2016 STORY OF THE YEAR: Montcalm County budget investigation
This year, Montcalm County lost a controller-administrator and hired a new leader, made $1.7 million in budget cuts equating to a loss of 30 jobs, fired its auditing firm and contracted with three new firms to investigate what went wrong with the county budget over the past decade.
Here’s a look back at how it all went down:
• March: Montcalm County Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer announced he was stepping down to take the job of finance director/treasurer of the city of Ionia after working for Montcalm County since 2005. That same month, Montcalm County voters turned down a Headlee override millage proposal by 7,389 “no” votes to 5,429 “yes” votes, or 58 percent to 42 percent. The five-year millage would have restored past Headlee reductions to help fund county services.
• April: The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners began the process of interviewing candidates for the controller-administrator job while wondering aloud how to fix the county’s budget situation.
• May: Robert Clingenpeel was hired as the county’s new controller-administrator. That same month, county commissioners backpedaled on proposals to shut down Animal Control and county parks after an emotional standing-room-only meeting (the first of many such meetings this past year).
• June: Budget numbers became harsh reality as county officials realized the scale of cuts they had to make. Commissioners voted 6-3 to turn over all budget cut decisions to Clingenpeel.
• July: Commissioners heard an audit report from Abraham & Gaffney — the first audit report they’d heard from that firm since 2006. The county’s audit had been filed late every year since 2007. Commissioners declined to renew a contract with Abraham & Gaffney and hired Gabridge & Co. instead.
• August: Commissioners voted to contract with Clark Hill PLC in Detroit for legal services, to contract with Municipal Financial Consultants Inc. (MFCI) in Detroit to assist Clark Hill and to contract with Rehmann Robson of Troy for accounting services as an emergency audit of the county got underway. A brief initial study revealed that county expenses had overshot revenues by an average of $1.5 million per year since 2008.
•September: Commissioners voted to make more than $1.7 million in budget cuts, equating to a loss of 30 jobs.
• October: The state of Michigan warned it may begin withholding 25 percent of revenue sharing from the county after the county was late in submitting a deficit elimination plan.
• November: The state of Michigan accepted the county’s deficit elimination plan and continues to wait to see the county’s most recent audit results.
• December: Clark Hill, Rehmann Robson and MFCI officials reported the investigation was taking longer than expected due to numbers not adding up. The county has been billed $76,569 by the three firms as of late November. A forensic investigation into the financial activities of Montcalm County personnel got underway to determine whether state or federal law was violated.
• What’s next? Clark Hill, Rehmann Robson and MFCI officials continue to work on the investigation, which is expected to continue through at least February, which is when a county audit is scheduled to take place. The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners will next meet at 9 a.m. Jan. 3 for their annual organizational meeting.
OTHER TOP LOCAL STORIES OF THE YEAR
Montcalm County sues The Daily News amid sheriff election
A hotly contested race for Montcalm County sheriff led to Montcalm County suing The Daily News over a public records request this past summer.
The Daily News filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request with Montcalm County on July 13, requesting the personnel files of Deputy Charlie Mahar and Undersheriff Mike Williams, both of whom were running for sheriff in the Aug. 2 primary election. The FOIA request was an effort to research the conduct and character of all candidates running for sheriff.
On July 19, attorney Joshua Blanchard of Miel & Carr in Greenville wrote a letter to Montcalm County Sheriff Bill Barnwell on behalf of Mahar, asking Barnwell to deny the FOIA request, claiming FOIA provides an exemption from disclosure for records that would disclose personnel records of law enforcement agencies.
On July 20, the Varnum law firm of Grand Rapids contacted The Daily News on behalf of Montcalm County, asking whether The Daily News was willing to withdraw its FOIA request and modify it to a request for just the last four years of personnel files of Mahar and Williams, and the county would then provide those partial records. However, The Daily News was not willing to withdraw its request.
On July 22, Montcalm County filed a lawsuit against The Daily News, Mahar and Williams, along with an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order against the FOIA request. Ionia County District Court Judge Raymond Voet, the chief judge for Ionia and Montcalm counties, was assigned the case, issued the temporary restraining order the same day and ordered all parties to appear in court.
Montcalm County attorney Timothy Monsma told the judge the county filed a lawsuit to seek a judicial opinion, as the county was worried about either being sued by The Daily News if the county denies the FOIA request, or being sued by Mahar if the county releases Mahar’s complete personnel file. Monsma emphasized the county did not file a lawsuit in an attempt to keep records from the public.
Monsma argued the Bullard-Plawecki Employee Right To Know Act (ERKA) poses an apparent conflict with FOIA, as FOIA requires the disclosure of all non-exempt responsive documents, while ERKA generally prohibits the disclosure of disciplinary records that are more than four years old, absent a court order.
