County budget reluctantly OK'd
Commissioners aren't satisfied with final product
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 7:00 PM
WILSON - In the eyes of its architects, the 2013-14 Menominee County budget is an unfinished project. Finance committee members could not agree on major reductions, although they did agree to $750,000 in cuts.
But overall, as a board, the Menominee County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday that it is a budget, there is a timeline to follow and changes can be made later.
Tuesday evening started with a public input session, where commissioners got an earful from library supporters standing up for the $10,000 set aside each year in the Bookmobile replacement fund.
It ended with commissioners coming to consensus, in the discussion portion of the regular meeting, that the $750,000 cut from the general budget, along with about $1.2 million that could be taken from several investment funds, would have to suffice in the county's attempt to stave off a retirement account deficit growing like a Florida sinkhole.
There is still doubt among some commissioners of a desperate need to pour as much money as possible into the Michigan Employees Retirement System, the state-approved keeper of municipal retirement funds.
According to Finance Chairman John Nelson, the $7.5 million projected shortfall in Menominee County'sretirement plan is real and very serious.
"This budget is not a joke," he said. "I didn't go to MERS (for answers) because they would not be honest."
Later, he added, "MERS used an actuarial that's a blatant lie."
He challenged the numbers brought to the county board two weeks ago by Sheriff Kenny Marks, who had met with MERS representatives in Lansing, that Marks said showed the county was not in as bad of shape as Nelson was projecting. Nelson had criticized those numbers Aug. 13 and was still critical.
"This is a problem," he said. "You can choose not to accept it. I didn't walk down to MERS like a new kid all giddy about it. I understand finance."
He said MERS failed to meet its investment projections this year and has not done anything to benefit the county.
While the finance committee is recommending setting the $1.2 million from investments and the $750,000 into an account designated to eventually pay down the MERS debt, Nelson said he still doesn't think it's enough.
"I still think we should have cut more," he said.
So, too, did Commissioner Jan Hafeman, a member of the finance committee. "I don't like this budget," she said, and suggested the board might want to ask each department to cut 10 percent more from their 2013-14 budgets. She said that even the Bookmobile "maybe needs to make one less trip a month."
County Board Chairman Charlie Meintz reiterated his stance against providing and saving for a replacement vehicle. "I haven't been a supporter of the Bookmobile," he said, saying the county was "saving money to replace the one we have when it's no longer functionable ..." but added that it might not be needed in the future. "Change is coming."
Meintz said that the county was being asked to continue providing services that the state no longer funds. "This board needs to make decisions that are not going to be popular, but every board in the state is making cuts."
Commissioner Bernie Lang said he disagreed with Nelson's position that more cuts were needed, since he saw the cuts coming from services. "We're crying poor, but we're not. There's $2 million in accounts for years not doing anything."
He said later "I think the MERS situation is overstated. Every county in Michigan is underfunded."
Lang said that he agreed something should be done to bring the deficit under control, but thought cutting services was going too far.
Commissioner Larry Schei said he believes the MERS problem to be real, but said that an across-the-board cut was discussed and found to be unworkable, since some departments are mandated and cannot be cut. He said the finance committee did its work, talked with department heads and elected officials and came up with a budget. He was surprised, however, to find there was more than $6 million invested in undesignated funds.
He explained the recent plan to put the investment amount and the cuts into a fund that will be earmarked for MERS, and said it was time to move forward. "We wasted eight meetings on this. We should take the finance committee's recommendation and run with it -without any more cuts."
Commissioner James Furlong agreed.
"The way the budget looks now, the library is funded, the bookmobile is funded. I agree with John, and I agree with the rest of the commissioners that MERS is a problem," Furlong said.
"But I don't think making MERS into a crisis is going to help anyone."
He said he was opposed to looking for another 10 percent from each department just to find more for MERS. "Throwing it into a big black hole isn't the solution."
He suggested moving the budget forward for approval and continuing to look at changing the retirement system through negotiations with employees.
Meintz asked if the county could ask for a delay and asked, "What if we didn't approve the budget?"
"We would be shutting the county down," Lang said.
The board consensus was to leave the budget as is and move it forward for approval.