The Iosco County Board of Commissioners were threatened with litigation after they approved layoffs, including in the prosecutor's office, during a recent meeting of the board.

TAWAS CITY – “There are really no words to describe my level of disappointment in this board,” said Iosco County Prosecuting Attorney James Bacarella, at the Nov. 18 Board of Commissioners (BoC) meeting.

With the impending layoffs of eight county employees and a reduction in hours for some other staff members, he wasn’t the only one sharing concerns over the cutbacks. When the BoC approved the layoff of his full-time legal administrator, Bacarella further noted that he has been in contact with an attorney to represent the prosecutor’s office. He advised that he will be commencing litigation, as the BoC’s move regarding his employee is not legal.

The talks surrounding the financial future of Iosco County ate up a large chunk of the meeting. Along with authorizing the layoffs and reduction in hours, commissioners approved a few fee increases and changes to the mileage reimbursement, eliminated short-term disability insurance for select employees and took other measures in their effort to help combat the budgetary concerns.

However, of the resolutions the BoC adopted associated with this, a majority will not go into effect until the start of the new year. So, commissioners stressed that these actions can always be revisited.

Prior to casting any votes, the BoC received input from several individuals during the public comment periods. This included Bryan Fisher, staff representative for the United Steelworkers, who represents such employees as those with Iosco County EMS, 81st District Court and 23rd Circuit Court.

He spoke about the resolution pertaining to the layoffs, asking that the BoC table the issue and engage in discussions and bargaining to try to find other solutions to the financial problems.

Fisher pointed out that at the time of the meeting, it had only been 15 days since the Nov. 3 election, in which voters turned down the county’s proposed operating millage. He argued that this has not been enough time to adequately study the impact of the effect that the layoffs will have on the departments and the county’s ability to continue to provide services.

Some of the departments where the layoffs are proposed only have two employees, he continued, so he wondered if the county has analyzed how and if these departments will even be able to function moving forward.

“Your employees have dedicated their lives to serving Iosco County. We owe it to them and the citizens of Iosco County to explore all options before taking such a battle axe to your workforce,” Fisher went on, adding that this decision would be devastating to the workers and their families.

“Why do the proposed layoffs and cuts affect mostly just your hourly employees? Why are elected officials and salaried employees not included in these cuts?” he also questioned, claiming that there should be a more equal, even-handed share of the burden to be spread around.

“The union has not been presented with the scope of the shortfall and/or allowed the chance to offer other ways to address this issue,” Fisher said. “Let us be a part of this process.”

Bacarella was next to address the BoC. He shared that he had sent each commissioner, as well as the administrators, an e-mail with a proposal regarding the budget.

He spoke in particular on the budget percentages, because he said one thing missing is the fact that he is a separate entity from the county. Constitutionally, he is part of the executive branch of government, whereas the county is legislative. “So, what we’re really talking about is, since we don’t have a co-employment agreement between my office and the county, that means legally you can’t layoff my employee. But what you can do, is you can control my budget.”

According to Bacarella, what is being suggested is a 20 percent decrease in his budget – but there are other units in this government that are being cut by five or less percentage points.

“The proposal I gave you would save about 11 percent on the budget, which I think is fair,” he said. To lay off the administrative assistant would basically cut his productive hours from that portion of his staff, from 70 hours a week to 30 hours per week.

“You are thereby creating a public safety crisis. I will not be able to effectively do my job and effectively remove really bad people from the streets, if I have such an extreme shortage in personnel and such a severe cut in my budget,” Bacarella said.

“I really want to work with you on this. I really think we can come up with a solution that is positive for both sides,” he remarked. “But if you – and I’m going to agree with the union rep – if you make this rash decision today, it puts us all behind the eight ball.”

Also giving input was Laura Kruse, who represents the 81st District Court Union and who has worked for the county for 33 years. “We are all public servants. The hourly employees serve individual members of the public, and you are here to serve at large,” she began.

As for the budget shortfall, she maintains that the county leaders had a chance to take some actions earlier. “Now, we need you to find some innovative ways to fund the county operations.”

Kruse told the BoC that their employees are not expendable. “You have failed them so far. We need you to step up now and protect them.”

She remarked that it always seems as though the cuts impact the hourly employees. Echoing Fisher’s comments, Kruse said that if this cannot be avoided or mitigated, then the cuts need to be spread across the board.

