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County needs a different arena solution

You could feel the tension in the air Tuesday.

Everyone had their business face on, and, despite the masks, one could tell very few were smiling.

So it was at the Alpena County Board of Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.

The future of Northern Lights Arena and the county’s Youth and Recreation millage ignited a lot passion and unfiltered quotes Tuesday. It left county residents wondering what is going to happen over the next four weeks .

Northern Lights Arena, almost since the day it was built, has been a financial liability, riddled with good intentions but endless financial obligations.

Some consider it a white elephant of the worse kind.

I am not one of those.

I always have appreciated the facility. While not a skater, I value what an asset it is for us and the region. I value the hard work, dedication, and tireless fundraising efforts of the many volunteers who originally raised funds to convert a community’s dream into reality. But I also remember that part of the reason for the arena’s bond passage was a pledge that no more money would be asked of county residents for the arena after its construction.

I remember county commissioners in past years wrestling with the financial liability that came with the arena’s upkeep and maintenance. And later, I remember many of those same commissioners agreeing to seek the county’s Youth and Recreation millage — with no requirement for funding a particular entity.

Back in 2010, passage of the millage was a hard sell, but a successful one that county officials made. In September of that year, the Youth and Recreation Committee was formed with the sole purpose of “providing recreational activities for youth and recreation for Alpena County residents, as well as recreational service and improvement or development of recreational sites.”

Nowhere was the millage tied into the arena.

And, in the establishment of the committee that oversees the millage funding, commissioners were wise to distance themselves from direct involvement with the distribution of funds. Each commissioner was asked to appoint a committee member, but the commissioners themselves were not part of the group.

And, every year since, the eight members of the committee have done a good job of distributing the millage funds.

It is one of my favorite working committees in local government, both because its members have always been very transparent in their work and because I have believed the group has done an outstanding job addressing many needs of groups and residents of all ages, from one end of the county to the other.

In my mind, they have exceeded any expectation of how the millage money should be allocated.

Until now.

At Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting, a motion was made to allocate $75,000 for each of the next two years from the millage money toward helping to stabilize the arena and its finances. Instead of taking action Tuesday, however, commissioners agreed to send the issue to the county’s Finance Committee to get its input before bringing it back for a possible decision Aug. 25.

As a means of understanding the issue, Tony Suszek, who chairs the Youth and Recreation Committee, said that, this year, the committee allocated $550,743 in funds to 29 different entities. But the committee had over $900,000 in requests for projects, which meant $350,000 in needs could not be met.

Suszek was distraught Tuesday by the commissioners’ action.

“They are jeopardizing the future of this millage and possibly others,” he said. “They are cutting out the transparency and accountability to the public. If they do this, there are going to be other good, quality projects all over the county that we won’t be able to fund for the next two years.”

Suszek also indicated that, if the commissioners vote to proceed in this direction Aug. 25, he and some others who serve on the committee would consider resigning from their positions.

That, in my estimation, would be terrible.

And, should commissioners proceed down a path of funneling that much millage money to just one entity, I believe it would violate the spirit of the millage county voters first approved, and have since renewed.

I understand the commissioners’ dilemma. It is not a good place to be — especially during this time of COVID-19, when expenses are pouring out but no revenue is pouring in.

But the millage seems a dangerous place to turn to, risking losing the public’s trust in a system that until now, has worked extremely well.

Certainly, there is a need at the arena. And commissioners don’t have a bottomless well from which to draw money to address that need.

But there also are a lot of other groups across the county who have needs, as well. And, with COVID-19, all of them are going to be hurting now more than ever.

There probably was a much better way to have addressed this without it getting to this point. I hope that, in these next few weeks, a different strategy can be developed without impacting the current process.

Alpena County residents are blessed to have such support for recreational projects and a great ice rink.

I would hate to see either jeopardized.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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