STANTON – The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners approved the 2011-2012 budget Monday – including about $1 million in cuts – after what Chairman Patrick Q. Carr called “the most difficult budget process any of us have lived through.”
Commissioners voted 8-1 to approve the budget with District 3 Commissioner Ron Retzloff casting the lone opposing vote.
The approved budget contained two amendments to proposed cuts – allowing Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer to retain his current salary and his administrative assistant and allowing court security to continue for three more months.
Repercussions of the cuts include:
• Eliminating several sheriff’s deputies, the Animal Control director, the Emergency Management coordinator and staff in the Equalization Department, Treasurer’s Office and Register of Deeds Office.
• Reducing the hours of 4-H coordinator Pat Dignum, 64B District Court probation.
• Closing District Court’s Greenville facility and Mid-Michigan District Health Department clinics in Greenville and Howard City.
• Discontinuing maintenance at county parks.
• All county employees will be reduced to a 37.5-hour work week.
Treasurer Marcia Sawdy confronted commissioners about Hyzer’s proposed 3 percent reduction to his own $93,116 salary, saying the cut should be more. Sawdy’s office received more than $22,000 in cuts.
“I’ve been here a lot of years and we’ve never got the point where we have to make the cuts that we’re going to be making,” Sawdy said. “I guess my biggest disappointment is in you guys, in the Board of Commissioners, in the controller’s office. I’m just real upset that the rest of us have to take cuts.”
She said other county departments will struggle to provide the services residents want with less funding.
“It’s really hard for the rest of us to take these cuts when we’re not seeing the cuts made in a fair manner in your office,” Sawdy said.
However, commissioners voted not to reduce Hyzer’s salary at all. They also voted not to reduce the hours of Hyzer’s Administrative Assistant Jeni Williams.
District 1 Commissioner John Johansen defended the vote, noting that Hyzer has more responsibilities today than country controllers did in the past.
“Today the controller-administrator has the responsibility for seven departments,” Johansen said. “Two departments are without a director, meaning those departments will report directly to the controller-administrator. This is an absolute key position to our county. This is huge undertaking.”
Register of Deeds Lori Wilson addressed commissioners after the vote. Wilson’s office received more than $82,000 in cuts, plus $17,000 was budgeted from her automation fund to help offset the general fund.
“It’s a little disappointing, this year’s budget process,” she said. “It was very hard on all of us. One office was saved from all cuts. It just sends the wrong message.”
Commissioners received two letters regarding eliminating court security – one signed by Prosecutor Andrea Krause and another signed by 8th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger and Judge David Hoort, 64B District Court Judge Donald Hemingsen and Probate-Juvenile Court Judge Charles Simon III.
The judges pointed out nearly 500 people enter the judicial complex daily, many of them convicted felons or suspects free on bond for serious charges. The court security officers provide screening for weapons and other contraband.
Court security officers made 328 arrests in 2010, according to the judges.
A full-time bailiff position already was eliminated to save money, causing them to rely more on the security measures at the door.
Simon calls on court security regularly in the courts’ family division for “emotionally charged” matters.
Krause’s letter expressed similar concerns.
“Unlike some of the other offices in the courthouse, the Prosecutor’s Office does not have bulletproof glass separating my staff from the general public,” the letter stated. “There are times when we get very hostile people at our window unhappy about a charging decision we made. The fact that they had to go through a security check prior to getting in the building at least gives us some peace of mind that they are not carrying a weapon. ”
Commissioners shared these security concerns and voted to continue court security for three more months while they try to find another way to fund it.
“It’s a real concern that we have people coming into our court complex. They’re coming under duress, they’re stressed … to run the risk that they may come in armed and put at risk our people,” said District 9 Commissioner Betty Kellenberger.
District 2 Commissioner Tom Lindeman also proposed a three-month review of the entire budget to revisit fluctuating funding issues.
Animal Control & Emergency Management
Animal Control Director Patricia Lentz and Emergency Management Coordinator Jerry McCoy were two department heads who lost their jobs Monday.
McCoy was not present at the meeting, but Lentz was. She addressed commissioners, asking them if they had any questions about her own proposed cuts to a census worker and enforcement officer instead of cutting her position.
Commissioners did not have any questions or comments for her.
“All right, thank you,” said Lentz, who then left the meeting before commissioners officially voted to eliminate her position.
Lou Kitchenmaster of Stanton wrote a letter to commissioners asking them to retain Lentz. He discussed the “bad publicity” animal control has brought on the county in the past and how Lentz has worked to fix those.
“Unless I’m mistaken, I think you, the commissioners, are again setting the county up for future problems in the Animal Control department,” Kitchenmaster’s letter says. “Unless my impression of Ms. Lentz was incorrect, I would ask the commissioners to reconsider your action in order to insure stability within this department. ”
Equalization Department Senior Appraiser Kay Vestergaard and Address Administrator Deb Becker appeared on behalf of Assessment Roll Specialist Yvonne Niswonger.
The Equalization Department had six employees in 1999. Since 2002-2003, when Montcalm County began encountering financial difficulties, the Equalization Department has steadily been losing positions.
The full-time administrative assistant left in 2008 and Niswonger was hired to work 24 hours per week.
“She is a part-time person doing a full-time job very efficiently,” Vestergaard said.
Richard Reeves stepped down as equalization director in June. Becker and Vestergaard asked commissioners to use $10,000 of the $40,000 salary from Reeves’ unfulfilled position to save Niswonger’s job, since they assume his position won’t be filled until sometime next year.
They also requested commissioners use some of the available funds for dues, conference expenses and employee training to save Niswonger’s job.
However, Niswonger’s job was eliminated by commissioners, meaning only three people now work in the Equalization Department.