TRAVERSE CITY — A county probe will focus on whether the duties of the Grand Traverse County drain commissioner could be shifted another county department.
The position of drain commissioner — currently occupied by Steve Largent — is an elected position.
There are ways within the drain code to abolish the Drain Commissioner’s Office, said Deputy Administrator Chris Forsyth, who previously served as deputy civil counsel.
County commissioners on Wednesday directed staffers to evaluate potential elimination of the elected office following a 75-minute discussion about a $94,066 deficit found in the Drain Commissioner’s books and associated impacts the shortfall could have on the county if not properly addressed. The deficit was identified in the 2018 audit.
The total net position of the Drain Commission — which includes all drain funds and the drain revolving fund — is positive at $6,087, said County Finance Director Dean Bott. What’s negative is the unrestricted net position, he said.
The shortfall was incurred from work on Duck Lake Dam, Old Mission Drain, Silver Lake lake level and Cass Road Drain, Bott said.
The $94,066 is supposed to be recouped through special assessments to properties in special assessment districts, Bott said. There are no special assessments — taxes charged only to those properties that receive a benefit from the work done — being collected, he said.
“The key component is those special assessment districts have to be created,” said Commissioner Sonny Wheelock Jr. “Whether there’s something we have to do to help the drain commissioner create them, I don’t know. We’ve met with the drain commissioner. Unfortunately, it’s going to require a little more. This is absolutely critical.”
Largent, who did not attend Wednesday’s board meeting, told the Record-Eagle that he’s working with a consultant — Olson, Bzdok & Howard — to complete special assessment districts for Silver Lake lake level, Duck Lake Dam and Old Mission Drain. He said he doesn’t have a timeline for that.
The Cass Road Drain project is nearly ready to bid — something that must be done before the total amount of special assessment needed can be determined, Largent said.
A July 2 letter from the Michigan Department of Treasury calls for a deficit elimination plan. If a plan is not filed by Aug. 2, the state could withhold 25 percent of the county’s State Incentive Payments until a plan is submitted and has been evaluated and certified by state officials, the letter states.
County commissioners OK’d a plan that calls for special assessment districts to be established by the end of 2019 and revenue collected in 2020. They also requested Largent present a report at the next county board meeting.
Largent was supposed to be there Wednesday to give an update, Forsyth said.
Largent, who works part-time as drain commissioner and full-time at the Grand Traverse Conservation District as the Boardman River Program Coordinator, said he was at work during the meeting. Conservation district staff and management team meetings conflict with county board schedules and he “can’t be in two places at once,” Largent said. Additionally, he said he wasn’t told county commissioners wanted him there.
County commissioners in 2012 reduced the drain commissioner’s salary to roughly $7,200 based on a four-hour work week, down from a full-time position of $61,165. In August 2018, they increased the salary to $15,000.
Largent said he has worked at the conservation district for 27 years. Largent repeatedly made bids to restore the drain commissioner position to full-time and previously said he would leave the conservation district should that happen. After taking office, Largent pinpointed a number of unmaintained drains in the county, including the Old Mission Drain which caused substantial flooding on the peninsula in March 2018.
“The bottom line is, this area does need a full-time drain commissioner to serve people within the county and preserve the water quality,” Largent said. “They’re looking for somebody to donate above and beyond. … How many times do (county commissioners) direct their administration to do something? There’s no other staff in the drain office.”