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County governments have a role in many things

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena County Commissioner Marty Thomson visits with other members of the county’s Parks Committee on March 3 in the Howard Male Conference Room in Alpena.

ALPENA — From law enforcement to parks and recreation, county governments have a hand in many areas of residents’ day to day lives.

But there are limits to what counties can do.

The News talked about those and other issues with three Northeast Michigan commissioners:

BIG-PICTURE, WHAT IS YOUR JOB?

Marty Thomson, Alpena County commissioner: “The county has several entities. The budgets all flow through county government, so the county has fingers in several different organizations or breakdowns, includings courts, veterans committees. People don’t think of all the facets that there are, but with the airport, the fairgrounds, the county parks, the jail, the sheriff’s department — each commissioner serves on several committees.

“The chairman appoints people to beneficially use their expertise on different committees, so whether that be the Finance Committee or the Personnel Committee or the Building and Grounds Committee, for example, which is responsible for all the buildings. The county owns a lot of property, so there’s a lot of maintenance of those properties, and it’s important they’re kept up.

“Of course, the really tough part about being a commissioner today is trying to figure out how to stretch the dollars we have coming in as revenue to be able to fund every operation we have and what the taxpayers expect for service from their county. That’s been really tough.”

Gary Girardin, Montmorency County commissioner: “I go to a lot of meetings. We have a lot of meetings. There’s actually a lot more to it than I thought there was going to be, and we’re involved in everything. I’m on the Sheriff’s Committee, Landfill Committee, Personnel Committee, and Claims and Finance.”

Bill Thompson, Alcona County commissioner: “Our job is to govern the county, make sure that the residents’ tax dollars are well spent, and spent on what it’s supposed to be, making sure we have services for the residents of Alcona County, making sure departments are up and running. For example, the register of deeds recording property transfers and the treasury department getting taxes processed correctly. We have the duty to make sure these functions are moving forward.

“I do listen to the residents — both in my district and across the county. If there’s some issue that needs to be discussed, they should feel free to discuss it with us. There’s not always something we can do, but we can always listen.”

WHAT ARE THE TOOLS YOU HAVE AT YOUR DISPOSAL TO DO THAT JOB?

Thomson: “We’re expected to bring some tools to the job, so to speak, in the different expertises that we all have in our life experiences, and translate them into how we can help the county attain viability and again, continue to bring those services at a level the taxpayers expect to get them.

“The tools we have are, obviously, Tammy Sumerix-Bates, who serves as the executive director for the different areas like the airport manager, the housing commission, the housing conservator, the maintenance department, and (information technology) all report to Tammy. We don’t have, currently, a county coordinator that’s kind of over top of anything, like many counties do. That is something that probably the commission will probably be looking at as Tammy is getting closer to retirement.”

Girardin: “We control the purse strings as commissioners. Most things financially have to come through the commission.”

Thompson: “We do a lot of research. Our IT person has finally got us up and running for Alcona County into the computer age. Whereas, when I was a commissioner before, we were lacking that.

“Just research — looking into different matters and trying to solve methods to get more funds for the county by different avenues albeit grants or activities.”

WHAT’S SOMETHING PEOPLE THINK YOU CAN DO BUT YOU CAN’T?

Thomson: “I think the misconception is people think we have a lot more money to do things than we really do. For example, with youth and recreation, there is a millage that comes in for youth and rec. They can do things we can’t do, like support Northern Lights Arena or support (Plaza Pool), where the county is really strapped, financially. We’re doing things to help behind the scenes, like paying the property tax on those facilities.

“And I think, many times, people think we can impact change on a state level where, other than our personal relationships with (state) Sen. (Jim) Stamas or (state Rep.) Sue Allor or whomever, we’re just the same as a taxpayer. Recently, we have had people wanting us to contact the state level about different things — whether it’s the governor’s orders or everything else. We do not have a direct conduit.”

Girardin: “We are trying to run this country the best way we can possibly run it, and I think the misconception is they think we have control over a lot of things we have no control over. Elected officials, we don’t control them at all.”

Thompson: “There’s a lot of things that go on throughout the county that the commissioners don’t have any legal grounds that might be on private property, it might be on roads or more on the (Michigan Department of Transportation) line, which is another government agency. The best we would be able to do is to possibly talk to representatives from those types of government agencies.

There’s a lot of legal things that we have to follow. We’ve been sworn in to protect the Constitution, so we have to make sure our actions are justified and legal.”

Contact your counties

Alpena County Commissioners, 720 W. Chisholm St., Alpena, 989-354-9500 or alpenacounty.org

Alcona County Commissioners, 106 5th St., Harrisville, 989-724-9400 or alconacountimi.com

Montmorency County Commissioners, 12265 M-32 W., Atlanta, 989-785-8002 or montmorencycountymichigan.us

Presque Isle County Commissioners, 151 E. Huron Ave., Rogers City, 989-734-3288 or presqueislecounty.org

About this series

Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of government transparency laws and the First Amendment and a time to advocate for more openness by those in power, from local government to the federal government.

This year, The News decided to get back to basics and asked various government leaders in Northeast Michigan to open up about their jobs and what they can and can’t do on behalf of the people they serve.

Check out The News every day this week for the latest Sunshine Week installment.

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