Berrien County commissioners get first look at strategic plan

Published 11:00 am Monday, November 22, 2021

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners got their first look Thursday at the county’s proposed new strategic plan and recommendations on how to spend nearly $30 million in federal pandemic funds. Recommendations call for splitting that money up between items such as high-speed internet, roads, amenities, water quality and trails.

Consultant Jim Hettinger has been putting together the proposed strategic plan including the American Rescue Plan Act spending priorities for the last several months. He gave his findings at Thursday’s Committee of the Whole workshop session prior to the regular county board meeting.

“The goal today is to let you digest what he’s worked on,” said County Administrator Brian Dissette. “Over the next few weeks, spend some time going through the report and will address questions as they come up. My goal is that you authorize and approve the strategic plan before the end of the year. It will act as a roadmap and guide for the staff.”

Hettinger began his presentation by talking about his research methods and what he sees as the challenges and opportunities facing the county. He said that while the increased number of COVID cases due to the Delta variant hampered his ability to get people to gather in groups, he did rely on surveys, research and data from other organizations.

He said his overall goal with the proposed strategic plan is to help the county find the highest and best use for its resources including the ARPA funding. “The thrust has to be for community resiliency whether it’s dealing with the pandemic or the long-term high water issues in coastline communities,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate the two, high water impacts the loss of revenue and communities’ ability to deal with the pandemic,” he added.

The plan includes a vision statement for the county as well as the role of strategic initiatives in good governance and the spending of ARPA funds.

“I’m fully aware that someone can use any one of the values to justify what they want, but the best bet is to embark on expenditures of funds that we hope to have a lasting impact,” he said.

Overall, he recommended funding strategies that include leveraging the county’s funds in partnership with other entities that are willing to put their own money on the table. The goal should be to invest money in projects that are enduring and where the county knows long-term costs upfront.

He suggested splitting up the nearly $30 million in ARPA funds with $6 million spent on high-speed internet, $14 million on amenities, water quality and trails, $6 million on road projects and $3.8 million on administrative projects and unforeseen expenditures.

Hettinger said there has been a great deal of interest in getting more high-speed internet for the area. He noted that doing so would help everything from real estate and property values to agriculture, business, education, government and individual families.

“There is a multitude of ways that high-speed internet can serve the county,” he said. “Telecoms don’t see a return on their investment but we can compensate by offering as much usage as possible among residents. It’s pretty well demonstrated that where there is high-speed internet, there is increased small business development.”

As for amenities, water quality and trails, he said everyone can benefit from improvements in those three areas. He called water quality an essential for everyone from individual homes to businesses to agriculture. He said it would behoove the county to encourage the trail projects already underway and spend money on infrastructure items such as bridges.

He pointed out that county governments are often judged by the shape of their roads.

“It’s hard to incorporate ARPA funding with roads because there are ample other sources,” he said. “But there are opportunities to bridge gaps and plug holes in financing to make road projects happen. You can be the trigger for making things happen.”

As for administrative projects, he said funds could be set aside to help the county do things better whether it’s setting aside funds for asset management and investing in long-term facility projects or assisting others in doing more research on environmental, agricultural and educational issues.

Commissioners commented at the end of his presentation on areas they would like to see included in the new plan and the ARPA funding recommendations such as a greater emphasis on encouraging affordable housing in the county.

Commissioner Jim Curran, of Niles Township, asked that another committee of the whole workshop session be scheduled to discuss the plan.

“One of the things we really need to talk about is the numbers and whether to spend the whole $30 million when we know we can’t do that,” he said. “We need another work session to discuss the plan and the money.”

The county board’s next meeting will be 10:30 a.m. Dec. 2 in the County Administration Center building. Meetings continue to be livestreamed on the county’s YouTube channel.