Leelanau County Commission: perspectives from challengers Dave Barrons, Patricia Soutas-Little and Ty Wessell

From staff reports

The following are interviews conducted via email with Leelanau County Commission challengers Dave Barrons (a Democrat, running against Republican incumbent Debra Rushton), Patricia Soutas-Little (a Democrat, running against Republican incumbent Karen Zemaitis) and Ty Wessell (a Democrat, running against Republican incumbent Tom Van Pelt). Rushton, Zemaitis and Van Pelt all opted not to answer questions emailed to them.

Sun: What do you view as the role of the Leelanau County Commission? What are its most important responsibilities objectives? And how has the previous Commission faired in accomplishing that role?

Barrons: The primary role of a county commission to oversee county needs and expenditures, keeping the budget thoughtfully balanced. County commissions are similar to boards of directors: their role is to determine policy and direction. The current commission has done a good job of keeping the budget balanced, but it has engaged in too much micro-management of department expenditures and not enough time on broader policy and direction.

Soutas-Little: Primary responsibilities of the Commission include setting policy, establishing goals and plans for the County; adopting a budget to fund county operations; establishing Commission rules of operation; careful review and oversight of county programs and services; acquiring, managing and selling properties utilizing Land Bank and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority where appropriate; equalizing property tax assessments and levying taxes; entering into contracts, partnerships and agreements on behalf of the county; establishing fees; appointments to Boards and Commission; informing and communicating with residents and soliciting their input on issues that come before the Commission; advocating for services and programs that serve the community.

The current Commission has operated as a micromanaging body as opposed to a policy body, which is its greatest limitation. Effective leadership requires decisions to be based on what a department or program needs in order to be responsive to its citizens. Taxpayers provide government revenue and expect their dollars to be spent wisely for services they want. More time needs to be spent discussing important policies and issues. Leave matters of operational administration with the county supervisor—let’s let him do his job and let the Board do theirs.

Wessell: The County Commission is the legislative and policy-making body for Leelanau County Government. Among the responsibilities are: Adopting the annual budget; Funding County operations by levying taxes, setting fees, selling bonds or borrowing; Appointing citizen members to boards, commissions and committees; Selecting and evaluating the County Administrator; Purchasing/disposing of County-owned property and facilities; Managing County business by adopting rules, regulations, ordinances and policies; Representing the residents and advocating for community partners and residents.

The Commission should be commended for keeping taxes low and paying down the long-term debt. But, I believe the current commission has micro-managed, failed to provide oversight, lacked a commitment to community partnerships, and failed at providing the leadership necessary to support businesses, seniors and families. I believe decisions have been based more on political ideology than on thoughtful consideration and deliberation.

Sun: The previous Commission (2012-2014) generated negative coverage in the press, locally and statewide, after disbanding the Economic Development Corporation. To what degree was that attention deserved or not deserved?

Barrons: The EDC needed a shake-up and more directed guidance from the Commission. Disbanding the EDC, instead of correcting its shortcomings, was short-sighted, ideological, and sent the wrong message: that this, this county’s government doesn’t see any role to play in helping create our own economic future. While there are a very limited range of things a county government can do to make economic development ‘just happen’, creative leadership is always a must. Simply trusting that Leelanau’s past will continue into the future doesn’t make sense. Change will happen and government has a role to play in guiding that change so as to benefit all county residents. This county’s demographics are not going to sustain a viable economy into the future. We need more young families with young children to support our schools be part of the building blocks for the future. All stake holders, including the counties governing body, must participate in fostering the changes needed.

Soutas-Little: Eliminating the Economic Development Corporation without a structure in place to support our business community, cutting out economic regional partnerships, and fomenting an antagonistic relationship with the Michigan Council of Government were poor decisions deserving criticism.

Wessell: I believe that the County Commission has lacked leadership, vision and planning relative to economic development and that these actions have cost our county significant dollars in small business start-up funds, loans, grants and business support. Because our county chose to withdraw from a process of long-range planning and cooperative partnerships, we left opportunities behind.

