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Ontonagon Council addresses financial woes

ONTONAGON — While the actors have changed over the years, the movie is the same. The Ontonagon Village Council has had different council presidents, and trustees since Aspirus took over the management of Ontonagon Memorial Hospital.

However when Aspirus became the owner of the hospital, the responsibility of the Municipal Employment Retirement System (MERS) financial obligation to past and some current employees remained the responsibility of the village of Ontonagon.

The amount of the MERS debt changes with whomever one talks too, but it is safe to say the debt is around $1,000,000. The total debt is not the only issue that is challenged from meeting to meeting, month after month. The other issue is whether it is solely the MERS responsibility for the village’s financial problem, or as one village taxpayer questioned, “is whether the village council and village manager spending more than the village has?’

“Looking at the new audit, you are now $2,503,643.00 in the red,” said Sue Lockhart. “Which is almost $700,000.00 over last year in the red. Going back to 2014 to 2020, that isn’t the MERS fault that wasn’t corrected.”

She also talked about the Villages Capital Assets.

“Capital assets that may be missing without the village’s knowledge,” she continued.

Lockhart also brought up a 2016 auditor proposal concerning “significant journal entries,” of which Lockhart stated that the auditor concern dealt with the village being exposed to “increased risk of miss-statements or miss-appropriation that may occur.”

In his president’s report, Tony Smydra talked about how the MERS financial responsibility is the main problem that the village has financially. Yet, Smydra stated in both his report and at the end of the meeting that the village will always protect the village’s financial responsibility to those receiving MERS funds.

“The village’s commitment to the employees that served the people of Ontonagon County, while working at Ontonagon Memorial Hospital (OMH),” Village Manager Joe Erickson said.

Erickson went on to say, “since OMH closed in 2007, the village has provided the additional funds needed by MERS for the pension obligation of those employees. The village continues to diligently work to ensure the commitments to the former OMH employees are met.”

“I’ve heard ‘scuttlebut’ on the street that the village is abandoning its commitment to MERS. This is not true,” Smydra said. “This will become a regular agenda item from now on, so we can stay on top of this.”  

It will be a topic at every meeting under “old business.”

The village has gone to the county board seeking financial help with the MERS debt from county residents. The Finance Committee met Thursday to prepare for the Jan. 19 county board meeting.

The council passed resolutions to turn the Fire Department Ad Hoc Committee solely into a formal committee, give the village manager the authority to be on all committees when a trustee cannot attend a committee meeting, and to specify who can be on the Greenland Road School Committee. Village resident Nancy Walker was appointed to the “at large” position on the Greenland Road School Committee.

The vouncil will hold a public hearing on the zoning amendment changes at the start of the Jan. 25 meeting. The Planning Commission passed on the zoning changes to the council. Dan Szymanski resigned his position on both the Planning Commission and the Blight Committee.

The council agreed to purchase an ad for the opening in those committee’s and the trustee position that was held by Jessica Huntzinger. Huntzinger never attended any council meetings since she was elected and to take the seat in November.

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