Csokasy delivers first ‘State of the County’Published 2:59pm Thursday, May 2, 2013
Understanding Cass Countians should help government officials providing services, County Administrator Louis Csokasy said Tuesday.
Csokasy, addressing more than 75 county, city, village and township officials at the 22nd annual Intergovernmental Forum in the middle school Performing Arts Center, highlighted accomplishments and outlined challenges in his first State of the County address.
Cass Countians — coined by Clerk-Register Monica Kennedy — likely belong to one of three groups — agriculture, the county’s largest business sector; lake residents or weekenders; and employees who work in Niles, Elkhart, South Bend or Kalamazoo.
“Communities such as Sister Lakes, Eagle, Diamond, Barron or Birch represent a distinct group with needs different from the agricultural community,” said Csokasy, of Penn Township. “Lately, we have begun to define Cass County as a bedroom community. Seventy percent of residents travel outside the county to work every day. Cass Countians are older than surrounding peers. Sixteen percent of us, including me, are older than 65.”
While 90 percent are white, the population is more diverse than 5.5 percent blacks and 1.3 percent Native Americans suggest because “both these groups have a large footprint.”
Eighty-six percent of residents earned high school diplomas, but only 16 percent attained bachelor’s degrees.
“On the family front,” Csokasy said, “83 percent owns homes. This resident is much more likely than in surrounding communities to be a single parent. Median household income is $45,400. Cass County’s unemployment rate, 7.3 percent, beats Michigan and the nation.”
“Overall, government continues to be fiscally conservative,” he said. “Standard and Poor’s retained our very respectable AA rating and its letter was as positive as I’ve seen. The county’s financial position remains strong, in their view. The fiscal 2012 budget ended the year with an audited surplus of $310,000, increasing available general fund reserves to $8 million. The county’s delinquent tax fund, another source of liquidity, had cash and equivalents of $4.8 million and $5.4 million in September of 2011 and 2012, respectively. Property taxes account for the largest general fund revenue source, 63 percent. State revenues, 17 percent. A quick check of townships showed unrestricted assets totaling almost $16 million.”
In the current $13 million county budget, taxes account for 58 percent of projected revenue.
“Unlike many areas of the state,” Csokasy said, “taxable values in Cass County are projected to actually increase by almost $35 million.”
Csokasy said, “We need to understand that people drive numbers,” with census redistricting reducing the Board of Commissioners from 15 to seven for the next decade, with new leadership, Chairman Dwight “Skip” Dyes of Calvin Township and Vice Chairman Bernie Williamson of Jefferson Township.
Commissioners examined during the transition how to do their work more effectively, instituting a Committee of the Whole, which eliminated committees in favor of more public input.
“Many people think I pushed this issue,” the administrator said, but called former commissioner Dale Lowe, Howard Township supervisor, as the “father of the Committee of the Whole.”
At the department level, Kennedy, the chief deputy who succeeded Silver Creek Township Clerk Barb Runyon, is joined by Niles attorney Carol Bealor, former assistant prosecutor, as Friend of the Court administrator.
“Southwestern Michigan College continues to develop and grow,” Csokasy said. “Niles Area Campus (in Milton Township) is expanding. In cooperation with Ferris State University, four-year degrees can be obtained locally. It is safe to say increased educational levels in our county are the direct result of SMC’s success.
“Another success is Cassopolis Family Clinic, breaking ground on a 30,000-square-foot, $6.4 million facility on the north side of Cassopolis. The county facilitated this project by making available a five-acre site close to downtown. Dowagiac has a Pokagon Band casino identical to those previously established in Hartford and New Buffalo. The tribe will be sharing gaming revenues with entitities impacted by this location,” including Pokagon Township, whose officials traveled to Lansing Wednesday to accept Gov. Rick Snyder’s award for preserving the Old-Rugged Cross Church.
“With over 200 crops raised, our agricultural diversity is a real strength,” Csokasy said. “This industry continues to consolidate from family farms into agri-business. Farms of 5,000 to 10,000 acres are not unusual. We are leading state land value increases due to these changes. For example, the last three large sales of vacant farmland went for $6,000 per acre, $8,000 per acre and $10,200 per acre, depending on irrigation. These are absolutely staggering numbers.”
“There have been some setbacks, such as Stamp Farms and Hess Engineering in Milton Township,” he said. “The good news is those assets remain. We fully expect new owners to make them recover. As a bedroom community with the RV industry improving to the south, commissioners developed a list of multi-year goals, starting with a comprehensive vision for the direction of economic development. Second, implementation of electronic document imaging. Paper is to county government as a swing is to golf — essential, but less is better. The county generates 1.6 million pieces of paper a year,” with records being copied, filed, retrieved and stored at considerable cost. “While some costs will be offset by grants, it will take three to five years and $500,000 to implement.”
The county must also decide what to do with its 1899 courthouse, 20,000 square feet, three-story facility empty for nine years. Once use is decided, timelines and costs follow.
A fourth goal is resolving “legacy costs. Our unfunded liability for retirement stands at $4.2 million,” Csokasy said. “This is a key county benefit so we want to study it carefully. The animal shelter, led by Mike Grice, underwent a complete renovation. The Donnell water project was completed under the leadership of Penn Township and the Board of Public Works. Marcellus Township and BPW extended the sewer system in that area. The Road Commission rebuilt the Redfield Street bridge and added a non-motorized boat launch. The parks master plan, under Scott Wyman, completed and approved by the state qualifies the county for grants.”
Refinancing debt saved over $100,000.
Dowagiac Daily News