Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 22, 2012

Editorial: Commissioners 'passing buck'


---- — President Harry S. Truman who? His trademark motto "The Buck Stops Here" appears to be a foreign concept to Grand Traverse County officials and their stumbling, bumbling efforts to resolve financial problems at the county's septage treatment plant.

Accepting responsibility and making tough decisions on difficult issues remains a bridge too far for some commissioners, who last week offered up another sad example of buck passing. Commissioners narrowly endorsed a proposal from the county Board of Public Works for a $31 yearly special assessment on properties with septic tanks, a fee designed to shore up septage plant financing. That plant, by the way, is on pace to lose about $400,000 this year.

Officials are working on ideas to potentially reduce that assessment by self-funding the plant's debt with county and township reserve funds.

There are no easy answers to fix the septage plant financial debacle. It was years in the making and will take years to resolve. The BPW's proposed solution may not be perfect, but it at least tries to resolve financial woes, and is far beyond any remedies offered by the county board.

Commissioner Dick Thomas led the pack of clueless co-commiserators. Thomas said he doesn't support the septage tank fee but would vote whichever way the full board decided to go.

That's convenient. Thomas is the board's representative on the BPW, and held the same dual role when much of the septage tank plan was devised (schemed?). His fingerprints are all over this project, including the county's haughty dismissal of questions raised years ago about plant design and projected operations. History shows those questions and concerns were more than on target.

If Thomas doesn't have the political courage to fix his own mistakes, he should resign before his next term begins so voters in his district may elect someone with a better memory and stronger backbone.

Equally lame was board Chairman Larry Inman. He said he supported the septic tank tax but voted against it to placate the townships in his district. In doing so Inman spoke clearly from both sides of his mouth. It's unlikely Inman checked in with his townships for their OK while the septage plant was planned and built. Now they offer him a handy exit ramp on the long-term road to plant fixes.

Political expedience served as the order of the day. Commissioners whose districts have municipal sewer service support the fee so their with-sewer residents rightly are spared further expense. Commissioner Larry Fleis suggested the county call in the plant's bonds and let county taxpayers eat the losses. That's no skin off his nose, considering his lame-duck status on the board. But at least it's a solution, which is more than other commissioners offered over the years.

Commissioner Addison Wheelock Jr. provided a rare moment of leadership on the issue: "Treating septage is the right thing to do, it's the best for our environment and it's the best for our community," Wheelock said, while probably spending a little political capital of his own.

At least Wheelock showed the wherewithal to tackle a long-standing problem that offers no easy solutions. It's just too bad he appears to stand alone.