County commissioners finally stop giving federal funds to municipalities

By Ralph Echtinaw

After giving away $5.2 million of the $7.9 million Gratiot County received from the federal American Recovery Plan Act a year ago, the generosity of Gratiot County commissioners reached a limit Tuesday.

Though the need for repairs and upgrades to Washington Township Hall were well documented by Supervisor Howard Whaley, his modest request for $39,000 was rejected, as no commissioner would make a motion to approve it. 

“If it is unable to be done we’re going to proceed with repairs as we can,” Whaley said. “Our number one priority is to get the electrical done because the electrical isn’t safe.”

Commissioner George Bailey essentially spoke for the commission when he said this: “At our last meeting we as a board decided to hold those funds. I can’t suggest that we move forward with giving you the money at this time.”

The county has $950,000 in ARPA funds remaining, though commissioners voted in March to sit on $1.5 million, as Sheriff Mike Morris recommended.

Needed repairs

The commission’s rejection of Washington Township’s request came after County Administrator Tracey Cordes told it about needed repairs to the county courthouse and health department building.

The circuit court room and rotunda have water damage and are in need of plaster repair and paint, but contractors appear to be too busy to be interested in that job. Cordes set up two time periods for contractors to look at the project area and ask questions. No one showed up at either of the available slots. So that project will likely languish until contractors have more availability.

The exterior of the courthouse needs attention, too: “Especially the lower parts of the exterior of the building are fading away, and flake and layers peal off,” Cordes said. “Given where it is I suspect there is salt hitting it and eating away at that fragile material sandstone. We don’t want this to get too far out of hand. It’s the jewel of our community.”

And then there’s the courthouse basement: The carpet is worn out, Cordes said, and she’s concerned about what’s underneath it. “I worry about asbestos,” she said. “We’d like to get it right down to concrete flooring and having nothing that would serve as a host for mold.”

Health Department work on hold

Commissioners approved spending up to $500,000 in ARPA funds on heating, cooling and ventilation work in the Health Department building last September. But Cordes has received just two bids on the work. Both were more than expected, and one was way out of line. “The health department project was never simple and it certainly has gotten more complicated as time went on,” Cordes said.

The Health Department bids were $427,500 from Three Rivers Corporation of Midland and $629,200 from MJ Mechanical of St. Johns. Cordes characterized the high bid as “essentially perfunctory” and the product of a contractor who believes he has the whip hand. “Our project engineer noted that the numbers listed in the proposal were even numbers ($375,000 for mechanical, $70,000 for electrical, $62,000 for general trades),” Cordes said via email. “Our engineer opined that such costs suggest the bid was not put together with competitiveness in mind. It is very much a contractor’s market right now.”

Cordes has been working with Aaron Wosek, a mechanical HVAC and plumbing engineer with Spicer Engineering. “It is he who did the review and suggested putting a hold on the project,” Cordes said. 

The county commission accepted Cordes’ request to pause the Health Department job to see if prices come down.

In the meantime, Building Inspector Tony Miller will consider what small project components might be peeled off now. “Tony will be looking into options for temperature control and ventilation fans in two restrooms,” Cordes said.  

Contractor shoots self in the foot

Commissioners made an unusual move Tuesday in pulling a March 15 bid award to repair the courthouse air conditioning system after the contractor raised his price by $9,000.

The contractor in question is A/C Building Systems of Wixom. It’s winning bid of $86,390 was raised to $95,317 after it won the competition but before a contract was signed.

“While I understand that costs are increasing, I was stunned that this vendor would increase his bid by a whopping $9,000,” Miller said.

Although A/C Building Systems was still the low bidder after the increase, Miller recommended going with the next lowest bidder, Smillie Plumbing of Freeland $101,000).

Gratiot County has successfully done business with Smillie and has no experience with A/C Building Systems. Commissioners approved Miller’s request unanimously.

Two other bids came in on the same project from GR Gateway Refrigeration of Clare ($104,337) and J.E. Johnson of Midland ($116,600).

Full disclosure

This reporter is a candidate for county commission in District 2 and will face off against Bunting in the Aug. 2 Republican primary. Furthermore, this reporter is treasurer of the Gratiot County Republican Party, on which Murphy is chair. Smith, Bailey, Bunting and Lemmermann are dues-paying members.

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