Health care, EMS, broadband and trails top topics of Charlevoix County elected leader/officials summit

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Benjamin Gohs

News Editor

The annual Charlevoix County Officials and Elected Leaders Summit was recently held in Boyne City.

Officials discussed a variety of topics including health insurance, water quality, communication, county administration, trails, broadband and ambulance services.

“Health care—it is a constantly moving target,” said summit co-host Robin Berry, the Chapter Chair of the Michigan Townships Association, during the Monday Feb. 24 meeting… “At an MTA conference they said they’re still working on defining how we’re going to have to deal with our volunteer fire departments … so we’ve got to be keeping records of how many real hours volunteers spend, so they can’t come back and tell us, ‘Oh, that’s a full-time employee.’”

Berry told officials that they must keep track of fire fighters who attend meetings, and how long the meeting lasted; how many fire runs they go on, and how long those lasted; so it can be verified that they are not full-time employees.

Also, Berry said, elected officials were advised to keep track of their hours spent working on public matters.

“That’s something we really struggled with as we were learning how to operate under the Affordable Care Act,” said Boyne City Manager Michael Cain. “Normally we have about 20 or so employees that have health care coverage … one of the questions they asked is are you a large or a small employer. Well, everybody kept saying that we were a small employer.”
Cain said, once city officials compiled all employee man-hours, the city actually had between 51 and 55 employees—50 employees being the cutoff for a business considered a “small employer” that would be exempt from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

“That makes a huge difference,” Cain said. “So, make sure you are consulting with somebody who really knows how to work through that process.”

Berry next brought up the topic of water quality, saying that Northern Michigan’s water was one of its most precious resources.

“There are so many little projects happening in Northern Michigan that are all about quality of water and fish and erosion control,” she said… “So, if you can get one person to get educated on one topic and then come back and educate the rest of the members on your board, that’s a great thing.”

Berry asked if the officials had noticed an increase in communication among the county’s various departments, organizations and municipalities since the last summit.

“When I speak of communication, and I hope the rest of the first responders chime in … we have moved into the narrow band radio system and it has caused us a lot of problems,” said Charlevoix County Sheriff W. Don Schneider.

According to Schneider, trying to fix issues related to the switch has been expensive. He said the regional 9-1-1 board has been made aware of the issue and the possibility of erecting new towers is being considered, but they are costly.

Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen said one tower being looked at could cost $300,000 … and that was after the county took steps to save nearly $160,000 off the original price tag.

“The one good news is it looks like we will be able to work with the City of Charlevoix to use existing structure as opposed to creating new,” Christensen said. “So, as far as the landscape and everything goes, we’re not adding anything out there. We’re not putting a new tower up.”

One official said he was appalled that not all township officials have their contact information—especially their e-mail addresses—up on their websites.

Berry then introduced the county’s human resources director as one of the topics at the meeting.

Charlevoix County Human Resources Director/County Coordinator Kevin Shepard discussed his new expanded role in the county.

Christensen said Shepard has helped the county revamp certain processes, that will ultimately increase efficiency and potentially save tax dollars.

The topic of trails in Charlevoix County was then introduced. A brief overview of the efforts to create trails from Boyne City to U.S. 31, a proposed trail from Boyne City to Boyne Falls, the lake to lake trail proposed to stretch from Lake Charlevoix to Lake Michigan, and other efforts were discussed.

“Trails can be small or they can be large,” said Berry, adding that her township is working on a trail near Walloon Lake.

The question of what might happen to the Lake to Lake trail, and a proposed Elk Rapids to Charlevoix trail, if the St Marys-Fisherman’s Island land swap were to occur.

Charlevoix City Manager Rob Straebel said he felt the trails would still be able to be erected, even if the land swap were to occur.

The next topic brought up was broadband internet.

“Back in 2011 Wilson Township decided we had a problem with internet,” said Wilson Township Supervisor Todd Sorenson. “We had two board members without internet. We went satellite with one, the other person was using dial-up, then started using their cell phone.”
He said it is difficult to stay in touch with residents when some of them don’t have internet and the others are using dial-up internet.

“We did a survey in Wilson Township and discovered that our residents really wanted it,” Sorenson said. “So, we started working on plans to either build the towers ourselves or find a company to build the towers.”
Sorenson said the township looked into government loans to help fund the project, until he found a company that was looking to do similar work.

Sorenson introduced Air North Communications, which is working on a project which could provide high-speed internet to the area.

It would cost $3 million to bring high-speed internet to everyone in the county. Steps had been being taken to bring broadband throughout Northern Michigan but the federal government’s sequester of 2013 put a damper on many of those efforts. Ground could be broken on efforts to bring high-speed internet to several counties, including Charlevoix County, as early as this spring.

The final topic discussed during the elected leader-county official summit was ambulance services. Three major EMS providers discussed the tentative proposal of creating an emergency services authority that could serve the entire county. Discussions have been in the works for many months. Officials said the undertaking is massive and requires serious planning on cost estimates, services and, their findings so far is that the service probably wouldn’t be able to be provided for less than the cities provide the services now.

Officials said a region-wide authority may better work, as they could utilize economies of scale—saving money by eliminating redundancy among partners.

It has been discussed that a consultant may be brought in to help sort the issue.