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County commissioners clash as $1.8 million is given to cities, villages and townships

By Ralph Echtinaw

County commissioners put on a show Tuesday as they distributed much of what remains of the county’s $7.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021 to accelerate the country’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession, per Wikipedia. 

At the time of Tuesday’s meeting, county commissioners had already doled out more than half of the $7.9 million in ARPA funds it received. The benefactors were cities, villages, townships and police agencies around the county. In the case of cities and townships, they received ARPA funds of their own. St. Louis got $760,000, then picked up another $500,000 from the county’s ARPA pie last December to help pay for a $1.8 million water main project on M46.

With $3.3 million left to distribute, commissioners were besieged with petitioners Tuesday, each with his or her own story about needs that could be filled if commissioners would slip them some ARPA bucks.

Representatives from Ithaca, Perrinton, Breckenridge, Alma, the county fire chiefs association, the county road commission and the townships of Fulton, Hamilton, Newark and Wheeler took turns making their cases.

There wasn’t enough money in the ARPA kitty to satisfy all requests, so Commissioner Jan Bunting suggested giving everyone what they asked for, using the county’s wind turbine money to make up the difference.

This didn’t sit well with commissioners Sam Smith, George Bailey and John Lemmermann.

Smith reminded Bunting that the county is involved in a lawsuit regarding depreciation of wind turbines, and every school district and township that gets wind turbine money may have to give some of it back. (As would the county itself.)

Of Bunting’s presentation, Smith said: “I didn’t want to say this, but that’s a great campaign speech, Jan.”

Bailey added this: “All the people in this room are adults. They came here knowing they’re not going to get everything they want. They can count. They can add. They knew the situation before they got here.”

Bailey also noted that several townships in Gratiot County get wind turbine money, too.

Lemmermann objected to the manner in which Bunting presented her idea. “If you were being respectful of us and the audience I think you would have added your plan to the agenda,” he said.

Bunting retorted to her four colleagues on the dais, “I don’t work for you guys. I work for them. I don’t have to answer to you.”

To see the contentious part of the meeting, watch this You Tube video starting at the two hour and 15 minute mark.

There was also disagreement as to how much of the remaining ARPA money to hold in reserve. 

Sheriff Mike Morris favors a $1.5 million reserve for the following reason: “You never know on a county level when you may need something done,” he said by email. “If you spend it all right now and something comes up and you need money on the county level then it comes out of general fund. We have time in the future for the requests if the money is not spent.”

The commission voted 5-0 on March 1 to keep $1.5 million of the ARPA funds in reserve. Chairman Chuck Murphy said Tuesday that he now favors keeping $500,000 instead. But the triumvirate of Bailey, Smith and Lemmermann went with $1.5 million. So there’s that much left to distribute, but the county will hold onto it for a time.

Here’s how $1.862 million was divvied up Tuesday:

$274,000 to Alma for downtown parking lots and alleys.

$55,000 for work on Newark Township Hall.

$150,000 for work on Hamilton Township Hall.

$500,000 for Breckenridge.

$30,000 for Perrinton sidewalks.

$50,000 to removed underground fuel tanks at Gratiot County Community Airport.

$153,000 for Fulton Township (to be spent on a cemetery well, 16 acres of land for a retention pond and and new accounting software).

$80,000 for two road commission generators.

$110,000 to help pay for an Ithaca sewer vac truck.

$460,000 to six Gratiot County fire departments to help pay for new fire engines.

Almost everyone who asked for a piece of the action Tuesday got something, but many didn’t get everything they wanted, and one got bupkis. 

The fire chiefs association, for example, requested $1.2 million and got $460,000. Alma requested $1.55 million and got $274,000. The road commission wanted $250,000 for a new satellite facility in northwest Gratiot and didn’t get it.

The biggest loser was Wheeler Township, which wanted $674,000 for roads and got nothing.

Full disclosure

This reporter is a candidate for county commission and will probably face off against Bunting in the Aug. 2 Republican primary. (The filing deadline is April 19.) This reporter is treasurer of the Gratiot County Republican Party, on which Murphy is chair. Smith, Buntinng and Lemmermann are dues-paying members.

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