Emergency Manager Alarm Bells in Elberta


UPDATED: 10-16-13 at 2:15 pm

This morning’s news finds the quaint coastal resort village of Elberta, Michigan sounding the emergency manager alarm bells over their budget deficit of $560,000. The community has been struggling for a number of years now, and when Gov. Snyder passed his first incarnation of the enhanced emergency manager law back in early 2011, Northwest Michigan turned their eyes to Elberta as a potential casualty, fearing their pristine coastal parkland was at risk for private sale.

This isn’t the first brush with emergency management in this corner of the state. Two years ago, tiny Suttons Bay Schools used the spectre of emergency management as a means to “solve” their budget deficit –they employed the threat as a cudgel on the community to solicit contributions and win concessions. Traverse City Area Public schools have been cautiously looking over their shoulder in the face of future budget shortfalls, although that potential threat remains a few years off — they will not be alone by then.

Anyone with a calculator and a rudimentary education in economics would understand that the state would never agree to expend substantial sums of tax dollars to remedy budget deficits that are potentially less than the cost of emergency management itself. The Snyder administration proved as much when they shuttered and dissolved both Albion and Inkster schools this year under ram-rod legislation designed to avoid assigning emergency managers to the small districts.

Democracy Tree has been warning for some months now that eventually the state would run into a similar problem with a municipality. The sovereignty of local units of government is protected in the state constitution, buttressed by the Home Rule City Act, and was reaffirmed in the Constitution Convention, ratified in 1963. But, is that protection enough? Under the Snyder administration, Michigan has seen two versions of the emergency manager law that are arguably unconstitutional at both the state and federal level.

Right now, Elberta has been ordered to devise a five-year deficit reduction plan for the state to approve. If things turn south for the tiny community, they may be put in the position where they are forced to self-dissolve. However, their likely tactic will be to threaten their community of 372 residents with the sale of parkland as a means to pass a millage to cover their shortfall. Emily Votruba, a parks and recreation board member, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that selling parkland was a possibility:

“We have a beautiful stretch of beach and it’s all undeveloped. This is a situation that’s ripe for someone to come in and sell off some land … and in an emergency manager situation we won’t have any control.”

Votruba contacted Democracy Tree to clarify that her sole intention is to alert the community of the potential threat to public parklands. She is uncertain what the local government officials intend to do, including whether sale of public assets is on the table.

However, these kinds of statements are nothing new to communities in Southern Michigan. There were threats of the sale of Jean Klock Park, a beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline in Benton Harbor, under emergency management. While that parkland was not sold, they did manage to sell other community assets, such as their radio station. More recently, Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has been eyeing the priceless works of art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Flint emergency manager held an auction of city assets and sold-off, among other things, the santa and reindeer display that traditionally graced the top of city hall.

As our federal government careens from one manufactured crisis to another, using threats to leverage agendas, we find small town officials here in Michigan playing the same game.

Amy Kerr Hardin

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6 Responses to Emergency Manager Alarm Bells in Elberta

  1. Suz McLaughlin says:

    Just to clarify on this report of our community’s ongoing budget issues in Benzie Co….Were it not for Emily Votruba’s The Elberta Alert, a community blog, many community members would not know the specifics of the budgetary issues which have built up over a long period of time and been addressed ‘half-heartedly’ by many elected officials, who currently are related to Village employees…Talk about conflict! Please don’t misconstrue this quote as an endorsement of what may indeed be a plan in the works! I appreciate the efforts of communicating these community examples as cautionary tales to be heeded, if only we are paying attention!

  2. Thank you for this article. I have to object, however, to your implication that I am using threats to help our local government implement its agenda. The fact is, I’m really uncertain what our local government’s agenda is. Our council members are not the ones who brought up the question of the sale of the beach. I and another resident raised this question at a special meeting, and the council did not have an answer for us. Our treasurer did, however, say that the representative from Treasury they met with asked whether the Village owned any beach property and whether it could be sold. The treasurer did not know whether we owned the property or whether it was saleable. The day after this special meeting, our village office was mysteriously closed, presumably by our Treasurer and President. No one else had been informed of the closure or given an explanation, including the DPW department. The office remained closed on Monday. Because of the self-interest of a few and the obliviousness of many, very little has been done to solve this very real financial crisis for over a decade. My agenda is this: I want our public beach access to remain public. We have very little in the way of saleable assets in the Village. We do, however, have some other possible cost-cutting solutions, and we have for years: cutting office staff hours. Our office is staffed at 64 hours per week—two office workers with full benefits. This is an outsize amount of staffing for a community of our size, and many of our residents have expressed concerns about this for some time. It’s no coincidence that our staffing has not been cut during the presidency of Reggie Manville, who is married to our Village Treasurer. At our August council meeting, Reggie voted no on a proposal to have our employees pay 20% toward their health insurance benefits. The proposal was defeated. At our October special meeting where emergency measures began to be discussed, he had the gall to claim that his vote in August was “in an entirely different context.” Our general fund deficit has been THE context since 2003.

  3. But again, THANK YOU for this article and your attention. I will be following this site. I just learned of it today.

  4. As a Village Trustee in Honor (similar size) I am appauld that you folks allow your elected officials staff your village office @64 hours a week and paying full benefits. In Honor, our village clerk works 15 hours a week for $9,000 a year and gets the job done!

    It sounds like you have a local government out of control. Follow the money and you will find the source of your problems. If you need to do a recall (which I strongly suspect you do) email me @ rodzikden@yahoo.com for help. I am a national political consultant in the petitioning business and I can direct you on how to do this.

    Stand up or you will lose your village! Go to your Twp which has a hugh budget surplus and demand help because you are paying Twp taxes and getting nothing in return from them! Wake Up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  5. Bill Ward says:

    I am a trustee in the village of Honor and strongly recommend ignoring any advice offered by our current Village President. He has publicly stated his desire to bankrupt the Village and threatens that the state will impose Emergency management, a scare tactic he apparently knows very little about. His apparent philosophy is to avoid paying taxes and let the next residents deal with the consequences.

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