The battle over how many employees there should be in the St. Clair Township Road Department moved into a courtroom on Friday.
St. Clair County Associate Judge Julia Gomric heard arguments about whether the St. Clair Township Board was allowed to change the budget presented by Highway Commissioner Skip Kernan.
Kernan wanted a budget with enough money allocated to pay five employees during the 2016-17 fiscal year. Trustees, wanting more money to go into road projects, decided to approve a road district budget with enough money for 3.5 employees.
Kernan asked for a judge to issue a temporary restraining order against the township trustees after attempts to amend his budget failed and after a township meeting where an overwhelming amount of those in attendance said they wanted five employees.
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James Williams, the attorney for Kernan, wrote that having five employees is a safety issue for Kernan.
“Mr. Kernan exercising his statutory authority, is of the opinion that he needs five full-time employees to properly maintain the roads and bridges in St. Clair Township.”
Williams argues the township and road district are two separate governmental entities, under state law.
“A unit of government with budgetary oversight over another unit of government must not voluntarily undertake the task of both proposing a budget and also approving the same budget,” Williams wrote. “For this reason, the Township board is not authorized to substitute and implement its own budget in place of the highway commissioner.”
Williams argues the board of trustees could only approve or reject the highway budget, under state law, and cannot draft a budget for the road district.
During his argument on Friday, Williams said the township board’s aim was to reduce the highway department’s workforce.
Williams said the board can only vote to approve or disapprove a budget, but not make modifications.
He put forward a scenario where the board could zero out each line item and only allocate money for office supplies, leaving no money for road salt, snow removal or fixing pot holes.
“Moving money from employees fund to the road fund completely takes away his ability to exercise his judgment,” Williams said. “They’re trying to deter my client’s ability to do his job.”
In a brief to Gomric, Brian Funk, attorney for the township trustees, argued the trustees had the right to change the highway department budget under state law.
“It gives the board the absolute authority over the road district’s budget and allows the board to modify ‘any part’ of the tentative budget it ‘deems necessary,’” Funk wrote.
Funk said if the trustees could only approve or reject entire line items, as is suggested by the Kernan, then the board would be forced to make all or nothing decisions.
He even said the legislature intended for trustees to have control over the road district budget.
Funk argued state law says the township board is allowed to approve a budget or any part of the budget and said the legislature’s intent was to allow the final decision on budget to be made by board members.
During the hearing, Funk said Kernan wants the board to be a rubber stamp. If the board rejects a budget, then has the commissioner make changes, but still rejects it, it would lead to gridlock.
“The ability to determine the budget which includes modifying line items rests with the board,” Funk said.
Gomric did not make a decision on Friday, but said she hopes to issue a ruling within a week.
She said she knows the issue is important.
“The statute could have been clearer, but it’s not my job to criticize, it is to interpret,” Gomric said. “It is my intention to get it right.”