County Seat Newspaper
of Clare County

Commissioners Chew on Financial Choices

Match Money Approved for Dive Boat; DHHS Contract, Attorney Denied


HARRISON – Two relatively urgent issues were brought before the Clare County Board of Commissioners for a vote at its March 15 meeting: approval of a State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services contract, and the purchase of a sheriff’s department dive team boat.

The State of Michigan DHHS contract would enable substantial billing by the prosecutor’s office for DHHS casework, something that office had done previously using only existing staff attorneys. At the March 1 BOC Committee of the Whole meeting, Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis had laid out in great detail the county’s history of dealings with DHHS, along with costs to her office which are not being fully remunerated.

She explained that the new proposed contract, which she had negotiated to a much higher cost reimbursement to the county, would enable the hiring of an additional attorney who could be somewhat dedicated to the DHHS cases. Ambrozaitis also explained that a Prosecuting Attorneys Association caseload study had determined that, based on caseload standards, her office which has four attorneys should be staffed with seven attorneys.

“We have four doing the work of seven,” she said. “So even if you add, with or without this contract … we need it. You can’t continue to burn out your people and expect them to do good work and to have a successful outcome.”

She added that, taking on the additional DHHS cases, the additional attorney would be needed.

Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt also asked what advantage would Clare County or the prosecutor have by taking on that contract, adding his reasons for being cautious about taking it on again with the same people.

“I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve seen that contract before,” Kleinhardt said. “I know what happened when they just pulled the plug – for no reason, or they didn’t explain it very well why they did it. It left us with a pretty big hole in our budget at a time when we were struggling to make payroll here a couple years ago.”

Prosecutor Ambrozaitis said she appreciated his frustration and noted she had been equally so at the time.

“We’ve previously been involved with DHHS and Child Protective Services proceedings,” she said. “Those are proceedings when children are either removed from their home or DHHS is going into the home to provide services to a family for a myriad of reasons that fall under the Child Abuse and Neglect statute.”

She explained those conditions could include dirty houses, not sending children to school, or physical or sexual abuse. Ambrozaitis said the physical/sexual abuse cases are what her office sees the most; where upon children are removed from the home and placed into a foster home while their parents are going through services. She further pointed out that there are often companion criminal cases, and that by handling the DHHS case along with the criminal case, access to specific information could bolster criminal case decisions/choices as well as better determine services needed by victims.

“We’re at the table on behalf of our agency and that agency,” she said. “We’re at that table in the MDT [multi-disciplinary team] meetings. Without us being their attorney, DHHS does not have an attorney or seat at the MDT table; they don’t have access to all the investigative materials in their cases that they would need. They have to have a court order for the forensic interview to be supplied to them, in their case to be used. Whereas, we would already have that information.”

Ambrozaitis summed it up as simply a better system, a better way of protecting the community’s children, and a better way of handling such cases when her office is involved in both.

It would seem to have been an easy choice, as the contract would bring in up to $80,000 [based on work billed] for the remainder of the current fiscal year, then renew at $100,000. It was proposed the additional attorney be hired in at $65,000 plus benefits: well within the anticipated billing inflow. The sticking point came from Rickie Fancon who questioned the lack of a strictly guaranteed contract, as it contained an opt-out clause [for both parties] – something that is common practice in governmental agreements.

BOC Chair Jeff Haskell was absent from the March 15 meeting, and ultimately, the commissioners’ vote was split 4:4 and the motion did not pass. Dale Majewski, who had voted for the motion based on its being a benefit for children, explained that with a tie vote, the rules dictate the motion fails.


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