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HARRISON – At the Nov. 20 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners, it was decided that the board would begin meeting a second time each month to focus on solving the county’s budgetary woes. At its first such meeting, held Dec. 4, the board heard of a variety of ideas for cutting costs:
Cut county-provided services; Cut employees; Add a road patrol millage; Cut other office staff, not Sheriff Department road patrol; Cut Clerk’s staff; Cut prosecutors; Cut benefits; Cut some of the programs that required hiring more employees; Add a Headlee rollback; Bid out annually items such as copiers, purchasing supplies and jail food services; Shorten the workweek; Cut overtime; Cut non-mandated services’ Cut travel; Reduce some department assistants; Use the county prosecutor instead of outside attorney when available; Adjust support to District Health and Mental Health; Talk with judges regarding possible court cost-cutting; Increase Clerk’s Office fees; Re-evaluate fax, copy and email charges; Outsource the payroll department; Cut out mileage/meal/lodging reimbursements, except where mandated; and Look into reducing insurance costs.
Commissioner Samantha Pitchford offered a motion that the county seek a Headlee override on the March ballot, including a stipulation that if it did not pass, the following would have to be eliminated: Veterans Affairs, Animal Control and Road Patrol. However, there was no second for the motion, thus no vote.
Motions that did carry included: Cutting all travel and associated expenses, which would affect only non-union employees [unanimous/Commissioner Jeff Haskell absent]; Lights be shut off in offices unoccupied after hours; Place MSU Extension on the August ballot [unanimous/Haskell, Pitchford absent]; and to reduce to half time both the Administrator’s Assistant position and the Emergency Management Director position [one dissenting vote by Commissioner David Hoefling/Haskell, Pitchford absent].
When it met again Wednesday, Dec. 18, the BOC heard vigorous opposition to one of those position cuts as Jerry Becker, Emergency Management director, spoke in support of his full-time employment. Becker cited his involvement with Emergency Management, which began for him in 2009.
Joining Becker at the table was Lt. Orville Theaker, MSP-Emergency Management Homeland Security Division, District Coordinator. He came to the BOC to discuss why he thought Becker’s position should not be made part time.
“I strongly encourage the board to reconsider the move to making the Emergency Management program a part-time program,” Theaker said. “The reason for that is that, according to Public Act 390, the Emergency Management program is responsible for the planning, mitigation, response and recovery of all disasters, both natural and manmade.”
He described that responsibility as significant, with a lot of work going into the position, and that a lot of requirements are tied to grant funding and other funding opportunities.
“Making the program a part-time program is going to significantly impact those four prior duties,” he said. “And will negatively impact the citizens of Clare County.”
Theaker cited some examples of such impact, including the $2.2 million hazard mitigation grant recently awarded to Clare County.
“In order to have that $2.2 million grant, it is a requirement by FEMA – the federal government where this money is coming from – that you maintain a current hazard mitigation plan,” Theaker said. “Here in Clare County that plan is set to expire . That seems like a long way away but that hazard mitigation plan is very detailed, and it takes a lot of time to work on and to complete.”
He added that Becker had submitted paperwork for grant funding to contract that work to be done, but that there would still be a “heavy lift” by the Emergency Management Office in order to assist that contractor in completing that plan.
“Where this ties in is that if you don’t maintain that hazard mitigation plan, you are at risk of losing that money,” Theaker said. “If you spend that money, and that plan expires, that means the county potentially would have to pay back $2.2 million, and that’s going to have a very negative impact.”
Theaker further noted a new requirement by FEMA for a cyber-security assessment, which also is tied to grant funding, without which the county would not have been able to receive FY 2019 Homeland Security grant funds – a situation he expects will continue, as will the emphasis on cyber security moving forward.
He reiterated that if the Emergency Management Office position were to be cut to part time, it would be exceedingly difficult to meet the FEMA requirements, and result in removal of the county in qualifying for the aforementioned funding, as well as potential disaster contingency funds from the state.
“If the county were to come into a disaster, your emergency management program has to remain ‘effective,’” he said. “I strongly caution on taking that step backward and making this office a part-time program. It would be very difficult to maintain the level of service that is currently going on.”
Majewski asked if any of the grants/plans specifically called for a full-time emergency manager.
