County Considers Modifying Covered Bridge Land Deal

(Photo by John Deacon|American Courthouse Photo Archive)

At a County Executive Committee meeting Wednesday, Covered Bridge Healthcare Director Rick Shaffer requested a new arrangement for a recent land purchase. In July, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners approved a sale in which Covered Bridge would buy the building it has been occupying and leasing. The purchase was to take place under a three-year, $144,000 land contract.

On Wednesday, Shaffer said Covered Bridge would now like to purchase the building immediately. The outright purchase would resolve zoning issues related to proposed expansion work.

At the time of the land contract approval in July, Shaffer said the property acquisition enables Covered Bridge to pursue additional grants and improve and expand the building. One of the specific projects the purchase enables is the addition of a drive-through pharmacy. Earlier in the year, Covered Bridge purchased an adjacent car wash property to provide access to the proposed pharmacy without crowding the existing parking lot.

Now that it has begun planning for that project, Shaffer said he has been informed by Zoning Administrator Doug Kuhlman that the car wash parcel is not sufficiently sized to permit the work under existing code. However, once Covered Bridge also owns its existing building outright, it can merge the two properties, increasing the total land area beyond what the code requires. If the land contract remains in effect, the property merger cannot take place until 2023.

Shaffer said when the purchase was first proposed, Covered Bridge did not have the money for an outright purchase. Since that time, the agency has benefited from a cash influx from various sources, including roughly $330,000 in pandemic-related funds that helped offset other programming. Covered Bridge now has enough money to purchase the property immediately and is willing to pay all related attorney costs and fees.

If the commission moves forward with an immediate sale, Shaffer said, Covered Bridge could add the drive-through this fall, making it easier for the agency’s clients and customers to purchase pharmaceuticals, which he said it can sell at “half the cost of retailers.”

Responding to questions from commissioner Daniel Czajkowski, Shaffer said Covered Bridge could pursue a special use exemption as an alternative that would allow the drive-through work to be done without merging the properties. However, he said, it would cost between $5,000 and $8,000 for the necessary due diligence, could take between six and 12 months “to jump through all the hoops,” and would leave the land contract in play for its duration.

Commissioner Ken Malone asked whether the merger would affect Covered Bridge’s ability to keep the car wash open, since it is a nonprofit organization, and its nonprofit work would constitute the merged property’s primary use. Shaffer said he researched that issue and found that it would be like “owning a strip mall with churches in between,” meaning the car wash can remain a taxable entity. “We want to keep that,” Shaffer said.

Commissioners agreed to add the proposed purchase as a voting action item for the agenda at next week’s regular Board of Commissioners meeting.

Alternative Salary Metrics Considered for Elected Officials

Commissioners discussed changing the way elected officials’ salaries are determined at Wednesday’s meeting. Currently, salaried county officials have their rates of pay determined the same way as non-elected and appointed positions. Each position receives a pay grade with annual step increases and cost of living increases. The salaries in question include those for positions like the County Clerk, Treasurer, Sheriff, Prosecutor, and Drain Commissioner.

County Administrator Teresa Doehring said she reached out to a third-party outfit to look into how rates are determined elsewhere. She said most counties do not establish elected officials’ salary this way, and it is not considered a best practice. Elected officials in St. Joseph County are “treated as regular employees, but they are not entitled to the same things,” Doehring said, because they are “subject to different rules.”

Doehring said she sees “two options for the cleanest way to move forward.” One would be to “freeze everyone where they are currently,” while the other would be to “look at the maximum on the scale” and move all employees to that maximum. Another alternative, she said, would be to place rates at five to 10 percent above the mean average in other counties.

However, Doehring said, “I think that’s not necessarily the best action for us” regarding ability to attract high-quality candidates. Most of the positions in question currently receive between about 10 and 16 above the average rates, and as such are near the top of the scales. The Clerk’s position is slightly higher because it also incorporates the duties of Register of Deeds.

Doehring said she recommended leaving the Drain Commissioner’s salary at current measures because that position’s rate, which is currently 23 percent above average, would be negatively impacted by a change. Instead, she said, the commission could tackle that question at a later date. Commission Chair Dennis Allen asked Doehring if it was fair to make such an exception. Doehring said she would check with attorneys to ensure it would be allowable.

With Malone and Czajkowski’s agreement, Allen said he supported a set percentage above the average. The changes would have to be approved as part of the county’s budget hearing in November. However, in order to provide ample time for consideration, Doehring said she would have recommended options for commissioners at the next Executive Committee meeting on October 14.

Juvenile Court’s Child Care Program Budget Up for Approval

The St. Joseph County Family Court’s Juvenile Division operates under a budget that is separate from the County’s general budget, and follows its own fiscal year running from October 1 to September 30. Director and Referee Tom Robertson told commissioners on Wednesday that the proposed budget for the 2021 Fiscal Year totals $1,143,280.

The state pays 50 percent of that budget, which is down $123,000 from the agency’s 2020 budget. Robertson said, “the reason for that is that we have less detention expenses for juvenile delinquents. We’re trying to do more local treatment, rather than sending them off to county detention facilities.” The agency is working with others to open a juvenile mental health court and is building toward a policy that emphasizes mental health treatment over detention.

The budget must ultimately be approved by the state. However, the County Commission must approve it first. Commissioners agreed to add the budget as an action item for next Tuesday’s regular meeting agenda.

Next Board of Commissioners Meeting to Remain Virtual

Last month, commissioners agreed to return to in-person meeting at the County Courthouse for next week’s regular meeting, but current pandemic orders from the Governor’s Office limit occupancy to 10 people per room. A new order will go into effect on October 9 permitting a room occupancy of 20 people per 1,000 square feet. That order will still recommend continued, remote activities where possible, but would permit the meetings to take place in person with public attendance if commissioners choose to do so.

Because the new order does not go into effect until after next week’s meeting, and due to the logistics of pandemic-related space preparation requirements, next week’s meeting will now be conducted via the Zoom online platform. Commissioners will evaluate whether to return to in-person meetings for the future once the new order takes effect.

Also in County Executive Committee Business:

  • Commissioners will vote next Tuesday to approve hiring for three county positions, making an exception to a current hiring freeze. They include a position in road work and two in the county’s corrections department, at least one of whom worked in courthouse security. The openings are the result of people who left the positions, and Undersheriff Jason Bingaman said they are critical.
  • Commissioners will also vote to approve a Fiscal Year 2020 grant agreement package for an Emergency Management Performance Grant, which covers 34.83 percent of the county Emergency Manager’s salary and benefits, as well as a Fiscal Year 2021 work agreement that governs what emergency staff will be responsible for doing over the course of the year. Neither incurs additional costs for the county, but must be approved by commissioners.
  • Doehring said she has early retirement program Letters of Understanding (LOUs) with the general employees’ and court employees’ unions ready for commissioners’ approval. She also said the current year’s Healthcare Savings Plan (HCSP) agreement through the Michigan Employee Retirement System ready for approval. Commissioners agreed to add the LOUs and the HCPS agreement as action items to next week’s agenda.
  • Commissioners will vote next week on the approval of the purchase of a copy machine for the Prosecutor’s Office, which Doehring said is failing sooner than expected and was thus not budgeted for the current year.
  • Historically, the cities of Three Rivers and Sturgis have had an obligation to add a member each to the county’s Transportation Authority board. Balog, who serves on that board, says another member plans to resign at its next meeting. Once that happens, an interview committee can vet candidates to fill the two open positions. Commissioners Czajkowski and Kathy Pangle volunteered to serve on the interview committee, and Doehring will reach out to the respective city managers for their input.

Dave Vago is a 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.