Economic development happens through planning, community partnerships, talent development, favorable tax structures and business development. Because the Commission failed to address these prerequisites we lost opportunities for both local and regional initiatives.

Sun: What have you done, or will you do, to help businesses create jobs in Leelanau County?

Barrons: Over the past four years I have worked to develop two projects for the purpose of economic development: the Leelanau Birding Festival and the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail/M-22 which really has 3 counties as its target base. Birding is the second largest recreation in this country with 48 million money spending adherents. Sixteen million Americans report that they birdwatch while they travel accounting for more than 12 billion dollars in economic turnover. Michigan has the seventh most sought after bird, the seventh largest number of birders by state, and yet we rank 46th in the number of out of state birders we attract for their birding recreation. That makes no sense. Tourism is already one of this region’s major industries. We must add high quality birding to our tourism brand image. In other parts of the country birdwatching is big business and projects like festivals and birding trails are small but significant economic engines.

Soutas-Little: Enhancing our Economic Development is my chief concern as it affects our County in many ways at all levels. Advocating for policies, programs and partnerships with business to attract clean technologies that support our entrepreneurial and agri-businesses must be a priority. We need good, well paying jobs that allow our children to stay in Leelanau and attract other young families. 45 percent of our working population leaves the county every day to go to work outside the county. Many of those who remain here work two and three jobs to make enough money to support themselves and their family. The departure of young families hurts our businesses, hurts our schools, and diminishes the rich cultural fabric of our society. We need the vitality of young families to stimulate our economy and maintain a healthy population balance.

Wessell: I will bring a commitment to work with community and regional partners to develop an entrepreneurial culture and business-friendly climate of innovation, technology, collaboration and business start-up assistance. I would look for ways to: Support workforce development and education; Work with regional partners to attract community investments; Pursue and promote renewable energy investments to create businesses and jobs; Expand infrastructure that supports small businesses, and Identify and support regional assets that serve to promote or create businesses and jobs.

Sun: What have you done, or will you do, to increase affordable housing in Leelanau County?

Barrons: Nothing yet, but it is the single most identifiable issue I hear voters bring up up as I knock on doors in district 2.

Soutas-Little: The lack of affordable housing limits our children from being able to live here, hinders attracting new young families, and poses difficulties for our senior population living on fixed incomes. Our older and younger generations are competing for the same affordable housing. We need to partner with existing government and non-profit programs and with business, providing the necessary tools and incentive needed for business to develop creative solutions. If government provides a way, business will find a way to make affordable housing possible.

Wessell: As a board member for Leelanau REACH, a county non-profit Housing Development Corporation established to develop and expand affordable housing options in Leelanau County, I know, first hand, that affordable housing is a serious issue for Leelanau County. With county and regional partnerships between government, private enterprise, and non-profits, and with the assistance of MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority), I believe that we can develop and expand affordable housing options in Leelanau County.

I would promote the expansion of the Leelanau County Planning Department to include a position specifically responsible for public and private partnerships, grant writing, housing assistance, liaison with MSHDA and the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NMCOG), and support for REACH. I would encourage village, township and county review of possible zoning rule changes to encourage affordable & community-friendly multi-family homes and rentals.

Sun: Should public transportation or alternative commute options be enhanced or expanded in Leelanau County?

Barrons: Transportation needs and costs will confront many who wish live in our county in the future. At a minimum Leelanau County should participate in the current Buses Without Borders project of NMCOG. Currently, BATA bus ridership remains low giving the appearance of wasted investment, but the future will demand robust public transport systems to support local economic resilience, and the investment required must be made out-in-front of demand or the service will never be available in time when the need comes. The county Commission’s role must include willing, engaged leadership looking for ways to be helpful with this issue.

Soutas-Little: We should cooperate and support Bata to provide public transportation throughout the County.

