Stronach Township fights Kettle Hole assessment

Water in the ditch along Kettle Hole Road, seen here on Thursday afternoon, has slowed to a trickle. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

STRONACH TWP. — The bills for consulting and construction work on Kettle Hole Drain finally are coming due, and Stronach Township officials aren’t sure how long they can fight them.

“We are incurring additional expenses on a daily basis,” said township supervisor Phil Vadeboncouer, explaining that, every day that the debt goes unpaid, interest rates add between $5 and $6 to the total. “Are we going to continue to let (interest) accrue while we fight this thing off?”

Stronach Township Supervisor Phil Vadeboncouer

The bills sent out by Manistee Township Drain Commissioner Thomas R. Smith, who inherited the Kettle Hole project from former drain commissioner Mark DiBenedetto, assess both Stronach Township and Manistee County for $21,162. An additional $38,000 will be levied on the tax bills of residents of the Kettle Hole drainage district, which includes approximately 55 parcels on the east side of Kettle Hole Road in Stronach Township. Levies will be spaced out over a period of five to 10 years; assessment amounts vary from parcel to parcel.

Stronach Township Zoning Adminstrator Larry Thompson predicted that paying the assessment will be difficult for residents.

“These people out here can’t afford it,” he said. “If their taxes go up, they will lose their houses.”

About 77 percent of the total project cost of $84,000 was consumed by engineering, design and legal consulting fees, according to figures provided by Smith. Actual construction costs were limited to $17,070 for a cement box culvert, which Manistee County Road Commission employees installed below Kettle Hole Road this spring.

The original project was much larger, calling for dredging of Claybank Creek and expansion of the ditches along Kettle Hole Road. Residents and township officials protested; DiBenedetto was defeated by Smith in the November election, and plans were scaled back dramatically.

Water levels in Claybank Creek and the ditches along Kettle Hole Road have fallen dramatically since that time, a change Smith attributes to the culvert.

Kettle Hole drainage district, located in a low-lying area in Stronach Township that chronically floods, was put in action by a vote of the road commission board in June 2010. The board adopted a resolution requesting the formation of a board of determination that would decide whether a drainage district was necessary. In October 2010, the board of determination created the drainage district, but that December, the road commission board voted unanimously to rescind the original resolution.

Smith is consulting legal counsel to determine whether the road commission board had the authority to disband the drainage district.

“If (the road commission board) had the authority to rescind the drainage district, then (the project) should have stopped,” said Smith. “If they don’t have the authority, then it just goes on.”

In April 2011, DiBenedetto took out a loan of $60,000 to start the work on the Kettle Hole project. The note was in the name of Manistee County, and DiBenedetto, acting as drain commissioner, was the sole signer, according to Manistee County Treasurer Russ Pomeroy.

DiBenedetto declined to comment for this story.

Pomeroy said that the funds from the loan were transferred directly to the treasurer’s office and deposited in the county’s bank account. DiBenedetto submitted invoices to the treasurer’s office or the county controller/administrator. Large bills were reviewed by the county board before they were paid, but small bills might have been paid before receiving board approval, according to Pomeroy, who explained that the county treasurer and controller/administrator often pay small bills immediately.

“You can have a lot of small bills that might seem insignificant but eventually add up to a large amount,” he said.

Manistee County Controller/Administrator Tom Kaminski said that DiBenedetto didn’t consult the board of commissioners before taking out the loan.

“I, at first, was kind of upset about it,” said Kaminski. “I thought (DiBenedetto) couldn’t do that without county board approval. But he can, under the drain code. He didn’t do anything illegal. He ran everything through legal counsel.”

In August 2011, the board of commissioners approved a resolution requesting that DiBenedetto cease work on the Kettle Hole Drain project immediately.

In other areas of the state, drain commissioners have staff and large budgets. However, Manistee County’s drain office traditionally has been small, with limited scope and budget. In Kaminski’s long career as controller/administrator in Manistee County, he recalls only two other county drain projects. Still, Michigan law gives drain commissioners extensive authority, he said.

In Stronach Township, which has a total annual budget of $372,000, officials want to fight the assessment, but fear that the legal fees involved will be prohibitive. They are angry with both the former drain commissioner and the county board.

“The board of commissioners didn’t do its job,” said Thompson. “They let a guy take off and do what he wanted, and now the people are answering for it.”

Vadeboncouer argued that since the note is in the county’s name, the county should pay for it.

“Stronach Township’s contention is that the Manistee County Board of Commissioners took out a loan unbeknownst to us, and we don’t feel obligated to pay it back,” he said.

Leave a Reply