BEAVERTON – Beaverton Fireplace talks moderator Scott Govitz hosted Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF) President David Kepler and Gladwin County Commissioner Joel Vernier last Sunday in an episode centered on the plans of the FLTF to bring water back to the empty lakes.
While much of the conversation was background information available on the FLTF website both Kepler and Vernier sought to assure those affected that the task force has been working hard to restore water to Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford lakes. Vernier estimated that over 8000 properties have been effected either by the failure of the two dams or by the drawdown that was ordered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the inspection of the Secord and Smallwood Dams.
The FLTF was instrumental in getting the Part 307 order that put in place the “Legal Lake Levels,” and special assessment district. They were within weeks of taking control of the dams when the flooding occurred back in May. They are now taking the lead role in the attempt to get the dams repaired and to restore those legal lake levels.
As background information, Kepler reminded the viewers that all of the dams were in need of repairs before the flooding. There was not enough spillway capacity on several to handle a Probable Maximum Flood and Boyce Hydro did not have the financial capability to make the necessary modifications and repairs. At 100 years old there were also some structural issues that needed to be addressed. The FLTF still plans to move forward with the acquisition of the dams. The new plan will now be much more expensive to implement.
The Edenville and Sanford dams will need to be rebuilt at a cost of $250-300 million. The initial estimates for the Smallwood and Secord dams are $14 and $24 million dollars respectively. While several of the lake communities are in better shape than others it is unlikely that the special assessment can cover all of this cost. Outside funding have become much more important. They are currently exploring many avenues for funding.
Kepler indicated that it is extremely important that a plan be put in place by the first quarter of next year. If not the state can impose additional requirements that can slow the process down considerably. The FLTF is working diligently to make sure that the deadline is met. The FLTF also wants to assure property owners that the whole process will be transparent. Annual reports including financial statements will be available on their website and they are working to keep the assessment itself as low as possible.
Gladwin County Commissioner Joel Vernier who is also a member of the task force discussed some of the financial ramifications for property owners and governmental entities. Currently taxes will not be lowered on the effected properties. Tax rates are set on a two-year window as of December 31. Due to the extenuating circumstances the Michigan Tax Tribunal can allow a one-year window. This will be used to evaluate properties for a possible reduction, which will not occur until next year. Once the taxes are lowered on a property they will not bounce back when the water is restored. The Headlee Amendment prevents this. Taxes can only rise 5% or the rate of inflation whichever is lower, in a given year. This will have a huge effect on governmental budgets for years to come.
Kepler also explained the difference between a tax assessment and a special assessment. Tax assessments are based on the value of the property and are constrained by the Headlee Amendment, special assessment are not. The special assessment will be based on the costs to acquire, repair and operate the dams and will be spread out based on a formula throughout the special assessment district. The more outside funds that can be obtained the lower the assessment will be.
Both Kepler and Vernier are confident that water will return to the four lakes involved, but it will not be a quick process. The engineering studies, permitting process and construction will take time. The dams in question are 100 years old and were built to different specifications than would be allowed today. No matter what the next phase entails, safety will be a priority.