“It is time to look back at how we got here, and why action was not taken years ago when we first noticed a problem,” she continued. “Fixing a small problem is so much easier than waiting for the ship to go down. Please, find other options to your current plan of actions.”

Of the decisions made by the BoC, one which garnered much feedback was the adoption of a resolution to cut the number of staff. The document reads that, as a result of the failed general operating millage and anticipated budgetary issues, it is necessary to reduce the number of personnel employed by Iosco County. Therefore, those currently filling the positions listed below will be laid off, effective 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31. One exception is the tax specialist, whose layoff will begin May 1, 2021.

The departments and the involved personnel are: county clerk’s office, one part-time general clerk; register of deeds office, one full-time document specialist; equalization department, one full-time senior appraiser; prosecutor’s office, one full-time legal administrator; data processing, one full-time assistant IT director; sheriff’s department, one full-time clerk/dispatcher and one part-time clerk/dispatcher; and county treasurer’s office, one full-time tax specialist.

BoC Vice Chair Jay O’Farrell moved to adopt the resolution and, after it was supported by Commissioner Terry Dutcher, the board granted approval in a 5-0 vote.

Chairman Robert Huebel reiterated that the BoC can always come back to this. While it is a painful choice for commissioners, they had to make certain changes.

“You are creating a public safety crisis,” Bacarella again conveyed, during the second public comment period, adding that the BoC needs to contact the county attorney.

“I did send to you an offer, where I said I was willing to negotiate, and I’m still willing to negotiate with this board. But, let it be known right now, I am withdrawing that offer,” he said. “We can negotiate, but we’re probably going to be negotiating while we’re litigating this. I’ve already been in contact with an attorney to represent the prosecutor’s office, and I am going to be commencing litigation because what you have done is illegal.”

In another unanimous decision, the BoC adopted a resolution to reduce a full-time position in the drain commissioner’s office, from 35 hours to no more than 18 hours per week, effective Jan. 1, 2021.

Iosco County Drain Commissioner Fred Strauer expressed that he is very concerned about the reduction. “I don’t want to lose the secretary. She has a house payment, just like everybody else,” he said. “I’ve offered to give up some of my pay, but I guess that’s illegal because of the election rules.”

He said he thinks the employee could get by on 30 hours per week but, if this is cut to 18 hours, he is worried about who will write grants, do the assessment rolls and so on. “So, I think we need to really look at this before we just cut this job in half, that quick.”

For example, he said that because of the secretary’s help in applying for a grant after the spring flooding this year, more than $55,000 was awarded to remove log jams in the Whitney Drain. “That is a huge benefit to the people of Iosco County. That is not coming out of their pocket at all.”

The BoC also considered the fact that the secretary serves on multiple lake boards in the area, and often deals with inter-county agreements. So, Huebel said that if this employee is willing to go to 30 hours per week, he would make a motion to amend the resolution to reflect same.

“I need to caution you on something, though,” said Iosco County Clerk Nancy Huebel. She noted that this worker is a union employee and the hours are a negotiable item. Therefore, she suggested looking into this further, as opposed to simply saying that the board is going to go ahead with it.

O’Farrell said he thinks the board should move on with the resolutions they had prepared at that time, then revisit the ones they want to and adjust them at a later date. He pointed out that these changes will not be taking effect until January, so there is still some time to re-examine things.

O’Farrell added that budgets are nothing but working documents, anyway. “They can be adjusted; they can be readjusted.”

He said that, as an administrative panel, they have sat down and gone over these numbers – and this is not something they’re having fun doing. The last thing they want is to take time away from the employees and/or lay them off. “But these changes have to occur because we just don’t have the money.”

According to O’Farrell, this is nobody’s fault and it is something that has revolved since 1976. He said that the voters have spoken and the county needs to make changes now, but that things are going to get better in the future. “Nobody expected COVID-19 to hit us like this. It was just 10 months ago when everything was running really well in this country. But now we’re up against it. We have to make these changes.”

“And I would just like to add, this is not something new. We’ve been talking about what happens if the operating millage doesn’t pass, since March,” Clerk Huebel elaborated.

She said the layoffs have also been discussed for months, the financial situation has been covered in the local paper for months and meetings have been held with department heads and elected officials on ways to decrease expenses and help out the county. This isn’t something that just came about when the millage failed.

