BY MICHAEL WALTON
— EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
TRAVERSE CITY — The first full year under new management at the Grand Traverse County Road Commission ended with something many local public officials coveted, but few achieved in 2013:
Voters’ approval — albeit by a slim margin of about 110 votes — of a local property tax increase.
But road commission Manager Jim Cook won’t take personal credit for the successful 1-mill increase that’s expected to raise $4.4 annually for road work in the county, or for a host of other improvements he said the road commission has undergone in 2013.
“It’s a team effort, and again we’ve made a lot of changes here at the road commission,” Cook said.
The changes, plus the influx of millage revenue, means residents will see more miles of road improved next year than at any other time in Grand Traverse County’s history, Cook said.
“This board is really keen on maintaining the system we have and getting our roads back in shape,” commission Chairman Carl Brown said. “That’s really the big goal.”
Cook, who started as manager in November 2012, said the commission in the last year purchased new equipment, hired capable staff and designed a plan to effectively manage the county’s road system. It also improved relations with community members and regional entities like the county’s townships and the Traverse City Area Transportation and Land Use Study.
The commission started 2013 on shaky footing with TC-TALUS when road board members voted in January to halt roughly $20,000 worth of annual dues to the regional transportation planning group. Commission officials also refused to release agendas to the public before a key meeting about the TALUS funding. Both moves drew criticism from some local leaders.
Commissioners at the time said they were following board policy when they withheld the agendas. But they later made U-turns on both issues. They voted this fall to resume paying dues to TALUS in a lesser amount of $10,000 annually, and they changed board policy to start again release agendas prior to meetings after the January dust-up.
“Right now, I think we’re being very transparent and I think that shows up in the vote for the millage,” board member John Nelson said. “I think the public has seen the road commission is working in a very transparent manner for their best interests.”
Some old road commission habits die hard, though, despite all the changes cited by road officials. Commissioners continue to collect thousands of taxpayer dollars in reimbursements for meeting attendance, on top of the annual base salaries of $5,500, plus taxpayer-funded health insurance and pensions for their part-time jobs.
A new meeting reimbursement policy began in January after a self-imposed cap on the payments, also called per diems, expired. The cap was created in June 2012 amid questions about the validity of some per diem payments. It mostly affected Commissioners Dave Taylor and Marc McKellar, who in 2012 were on pace to collect about $3,400 and $4,400, respectively, in extra pay for attending meetings and events.
McKellar and Taylor are still on pace to collect about $2,400 and $2,000 in per diem payments in 2013, records show. Brown will collect about $1,200 and board member Bill Mouser $1,350. Nelson does not accept per diems.
Brown defended the thousands of dollars in per diem payments and estimated the totals represent roughly one-half of the work done by board members at meetings in 2013.
“We went to a lot more meetings and a lot of township meetings to get us back out there in a better light with the public,” Brown said.