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Ottawa Co. commissioners hold public hearing on proposed budget, hold off on approving $769k early voting plan

The meeting was one of only two left in Sept. ahead of deadlines for both the county budget and clerks' early voting plans.

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — Ottawa County Commissioners took up a number of financial issues on Tuesday ahead of deadlines for many county officials.

One issue was changes to the proposed county budget for 2024 – a process that has been mired in controversy as proposed cuts from the county's Department of Public Health original request have caused concern.

The $13 million health budget proposal would include upward of $2 million less in general fund contributions than the department originally requested.

"COVID-19 did not just bring a virus," Dr. Kurt Lindberg said. "It also brought an increase in substance use, mental health crises, opioid overdoses and sexually transmitted infections - all of which are still occurring today at a higher rate than in 2019. The health care community depends on the Department of Public Health to help address these concerns."

Other members of the public agreed with commissioners' efforts to reduce the department's budget, which they have asserted have been meant to return it to pre-COVID levels.

"Government doesn't solve problems; they just create more," Donna Mooney of Georgetown Township said. "What is the problem with trimming our budget back to pre-COVID levels?"

While reductions have been adjusted in recent weeks and are not as severe as what was originally requested of the health department by County Administrator John Gibbs, county Health Officer Adeline Hambley has continued to assert that the new numbers could reduce the quality of services and, given inflation and a growing county, do not accurately reflect pre-COVID levels.

Under new budget proposal numbers, certain health programs would see reductions from the department's original request, including the Miles of Smiles dental program that was brought up by multiple public commenters.

A copy of the budget proposal included in the meeting materials slated the program for a $118,440 reduction from what was originally proposed.

More than 40 people took part in the first public comment. However, it wasn't just the health budget that brought concern.

Another topic that loomed large was an item not on the agenda: approval of the county's early voting plan.

The need for the plan was prompted by the passage of Proposal 2022-2 during Michigan's midterm elections last November, which outlined new requirements for all jurisdictions including that all voters have access to 9 days of early voting ahead of statewide and federal elections.

Ottawa County's plan, meant as a cooperative, singular effort from all of the county's municipalities, is one that the county clerk has said would save roughly half a million dollars as opposed to a scenario in which municipalities would handle the new requirements on their own.

Multiple local clerks spoke during Tuesday's public comment, urging commissioners to put the plan to a vote.

"I was a little discouraged to see that the early voting and the election asks were removed from today's agenda," Allendale Charter Township Clerk Jody Hansen said. "Much like it's your budget season, it's our budget season too and that's the case for a lot of us local jurisdictions."

While a discussion on the plan was held, a motion to take a vote to approve it was struck down.

Some commissioners said holding off on a vote was meant to allow for more discussion on issues including watermarking all ballots and securing drop boxes.

"Part of the reason we want to take a look at a few more details is so that, if by chance something happens and there are questions about the election, that we will have known that we have taken care of every single detail," Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea said.

Amid questions, County Clerk Justin Roebuck worked to assure leaders and the public that measures would be taken to secure the early vote.

"I'm not operating so that you can trust me," Roebuck said. "I'm building a system here in place that we need integrity to trust the whole thing, right, because we have so many checks and balances in this process."

The commission has one more full board meeting on Sept. 26 ahead of deadlines both to get the county budget finalized by October 1 and have local clerks submit their early voting plans to the county.

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