BoC Chairman Huebel said he agreed with O’Farrell about moving forward on the resolutions, and then looking at them again later. “And I would reiterate his point, that this is nobody’s fault.”

To those who are of the opinion that the county should have seen this coming, “That’s like saying we should be able to change a hurricane or change other issues,” said Huebel. “This is nobody’s fault. It is what it is.”

He said the BoC and others at the county have spent hours and days on these numbers, and that anybody who wants to speculate and make accusations about this process, hasn’t spent that much time looking at things.

He says there is no easy answer, but if they proceed with the resolutions there is still time to revisit them and maybe come up with a compromise.

Commissioner Charles Finley asked Strauer to put together some information detailing the job responsibilities in his office, so the BoC can make an informed decision.

Strauer confirmed that he will have a presentation for them, before the next board meeting.

Also in response to the anticipated budgetary issues, the BoC unanimously adopted a resolution to reduce the working hours of the IT director, from 40 to 35 hours per week, effective Jan. 1, 2021.

Finley said the IT department is the spinal cord of the county, and he thinks this is something the BoC needs to revisit later. “I have concerns with cutting IT hours back, when she plays such a vital role here at the county.”

He added that, even though this won’t take effect until the start of the new year, he would appreciate putting another set of eyes on it.

Dutcher agreed, noting that this department has been understaffed, and probably overlooked, for quite some time in the past. However, they do need to move forward. So, he reluctantly supported Commissioner John Moehring’s motion to adopt the resolution.

This reduction in hours for the department is in addition to the layoff of the aforementioned full-time assistant IT director.

The county clerk pointed out that hourly employees are going down to 30 hours a week, and that elected officials and salaried employees will be working 35 hours a week. “That’s where the 35 hours came from,” she said, in reference to the IT director. The only departments which will be working 40 hours are such 24/7 operations as the sheriff’s department, EMS and 9-1-1 services.

In other money matters, the BoC also adopted a number of other resolutions, all unanimously, which are summarized as follows:

• Approved increasing the Iosco County Building Department’s monthly rent for space in the annex building, from $250 to $1,500, with the option of reviewing after two years. The change will commence on Jan. 1, 2021.

According to the county clerk, it was during the budget discussions when those from the building department were gracious enough to say that the rent hadn’t been increased in a while, and they were willing to go along with this increase.

• Authorized several fee adjustments, effective Jan. 1, 2021. In the county clerk’s office, this entails increasing certified copies from $10 for the first copy to $15. In the equalization department, the cost of assessment roll data will go from $500 to $1,000 per request, per year. Changes will also take effect on April 1, 2021, in the county treasurer’s office. The fee schedule for dog licenses will be $10 spay/neuter, up from $5; $20 male/female, up from $10; and $30 for late fees, up from $15.

• Agreed to decrease the mileage reimbursement – from 57½¢ per mile, to 28¢ per mile – starting Jan. 1, 2021, for employees who are required to drive their own vehicle while on departmental business. Clerk Huebel said that the general fund was spending more than $26,000 a year in mileage. This was one of the areas the county thought they could cut and, albeit small, they had to look at everything.

• Eliminated short-term disability insurance to all non-represented employees who are covered by the Iosco County Personnel Policy. Clerk Huebel advised that this will result in a savings of about $13,000 per year, and that most of the people covered by the policy are management.

• Scheduled a public hearing for 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, to discuss the 2021 general and non-general fund budgets.

In other action, the BoC adopted a resolution modifying the use and reimbursement of cell phones. It states that elected officials, appointees and non-represented employees who currently possess a county-owned cell phone will turn in their cell on Dec. 31, to coincide with the monthly reimbursement to be provided to the individuals.

Effective Jan. 1, 2021, the county will provide a $30 monthly cell phone reimbursement for business use related to their personal phones to non-represented individuals occupying several different positions.

“What are we currently paying now?” Moehring asked.

The clerk said that this is all over the place, as some people are reimbursed $80, some $60, some $30, some are based on a percentage and so on. She did not have the exact number of what it’s going to cut it down to, but she did note that the cell phone expenses in the general fund were more than $6,100.

When it came time to discuss any communications received by the BoC, Dutcher said that he had one from Bacarella and another from attorney Tim Freel, each of which are in regards to the layoff at the prosecutor’s office. According to Dutcher, Freel has also suggested that the BoC bring in an accountant for the county.

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