By Ralph Echtinaw
Sparks flew in county commission chambers last week as the employment status of Finance Director Chris Oosterhoff was considered.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to drop the final year of Oosterhoff’s three-year contract and put him on the department supervisor’s wage scale.
The move raises Oosterhoff’s pay from $85,000 to $89,773.
Commissioner Jan Bunting was the sole no vote to make this move and compared Oosterhoff to Sheriff Mike Morris, who is on call 24/7. “You work five days a week probably, 40-50 hours a week,” she said to Oosterhoff. “The sheriff is called out day and night, probably works just about every day. All we have to do is give one person a raise like you and that messes up the pay scale. So that’s where I have a problem raising your wages.”
County Administrator Tracey Cordes told Bunting that the sheriff’s salary ($86,815) is based on what sheriffs are paid in five similar counties. Comparing it to the finance director’s salary is essentially apples and oranges.
Cordes said Oosterhoff “has been working at wages below what he would have gotten had he been on this salary scale. This man is here Saturdays and Sundays around budget time. He’s here Saturdays and Sundays during audit time.”
Bunting argued that commissioners should collectively be their own financial director, as they were 20 years ago.
“You do a wonderful job, Chris,” she said. “But we’re paying double the money for something the commissioners are supposed to be doing. I’ve been here long enough to know what I’m saying, and so does a lot of people that work here.”
Cordes got a little hot with Bunting but remained cordial: “I’m very confident in what I do and the value I add to this community,” she said. “This isn’t about me. At any time this board can get enough votes to terminate my contract. And then you can ask this man (Oosterhoff) or someone else to do two jobs. I came here and created a professional administration department. I understand that’s not something you (Bunting) have valued. That’s okay. I’m actually glad you’re bringing this up with other people in the room, and I hope people are watching on YouTube.”
Cordes continued to defend having a finance director: “When I came here you were getting six or eight audit findings every year. And finally it was (former) Commissioner (Tim) Lambrecht that sat here and said ‘We’ve got to stop having the same audit findings year after year after year.’” And so Oosterhoff was hired in 2019.
Bunting argued that property tax revenue will soon begin falling as wind turbines depreciate. And at some point the county won’t be able to afford what it’s paying Oosterhoff, et. al.
“Let me tell you why you know what’s going to happen with the wind turbine money,” Cordes said. “It’s because you have a very talented financial administrator (Oosterhoff), and there’s no previous administrator perhaps since Roger Cook that could have told you that.”
“No previous administrator would have spent four hours in his first year on the job with you (Bunting) going over the budget,” Cordes continued. “He did that tonight. He answered every single question you have. He’s restructured this budget to save you money. Vote as you will. But if you will not honor this man’s experience and his contributions to the county I will speak up.”
Commissioners voted 3-2 to leave millage levies for the Commission on Aging (0.6492), Parks and Recreation (0.3494), MSU Extension/Greater Gratiot (0.4500), libraries (0.4994) and the sheriff’s road patrol (0.4486) at current levels.
Those millage rates are expected to generate $1,091,726 for the Commission on Aging, $587,400 for Parks, $756,742 for MSU Extension/Greater Gratiot, $839,815 for libraries and 755,732 for the Sheriff’s Office.
The two commissioners who voted against the millage rates were Chuck Murphy and John Lemmermann. They favored reducing the millage levies to generate about the same revenue as the current fiscal year, giving a small tax cut to county property owners.
Lemmermann noted that Alma makes annual adjustments in millage rates and suggested that the county could do the same. “Finances are going to be very uneven and changing a lot, so it’s a practice I’d like to see the board get used to,” he said.
Commissioner Sam Smith favored leaving the millage rates alone because depreciation of existing wind turbines, not to mention the 70 new ones to be installed soon, will reduce the amount of revenue those millages generate.
Alma Library Director Lori Taylor said, “All of the libraries in Gratiot County really depend on this millage. We’ve had some substantial cuts in our budget recently. We’ve already had to cut operating expenses in many cases by 50 percent.”
Sheriff Mike Morris said vehicle maintenance costs have risen almost 100 percent in his department.
Lemmermann noted that the Commission on Aging cash balance rose from half a million in 2019 to $615,000 in 2020, $855,000 in 2021 and is projected to be $1.14 million this year. He asked COA Director Jennifer Cook to explain that.
“In 2019 we had big plans and big ideas,” she said. “Lots of plans for bringing different services to clients. And then the pandemic happened, tied our hands, couldn’t do anything. We weren’t able to provide those services or hire people, still having trouble hiring people. We’ve been up against a wall for quite some time and are super excited about what we’re about to do. We’re ready to utilize some of these funds to provide services and activities for senior citizens in this county.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
The General Fund budget is $14.46 million and the total county budget is $58.46 million.
That’s based on a taxable value of all property in the county of $1.68 billion.
Among the challenges Finance Director Oosterhoff faced in making a budget is rising health care and retirement costs. “We’ve had some issues with our health care costs going up and some potential large costs for current coverage that we have for this fiscal year,” he said. “Retirement expenses continue to to climb, as we have more people that are retiring that have pensions. On top of those legacy costs we are adding new employees that we have 401(k)s for. So our retirement legacy costs are not dropping quicker than 401(k) costs are rising. So we just keep compounding our retirement costs until we reach a peak. And what will really give us relief is when our pension bond fund is paid up in 2026. I don’t see our retirement costs going down until (then).”
Commissioner Bunting recommended austerity. “We are going to enter into some even worse times this next couple years,” she said. “And I would like to see us make sure that we’re double checking; do we really need to do this? And if we don’t, let’s put it off. I’d like to put a few extra eyes on what we’re spending and how we’re spending it. I’m getting emails saying that we’re going to have a shortage of groceries, a shortage of energy such as gasoline and stuff like this. (So I’d) like to see us be a little bit more conscientious about how we’re spending the taxpayers’ money.”
The county’s only homeless shelter (located in St. Louis) has $40,000 left from the $215,000 in American Recovery Plan Act funds that county gave it on Nov. 2, 2021. The money was supposed to be spent in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. So commissioners voted 3-2 to let Hope House spend that money in the next fiscal year.
Murphy, Lemmermann and Bailey voted yes. Bunting and Smith voted no. They thought that perhaps the money could be returned to Gratiot County and given to one or more petitioner for ARP funds that were turned down earlier this year.
Health Department HVAC
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve an agreement with the civil engineering firm Spicer Group to re-design previously-approved heating and air conditioning improvements for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department.
The project was put on hold earlier this year because the two bids that came in ($427,000 and $629,000) were deemed too high. Subsequently, county Building Inspector Tony Miller and Aaron Wosack of Spicer “came up with a nifty redesign,” Cordes said. “That would be to take the the furnace units out of the ceiling where they had planned as a space-saving measure and find two closet areas to put them in.”
That should bring the overall cost down “pretty dramatically,” Cordes said. But the redesign will cost $4,600.
Commissioners voted unanimously to make deals with the villages of Ashley and Perrinton to provide blight eradication services for up to two properties in each village per year. The villages pay $1,000 per year for the service.
The county’s blight enforcement officers will swing into action once a written complaint by a township resident, property owner, or the township supervisor is received. Wheeler Township was already part of this program, but now the township supervisor is allowed to make written complaints about blight.
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