Niles City Council blasts Berrien boardPublished 9:06pm Monday, August 13, 2012
Berrien County’s Aug. 9 discussion of options to address infrastructure needs of animal control and the health department looks like the opening salvo in rekindling the dormant war between North and South.
City Council Monday night gave Niles Commissioner Zach Perkins plenty of reaction to deliver to St. Joseph on Thursday.
“One of the primary reasons they want to relocate the court and prosecutor’s office to North County is to overload North County and further demonstrate the need for this campus they want to build,” Mayor Michael McCauslin said. “We get very little return on the money in the county portion of our taxes. We’re like the bastard stepchild down here — I’m serious — that doesn’t get anything. For most of my tenure as mayor, North County receives the bulk of everything and South County is pooh-poohed away like we don’t exist.”
“It’s lose-lose,” Councilman Dan VandenHeede said. “We’d love to have more services down here. We’ve lost jury selection, Register of Deeds. We’ve got one judge compared to eight in St. Joseph. I’m strongly in favor of fighting to keep what we have. What about our costs if police officers have to be away from their duties here to go to court in St. Joseph?”
City Administrator Ric Huff said, instead of one van bringing inmates for court appearances, the police department may end up sending multiple police cars to St. Joseph every day.
“We’re always carrying the burden of paying more taxes, then we’re not getting services,” Councilwoman Georgia Boggs said.
“It’s ignorant not to buy property in the middle of the county when you talk about a campus,” Councilman Scott Clark said. “If you’re going to put everything in one place, it should be in the middle of the county — not 40 miles from here. The tail’s wagging the dog. The problem with government today is having people without business experience making business decisions. It’s like the federal government. We send our money there and never see it again.”
County Administrator Bill Wolf outlined possibilities for the board of commissioners to mull while developing a 2013 budget, such as building a “campus” over the next 15 to 20 years on Napier near Lake Michigan College.
“One new idea was triggered by the state taking jury selection away from us,” Perkins said. “They do all jury selection up at the St. Joseph courthouse. We expect the prosecutor’s office to show us where they will be able to save money if they consolidate operations up north, which is a reduction of service down here I’m personally not happy with.”
The Health Department has five facilities scattered around Benton Harbor.
The county has socked away almost $2 million for a new animal facility to replace the obsolete 1950s Berrien Township pound.
Wolf’s presentation detailed rising maintenance costs of aging buildings, substandard work conditions, increased liability, inefficient use of personnel and increased costs caused by the redundancies required at dispersed locations.
Berrien County several years ago acquired 48 acres along Napier Avenue in Benton Township. Bought for $725,000, the land west of LMC was meant to provide a site large enough for new county buildings as need dictated in decades to come.
Wolf estimated the cost of constructing animal control and health department facilities at $10.7 million to $13.7 million.
A second option would be purchasing 26 adjacent acres with two large buildings leased by Tyler Honda, moving to a new home in Lincoln Township.
Existing structures could be remodeled for animal control and the health department at a projected cost of $7.3 million to $8.3 million with future space for Berrien Bus. The campus concept would necessitate a bond issue.
Shuffling various county functions into other available spaces in phases is a third possibility. That entails moving environmental health from M-139 in Benton Township to the Niles courthouse. The M-139 building could be converted to animal control. The old pound becomes a stable and corral.
The circuit court and prosecutor’s office shift to St. Joseph opens space for health department administration to move from Pipestone Street in Benton Harbor.
North Berrien health department services would be consolidated at the Pipestone administration building.
District court would stay in the South County Building.
Total cost for consolidation is pegged at $1.9 million. Some or all of the 48 acres could be shed to further trim costs. A drawback is abandonment of the campus concept. Remodeled structures would have shorter longevity than new facilities. There could be longer commutes for health department workers.