Montcalm County stuck with aging infrastructure and no way to pay

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:01 am on Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Montcalm County Maintenance Director Scott Wright gestures in frustration as he eyes the eroding hillside along the exit driveway of the Montcalm County Administrative Building property in Stanton. Pictured behind Wright is the Michigan State University Extension Office, which has a rotting porch deck. The county has no money to fix these and other infrastructure problems. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

STANTON — Montcalm County’s 107-year-old courthouse is showing its age … and a little makeup won’t be enough to smooth over the wrinkles.

Built in 1910 after a fire destroyed the county’s original courthouse in 1905, the facility now serves as the county’s Administrative Building, home to the offices of clerk, treasurer, register of deeds, building department, drain commission, controller-administrator and more.

Voters readily supported a bond in 1907 to fund a new courthouse, but voter-approved bonds are not so easy to come by these days — and as a legal investigation into county finances is currently nine months deep, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Montcalm County Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville walks down the steps on the east side of the Montcalm County Administrative Building property after Monday morning’s committee meetings. The steps are crumbling and the railing is falling down. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Commissioners discussed the dual problem of aging infrastructure and lack of funds during Monday’s Economic Development & Physical Resources Committee meeting.

“The reality is that we’re going to be in some pretty tight budget constraints for the foreseeable future,” Controller-Administrator Bob Clingenpeel said. “Today we were originally scheduled to go on our annual tour (to look at proposed capital improvement projects), but I don’t know that we’re going to gain a lot from that other than walking around and pointing at things we can’t afford to fix.”

Maintenance Director Scott Wright updated commissioners about problematic areas his maintenance staff isn’t able to address without funding. The sloped driveway exiting the Administrative Building property is a high priority. The hill next to the driveway is currently propped up with old railroad ties (which are rotting and sprouting rusty nails), but the eroding hillside is pushing the railroad ties into the driveway. Wright said the ideal solution would be some sort of retaining wall to uphold the eroding hill, but the cost is out of the question. Plan B would involve Wright and three full-time and one part-time crew members removing the railroad ties, physically shoveling the dirt uphill away from the driveway and planting more grass, but that project would consume valuable manpower and would be a temporary solution.

The hillside is eroding along the exit driveway of the Montcalm County Administrative Building in Stanton. Old railroad ties have been propping up the hillside, but they are rotting away themselves and are no longer doing the job. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Another problematic area on the property’s east side are the stairs and rails leading down the hill to the street and city parking area. The stairs are crumbling and missing chunks of cement and the rails are falling to the side. An attempt has been made to reinforce the rails with a combination of plastic PVC pipe, wooden shims and metal bracing, but they are all temporary fixes.

“We struggle to try to keep these buildings up and running and repaired with the amount of money that we have to do it with,” Wright said. “It’s not going to be too much longer, a year or two down the road, that the budget won’t sustain these things, because they’re getting older all the time.”

The front porch deck of the Michigan State University Extension office is also rotting away underneath.

“Someday it’s just going to fall completely apart,” Wright said.

Less than a mile north of the Administrative Building property, the county jail is also a challenge for the maintenance crew.

The steps are crumbling and the railings are falling down on the east side of the Montcalm County Administrative Building in Stanton. They are currently being supported with a combination of plastic PVC pipe, wooden shims and metal bracing. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

“Hardly a day goes by that we’re not at the jail,” Wright said. “We’re at the jail about three hours a day repairing things. We come in in the morning and we have messages and a list of things to do. It’s like a motel up there Everybody misuses stuff. It’s getting to a point where it’s hard to bandage things up, they’re getting old, they’re getting rotten, they’re just wearing out.

“I don’t foresee any money coming in to fix these things,” he said. “The only thing we can do is just continue puttering along.”

These maintenance projects aren’t even listed on the county’s capital improvement plan, which includes such needs as carpeting all county buildings (an estimated cost of $350,000), installing new windows in the Administrative Building ($250,000) and replacing the roof over the Equalization Department/Michigan State University Extension and the old jail ($118,000).


Historic records concern

Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville also expressed his concern about old Drain Commission records being stored in the Drain Commission basement, next to the county’s boiler. He said the records are not secure as they are simply located behind a wooden door with a gap underneath.

Montcalm County Drain Commission records are stored behind this green door in the basement of the drain commission. The basement also houses a boiler. Commissioner Tom Lindeman is concerned the documents are not secure, noting that if a fire breaks out, the green wooden door with a gap underneath will not protect the county records. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

“It’s foolishness to keep the records down in the boiler room,” he said.

Commissioner John Johansen of Montcalm Township said the matter of records storage is a committee issue, not a maintenance issue, but Lindeman pushed that something is done with the documents immediately, noting that it’s not an expenditure issue. However, commissioners didn’t take any action on the matter.

Drain Commissioner Sandy Raines told The Daily News the records were formerly stored in a fire secure vault with two doors, but the steel door was removed nearly four decades ago.

“If they want to protect those records, all they would need to do is put the steel fire door back on,” Raines said.

Raines said since she was elected she has taken steps to preserve historic drain records by having the original right-of-ways recorded in the Register of Deeds office. She said drain liber books containing drain legal proceedings have been digitized, as well as most of the old drain maps and profiles.

“Moving the records makes no sense, as I need to be able to access those records from time to time,” Raines said. “We have never had any problems with fire, water or critters.”

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