Brenda Moore, Muskegon County Drain Commissioner
The annual “Day of Review” for drain district boundary changes and assessments was rough this year! It was no picnic last year—my first in office. To sum up the input and frustrations I’ve heard from the public, township board members, and county officials; I would call it “culture shock”. We are—and have to—do things so much differently now. If I had to summarize the key issues (in order of frequency of comments) it would go like this:
· “When was this drain district created—I’ve never heard of it.”
Response: Most of the 100+ open channel ditches in Muskegon county were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s to facilitate property drainage for new development and agriculture. Many of these drains are merely altered creeks, so the drain in your district may look very much like a stream.
· “I’ve lived in my home for __ years and never had a drain assessment!”
Response: For most of the drains that have been worked on in the last several years we have found no formal record of assessments or major work for 30-40 years.
· “I don’t have flooding problems on my property so I should not have to pay an assessment.”
Response: (Respectfully) The rainwater and snow melt from your property goes somewhere. In a catastrophic rain or melt event, not all of the water soaks into the ground. It runs off to other properties, and (eventually) to the county drain. If you received an assessment you are in the watershed of the drain.
· “Why don’t the taxes I pay take care of drain work?”
Response: General fund tax dollars do not go to support county drain work. Any maintenance work has to be supported by a special assessment. The assessment process is outlined in the state Drain Code. Any work conducted from the drain office must be supported by special assessments placed on the properties in the district. General funds do, however, cover the salaries of our staff: myself, the deputy and a secretary.
· “How are assessments decided?”
Response: Local and county government pay a portion of the bill. There is no standard formula and percentages range from around 5% to over 45% around the state; depending on the specifics of the project. For property owners, it is generally based on acreage. In some counties property owners who engage in conservation practices can realize lower assessments. We are working toward this incentive in the future.
Please note that the only time a public notice must be given on an assessment is when the district boundaries are changed, when a petition is given to this office, or when apportionments (assigned percentages of cost) are changed. Maintenance assessments of under a certain amount do not require a notice, although we will make every reasonable effort to alert people of pending assessments in the future.
· “The ditch in front of my house is a mess. How can you charge me for maintenance when it is in such poor condition?”
Response: Although some road drains are also county drains most county Drain Commissioner drains run cross country. Most roadside ditches are maintained by the County Road Commission. Both entities are collaborating more to work together if we can, however, I have no authority to engage in work outside an established county drain.
· “We used to dig out the ditches ourselves.”
Response: Not only is that a bad environmental practice because random digging can cause more problems downstream, but in 2013 state environmental protection law was changed to require Drain Commissioners to get permits for their work from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Previous to that work in drains was not monitored. Private property owners now engaging in such work expose themselves to all kinds of liability and potential penalties under state law.
· “The work you are doing seems more expensive than ditch cleaning should be.”
Response: Certainly nothing is getting cheaper, but we are not digging the entire ditch line (creek) with a backhoe as was generally done in the past. That simply causes too much environmental damage. Much of our work now also comes under Michigan Department of Environmental Quality scrutiny and they often require “best management practices” as a condition of permitting our work. Now, rather than digging out trees by the roots and casting aside soil spoils we must stabilize waterway banks through a variety of means including seeding, blanketing steep slopes, and using rip rap. Also, engineering plans have to be provided to the state as part of the permit process. This includes survey work and ditch profiles. We are obligated to use “best management practices” to reduce environmental impact and protect water quality. The state decides if the proposed environmental conservation practices are appropriate.
Even with routine maintenance we are selectively trimming trees, and when we have to take trees out of the flow channel, they are “flush cut” rather than pulled out by the roots with heavy equipment. Leaving root systems in place helps keep the ditch bottom and banks in place. True, exercising more finesse does take more time and money in the short term—but doing things more carefully requires much less work and expense in the long term.
· “We never receive notice of the work being done and we had no time to plan for the extra expense.”
Response: Point well taken! Because the Drain Office has easements and right of access to work on the drains, notice may not have been provided in the past. During my tenure, we alerted property owners along the drain and the supervisors of each township but, truthfully, we can do better.
In the future, unless there is a need for emergency work, we will send a letter to all property owners in the district before work is done to invite questions and input. We will also send a letter to the community and a press release to the local paper. In some cases a town meeting may be in order. Information on all pending projects will also be posted on our website.
· “Some people will have a hard time paying the assessment!”
Response: The Drain Commissioner has the option of spreading an assessment over time, or assessing smaller amounts to build up a reserve for future maintenance work. The amount that can be “built up” is limited by the law and all funds are dedicated and held in a special account for each district. Based on comments heard at this year’s “Day of Review” some of the assessments will be spread over two years. Others will be lowered to collect less “set-aside” money, but that means catching up with maintenance backlogs will take longer.
For more information about drain office operations call us at 724-6219 or see www.co.muskegon.mi.us/drain