Michigan Press Association attorney Joseph Richotte of Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills appeared on behalf of The Daily News. He argued that while the county has an understandable desire to avoid being sued, there is no legal authority for a public body to sue a person who has made a request for public records.
Voet dismissed Montcalm County’s lawsuit, ruling that the county must either approve or deny or approve in part or deny in part the FOIA request.
Montcalm County granted the FOIA request on July 28, providing The Daily News with complete personnel files of Mahar and Williams. As a result, voters were informed about all candidates before going to the polls. Williams ended up winning the primary election in August and running uncontested in November to be elected the new sheriff.
Montcalm County paid its legal firm a total of $13,540.50 in taxpayer dollars, while The Daily News paid $8,892 to defend itself in court.
The FOIA lawsuit led to District 38 State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, sponsoring House Bill 5826, which would prohibit a public body that receives a FOIA request from suing the person making the request. The bill passed 102-5 in the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.
Uccellos bring biz to Greenville
If there’s one family that truly made a change in downtown Greenville this year, it’s the Uccello brothers.
Dan and Davide Uccello, owners of the Flo’s restaurant franchise, made waves after purchasing three vacant buildings on Lafayette Street.
After months of construction, two of the buildings were transformed into a $1.5 million remodeling project, and on May 30, Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante and Sports Bar in Greenville opened its doors.
According to City Manager George Bosanic, in his 25 years at the helm of the city, the Uccellos’ project was the largest of its kind financially from a private investor in the downtown district.
Upon opening, the business brought with it more than 75 jobs, from chefs to waitresses and management staff.
“We’re thrilled to actually have these doors open,” Dan said. “We’re really excited to be a part of Greenville, to be a part of the downtown. It’s a good thing for everybody.”
With Greenville now the fourth location in the Flo’s franchise, the brothers are hoping their tri-concept restaurant will be a success, for both their business and the community.
The restaurant brought with it a pizzeria, ristorante and sports bar, giving residents additional fine-dining and casual dining options in the city.
But the Uccellos didn’t stop there.
When Springrove Variety closed its doors in 2015 after nearly 20 years of business, it left a wide, vacant storefront exposed along S. Lafayette Street. The brothers decided to continue their entrepreneurial efforts.
Davide purchased the two-story building at 310 S. Lafayette St., and is hoping to bring both apartments and new businesses to the building, transforming the second story, which is a large, vacant room that has gone unused for decades, into six individual medium-end apartments.
Davide had previously purchased the Huch’s Fine Jewelry building at 212 S. Lafayette St., and together the brothers purchased the former Hanson’s Music House building at 116 S. Lafayette St., which is now occupied by Vaping Sensations.
With six properties under their belts, two of them owned by Davide alone, the younger brother is hoping to bring a renewed focus to apartment rentals in the downtown district — both with the Springrove building and second story of Huch’s Fine Jewelry.
“The desire I have, it is coming from the ability to see that there is actually a need for it,” Davide said. “All the apartments on Lafayette Street are pretty much full. More people want to live downtown, but there’s no space for them.”
Through grant programs and working with city officials, Davide is confident that more apartments will eventually be offered throughout downtown.
Now that the city has moved forward with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in improving the facades of five downtown properties through a facade grant nearing $1 million, the city will begin pursuing blight elimination and apartment restoration grants for building owners such as Dan and Davide.
The brothers recently improved the exterior of the corner building adjacent to Flo’s which they own, with an intent to rent it to a “high end” business client.
Belding votes to change school mascot
A mascot established as early as the 1930s will become a thing of the past after months of debate this year.
On Dec. 19, the Belding Area Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend the school district change the established mascot of the Redskins to something else and to depart from the use of any and all Native American imagery representing the district.
The debate about the mascot began after a Belding woman had shirts made for her two sons, students at Belding High School, who were competing in a statewide wrestling competition. The shirts were emblazoned with the words “Belding Redskins” across the top, along with a Native American head wearing a ceremonial headdress.
Carmin Barker was asked not to have her sons wear them to the competition. She said the reason she was given was that the district was moving away from that imagery and had instead adopted the Old English B as a less controversial image.
After that, Barker attended the March school board meeting where she called on the board to make a decision: Either readopt the Redskins mascot and imagery or change the mascot and be done with it.
Over the course of the last nine months, school board members have made a conscious effort to educate themselves and the community about the history of the mascot. Representatives from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe attended a meeting to give a presentation about Native American history and the negative connotations the word “Redskins” can have.
The school board held community forums for people to learn more about Native American history and to hear input from the community about the mascot. Despite the heated discussion and vehement protests on social media from residents who wanted to keep the mascot, the majority of opinions expressed at community forums were in favor of changing the mascot.