“There’s nothing that says you have to have a full-time program,” Theaker said. “However, the point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t have a full-time program, it’s very difficult to complete the requirements in order to maintain an effective program – and that’s the point.”
Commissioner Leonard Strouse asked about the status of the FEMA grant that was sought to assist with the purchase of homes in the Little Tobacco Drain flood area in Clare. Theaker said he understood the grant had been approved, but deferred the question to Jerry Becker.
“That money is basically there,” Becker said. “As far as I know, they’re going to start progressing with that process this year [in 2020]. Carl [Parks] wants to have those properties purchased and razed by the end of 2020. That’s actually about a $7 million project, but that $2.2 million award is going to allow the drain commission and the county to take those structures out of the flood plain, then turn around and convert that property into a backwater/backwash of vacant land.”
Becker said that, in turn, will alleviate pressure on the bridges downstream – resulting in the need to remove fewer bridges than originally planned.
Becker then made it clear that if the BOC proceeded with the plan to make his position part time, that his letter of resignation was already typed and that he would resign that very day, effective Jan. 1.
He went on to describe his emergency management work for the county, beginning in 2009 [originally a part-time position].
“Within 30 days of being in that office, I realized how bad things were in the county and how close we were to default with the State of Michigan and with our grant programs then – because the program had been treated as a part-time program,” Becker said. He said that for about four to five years, he had worked many hours more than his 20 paid hours in order to get the program up and running. Becker said the county raised that part-time status five years ago.
“It’s a full-time job,” he said. “I had documentation I was working 30-50 hours every week for that period of time – so I know it’s not a part-time program. To cut my office to part-time basically shuts the program down.”
“I will not be put in that position again, because nothing will change – I will still be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as I have been for almost the last almost 11 years. The county is not going to stop calling out the emergency manager in case of an emergency or a disaster in this county.”
He reiterated that the full-time nature of the program and that he would not be put in that position again.
“I’ve worked very diligently to get this county up to point where we’re at,” Becker said. “I’ve been the board chair of Region 6 Homeland Security Division for four years now. I oversee 15 jurisdictions all the way to Grand Rapids. I just got reappointed to that position Monday, so I oversee that jurisdiction again. Clare County went from being a dysfunctional program in 2009 to now heading up the Region 6 Homeland Security Division – that’s from the bottom all the way to the top.”
Becker said he wants to see that progression to continue, but that it could not happen under a part-time program. He added that he had been blindsided by the BOC’s action in moving to reduce his position and had been unaware it would even have been under discussion.
“I was out of town at a security meeting that day,” he said. “I came back and found out this had happened. To my knowledge, we were acting under an approved budget Oct. 1, and then all of a sudden in December this occurs.”
Becker summed up his comments saying that his comments were not a threat, that he knows the work he has accomplished in creating a program that is highly respected and has a lot of support.
“I fear for what could happen if you cut this program back again,” he said.
Majewski explained that there was no question regarding the work that Becker does/has done.
“We’re faced with trying to make decisions because we can’t afford certain things – from what we’re being told,” Majewski said. “We’re not questioning what you do, or the job you’ve done. We’re trying to figure out how we can stay afloat.”
Becker followed that by saying it seemed punitive that the BOC is picking on a department where 35% of all wages and benefits are paid back by the Michigan State Police EMPG grant. He also noted that when he first assumed his position, he had told the county he would pull the program out of default within 90 days, and that he had done so.
Becker reiterated that if the position is cut in half, the required work would remain the same.
Chairman Jack Kleinhardt assured Becker that the board was aware of the kind of job he does for the county, and that he was not being singled out.
“We’re just getting started on a $512,000 deficit from 2019 – last year,” Kleinhardt said. “Looking at these sheets at the revenue that was supposed to come in from the departments that isn’t coming in – it stuns me. Why are we losing revenue like we’re losing?”
He said Becker just happened to be the first step, that the board knows Becker does a good job, and that the motion could be changed.
Near the end of the meeting under Unfinished Business, after further questions were fielded by Becker and Theaker, Strouse made the motion, which was seconded by Mark Fitzpatrick, to restore Becker to full time.
“We can’t afford to lose FEMA funds,” Strouse said.
“I hate that our back is against the wall,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am concerned for potential lost grant monies.”
“At the end of the day, we will save money by keeping him,” said Commissioner David Hoefling.
The motion to restore Becker to full time passed in a 4-to-2 vote.