s no longer just about internet.”
Christensen added, “If you’ve got three kids in a family that have an iPad that take it home and don’t have internet access, what are they doing with it? What’s the purpose?”
Christensen said one solution could be a county-wide internet network to drive the costs down among municipalities and for the citizens.
Communication was also discussed. Townships were urged to keep their web sites up to date with meeting minutes, agendas and other pertinent information.
Water quality was another topic. It was discussed that Michigan’s water quality is a major economic driver for tourism as well as bringing people to the area to live.
Invasive species of animals, fish and plant life are of concern as too are chemicals used in farming, weeding and lawn feeding. Water runoff in areas with pavement and concrete was also mentioned as a concern as it can greatly affect the ecology of local waterways. How development is handled in the future was an issue cited in helping to promote development while maintaining water quality.
Low water levels were also mentioned as a concern.
Recreational trails was another topic discussed.
Concern was raised over the fact that, while motorcycles, cars, trucks and snowmobiles can legally ride on state-owned two-tracks, four-wheelers may not.
“There’s talk of connectivity between Boyne City and Boyne Falls, lots of things in the works,” said Boyne City Commissioner and Planning Commission member Tom Neidhamer. “The challenge is: where do we go from here?”
The cost of construction, maintenance and how to connect the current and proposed trails is an issue Neidhamer said local governments will need to work together on.
A possible county administrator was the next topic discussed.
Whether there is a need for an administrator to lead the county building was discussed. Officials said some issues included the cost of creating such a position and what types of duties would such a position be responsible for.
“We have all sorts of models throughout the state,” said Boyne City Manager Michael Cain. “Those duties and responsibilities can vary greatly from county to county.”
Cain said initially there should be some form of public informational session to gauge the interest and needs the public feels would be filled by hiring a county administrator.
“We felt that this issue is too big for one group to handle … and that there should be a blue ribbon committee established with regards to this that has people representing from the county itself, maybe some of the other organizations … members of the general public,” Cain said. “At the end this group should have some kind of a report back to the citizens of Charlevoix County.”
One group said issues across the municipalities within the county should be handled as a whole instead of 16 individual entities working as islands unto themselves. The benefit of cooperation included everything from the savings realized through bulk purchasing to the benefits of shared services.
Some attendees then mentioned successful joint efforts and possible joint efforts.
Schneider said the county is considering building a multi-use facility on Beaver Island that would be used by the road commission, transit and the sheriff’s office.
Boyne City, Charlevoix and East Jordan hired an assessor who would cover all three entities.
“While there was some initial cost start-up for computer software and things of that sort, overall the City of Charlevoix is saving about $15,000 a year by partnering with our local neighbors,” said Charlevoix City Manager Rob Straebel. “It’s worked out really well and it’s just one of the levels of cooperation that we’re working on and we see a lot of other possibilities in the future as well.”
Cain said the building the summit was held in—Boyne Area Senior Center—was also a joint venture.
Cain said the joint effort between Boyne City Public Schools, some local businesses and the city has built a manufacturing class to help ready students to take local jobs right out of high school.