People from outside the community also attended meetings to express their opinions. Some attendees were Native American who were against the Redskins mascot and who urged the district to change it.
Barker herself said after doing extensive research her position on the mascot had changed. She started the conversation with the hope that the district would reinstate the Redskins mascot and imagery, but she now feels the time has come or the district to change it.
Barker said after learning what she had learned, she had a very difficult time supporting the Redskins mascot.
Belding High School Principal Michael Ostrander gathered students from each grade to discuss with them the mascot and had Native American speakers come to speak and educate them about history. He reported that many of the students in the group of 60 recognized how the mascot could be offensive.
The next steps in making the changes are uncertain, but the board and Superintendent Brent Noskey have assured community members and students that they will have the opportunity to be involved in making changes to the mascot.
Belding chooses new school leader
A new superintendent took the helm of a local school district this past summer.
Sara Shriver announced she would retire as superintendent in December 2015, so in January 2016, the Belding Area Schools Board of Education started its search for a new leader.
The board began the search through a partnership with the Michigan Association of School Boards. During a special meeting in March, the board spent the day interviewing six candidates, narrowing that list down to two finalists by the end of the special meeting which took place over the course of eight and a half hours.
The candidates included in the original group of six were Andrew Secor, Daniel Gilbertson, Bradford Lusk, Mark Brenton, Wendy Maynard-Somers and Brent Noskey. The two finalists were narrowed to Noskey and Maynard-Somers.
Noskey was the principal for Murray Lake Elementary School at the time of his interview for the superintendent position in Belding.
Several days after they were narrowed down to the finalists, Noskey and Maynard-Somers came to the district for a tour and the second round of interviews, which was again open to the public. Each candidate was asked the same series of questions and was given the opportunity for a closing argument.
In the end, Noskey was chosen for the job. Board members commented they were impressed by the amount of research Noskey put in about the district before the interview. He spent time chatting with residents and learning more about what makes a difference to the community.
Many residents have expressed how impressed they’ve been with the leadership of Noskey, who helped the school district reach a decision about whether to continue using the Redskins mascot.
Noskey has put emphasis on implementing some positive practices in the district to motivate students and staff members. The district set goals in September that they would accomplish throughout the course of the school year. This was an attempt to encourage students to think beyond the present and look toward the future.
Managers come and go
Edmore, Lakeview and Stanton all lost managers in 2016 and Stanton continues to search for a new manager.
Jim Lower resigned as Edmore’s village manager in March to run for state representative of the 70th District, which he won in November.
The Edmore Village Council voted unanimously in March to bring back former Edmore village manager Neil Rankin, who was effectively fired in 2014 after the Village Council voted 4-2 not to renew his contract. Several on that Village Council were voted out of office that same year, partly as a result of firing Rankin without giving a cause.
Rankin accepted the Edmore job in April. He now works part time in Edmore and part time in Montrose as a shared manager.
Also this year, Jake Eckholm stepped down in September as dual manager of the village of Lakeview and the city of Stanton to take a job as manager of Muskegon Heights.
On Nov. 15, some on the Stanton City Commission voted their desire to pursue a city manager exclusive to Stanton due to concerns about having a manager who was allegedly only half dedicated to Stanton. At that same meeting, Commissioner Lew Corwin resigned, calling the commission’s conduct “embarrassing and very unprofessional.”
In response, the Lakeview Village Council on Nov. 21 voted to end the shared manager agreement with Stanton and to hire Shay Gallagher as Lakeview’s exclusive manager. Gallagher will earn an annual salary of $48,500, which will cost Lakeview about $18,000 more per year than when the village was sharing a manager with Stanton.
The Stanton City Commission continued its discussion about hiring a city manager on Nov. 23, amid concerns about whether the city could afford its own full-time manager.
On Dec. 21, the Stanton City Commission voted to appoint executive assistant and community liaison for the city Elizabeth Pynaert as full-time acting city manager while the city re-advertises for applicants to permanently fill the job. Commissioner Charles Miel voted against hiring Pynaert full-time, saying he doesn’t believe the city can afford a full-time manager.
Otisco Township construction concerns
Otisco Township had residents and board members alike divided over the construction of an addition to the township hall this year.
The Otisco Township Board and community members have been going back and forth on the issue since June. Some thought the addition should move forward and the process was moving forward smoothly, while others thought the addition was too costly and the process the board was using was flawed.
Township Clerk Lynda Sower said the new building was going to cost more with “extra heat bills and air conditioning.” She believed the decision should be up to the new board, as each of the seats aside from Sower’s were up for election in November.
People in favor of the addition said the extra room would make it possible for the township to hold voting at the hall again, as residents currently vote at a local church where there is enough room for the booths to be housed and still meet the state and federal voting laws.
