Mecosta County Drain Commissioner coordinates emergency repairs

EXPANDED CAPACITY: The new culvert of the Willmer Drain is large enough to permit the passage of a full-grown man. The increased size of the culvert is intended to prevent further washouts of Indian Village Road. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

EXPANDED CAPACITY: The new culvert of the Willmer Drain is large enough to permit the passage of a full-grown man. The increased size of the culvert is intended to prevent further washouts of Indian Village Road. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

GRANT TWP — It’s very rare for Mecosta County Drain Commissioner Jackie Fitzgerald to use emergency authority. But when the need arises, a drain commissioner has far-reaching influence.

A new drainage district has been created as the result of just such a need, and the residents of Grant and Green townships who live in the new Willmer Drain Drainage District will be responsible for the cost of a culvert and road repairs for the next three years.

A washout on Indian Village Road in Grant Township was reported to Fitzgerald on July 10. The road is privately owned, so the Mecosta County Road Commission is not responsible for its maintenance. However, the drain commission is responsible for maintaining 39 drains across Mecosta County, including repairing damage to roads caused by malfunctioning culverts. Before Fitzgerald could make any repairs, she had to determine if the damage was in fact the result of the failure of a county drain, she said.

“I knew there was a drain in that vicinity,” she said. “Every time a plat book comes out we highlight our drains to the best of our ability.”

The exact locations of the county-maintained drains aren’t always clear. The Willmer Drain was originally constructed in 1905, Fitzgerald said. Normally, the exact location of utilities can be found through the use of a graphic interface system, which uses GPS and other data to generate a map, Fitzgerald said.

“We have a graphic interface system now, but for older utilities we don’t,” she said. “Everything is hand drawn and not to scale.”

After further investigation, Fitzgerald found the damage to Indian Village Road was the result of failure of the Willmer Drain, a ravine and culvert draining toward the Muskegon River. The washout of the road posed a potential danger for drivers. If an accident were to occur as the result of a malfunctioning drain, property owners in the historic drainage district could be held responsible for any resulting damages, Fitzgerald said.  The road commission permitted the use of its barricades to prevent any accidents, since originally the washout was marked only with cones, she added.

“I had to block it off,” she said. “The chance of somebody coming in at nighttime and falling into the ravine was real.”

To maintain the appropriate water levels in the county, a drain commissioner is permitted to spend up to $5,000 per mile of drain for repairs without any prior authorization. The Willmer Drain is only about 530 feet long, so the usual allotment for repairs would not have been sufficient, according to Fitzgerald. In order to fund the repairs, which cost approximately $27,000, an engineering assessment was made of the surrounding area and the official drainage district for the Willmer Drain was changed to reflect the properties whose water flows through the drain. The new district did not include several of the properties in the historic drainage district which drain directly into the Muskegon, she said.

“The best thing to do is revisit these districts and try to make them correct by today’s standards – by the watersheds they encompass and the water they contribute to the drain,” Fitzgerald said.

Property owners in the new drainage district, which includes more than 1550 acres, will be responsible for the cost of the emergency repairs to the drain and the road, including the conversion from a 24-inch culvert to a 60-inch. The amount each property owner will pay is assessed based on the acreage of land drained. For some owners, the total three-year assessment is less than $70, resulting in a yearly payment of around $20. For others, who own around 75 acres in the district, the yearly payment is as high as $225.

Several property owners originally objected to the establishment of the district, which they felt did not accurately represent the use of the drain. Resident Bill Fuller intended to take the drain commission to court after nine acres of his property, located more than two miles away from the drain, were included in the assessment district.

“I contacted a lawyer,” Fuller said. “We were going to take it to court on principle.”

Fuller learned the drain commission’s far-reaching emergency powers essentially place the final decision on the part of Fitzgerald, who, as an elected official, is only responsible to the residents of the county. The official appeal period for the new drainage district concluded on, Oct. 10.

“The way the law is written, the drain commission has an ungodly amount of authority,” he said. “I didn’t mind risking $1,000 in legal fees to prove a point, but if it can’t be proved the point is moot. Ethically what happened wasn’t right, but legally it was fine.“

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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