News Story

Government Waste in Northern Michigan

A $450K project now costs $1.7 million in Emmet County

Emmet County is a vacation and retirement hot spot known for its scenic beauty. If you ask residents what needs fixing, as one recent survey did, they list preserving the area’s natural resources, creating a broader job base, and maintaining the roads.

But the Emmet County commissioners appear to have other priorities, high among them borrowing and spending at least $15 million to replace a functioning nonprofit ambulance service and building an observatory for stargazing. Leaders of the commissioners’ own political party are among those expressing concern.

“They think they don’t have to be accountable to the public. They think they have all the information and can make the decision on their own and there is nobody overseeing them,” said Nancy Sarowski, chairman of the Emmet County Republicans.

Commissioner Charlie MacInnis, an independent, is also concerned. To get details on the spending plans and the relevant contracts, MacInnis had to use a formal Freedom of Information Act request — only to be told such documents do not exist. In the case of an ambulance substation for the reorganized fire service, MacInnis discovered there was no completed design before construction began, or even a budget for the project.

“So what was going to be $450,000 was then going to be $850,000 and then, according to the chairman in the newspaper, it was going to be $970,000 and then, maybe $1.2 million or $1.3 million, and now it turns out it’s going to be $1.7 million," MacInnis said.

The substation is nearly complete, and will house four paramedics and two ambulances. It features separate bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, laundry and living room. The design came from a Petoskey business that specializes in million-dollar homes.

MacInnis gave Michigan Capitol Confidential a tour of the unlocked building while crews were at work. Commissioner Larry Cassidy told the Petoskey News he wanted to take action against MacInnis for trespassing and entering a building with no occupancy permit. MacInnis says that as a commissioner he had every right to see the building in its construction phase and that Cassidy's comments were typical of what he has been dealing with.

The county is building a similar ambulance substation in Mackinaw City, and a command center in Petoskey that could cost even more.

MacInnis believes the ambulance buildings will cost the county close to $7 million in borrowed money, not counting interest or the cost of operating the stations. Ambulance service will generate some revenue but it is not known whether the system will be self-sustaining. MacInnis said money could have been saved by helping the nonprofit ambulance company that has been serving the county.

“In fact, private donors were doing their best to prop up that service because the county was underfunding the ambulance service. The money is truly flowing now,” said MacInnis.

The other controversial spending item is an observatory to be built at the Headlands, a vacant stretch of county-owned land on Lake Michigan that is popular for stargazing because it has a "dark sky" quality of low lighting. MacInnis believes the project will cost taxpayers $9 million when construction is complete.

Like the ambulance service, it is not known whether the observatory will be self-sustaining. The economic benefits to county taxpayers or business owners are in question because the nearby hotels and restaurants are in Cheboygan County, not Emmet. County officials did not conduct a marketing study.

“The observatory is a creative, adventurous, attractive, clever thing that I’d love a nonprofit to be involved in because it is not a core function of government, “ said MacInnis.

How commissioners got the money to spend on these projects is also controversial. Last year, commissioners approved a 15-year, $15 million bond issue under an existing debt authorization.

“We had a previous bond issue that was expiring. Interest rates were low enough at the time that we were able to refinance that bond issue at a lower rate. We could then blend in a new bond issue over a 15-year period without raising taxes,” said MacInnis, who voted against the bond issue.

The only way the taxpayers could have stopped the bond issue was to collect signatures from at least 10 percent of county voters within 45 days of the date the commission published its intent to borrow the money. This did not happen.

“Others have argued because the public didn’t object, therefore by default, the spending was OK,” said MacInnis.

Jim Tamlyn, chairman of the commission, is a certified paramedic who was involved in designing the county’s current 911 system years ago. He supports the public ambulance service.

Tamlyn would not agree to a recorded interview but did state that if the public so vehemently opposed the spending, none of the commissioners would have been re-elected last year. Elections for the commission are held every two years.

David Laughbaum, who challenged Tamlyn in the last election, said he lost because it was very hard to beat an incumbent.

“My dad used to say the easiest thing in the world is to spend someone else’s money. Whether you spend your own money or the taxpayer’s, you are in fact making a lot of friends. And I think at the time, the voters thought they could count on Jim and his conservative posture,” said Laughbaum.

“He’s been there for so long, everyone just abdicates their questions and concerns assuming he’s been there forever, that he knows what he is doing and the spending is OK," said Sarowski, of the Emmet Republicans.

Sarowski and Tom Dryer, elections committee chairman, are actively recruiting candidates for next year’s commission election.

“They (commissioners) should be asking themselves whether we really need to be spending this much money,” said Dryer.

“They’ve got the money. That’s not the problem. The problem is being fiscally responsible and treating it like it is your own money,” said Sarowski.

Finding candidates to run for commission has not been easy. Sarowski says many are turned off public office by national politics and few people have the flexibility to serve. Commissioners, who work part time, often meet in the middle of the workday.

“Even in our own party, we have a hard time getting people to volunteer and follow through and actually do something. They all like to send emails around and complain but getting someone to step up and say, I will do this, it is very difficult,” said Sarowski.

She says most candidates chose to run as Republicans in a county where more than half the voters identify themselves as Republicans. She said none of the commissioners are active in the local party. Except for MacInnis, all ran unopposed in 2014.

Sarowski hopes that other challengers like MacInnis will come forward. She believes two are about to commit.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.