By ADAM DeLAY
Capital News Service
LANSING – While many people are fighting for jobs in this tough economy, one Cheboygan County official is fighting to lose his.
Drain Commissioner Dennis Lennox, R-Topinabee, is pushing for the county to eliminate his position, because he feels it’s unnecessary.
“I ran on a platform of allowing the county to eliminate the position, and beat a two-term incumbent who did nothing,” he said.
Michigan is the only state with such an office, which dates back to statehood. Counties with more than 12,000 people must have a drain commissioner. The duties include overseeing construction and maintenance of sewer and storm drains, awarding contracts for drain construction and approving drainage in new developments.
Lennox said the change would be an important step in streamlining government.
“It’s time for structural reform that brings government into the 21st century,” he said.
But Joseph Rivet, president of the Michigan Association of Drain Commissioners, disagrees with the idea. He said the office is evolving and in line with the times.
“Since taking office, I’ve fought to secure water quality grants for the county and I would say the job is focusing more on water quality every day,” Rivet added.
“Could you maybe save a few thousand dollars by eliminating the office? Sure, but counties would then be losing this developing ability to aggressively focus on water quality and pursue grants.”
Lennox, who makes just under $4,000 a year as drain commissioner, said the position isn’t needed in Cheboygan County and suggests the duties move to the road commission.
“Offices are funded on permits and special assessments. If the Drain Commissioner isn’t abolished Cheboygan County will have to spend and additional $50,000-70,000,” he said.
“Michigan has way too many levels of government with way too many politicians. The road commission has the staff and resources to take over the duties, and I think the offices can be consolidated.”
The proposal has the attention of some members of the Legislature.
Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced a bill to let counties with fewer than 35,000 residents vote to eliminate the office. Before a public vote, the change would need approval by both the county commission and the drain commissioner.
Jones said the bill is limited to counties with fewer than 35,000 residents because it is the lower populated northern counties that would like to get rid of the office.
“We figured the bill would have a better chance of passing if we tailored it to those counties instead of opening up a can of worms with larger counties in the lower part of the state who want to keep their drain commissioners,” he said.
Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, is sponsoring a parallel bill in the Senate.
Thirty-nine of the state’s counties have populations under 35,000, including Gladwin, Emmet and Mason, Alcona, Presque Isle, Manistee, Leelanau, and most of the Upper Peninsula.
Rivet said population isn’t a factor in determining the importance of a drain commissioner, and in some counties the position is critical.
“It’s about the miles of drain in the county,” he said. “In Bay County, where I’m commissioner, we have a lot of drains to look after. Also, if any significant developments start in the county, it’s important to have a drain commissioner to make sure developers follow the drainage standards that are in place.”
Lennox said he recognizes the position is needed in some counties, but others should be free to eliminate it.
“Any county should be able to determine the kind of local government and the positions they want or don’t want,” he said.
Rivet, however, said he doesn’t think eliminating drain commissioners will save counties a lot of money because another agency will need to carry out the responsibilities and, “will probably cost the same,”
“Counties fund the office based on how much need there is for it. There are some counties with no drains and those commissioners make very little,” he said.
In Gogebic County the drain commissioner is paid only $1 a year.
Monica Ware, public relations specialist for the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM), says her organization opposes the bills because they don’t give road commissions a say in taking on the responsibilities of drain commissioners.
“CRAM would support the bill if it was amended to require approval of the road commission as well as the county commission and drain commissioner, but right now it doesn’t,” she said.
Ware also said counties wouldn’t save much by eliminating the position. “They would still have to provide funding for the operation, maintenance and improvement of drain services, including permits”
Jones’ bill is pending in the House Intergovernmental and Regional Affairs Committee, and Allen’s bill in the Senate Local, Urban and State Affairs Committee.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.