Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 7, 2013

Leaders mull withdrawal from multi-county agency

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — SUTTONS BAY — Leelanau County might withdraw from a collaborative agency that provides assistance to roughly 100 county businesses, as well as job placement for the unemployed.

Leelanau’s Board of Commissioners is considering pulling out of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. The discussion, in turn, prompted concern from county business leaders who cited COG’s role in aiding start-up businesses, providing technical and growth assistance for existing businesses, and placing the unemployed in jobs through the Michigan Works program.

“I think it’s a mistake,” said Sally Guzowski, president of the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “It’s short-sighted.”

Leelanau Commissioner Melinda Lautner is leading the charge against COG. She did not respond to a request for an interview. She previously told the Record-Eagle she has concerns about whether the COG is stringent enough with taxpayer money.

Leelanau County spends $5,000 a year on COG dues from its approximately $11 million annual budget. It could feasibly withhold its COG dues with minimal consequences. But if the county withdraws from the COG’s interlocal agreement contract with Leelanau and nine other counties, as is being discussed, it could cost county residents access to the Michigan Works program, terminate COG assistance to businesses and limit the county’s access to federal funds for infrastructure development.

Leelanau Commissioner Will Bunek and County Administrator Chet Janik both said this week no decision has been made on the county’s future participation in COG.

Bunek said he sees the discussion as legitimate, given the county’s need to tighten its fiscal belt, and based on information he received that the COG uses taxpayer money to provide employee bonuses, cell phones and vehicle usage for its employees.

“What I think we as the commissioners are trying to find out is where the money is being spent and is it being spent in a reasonable, beneficial way for the county,” Bunek said. “We are looking at each thing and questioning it. When you are hearing employees at the COG are getting bonuses and cell phones and have cars, (you ask), is the money being spent wisely?”

Some local business leaders this year sharply criticized Leelanau County politicians this year for dissolving its Economic Development Corporation and rejecting a partnership with the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation that sought to identify ways to stimulate new job growth in the county.

Three county commissioners, Lautner, Deb Rushton and Karen Zemaitis, made comments at one commission meeting indicating they weren’t in favor of economic growth in the county.

Leelanau County also is the lone county in the Grand Traverse region that refuses to participate in a regional 211 phone program.

COG Executive Director Elaine Wood confirmed that a $10,000 bonus was given to an employee a year ago. She said bonuses are rare and that the $10,000 bonus was justified given the employee’s exceptional work. She would not release further details on the bonus.

Wood said COG has a number of business analysts on staff who travel throughout a 10-county region. Agency officials contend it is cheaper to purchase vehicles and allow employees to use them as opposed to employees using personal vehicles and seeking mileage reimbursement.

Lautner -- who collected more than $222,000 in government wages, taxpayer-financed health insurance benefits and public sector employment perks since 1999 while leading a limited government agenda on the county board – was appointed to the COG Board of Directors this year. She then filed a state Freedom of Information Act request that sought information on all COG employees’ salaries, benefits and perks.

COG officials provided Lautner that information, but she apparently misplaced it. Janik, the county administrator, then filed an identical request with COG for the same information agency officials had already provided.

“The board asked me to,” Janik said when asked why sought duplicative information. “(Lautner) said she doesn’t know where it is and that it’s distributed all over.”

Grand Traverse County Commissioner Larry Inman co-chairs COG’s board of directors. He said he declined Janik’s recent request for the personnel information because the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners did not pass a resolution asking for the information, which is required.

Bunek, when asked why Janik wanted the same personnel information previously sought by Lautner, said Lautner told him the COG claimed she was prevented from disseminating the salary and benefits of COG employees details publicly.

If Lautner made that statement, it’s false, Inman said.

“No,” Inman said. “That conversation never occurred.”

Inman said a drop of COG services in Leelanau County would have a negative impact on county residents.

“Leelanau County may not be eligible for a lot of services we provide their employers,” Inman said. “The Leelanau county voters, residents and business owners ought to know up front that if they don’t want to engage in regional activities, it could be a huge impact.”