HARRISON – At the April 19 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners, several financial elements were discussed. The first was the Clare County Equalization report presented by Pete Preston, equalization director. He informed of the annual equalization study, wherein his department determines whether townships/municipalities are informed that sales show they need to raise or lower their assessed value. He said that if there aren’t enough sales, the study can be produced using commercial property sales and a sample of non-sale properties. Preston explained the process that follows, including assessment notices and March boards of review to accept appeals, after which Equalization ensures the data balances and all is in order for the taxing entities, followed by state reporting.
Part of the process is having the BOC give its stamp of approval on the work, which was what Preston was seeking.
“Overall, Clare County saw an approximate 14% in equalized value increases,” Preston said, noting there were big jumps in commercial and industrial classes, but the primary jump was in residential. He attributed that to last year’s frenzied buying and selling of properties, which Preston said drove property values “through the roof.” He explained that such turnover results in uncapping of taxable value, bringing it up to the assessed value. Preston said there also was an 8% inflation rate, but that the state caps it at 5%.
“What that amounted to is an approximate 7% jump in taxable value for Clare County,” Preston said. “That’s substantial; it’s more than we’ve seen in other counties where we provide services, thus far.”
He said that 7% doesn’t include some of the tax capture districts in the cities of Clare and Harrison, the veterans and poverty exemptions that may be seen at the July and December boards of review.
It was also noted by Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt that he’d been hearing another 5% increase could be expected for next year. Preston said that was the conventional wisdom, but that the state would be coming out with its formula. He added there needs to be discussion acknowledging that from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2022 people were “going hog wild” with property sales, which resulted in the rise in taxable values. He said the other side of that equation coin comes when the CPI continues to be applied at a time of plummeting property values – that’s when he would see people really upset, but currently it’s somewhat explainable.
Later in the meeting Jenny Beemer-Fritzinger, county treasurer, noting the audit was complete, provided a county financial data update showing fund balances from 2009 to present day.
Despite former years’ difficulties, through fiscal adjustments, grants pursuit, additional millages and the influx of ARPA [American Recovery Plan Act] dollars the county has found itself on a much firmer footing. Beemer-Fritzinger specifically noting the county ended FY 2022 with a $1.1 million surplus that, when added to the previous year’s fund balance of $1.9 million, brought the county’s General Fund balance to $3 million. She said that put the county at 23%.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “We’ve been trying to build that up; that’s the best that we’ve had here. The last time it was in the 20s [%] was in 2009, but that’s when we were hit with our economic decline, and we’ve been bouncing back and forth.”
She then cited some various funds and their balances: 2022 Tax Fund appropriated $692,000; state revenue sharing $688,000; 2022 millage $5.8 million. Current cash and fund balances as of the previous day included: General Fund [in lieu of tax anticipation note and until taxes start coming back in in July] was at $835,000. Beemer-Fritzinger also said her department was preparing to mail just less than 600 tax notices, and that she would be paying out delinquent tax settlements in the amount of $5.2 million, which she said is about average, although some amounts are higher due to millages that had been added to the rolls. She said those are 90% collected, leaving 10% delinquent.
She specifically pointed to the 27 foreclosures for 2020 taxes as the lowest number to date, and said she would provide a breakdown of the delinquent taxes at the commissioners’ May meeting.
At a point in the agenda between Preston’s and Beemer-Fritzinger’s updates, was an item which drew great consternation and debate. Chairman Jeff Haskell approached that item by saying, “Now, for the elephant in the room.”
Haskell had been absent at the March meeting when the motion [seeking approval of a contract with DHHS which would reimburse the county for handling of child sexual/physical abuse and neglect cases on its behalf] was first voted on, failing to pass due to a 4:4 tie. As he had sought and received a written opinion from the county’s attorney saying it was appropriate for any board member to ask a motion be placed on the agenda seeking a vote for reconsideration, Haskell had done so.
Commissioner George Gilmore took issue with that, citing Robert’s Rules of Order as determining it was in the sole prevue of the prevailing side [which was the NO voters due to a tie resulting in a failed vote] to make a motion to ask if the previous motion was to be reintroduced on the agenda. Gilmore said he also had spoken with the attorney and managed to get a different [albeit verbal] answer.
After adamant back-and-forth, the board voted on the motion: “Shall the ruling of the chairperson be sustained [to allow the reconsideration to be placed on the agenda]?” YES votes would mean the motion for reconsideration could be made by any commissioner, and a NO vote meant only the previously prevailing side could make the motion. Commissioner Samantha Pitchford [who had voted YES for the original motion March 15] was absent. The roll call vote results were: YES: Gabe Ambrozaitis, David Hoefling and Jeff Haskell; NO: Dale Majewski [who in March had voted YES, justifying it by saying his decision was “based on the children”], Marlene Housler, George Gilmore, Jack Kleinhardt and Rickie Fancon. When asked by Haskell if there was anyone on the prevailing side who would like to make the motion to reconsider, to a person they said NO.
