Drain Commissioner a powerful force

Published 8:34 pm Friday, November 18, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Edwardsburg Argus
Count Drain Commissioner Jeff VanBelle is one of the most powerful men in Cass County.
VanBelle was appointed in March 2004 to succeed Allen Butchbaker, who had served since 1988. He is also vice chairman of the county Board of Public Works. VanBelle is president of Edwardsburg Lions Club.
Born in Detroit, he grew up in Niles and attended Brandywine High School.
He and his family, including his wife and four children, live on Pleasant Lake in Edwardsburg. He's been in Cass County since 1989.
VanBelle said any Michigan county with a population of more than 12,000 must have a drain commissioner - a requirement of the state constitution.
The county pays his salary - $36,720 in 2006 - furnishes him office space, access to secretarial support and an expense account for mileage.
Still, that arrangement presents his office with some “financial dilemmas” because “I'm always behind, always in arrears,” VanBelle said. “The county provides me with a revolving drain fund. I draw from those funds and as you pay the assessments we replenish those funds. We don't get a lot of large projects like drain commissioners with multi-million-dollar projects on the other side of the state and massive assessments. We don't have large tributaries in this county.”
The scope of VanBelle's jurisdiction is county drains, whether a roadside ditch or the Dowagiac River, if he “has a permanent easement. It could be from the landowner, township or county. I cannot do work on private property.
Lakes “can be political,” he noted. “Michigan, with its riparian laws, can make it extremely difficult to get things done, but I am that mechanism that can get things done. You can come to me, as our lake went to Allen, and through my office and the Board of Commissioners we can get things done. That's very important because riparian rights in Michigan (say) you technically own that land under that water all the way out to a point in the center of that lake - like a sliver of pie. This year it was low lake levels. You name the lake, yeah, I've received a call on it. We are in a drought and it is affecting our lakes. A lot of our lakes don't have tributaries coming in. All lakes, to some extent, are fed by groundwater, but during drought years water tables begin to drop.”
When someone presents his office with a problem - say their backyard is frequently under water and jeopardizes their septic system - Van Belle goes out and inspects.
He might agree with the resident's assessment. “Could you bring me some signatures?” VanBelle asks. “At that point where he presents me with those signatures, that is considered an official petition and a whole mechanism goes into action at that point.
He can be petitioned by private citizens, townships or the Road Commission.
VanBelle has the discretion to assess up to $2,500 per mile of drain without holding a Board of Determination.
Drain commissioners elsewhere in Michigan are lobbying to have the 1956 drain code updated to $5,000.
In addition to the engineer he hired to inspect county dams this year, VanBelle said he also communicates with “lake custodians.”
Another aspect of the drain commissioner's job his constituents are probably unfamilar is federal-level compliance with discharges.
Goals for his office revolve around modernization.