2012-03-22 / Front Page

Drain Commission eliminated

County opts out of district energy plan

Effective Jan. 1, 2013, the elected office of Schoolcraft County Drain Commissioner will be eliminated and the duties of that office will transfer to the Schoolcraft County Road Commission.

The County Board of Commissioners took action at their regular meeting Tuesday to eliminate the drain commissioner’s post, which is currently held by George Hoholik.

Commissioner Dan LaFoille told the board that there was a process available to the board to transfer the responsibilities of the drain commissioner to the road commission, with the exception of keeping the responsibility for the Carpenter Dam with the Board of Commissioners.

“We took on that responsibility back in 2007, and rather than imposing that on the road commission, I think it would be more appropriate that we continue with that responsibility,” LaFoille said.

LaFoille also said the winter water level of Indian Lake should also be the county’s responsibility.

“There are still issues with the winter lake level that I would hate to put on them until we fix it ourselves,” LaFoille stated. “That is why we made the decision to take over the control of the dam back in 2007. We need to remember we just spent $25,000 on repairs to the gates, and I don’t want to take the chance on having to go into a battle to keep the gates open in the winter so ice can’t damage them.”

LaFoille said in order to solve the issue going forward, the county needs circuit court action to create an official winter water level for Indian Lake, and that county commissioners should be the ones to pursue it.

In other business, the long-discussed district energy plan suffered another setback, with the County Board electing to opt out as a stakeholder.

The concept of building a woody biomass energy plant in Manistique began in 2009 through the efforts of the BURN-UP program (Biomass Utilization and Restoration Network for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).

A feasibility study was done by Integrated Design Inc., an architectural and engineering consulting company in Marquette. The study, completed in May 2011, was paid for in part by a grant from the State of Michigan Department of Labor, Energy and Economic Growth.

Later, Johnson Controls was invited to perform an audit focusing on the district heating plan, along with energy efficiency improvements at the various stakeholder buildings. That audit, undertaken at the company’s expense, was completed in November of 2011.

Bill Cook, a Michigan State University Extension forester/biologist who took leadership of the project from retired MSU Extension Educator Dave Andersen, presented an updated plan in hopes of getting the county on board with the project.

In the beginning, the local cooperative consisted of 11 members, with the idea that they would all use the heat generated by the biomass plant.

Earlier this year, the city of Manistique withdrew from the project, and the Manistique Area Schools also backed out, leaving just the Schoolcraft Medical Care Facility and the First Baptist Church with interest.

The Manistique district heating system and energy conservation enhancements are expected to save at least $25 million in energy costs over the life of the system.

Capital expenditures would amount to $9 million – a cost that would be paid back through energy savings, at no cost to the stakeholders.

The payback is currently projected to take 35 years, with a savings guarantee from Johnson Controls.

The plant would use wood chips to fuel a pair of central boilers. Approximately 3,900 tons of chips would be used per year, which translates to one to two truckloads per day during peak heating times, at a cost projected much less than natural gas.

Cook told the board to consider the project now because funds to construct the plant and related piping system are available through various grants and loan programs from the state and federal governments.

Despite the guarantee from Johnson Controls and the projected energy savings, the board was concerned with the length of the payback and the future availability of wood chips as a source of fuel for the boilers.

LaFoille said talk among stakeholders centered on what would happen if several of the main entities, such as the school district, bowed out, creating a situation where the plan would no longer be feasible.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “We know that this technology would benefit us down the road, but with the city and now the school opting out, I don’t see how we can stay in.”

Cook indicated that even with the county choosing to opt out, Johnson Controls may go ahead with a smaller facility, even if it just services the Medical Care Facility.

In other business, the County Board:

• Postponed a decision on recording board meetings due to software issues with the system.

• Heard a report from Carpenter Dam gatekeeper Pete Olson. According to the report, the gates are in excellent condition, greased once per year. Minor maintenance is needed on the monitoring shed next to the Copenhagen Bridge.

• Approved the appointment of a deputy clerk position and the hiring of a circuit court clerk position.

• Approved Thompson Township’s request to place a millage on the ballot for the primary election in August. The township is requesting three-quarters of a mill to retire the debt on a fire truck. If approved by the voters, the increase would cost taxpayers .75 cents on each $1,000 of taxable value. The funds raised are inclusive for the retirement of the fire truck debt.

• Approved the hiring of one part-time position at the county jail

• By a vote of 3-2, turned down a request from Sheriff Grant Harris to apply for a 100 percent funded ORV grant to allow his department to respond to calls and patrol the trails.

• Appointed Larry Mersnick to fill a vacancy on the Public Transit Advisory Board.

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