Wessell: Accessibility to public transportation is an issue in Leelanau County. Addressing transportation issues could involve working with private partners to: Encourage employers to provide transportation or vanpool programs; Provide subsidized bus passes for employment purposes; Encourage businesses to sponsor bus transportation; Promote ‘Rideshare’ programs for outlying areas; Promote expansion of the BATA system and de-stigmatize bus usage. A very important role of the County Commission is to advocate for the needs of county residents. Advocating for enhanced and expanded public transportation must be considered a priority.

Sun: What is your awareness of, and how might you be thinking about, the politics of water quality and water rights as the state and country grapple with the growing awareness of these issues?

Barrons: Leelanau has an excellent grass-roots, stake-holder group, Leelanau Clean Water, grappling with the issues surrounding maintenance of our precious clean water resource. The current Commission has turned a cold shoulder to the efforts of this local, non-governmental group. County government must be involved in this vital issue. Clean water is critical to our very way of life and our future economic standing. This county’s government must stand firmly for the protection of the commons: clean water. All levels of government must work together to prevent it from becoming a commodity. Once water can be bought and sold for one person’s profit, we have lost it as a commons.

Soutas-Little: Leelanau is an amazingly beautiful place to call home. Protecting and nurturing our natural resources that make Leelanau unique and that provide tourism and support our agri-businesses is essential. The mission of Leelanau Clean Water is to “restore, protect, and maintain water resources and promote public awareness of environmental and economic importance and provide accurate information.” Leelanau Clean Water and other community volunteer efforts bring amazing expertise to help address our natural resource issues at very little cost and the Commission needs to support them, rather than devaluing their work. We need to continue to inform the public of the role they can play in preserving our beautiful county.

Wessell: We must protect what makes our county a wonderful place to live, raise a family and retire. We must also understand that water quality is a part of what makes Leelanau County such a popular tourist destination and we are fortunate to have the Leelanau Conservancy working to conserve our county’s land, water and scenic resources. I support the mission of Leelanau Clean Water ‘to protect, restore and sustain water resources, promote public awareness of its environmental and economic importance, and provide accurate information to assist public participation in water resources decisions.’ Leelanau County, working in partnership with the 20 plus organizations that are a part of Leelanau Clean Water, must work together to educate the public, protect water quality and promote wise practices. We must also work with other governmental bodies to promote incentives for septic tank inspections and wise use of farming and lawn care chemicals.

Sun: Once the biggest job provider, and popular destination, Sugar Loaf resort, has been closed for 14 years now. What role should/can the County Commission play to re-open it?

Barrons: The county needs to be helpful in whatever way possible to actual proposals from credible businesses/investors for resurrecting Sugar Loaf as a point-of-destination resort. The county could contribute several publicity campaigns to attract credible investors, however, I do not believe Sugar Loaf should be purchased with public dollars. County government should not be in the business of being a landlord or real estate developer, only an interested, cooperative player in otherwise private investment plans. It might be possible for the county to make a purchase and then re-sell to the right investor’s, but such a plan is too complicated for this answer.

Soutas-Little: No, I would not support an increase in local taxes. Opinions of County residents vary widely as to the fate of Sugarloaf and what should be done. Many want to see it returned to a ski resort, others feel Sugarloaf should be sold as lots for single-family housing or possibly condominiums, still others find it best suited for some combination of conference center and resort. Whether the County should purchase the property remains another point of contention. Is County government structured to own and operate a resort? And if it is purchased for sale to private investors, will a buyer be found?

Before we can find a workable solution to this problem we need to obtain more information. Obtaining a clear title to the property, unraveling the history of ownership and tax implications, first must be done to open the path for purchase. This will require considerable expense. An evaluation of the current state of health of Sugarloaf was done earlier this year, and some recommendations have been made. Questions remain as to whether it can be brought up to code and what are the financial implications for doing this?

