HARRISON – The June 17 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners was its first public meeting since the courthouse closed its doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple safeguards have been put in place for entering the reopened building, including answering a few brief questions, taking of body temperature, and adherence to the state’s requirement for facial coverings. For those who had none, a face mask was made available.
In the BOC chambers, all who could tolerate a face mask kept them on, and several people who had some difficulty chose to take theirs off intermittently. That extended to those speaking before the board. All in all, it appeared that when leadership presents an appropriate behavior, people are willing to comply with that good example.
After the County Administrator and Community Services Director reports, the board was addressed by Clare County Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Ambrozaitis. She brought a request for approval for purchase of a paperless tracking system which she said would enhance the court’s ability to have information at hand from multiple sources.
With the county’s ongoing budget struggles, it was somewhat predictable that Commissioner Dale Majewski would look at this expenditure as a potentially additional cost to the county. He immediately stated that he would like to see the motion tabled until the county better knew where it was with the budget, moving forward.
Chairperson Jack Kleinhardt noted that a large portion of the cost would come from the BJA opioid grant, and Ambrozaitis gave a brief overview of where the tracking system funds would derive.
“When we got the opioid grant, it was to cover an investigator, an assistant prosecutor and substance abuse,” Ambrozaitis said. “The grant is up this September, unless they offer us a no-cost extension, we have $115,000 left to spend after Sept. 30.”
She explained that with the COVID-19 shutdowns, there were not substance abuse counselors working, so the program dissipated, leaving an inability to gather any helpful information by Sept. 30. Ambrozaitis said that talking with other agencies involved in the grant had led to a change of scope, including use of a paperless system.
“It does a better job of tracking, data collection, and allows law enforcement to submit their stuff to us electronically,” Ambrozaitis said. “Which is a big help to all of the departments, but most specifically the sheriff’s department because of the volume that they have. It will allow for victims to sign into their own portal in their case to update their contact information. It will take all our information and it will be in the Cloud and off the server. This will integrate with Evidence.com, which the sheriff’s department uses for their stuff. It has an audit trail for discovery. We can all work on a case together, so you don’t have to continue to hunt down paperless files – so the files, the paper, all of that goes away, except for the paperwork we have to shuttle to the court. But it is fully integrate-able with the court as well, if they wanted to link the systems together.”
BJA grant monies were intended to cover people and technology, but the prosecutor indicated that if the technology could be covered by funds leftover in the current grant, a request could be made for people in the new grant. That was part of what the prosecutor was seeking to do in purchasing the paperless tracking system.
“We don’t know yet if we have received that grant or not,” Ambrozaitis said. “But they have approved the change of focus, at least for that portion of our grant.”
She noted other funds that have money available: the OWI forfeiture fund and a portion of the Crime Victim Rights grant which is allowable for the proposed technology purchase.
“It enhances victim’s rights, and our ability to provide those Constitutional duties to them in the notifications that we have to do,” she said. She clarified that it is all non-general fund money.
“It’s coming from funds that you don’t have control over,” Ambrozaitis said. “I get to say how they’re spent and if I spend it wrong, I answer to the state. I don’t answer to you.”
She emphasized the time pressure for moving forward, as a delay could result in unnecessary fees which could then affect the 2021 budget. Also the new grant has maintenance money built in, further reducing the general fund burden, adding that the existing grant has to be zeroed out, so if it isn’t spent and there isn’t a no-cost extension, it would have to be paid back: a sum equaling $113,000.
Ambrozaitis also noted that her office is currently short-staffed, with two people doing the work previously done by four people, and this grant funding would help her department become more efficient by becoming more automated.
When Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick questioned what sort of oversight the BOC had over the use of the monies in question, the prosecutor said the administrator told her it was necessary to come before the BOC due to the dollar amount. She also said it was important for the board to know what her department is doing.
When Fitzpatrick further referenced the misuse of forfeiture funds by a Macomb County prosecutor, Ambrozaitis was quick to respond that prosecutor had oversight and was charged with multiple felonies. She also said she had worked hard for her Bar card, and would not be doing anything “to screw it up.”
When Commissioner Leonard Strouse reiterated an inclination to wait to act on the request Ambrozaitis reiterated the fact that the longer the action waits, the more fees that will be incurred.
Kleinhardt asked the prosecutor how long she had been working on the paperless tracking system, and Ambrozaitis said that the change of scope approval letter had been received only two weeks prior to the BOC meeting, emphasizing the limitations imposed by once-monthly BOC meetings. The board then moved to approve the purchase.
The room again drew a little heat when Peter Preston addressed the board regarding a request to move Tracy Brubaker from Unit 1, Nonsupervisory unit to Unit 2, Supervisory to fill the position of Deputy Equalization Director. Preston had stated the intent to save the county a projected $20,000 to $22,000 by combining field appraisal work with a part-time staff member becoming the Deputy Equalization Director.
The UAW president and Unit 1 chairperson spoke in objection to the promotion of Brubaker over Ben Hunter, who has been employed there longer, when their qualifications would be the same. Byard explained that Brubaker had been doing the work of former deputy director, therefore doing more work than Hunter. Byard said he did not have the qualifications that Brubaker has, and the labor representative said she had looked at the qualifications of the two and that they were the same. Preston then spoke of Brubaker having stepped up in the office and performing duties above and beyond what the appraiser position had been, adding that in terms of office operation, he considers her to be a key person. Then commissioner David Hoefling asked Preston why the choice had been made not to go with the more senior employee.
“In my opinion as the manager of the department, he does not have the skill set or the qualifications to perform those duties,” Preston said.
When asked by the union representative whether Hunter had been given the opportunity, Preston reiterated his comment on skill set and qualifications.
At that point, administrator Tracy Byard reported that people who have called the Equalization Department have complained because they had told to wait until Tracy [Brubaker] returns, because he [Hunter] does not have the requested information.
Majewski asked Byard if the matter had been taken to the county’s attorney, and Byard said it had and that the attorney had OK’d the action.
Kleinhardt then asked if Preston thought there would be benefit from further privatizing the Equalization Department.
“Anything can be privatized,” Preston said. “But we like to have county employees, people attached to the community. It’s not just numbers, there are relationships that need to be built, so it’s always good to have that person.”
He said that if Hunter was placed in the position instead of Brubaker, it would change the contract.
“Again, because I don’t believe that person has the qualifications or the skill set to perform those duties,” Preston said. “The contract price we’re looking at right now would definitely increase upwards of 20%, 25%, 35%.”
The vote was called and the board approved the requested personnel change. Kleinhardt then added some words of appreciation for Preston’s efforts in Equalization.
“The state said we had major problems,” Kelinhardt said. “You came in and cleaned it up. Thank you.”
Preston then noted that when the state does come in to work on setting aright the books of a failing county, there is also the added expense of paying for the state’s staff time.