Others said the addition would make it possible for people to rent out the hall to have wedding receptions, family reunions and similar events. Others contended there are other places for events to be held locally.
In August, the board voted 4-0, with Sower absent, to proceed with the construction of the addition. The board said they had opened the project up for bids and had collected three bids. One of the bidders dropped out which left two bids, one from JR Wright Builders and one from Scheid Construction.
After the meeting in August, some residents expressed interest in how the board had obtained the bids. It came to light that the board had collected bids without official plans from an architect. The board had collected bids without having advertised them in any local newspaper, despite continued assurances from then-supervisor Paul Reeves that there had been an ad placed in a newspaper.
Some township residents were upset about these developments, including local contractor Jeff Hunter, who said had the project been advertised properly, he would have submitted a bid. Upon realizing the township’s mistake, Reeves said the project would go out for bid again if the two bids increased after the plans had been drawn up.
After securing drawings from an architect, the board went back to JR Wright Builders and Scheid Construction to obtain new bids. Both bids increased with the bid from JR Wright Builders being $192,526 and the bid from Scheid Construction being $233,800. The board voted to go with the bid from Scheid Construction, despite the fact that it was $41,274 higher than the other bid.
Two new members to the board sat in on their first meeting in December: Supervisor Joseph Daller and Treasurer Cara Johnson. Daller said during December’s meeting
Grattan Academy changes name
In an effort to rebrand itself for a multitude of reasons, one local school district went as far as to completely rename itself.
Grattan Academy, a charter school which opened in 1996 under the authority of Saginaw Valley State, saw its name changed twice this year.
On Aug. 8, the Grattan Academy Board of Directors voted unanimously to rename the school the “Belding-Greenville Preparatory Charter Academy.” The name change was made in light of a decision made the same night to close Grattan Elementary School in Eureka Township, which housed students K-5, and to consolidate the school with the main academy building in Eureka Township.
Board President Ruthie Blackgrove said the change in name was an effort to both “change the school’s reputation and raise the standards.” But upon learning of the name change, the board was met with backlash from students who did not feel the name was a good representation of the student body.
Students came together and brainstormed ideas on what the school should be called. In the end, they settled on “Flat River Academy.”
On Aug. 17, the board held a special meeting and changed the name of the school again, just 12 days before the start of school.
The name change came with a renewed focus on curriculum, with an example being the re-introduction of a music program at the school. Items such as school colors and the mascot, the “Grizzlies,” did not change.
Grattan’s consolidation efforts were made in part because of low attendance numbers. Student count day totaled just 149 students this year, a decrease of 50 to 70 students from the school’s average over recent years.
The lower numbers directly impact funding at the school, which according to Blackgrove, made it too expensive to continue using the elementary school building. In closing the elementary school building and moving the students and staff to the middle/high school building, Blackgrove said the school will remain financially viable.
Blackgrove estimated the middle/high school building alone was designed to house 300 students, but as of last year, the district only enrolled 210 students throughout both buildings, meaning there were enough empty classrooms available this year to house all elementary and high school students.
The school’s charter renewal through Saginaw Valley State University comes to an end this year, as it does at the end of each two-year contract typically agreed upon between the two, and although no contract has yet been renewed, High School Principal Libby Kreiner said that process will continue into the spring. that he would like to be open minded about the project and that he is working to learn more about it before making any decisions.
Fire coverage issues
This year, some Pine Township residents began questioning why their insurance rates were so high.
The question led them to discover that the closest fire department to their homes — the Montcalm Township Fire Department — was not their primary fire department.
Residents decided to look into options to change their fire jurisdiction.
In the process, some fire department officials felt like they were being pitted against each other.
On Nov. 2, the Pine Township Fire Protection Committee held a public meeting to get input from residents about how to solve the issue. After three hours of discussion, the meeting ended without any indication of a solution.
On Nov. 6, Montcalm Township Fire Chief Clif Dickinson called an emergency meeting for Lakeview, Maple Valley Township and Montcalm Township fire department officials to resolve the problems.
At the meeting, Montcalm Township agreed to be automatic aid for the southern three tiers of Pine Township — up to and including Cannonsville Road. Lakeview and Montcalm Township agreed on a yearly contract in which Lakeview will pay Montcalm Township $3,500 for automatic aid.
Carnation comes down
Sheridan residents said goodbye to the old Carnation condensery building this year.
A $400,000 Brownfield Authority Grant which the Environmental Protection Agency awarded to Sheridan in 2012 was used for the demolition. The village only ended up using $330,000 of that grant.
Since the building has been demolished, Sheridan officials have been working with The Right Place and ASTI Environmental to prepare the site for commercial future development.
According to Joseph Beutler, director of ASTI Environmental Western Great Lakes Office, the grant should be closed out by May at the latest and development could be expected next year.