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District 4 race pits mainstay against businessman

August 3, 2012
The Alpena News

ALPENA - The District 4 race between Alpena County Commissioner Lyle VanWormer and local business owner Bill Peterson will be one of the more important primary races on the Republican side of the ballot Tuesday. VanWormer has been a mainstay on the board of commissioners and has been chair of the county's finance committee for the last several years, while Peterson is an established local business owner with a strong background in finance.

The outcome could have an effect on county matters such as the unmanned aircraft project at Alpena County Regional Airport and the Montmorency-Oscoda-Alpena Solid Waste Management Authority's operations and economics.

With the retirement of Treasurer Joelyn McCallum at the end of the year and a new equalization director coming in the near future, VanWormer said it is important the board maintain the experience level it has moving through the transition period.

"The nucleus of the board has been the same for some time, and it has allowed for us to tweak some things in terms of finance and economic development, which has allowed us to add $93,000 to our fund balance and operate with a responsible budget," VanWormer said. "We are losing over 30 years of experience when Joelyn leaves, and being the finance chair, I have worked very closely with her, and it is going to be important moving forward, with the way things are, to have as much experience as possible."

Peterson said part of being financially responsible is to utilize trends and changes to society. He said, like in business, government needs to take advantage of change and not shy away from it.

"What works today might not work three years from now. You always have to change and adapt. If you grow stale, you will die," Peterson said. "Promoting is one of my biggest assets, and I think I can help do that for the county. I also have to do a budget every year, so I know the importance of that. It is not like I can just hope I am going to make enough money to keep my business open. You have to have a plan, follow it, and adjust if needed."

Last year the commissioners voted to remove the Multi-Purpose Arena Coalition as managers of the Northern Lights Arena and replace it with the Park Family Foundation. Peterson is a former president of M-PAC. He said he didn't agree with the decision, but it only played a small part in his decision to run against VanWormer, who voted for the switch in managers.

"I'd be a liar if I said it didn't weigh on my decision, but it is only natural when you put a lot into the place and then you're kicked out. Of course it hurts. That is far from the only reason." Peterson said. "As far as the arena goes, my focus has always been and always will be the kids that use it, and that's it."

VanWormer said since Park has taken over the NLA, the operations have been solid and the facility's finances in line with what the county expects. He said the amount of money added to the county's surcharge account also has been bolstered. The surcharge money ensures funds are available if large purchases or repairs are needed.

VanWormer said because of the success the new management group has had, the county is exploring contracting management duties for other county-owned properties such as Plaza Pool, the fairgrounds, and the airport.

"Obviously the arena is doing good and the maintenance and management contract we signed for the airport is going well. The important thing is we lost zero employees by doing so at the airport," VanWormer said. "Now we can look at others areas and see if we can do the same."

Peterson said he is against privatization and thinks if the county doesn't want the responsibility of managing the entities, it should just sell them.

"Privatization really bothers me, whether it is the Northern Lights Arena, the fairgrounds, or the pool," Peterson said. "As a business owner, I wouldn't bring someone in and let them run it for nothing and we'll see you in 10 years to sign another contract ... If you don't want it, don't privatize it. Sell it for what it is worth and then you have somebody in it and somebody is paying taxes on it and you don't have to worry about it any longer."

Three years ago the budget for the landfill was on shaky ground after a new cell needed to be constructed due to a mistake by the former engineering firm. Now the operation that services three counties is as profitable as ever. VanWormer said things are so good the county could get another increase in the amount of revenue it produces.

"Over the last three years it has been huge. We had to build two cells, one unexpectedly, so we were $2.7 million in debt," VanWormer said. "We got through and as we speak it is at $1.4 million cash on hand ... We have been making money, and we haven't had to raise the rates. We also increased the amount of the payments from the landfill to the counties from $30,000 to $50,000 and if things keep improving I could see it get up to $100,000, which is huge in these financial times. We need to continue to operate at the level we are now."

Both candidates said they have a message for the voters on why they should be voted for.

"One thing I can guarantee is when I get in I'm not going to sit on my hands," Peterson said. "If something's not right I'm going to say it's not right. I don't care if I'm the only one voting no, I would be representing the people of Alpena County. I want to make Alpena a better place to raise a family."

VanWormer stressed the importance of keeping the ship on course with change to personnel imminent and big projects in the works.

"It is the most critical election we have had in some time, and keeping the people with experience on the board is critical," VanWormer said. "For the next two years, even for those with experience it is going to be a tough road. It takes a new commissioner at least a year after coming in to get acclimated, and I don't think we can afford that right now, especially with a new treasurer and the happenings with the project at the airport."

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 358-5689.



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