Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 23, 2013

Commissioners offer to trade votes for pet projects

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A handful of wheeling, dealing Grand Traverse County Commissioners offered to barter their votes on a key bonding question that could cost taxpayers $23 million in interest payments over the next 20 years.

Commissioners this week voted 4-to-3 against a proposal to borrow $46 million for 20 years to cover an unfunded pension liability. But later that day three of the four commissioners who voted against that plan offered to trade their votes for inclusion of pet projects in the 2014 budget.

The overt deal-making offers stunned one commissioner.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 21 years on this board,” county Commissioner Larry Inman said on Friday. “How can you trade votes on the most important issue facing the county in 20 years. They should be making their decisions based solely on the merits of bonding the pension debt.”

County officials face an accelerated repayment of their unfunded pension liability because they ended most of their defined-benefit pension plans. Annual payments are projected to rise from almost $4 million to more than $6 million by 2024, then begin a quick decline.

Bonding would set those payments at about $3.5 million a year for 20 years, but only $2.4 million in 2014. The reduced cost would eliminate a projected $930,000 budget deficit in 2014 and create a surplus of about $180,000.

But bonding also has risks if interest rates and market returns don’t meet long-term projections, Inman said.

Inman voted against bonding at the Nov. 20 meeting, but said he wants more time to study the numbers and gauge public opinion. He made a motion during a second meeting that day to hold a public hearing on Dec. 4.

“If nobody shows up, then they didn’t care and I have a better comfort level with changing my position,” Inman told his fellow commissioners.

The four who voted against the bond plan — Commissioners Charlie Renny, Dan Lathrop, Christine Maxbauer and Inman — voted for the public hearing. Commissioners Herb Lemcool, Dick Thomas, and Addison Wheelock Jr. — who voted for the bond — opposed the public hearing.

As the meeting progressed, Renny spoke of switching his vote in exchange for certain considerations.

“I would take a different look at my vote today if I could get some kind of commitment to doing a couple of other things,” Renny said during the meeting. “I would vote for this (bond issue) today.”

Renny said he wants more emphasis and money directed to economic development programs. He also voiced a desire for an independent, outside attorney brought in to negotiate future union contracts, and a complete operational analysis of all county departments and operations.

Two more commissioners jumped in with their willingness to trade votes for their own favored items.

Maxbauer said if the board would agree to to a budgetary process known as “budgeting for outcomes” that members previously rejected, “you’d have my vote, too.”

Lathrop said he’s willing to negotiate if he can get some items important to his constituents included in the 2014 budget.

“We have to have some things that make us feel better about this,” said Lathrop, who didn’t specify his wish list.

Lemcool, the board chairman, then scheduled a special meeting on Nov. 27 at 1 p.m. to discuss the budget.

County Administrator Dave Benda invited commissioners to meet with him privately to discuss any contingencies they would like included to pass the budget and bond issue.

Maxbauer, Lathrop, and Inman said they won’t reconsider the bond question until after the Dec.4 public hearing, but Renny said he doesn’t need to wait that long.

“They only need one vote. They don’t need your vote,” Renny told Inman.

Inman said he can’t imagine making a decision Nov. 27 after the board committed to first holding a public hearing.

“We are going to look like fools,” Inman said.

“We are anyway,” Thomas responded.