Cass County commissioners discuss solar farms, labor contracts

Published 1:56 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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CASSOPOLIS — A variety of topics from solar farms to labor contracts to audits were discussed at last week’s Cass County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Cass County Commissioners went on record last week in support of a possible ballot initiative that would give control over large solar and wind projects back to local governments. A new state law that goes into effect this November would give decision making power over most such projects to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The ballot initiative by the Citizens for Local Choice organization returns decision making back to local governments and has the support of the Michigan Association of Counties which called the new state law ill conceived. Organizers are circulating petitions to collect enough signatures to get the proposal on the November ballot.

The county board’s vote in support of the ballot initiative wasn’t the only mention of solar energy projects in the meeting. Cass County Drain Commissioner Jeff Van Belle reported on a possible solar project coming to Howard Township.

Van Belle said that he planned to meet this week with representatives of a solar company called Innovative Energy that is doing a solar energy project in the township. He said he will pass on what he learns to county commissioners.

“Whether or not you like solar, there have been over 500,000 farms lost nationwide in the past few years and this is maybe a mechanism to save those farms,” he said.

He said one concern that has been raised is making sure companies proposing a solar project are financially viable without government subsidies. Otherwise, he said landowners and local governments may be left with contaminated land if companies don’t follow through on reclamation promises.

Also last week, commissioners approved a new letter of understanding with sheriff’s department deputies and detectives. The letter of understanding with the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council gives deputies and detectives a 10 percent pay raise this year as well as the opportunity for an annual retention bonus.

Full-time employees will qualify for an annual retention bonus each Dec. 1 based on the number of consecutive years they’ve worked for the department as of that date. People will get a $1,000 bonus if they’ve worked five to nine years up to a $3,000 bonus for working 25 or more years.

The current labor agreement runs through 2025.

The agreement acknowledges the staffing shortage experienced by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies around the state. According to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, there were over 23,000 police officers working in Michigan in 2001 and that number currently is approximately 18,500.

Commissioners dissolved the law enforcement millage committee at their meeting last week without comment. That committee was formed to address staffing shortages in both the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office and met a handful of times in February and March.

Committee members ended up agreeing to concentrate on renewing the Cass County Drug Enforcement Taskforce Millage rather than proposing a new millage to better fund the sheriff and prosecutor offices. Members talked about finding other funding sources for the two offices, such as from general fund and drug enforcement taskforce millage reserves.

County Board Chairman Jeremiah Jones said after the meeting that it was his understanding that the committee’s purpose had been fulfilled with their recommendation to go for a millage renewal and not pursue an additional law enforcement millage at this time.

The drug enforcement taskforce millage renewal itself wasn’t discussed at last week’s meeting but County Administrator Matthew Newton said afterwards that the resolution to renew the millage will be on the county board’s Committee of the Whole agenda this week. The resolution would then be formally adopted at the board’s May 2 meeting.

With the audit, auditor Alan Panter of the Yeo & Yeo accounting firm presented the audit findings for the county. He said the county received a clean, unqualified opinion for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Panter said the general fund balance did decrease slightly last year with expenditures slightly over revenue but remains healthy. While it is recommended to have a fund balance that represents 15 to 20 percent of expenditures, the county’s fund balance represents 67 percent of expenditures.

In action at last week’s meeting, the county board agreed to increase the size of the Cass County Planning Commission from nine to 11, approve the master plan agreement with townships and municipalities in the county, approve remonumentation agreements and approve Lawless Park cropland leases.