County Commissioners Take Exception to Incendiary Budget Remarks

(Photo by John Deacon|American Courthouse Photo Archive)

At its regular meeting Tuesday, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners responded to remarks by Tim Carls in a public comment period early in the meeting. Carls won the Republican nomination for the position of Florence Township Supervisor during the primary election earlier this month over Sarah Beckle. He runs unopposed in the general election this November and is thus the presumed winner of the seat.

In his remarks, Carls responded to discussion at the county’s most recent Executive Committee meeting regarding possible reductions of hours for county employees amid possible, significant budget shortfalls that could affect spending for the remainder of 2020 as well as 2021 and 2022. State officials and county leadership predict the shortfalls as results of pandemic- and recession-related revenue losses incurred since the early spring. The shortages could affect several funds sources, including the state’s revenue sharing programs with the counties.

Carls described a conversation with County Treasurer Judi L. Ratering in which he alleged Ratering told him that state revenue sharing was not being cut. “It really does bother me that I’m not hearing anything about you guys going to cut your wages,” Carls said of the commissioners’ own compensation. “The rest of us all felt the pain when you set there and clapped us with that parks tax. And the last two years you’ve turned a total of almost $9 million in profit.” 

The $9 million figure appears to come from a summary item in the county’s annual audit for the 2019 fiscal year. On page five of that document, under the “Financial Highlights” heading, one section reads, “the assets and deferred outflows of St. Joseph County exceeded its liabilities and deferred inflows at December 31, 2019 by $28,070,339. Of this amount, $9,106,963 is unrestricted and may be used to meet the County’s ongoing obligations to citizens and creditors.” 

However, a surplus in government funds does not equate to profit. Finance Director Angie Steinman told Watershed Voice the $9,106,963 figure typically includes between $5 million and $6 million that the county must reserve to meet its tax collection obligations to local jurisdictions around the county, including the cities, villages, and townships. 

According to the same summary section of the audit, $3,835,940 is actually unassigned, representing 22 percent of the total budget. This figure is consistent with best practices recommended by various public professional organizations for governing bodies that advise governments to keep roughly 20 percent in reserve from one year to the next in order to meet emergencies and other unexpected expenditures.

Among other allegations, Carls accused the commission of lying to the public about shortfalls he alleged do not actually exist and asked for the parks tax to be repealed during Tuesday’s meeting. He also accused commissioners of meeting off the record regarding surplus funds. After several statements and a pause, Carls said, “nobody can answer,” but commissioners often do not provide their own comments during public comment periods.

Several commissioners did reply to Carls after he concluded his remarks or later in the meeting during the designated commissioner comments period. Second District Commissioner Kathy Pangle said, “Chairman, I hope if he’s going to be Supervisor that he does learn how to read a budget.”

Third District Commissioner and Chairman Dennis Allen said the commission does not meet in secret, and clarified that no cuts have been made yet, but said, “we have to be prepared.” 

First District Commissioner Allen Balog said, “I just want to say I’m looking forward to Mr. Carls assuming his position of Township Supervisor, as I just can’t wait to show him the same respect that he has shown this board, the county board, you know, for the last 10 years. He has accused us of (…) having secret meetings and stashing money, and ‘we need to take a cut in pay.’” 

Balog said, “I know township supervisors probably make two times if not more than what a county commissioner makes. So, my recommendation to Mr. Carls is, maybe he should not take a paycheck when he’s sworn in, and he can help fix the road in his township that has been a hot issue for a number of years.”

Details of possible county employees’ hours reductions are still being worked out with the unions that represent county employees, Steinman said. A finalized proposal will be up for consideration at the next county commissioners’ meeting, she said. Also under consideration are reductions in funding for some County Road Commission projects, which another public commenter opposed.

Amid the commissioners’ ongoing conversations about reduction of staff hours during public meetings, cuts to commissioners’ compensation and that of other top county leadership has not come up. Commissioners did not respond publicly to Carls’ complaint on that matter on Tuesday.

Resolutions Recognize ADA, Women’s Suffrage Anniversaries

Commissioners passed two resolutions in recognition of significant anniversaries for the passage of two historic pieces of legislation on Tuesday. One resolution recognizes the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, while the other recognizes the 30th anniversary of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

August marks the arrival of National Women’s Suffrage Month, celebrating the anniversary of the August 26, 1920 ratification of women’s right to vote. August 18 is the actual anniversary date for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Three Rivers Women’s Club requested the resolution.

President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990. It provides a range of discrimination protection for citizens with various disabilities and establishes mandatory standards for accessibility in projects that involve federal monies. Mindy Kulasa, Vice President of the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, endorsed the ADA resolution during public comments. “The full promise of the ADA will only be reached if public entities remain committed in their support of the ADA,” she said, and for the principles of equality, accessibility, and inclusion.

Road Patrol Grant Moves Forward

As discussed at last week’s Executive Committee session, commissioners approved participation in a grant from the State of Michigan that annually funds traffic safety initiatives for the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department (SJCSD) with two personnel, gasoline, a radar unit, and other miscellaneous items. The SJCSD has been awarded the Secondary Road Patrol grant for roughly the past 30 years.

The state’s contribution amount is based on the number of traffic citations issued and fluctuates from year to year. For fiscal year 2020, the state awarded $68,085 to SJCSD. For 2021, the state’s contribution is $46,458. Approved Tuesday was the county’s contribution in the amount of $163,674.

Behavioral Health Contract Approved

Commissioners also approved participation in an intergovernmental contract with Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health (SMBH), which coordinates substance-abuse-related services between community mental health authorities, organizations, and agencies in an eight-county area. It is an ongoing collaboration that includes St. Joseph County and the St. Joseph County Community Mental Health Agency. Participation helps the county remain eligible for certain kinds of funding.

Budget Amendment Passed for COA Grant

Commissioners also passed a budget amendment permitting the St. Joseph County Commission on Aging to proceed with a $98,288 grant it was recently awarded. Steinman said the grant funds meals for senior citizens.

Steinman said the current status of the 2020 budget indicates the county has reached 58 percent of the budget year, but only 53 percent of expenses.

Dave Vago is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.