Wessell: I believe that we lost opportunity to support the future of Sugar Loaf Resort when our Commission opted out of the Regional Economic Development Commission and disbanded the Economic Development Corporation. Planning is critical and a long-term Economic Development Plan for the county, including a vision for an appropriate use of this once-popular tourist attraction and job provider, is a responsibility of the Leelanau County Commission.

Sun: Would you support a bond proposal whereby local taxes could be increased slightly to allow the County to acquire Sugar Loaf from its current owners (whomever that may be) and redevelop the resort? Why or why not?

Wessell: I believe that the County role should be limited to offering incentives and partnership grants to private enterprise to develop.

Sun: What does the Leelanau County of tomorrow look like? What role should the County Commission play to make that happen?

Barrons: Leelanau County will face the same challenges facing our state, even our country, in the near future. Energy will become more difficult and or expensive to obtain, and a changing climate will challenge our agricultural industry. For years we will face the challenge of attracting young families with children, to support ours schools as well as the local year-round economy. County government must be an involved, active player in securing a future that continues Leelanau as an attractive community to live in.

Soutas-Little: There has been a dramatic increase in tourism over the past few years and we should support and promote the development of entrepreneurial business that enhance visitation to this area. To spur our economy we must advocate for making Wi-Fi and good Internet services available throughout the county. Lack of Internet capabilities limits many young people from moving here who are engaged in fields where they can work from home. It limits business from moving here that require Internet to connect with other areas of the state, country and the world. We need the vitality of young families to stimulate our economy and maintain a healthy population balance.

Wessell: The Leelanau County population is changing. As highlighted by the recent League of Women Voters “Changing Leelanau Report’ the county is growing older, the number of young people is declining, and a significant percentage of our young families are struggling with early childcare, affordable housing and the challenges of low wages and part-time employment. To address the Leelanau County of the future, we must address the needs of our growing senior citizen population and the needs of young families. For the Senior population, the Leelanau County Senior Services Department will be faced with an increasing demand for services. Likewise, additional public/private partnerships will be critical in meeting the needs of the elderly population. For the young families, affordable housing and expanded job opportunities will become increasingly important to attract and retain young families.

I believe that there are five necessary ingredients to meeting the needs of the Leelanau County of the future: 1. Economic development planning that well result in expanded job opportunities and development of affordable housing 2. Promotion of tourism to expand opportunities for small business development 3. Expanded Senior Services programming 4. Support for young families 5. Protection of water resources. Through planning, partnerships and collaboration, we can keep taxes low, protect what we have, and impact the following: Jobs, housing and affordable living; Small business development; Infrastructure development and expansion of Internet access in areas without necessary connections; Tax incentives for new businesses; Expansion of services necessary for the senior population; Improved parenting and parenting support programs for young families

Sun: Anything more you’d like to add?

Barrons: As several former commissioners have instructed me, it will take a full year of my first term to get a real handle on the job. I don’t have many specific answers and certainly no promises to make, at this time, except this: If elected, I make the commitment to do this job well and do it do it with the betterment of all of the county in mind. I’ll work hard, do my homework, and not waste county dollars.

Soutas-Little: As I campaign door-to-door, I am reaching out to the community discussing current issues and gaining an understanding of why people choose to live here, what is important to them. This has been a valuable experience and one I will build upon. I would be honored to represent District 5 as Leelanau County Commissioner. My promise is to listen intently to people’s views, concerns and comments; learn all that I can about the issue; then provide leadership in the decisions that I make.

Wessell: Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your questions. I am running for Commissioner because I am deeply concerned about the Commission’s recent decisions, its radically-conservative ideology, and its failure to embrace local and regional collaboration that would support small businesses, jobs, affordable housing, families and senior citizens. Leelanau County is a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family! But, we could do better. We must maintain fiscal responsibility and low taxes while looking for opportunities to protect what we have, support families and seniors, work with our county and regional partners, and promote economic development.