Commissioner race heats up
MANISTIQUE – Candidates for the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners showed up in full force Friday to attend the Schoolcraft County Candidate Forum. Eleven out of 12 candidates listed on the Nov. 6 ballot took advantage of the chance to voice their concerns and solutions to the county’s problems.
Vying for the District 1 seat of the board of commissioners was Jerry Glasscock, incumbent Craig A. Reiter, and John Zellar. When asked about the county’s biggest challenges facing the county, Glasscock explained it was the community’s connection to the board that was currently threatened.
“Restoring our sense of community is one of the biggest challenges I see facing us today,” he said. “It is important to understand county government would not exist without the will of the people.”
Glasscock noted that commissioners should spend the majority of their time visiting their districts, explaining county services, asking questions, and seeking input from constituents. An optimistic attitude would assist in tackling issues such as senior care, road patrol, and a deteriorating county jail, he added.
Differing from his opposition, Glasscock also said he disagreed with the recent vote against a secondary road patrol grant. He explained he would not micromanage department heads and find revenues to assist the county budget.
Incumbent Reiter said the biggest issue facing the county is its current economic condition. He noted that he and the rest of the current commissioners have been anticipating difficult times, cutting costs and duplication of services, and ensuring money is spent correctly.
“We’ve got a ways to go, however, we did finish well this year – we finished in the black,” he said. “The country itself isn’t out of the woods yet, but your tax dollars are being watched here in the county.”
Energy and a willingness to make the extra effort were key differences Reiter said he had with his opponents. In regard to the budget, he explained the commission’s main job is to handle the budget, and that he and the rest of the commissioners recently cut their own salary and per diems by 15 percent.
Challenges and issues as seen by John Zellar included the budget, the home market, health insurance, the road commission, and the Department of Environmental Quality. He explained the county budget was suffering from a loss of tax dollars due to home valuations being down as well as a voter resistance to millages.
“It’s a sign of the times, and it’s the same all over,” he said. “It really comes from the state level, but it comes down to the township and county.”
Health insurance, another key issue, would likely have to be frozen until the county could afford to pay for it, Zellar said. Current increases make it difficult for the county to anticipate its cost, he noted.
County roads suffer from a lack of funding to the road commission, while citizens and businesses are affected by unnecessary rules and regulations from the DEQ, Zellar added.
In the race for the District 2 seat, currently held by George Ecclesine, who has decided not to seek another term, Rudy Lawrence and Allan Ott faced off. According to Lawrence, the biggest problems faced by the county center on employment, size and value. He noted he had seen recessions such as this before, and that it is up to the people to survive the state and federal government’s mistakes.
“We have to develop, as we best can,” he said. “We have to stretch the tax base which we presently have, because there isn’t going to be a tax base increase until we have an economic increase in the United States or we have an extreme amount of new growth.”
Lawrence explained that new businesses and growing businesses, such as the new Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital facility, are vital to creating movement in the local economy.
While Lawrence said he could not comment on his opposition, he explained current problems in the county, especially with communication, are his focus. As for the budget, he said with past experience as a superintendent, budgets comprised of no tax base are something he is used to. Realizing state money has strings attached which power away from the people is something everyone should realize, Lawrence added.
For Ott, the biggest challenges facing Schoolcraft County are revenue, tax dollars, and a lack of people.
“We’ve lost people, we’ve lost jobs. We’ve got to do a better job of creating jobs in our community, and we’ve done that to some degree,” he said. “We’ve got to work together, I think, more, instead of the county doing its thing, the city doing its thing, the township doing its thing. I think there needs to be more cooperation with all these levels of government in our county.”
Differing from his opposition, Ott said he has 20 years experience in local government in his home state of South Carolina. While addressing the budget, he explained it is vital that the county make the best use of the funds available, while doing whatever possible to increase revenue. This would include bringing in jobs, increasing the tax base, and fully utilizing available grant money.
Ott added that, while the federal government is known for taking money away from municipalities and counties, it is sometimes offered back in the form of grant funds and the county is responsible for seeking it out.
In District 3, incumbent Allen Grimm’s competition is Jill Johnson. According to Grimm, the county’s biggest issue is one thing – budget.
“The state balances their budget by withholding money from the counties, cities, townships, and school systems,” he said. “That’s been going on for years – that’s not going to get better. It is what it is folks; we have to deal with it.”
