Benjamin J. Gohs
A Charlevoix County parks and recreation plan hearing last week devolved into debate over how the new parks millage will be spent.
Public officials and residents from several municipalities questioned the Charlevoix County Board on the matter during the Wednesday Feb. 25 recreation plan public hearing.
“From what I’ve been able to find out, we probably will contribute $32,000 to $35,000 (or) $38,000,” said Charlevoix City Councilman Bill Supernaw (Ward 2). “It doesn’t sound like we’re … high on the list—are we even on the list to get anything?”
Charlevoix County Board Chairman Joel Evans (R-District 4) said there is no list at this time, but added that there will be an application process, possibly beginning in the next 30 days, to allow local governments to apply for parks projects capital.
Supernaw asked if every donor entity being taxed would have equal representation on the group that will decide which projects are green-lit each year over the course of the four-year millage that was approved by voters in November of 2014.
Every municipality will not be represented, officials said, because the group—which will be an informal working group, and not an official committee—would have been too large.
Evans said the committee, which was still in the process of being assembled as of last week, will merely make recommendations to the county board.
Charlevoix City Manager Rob Straebel said he appreciated the county’s efforts to equitably distribute the funds, but warned that such a process can quickly become cumbersome.
“If we really look at getting those dollars back to where they were raised, we developed a road agreement when we passed the county-wide one-mill road agreement—it’s worked really well,” he said. “Those moneys come directly back to the City of Charlevoix… That serves our constituents very well.”
Straebel added, “By creating this new granting process, it’s going to be a fairly long process open to politics—obviously this is a political environment—but, I think everybody’s purposes are well served much better if we look at some form of agreement whereby those revenues that are generated in the communities … just get returned to those entities to do what they see fit for their communities.”
Legal Counsel for the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners, Bryan Graham, said you cannot simply take the millage funds and give them back to the municipalities.
“You have to do it by contract,” Graham said. “You’re contracting for a particular parks and rec’ or playground purposes. Once that project is identified, you then fund it, you contract for it and therefore you are abiding by state law.”
Straebel said he did not believe there was any state statute which prevented an agreement to allow the funds to go directly back to the municipalities.
Graham reiterated that it must be done per project, and not just a blanket disbursement of funds back to the municipalities.
The public hearing had been designated to discuss the latest parks and recreation plan, which must be updated every five years.
“We made some further updates to the local recreation inventory based on input we received from local officials. They were submitting input up until a couple of days ago,” said Charlevoix County Planning Coordinator Kiersten Stark.
Stark briefed the board on a few changes to the proposed parks and recreation plan. The most notable change concerned a proposed boat launch project for Whiting Park.
A new barrier-free pavilion, to be constructed in the day-use area, has also been proposed for Whiting Park. It was moved from a tentative date of 2015 to 2017 in order to free more millage funds for the boat launch project.
“That will also minimize the amount of money we’ll need to apply for grants,” Stark said.
The other major change was an increased cost estimate on phase one of the Boyne City to US-31 trail.
“The cost of that has gone up about $200,000 due to the need to utilize retaining walls in lieu of some of the grading easements that had originally been proposed for the project,” said Stark.
Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen (R-District 2) said he had concerns with the process used to decide when projects were going to be undertaken as part of the new millage.
“If the millage money had not passed, where would the boat launch have been fitted into your recreation plan, Ross,” Christensen said, addressing Charlevoix County Parks & Recreation Director Ross Maxwell.
Maxwell said his plan was to put Whiting Park and the boat launch, renewal of a shower building and other related projects into a more than one-million-dollar project for which he would have sought state and federal grant moneys.
“I would have tried every grant possible out there, and also approaching the commissioners,” Maxwell said.
Christensen said his concern is that the millage be spent wisely.
“When we earmark the budget, we earmark the budget with money to be set aside for … future expansion,” Christensen said… “But, if you earmark this $50,000 right now, then we’ll have effectively spent every dollar that came in on the first collection, and have zero money earmarked for the future.”
Stark said she thought the parks and recreation committee would have roughly $200,000 to work with, but with a budget of only $150,000 would leave them with another $50,000 to use on improvements.
“The way that it was explained to the people was that … we would maintain the parks moneys out of the millage money, and then the additional funds that were raised as a result of that were to be used for other improvements throughout the area,” said Christensen. “I’m not opposed to this in the future. I’m not opposed to the boat launch. It isn’t about the boat launch. It’s about the principle of spending the $50,000 in the first year that it’s been collected. That’s my concern.”
Stark said a parks and recreation survey and public input during meetings indicated a large amount of support for the boat launch.
“We heard loud and clear that people really want a boat launch, that’s why we took that approach,” Stark said.
Christensen said his other concern was that the parks and recreation millage failed in many of the areas of the county in the November election, partially because some were worried the millage funds would simply all go to one or two parks.
“To move it up from 2017 to 2016, and then basically deplete the fund, that was the one issue,” Christensen said. “And then the next issue would be we’re basically kinda going against some of the complaints that we got on the millage on the front end—you’re literally putting a third of the money into Whiting Park on the first year … a third of the excess funds.”
Christensen also clarified that the $50,000 proposed to go toward the boat launch is only the matching funds portion, should a grant for the overall project be awarded.
“If the grant is not passed, are you just going to earmark that $50,000 and shoot for it again the following year or does it go back into another fund and those moneys are freed up for another project?” said Christensen.
Stark said that would be up to the planners and parks officials.
Evans said he, too, has heard plenty of support for the boat launch project.
“We are, as a county, putting the money into the best places that we can, for Charlevoix,” said Evans.
Charlevoix County Commissioner George T. Lasater (R-District 1) asked if the citizens would be charged to use the boat launch.
Maxwell said he felt there should be a charge for public use of the boat launch.
Robin Hissong-Berry of Melrose Township said some grants require a charge for usage of the boat launch once it is built.
She also said, “Voters want to see their money invested quickly … so people see progress.”
County officials said the money expected to go toward the boat launch is separate from the moneys which will be available to local cities, townships, village, etc.
The five-year parks and recreation plan was approved by a 5-0 vote.
The vote on whether to approve the parks and recreation department to take $93,000 for the boat launch—$50,000 the first millage year and $43,000 the second—was approved by a vote of 4-2, with Christensen and Reinhardt the “no” votes.