SUTTONS BAY — Leelanau County business leaders are scrutinizing decisions by the county Board of Commissioners because of concerns that at least some county leaders are intent on carrying out an isolationist, anti-growth agenda.
Karen Pontius, head of the Suttons Bay Chamber of Commerce, said she was baffled by a county board discussion last week about withdrawing from the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. COG is a regional, government-funded agency that offers start-up, expansion and technical assistance to about 100 businesses in Leelanau County.
“I’m very concerned about the direction we are headed in Leelanau County,” Pontius said. “We need to be more pro-business, more pro-job, more pro-economic development and more a part of the region.”
The Board of Commissioners dropped the idea of a COG withdrawal Monday morning after the Record-Eagle reported the looming withdrawal debate. County Administrator Chet Janik said county commissioners will pay their annual $5,000 COG dues, but it doesn’t mean county leaders will abandon their concerns about how COG spends at least some of the agency’s approximate $20 million budget.
“They still have concerns about the way COG is operating and governed,” Janik said. “I think they understand a lot of federal and state dollars are associated with the COG and some of it it is funneled back through Leelanau. Some commissioners are concerned about the structure and the governance and auditing process.”
County Commissioner Melinda Lautner, who led the discussion about COG and whether the county should continue to support the agency, previously told the Record-Eagle she’s concerned about how the agency spends public money.
Lautner specifically questions the amount of bonuses and employment perks given to COG employees by COG Director Elaine Wood. Wood said the agency doled more than $38,000 in bonuses to 11 employees in the past three years, including about $20,000 to COG Chief Financial Officer Charlene Schlueter.
Bonuses were paid with taxpayer money.
Schlueter’s bonus added to her base salary of more than $92,000 in a community where the estimated median household income in 2011 was $40,043. The average per capita income in Traverse City for the same year was $27,367.
Schlueter has worked at COG for nearly 37 years. Wood said bonus recipients earned the extra pay.
“I am authorized to give bonuses at my discretion,” Wood said. “I do that very judiciously. It’s always budgeted in advance.”
Emails and documents provided to the Record-Eagle by COG officials show other agency employees also received bonuses. COG Regional Planning Director Mathias McCauley received a $5,000 bonus in 2010 “for extraordinary performance.” McCauley’s 2012 salary is listed at $78,000.
COG employee Janie McNabb received a one-time bonus of $3,000 in 2011 “in recognition of performance exceeding normal expectations,” according to COG emails. McNabb’s base salary for 2012 was listed at $73,000.
Leelanau’s Board of Commissioners previously dissolved the county’s Economic Development Corporation and rejected a partnership with the Traverse Bay Area Economic Development Corporation on a strategy to stimulate job growth in the county.
Sally Guzowski, president of the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, said she’s pleased to learn the county abandoned plans to withdraw from COG.
“I know of so many business who have benefited (from the COG,)” Guzowski said. “The business community is hopeful that perhaps the county commission as a whole will take more of a look into what types of things can help county businesses.”