As for his opposition, Grimm said he differs mostly because he wants to move forward with what the county has been doing. He emphasized his belief that the county should look at combining more services with surrounding counties to save money.
In regard to the county budget, Grimm said that he believes in putting personal feelings aside and doing what is in the best interest of the county. He noted that he was encouraged to see young people who want to get involved in county government and that he hopes they will stay involved even if they are not successful in this year’s election.
For Johnson, the major issue facing the county is simply communication.
“I believe there has been a decline in the credibility of the board of commissioners in the last few years and communication has been one of the key factors in that decline,” she said. “If I’m elected on the board of county commissioners, I can help to bridge that gap of communication so that we can all work together, because what is the purpose of the county commissioners? To work for the greater good of the community itself.”
Differing from her opposition, Johnson said she has a more active role in the community and takes a more hands-on approach. She noted that all commissioners should have a “mop bucket attitude”, which consists of meeting people in their settings and knowing their concerns and needs.
As for the county budget, Johnson said her experience with nonprofits and creating a budget from scratch should aid her as a commissioner. She noted that fiscal responsibility as a commissioner is key, and that she will not be afraid to seek help if there is something she does not understand. Johnson also added that she will do what’s best for the county and is against making decisions in haste or abiding by personal feelings.
For the District 4 seat, Isaac Swisher will be facing incumbent Jerry Zellar on Nov. 6. For Swisher, the county’s biggest issue is the budget. He noted that the county should be searching for extra funding, private help, grant money – even the help of state representatives to bridge the gaps in the budget.
“We can sit down and start looking at the options of what we can do to get more money, end the problems with the department heads and the county commissioners, and with the commissioners and the public,” he said.
Swisher added that he is self-employed and has more time to devote to this task. In addressing how the budget would factor into his role as a commissioner, he explained it would affect the way he votes, for the most part, and that decision would have to be made based on what funds the county has available.
While jobs tops Zellar’s list of county challenges, he explained that public safety is becoming just as important. He noted there have been more and more incidents occurring within the county, and that an additional police presence could help deter criminals.
Zellar explained the county is also challenged by a 90-page budget, with only two or three pages of that consisting of revenue.
“Schoolcraft County is a huge county – third in the state. We’re one of the least populated areas of the state, so that means less taxpayers,” he said. “Money just doesn’t come from public land, so we’re poor. We have to provide all these that the big counties do, with the big business and tax dollars coming in.”
He noted that the county should focus on ways to keep children here by bringing in more jobs – especially those based on vocational training.
In District 5, incumbent Dan LaFoille is being challenged by Renata Kitzman. For LaFoille, the biggest challenges and issues facing the county are budget, revenue, and unfunded mandates from the state. He noted that the county has a sheriff’s department they can’t fully fund, and that other departments also have difficult budgets to predict.
To remedy this, LaFoille said it is important for the commission to pay attention to its surroundings.
“We build relationships with other counties, we watch what other counties do, to make sure we’re staying on track; that we’re not off in the woods,” he said. “That’s how we solve our problems. We have to use our neighbors and their experiences and their solutions to help ourselves.”
As for his opposition, LaFoille said that he has four years experience as the chair of audit/finance committee. He also noted that it generally takes a new commissioner approximately two years to know the job and its time commitment.
The county budget factors into everything, LaFoille explained, and most of a commissioner’s job is anticipating what to spend. He said the budget is a fluid document made of estimated amounts which are adjusted throughout the year. LaFoille also noted the commissioners recently took a 10 percent cut to per diems and salary which takes place Jan. 1.
County challenges and issues, according to Kitzman, center on the budget and all entities working together to create a sound document.
“Drafting a balanced budget requires input from most sources of Schoolcraft County government working together as a team,” she said. “It is important to remember when being a part of a managerial committee not to equate desires with rights, which often leads to micromanagement, which, in turn, destroys employee moral, and substantially affects employee productivity and the incentive to be creative in their job performance.”
She noted that commissioners have to make a commitment to work together with department heads to create a budget, rules and procedures that all county employees and departments are expected to abide by. She added that, currently, communication has been lost, and that commissioners should have more faith their department heads.
As for her opposition, Kitzman said she will focus more on communication and paying attention to the needs of all county citizens. She also noted she is in favor of a grant-funded road patrol, as the county expands into rural areas with unprotected residents – especially senior citizens.
In regard to the county budget, Kitzman explained the most important thing to remember while enduring the current state of the economy is to always be aware of income and be able to prioritize needs.