[*It should be noted that, essentially, the BOC hired its attorney, paid him for an opinion which was provided in writing – then voted against that opinion.]
The motion of March 15, 2023, which the board moved not to reconsider was to “approve the contract presented in the Committee of the Whole between the Prosecutor’s Office and the State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in the amount of $80,000 through the remainder of this fiscal year at which time it will be renewed at a rate of $100,000.”
Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis had, over the course of two meetings [BOC and Committee of the Whole], offered extensive explanation and data as to why her office is already understaffed, and showing the additional DHHS caseload would create an untenable overburdening of an already understaffed office. She also had illustrated the enhanced prosecution/DHHS effectiveness which would be realized by case information sharing between the Multi-Disciplinary Team and DHHS which the contract would have enabled.
In her report to the board, Ambrozaitis started out with a Jan. 1 to April 18, 2023, statistical breakdown of her office’s current workload, which is carried by four attorneys. That included 371 criminal cases submitted for review (127 felonies and 244 misdemeanors). She said of those 371 cases, 40 were charged, 42 cases were declined, and 80 cases still pend review by an attorney. She said her office’s attorneys attended 1,651 court events in Circuit Court, 741 court events in District Court and 83 court events in Family Court. They also attended four Multi-Disciplinary Team meetings, eight Recovery Courts, and handled two special prosecutor cases they’d been assigned to handle in another county.
“During that same time, we also reviewed cases that had been submitted prior to Jan. 1, outside of that snapshot in time, but were still pending review,” Ambrozaitis said. “We reviewed 39 of those cases were denied, and 20 of those cases were charged.”
She said there are currently 822 open, pending adult criminal cases: a caseload that does not include PPOs, mental commitment hearing or any of the other things her office does.
Also noted were trainings attended, including a recent Cartel Software conference, the upcoming Cyber Crime Conference, Arson Prosecution School and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Training Conference in May.
She thanked commissioners for passing the resolution marking April 23-28 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Then her comments turned toward the DHHS contract which had been denied, and reminding of her first introducing it at the Committee of the Whole where she had provided the statute and court rule in the case that requires her office to handle those cases if there is no contract with DHHS. Then the prosecutor laid out for commissioners what their action would mean to the county in real terms.
“To that end, we signed our first substitution of counsel in those cases,” she said. “We have our first abuse and neglect case that we are handling on behalf of DHHS.”
Ambrozaitis then referred to the Courtney Smith Atkins, the Clare County DHHS director who was in attendance, saying Atkins could support the fact that the Prosecutor’s Office would be getting those cases, regardless of whether there is a contract.
“So, congratulations,” Ambrozaitis said. “You have just said we will do it for free. I had a way to ensure that we got paid, that we covered the cost of an extra attorney that we’re going to require – that we got our tax dollars back from Lansing for the good of your constituents – and you said ‘No.’ I don’t know why; I have my theories but we aren’t going to talk about them here.
“But, congratulations; we’re going to do the work for free. I’ll see you next month to talk about the need for another attorney – and since you have $1.1 million in surplus and you’re at a 23% fund balance, I don’t expect I will be hearing you don’t have the funds to support it. Have a good day.”
Now, one might think the issue would have been done at that point. But wait – there’s more.
During his commissioner’s report, Gilmore brought up his displeasure with the reported comments made by Commissioner Gabe Ambrozaitis at a Hayes Township meeting regarding the BOC’s failure to seize an opportunity to approve the aforementioned DHHS contract. Ambrozaitis had included the fact the action had been taken on the heels of hearing from the Child Advocacy Center’s executive director who had cited grave statistics about the one in 38 children who suffer physical/sexual abuse and neglect in Clare County [making it second only to Wayne County], and following with his opinion that the decision was “unconscionable.”
Gilmore said he took umbrage at that remark as implying commissioners weren’t feeling anything for the kids or considering all aspects of the motion, and stated his belief that when commissioners are out in their townships they are representing the BOC and should present to the public a unified effort and leave their personal opinions behind. He said he took offense, then moved the board censure Commissioner Ambrozaitis and ask him to discontinue that behavior. Ambrozaitis protested, citing his First Amendment right to state his personal opinion.
Gilmore curtly stated there was a motion on the floor. With that motion requiring a second, all commissioners remained silent. Gilmore then suggested a group effort was needed, and that “if someone can’t be a team player, maybe they shouldn’t be on the team.” To which Ambrozaitis asked, “Which team is that, by chance, sir?” Gilmore responded by saying the commissioners were representing the whole community, and Ambrozaitis clarified that he is representing his constituents, and had a First Amendment right to say what he said.
Thus, seeing no support, the motion to censure – just as the opportunity to provide prosecutorial representation in DHHS cases at no out-of-pocket cost to the county – died on the table.
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