**Barry County Commissioner and chair Ben Geiger reported on the “State of the County” Tuesday. He gave a review of 2017 and forecast for 2018, with some personal insights into his philosophy of public service. The following is the speech:
“2017 was a good year across Barry County. As a county government, we are poised to have another great year in 2018. Our bond rating is strong. Our debt level is low. We’re working together. Our goals are set high.
But our success in the year ahead will not be measured in the number of programs we make, laws we pass, buildings we open or dollars we save. Rather, our success will be measured by the trust we have built and maintained here in Barry County. Today, state of the county is strong. And I’m here to share three ways we will remain strong in 2018: relevance, reflection and recruitment.
In 2018, the Barry County Board of Commissioners will continue attending to needs of the community. Since the last time I gave this address, the condition of our jail and our COA building have not improved. And a millage request to fix the latter was not approved. It will be challenging, but together we can find a funding plan for new facilities that both respect taxpayer dollars, and offer more than short-sighted Band-Aid solutions.
Second, we as a county government will help grow the community. Literally. Did you know industry experts say Michigan needs 25,000 new homes just to keep up with turnover demand? And did you know we're producing only 16,000 houses? That’s because there aren't enough places to build, and not enough workers to build them.
I am so proud of my fellow commissioners for doing their part by investing in skilled trades. By training Barry County students, we will build Barry County's future.
We must learn from the past in shaping public policy for the future.
Ten years ago, Barry and Eaton counties began a new program for well and septic inspections. A program called TOST. This is a bold policy, found only in a handful on communities across Michigan.
But ever since its inception, the program has divided and polarized residents on a topic that should unite us – clean water and less pollution. Now, after ten years of bickering, commissioners in both counties are seeking a fresh start. Last month we began the process to rescind this regulation, but not our desire for safe, healthy, prosperous communities. If we all seek cleaner water, if we all seek less pollution, let’s have a policy we all can stand behind.
In hindsight, we can see that strong public policy is built on strong public support. Not the other way around. From this day forward, we must remember if we demand higher standards of our residents we must demand higher standards of our leaders.
All officials, elected or appointed, must be able to defend and explain the programs they establish for the people they represent. If they cannot, or if they will not, then we will lose the public's trust once again. It's not wrong to maintain higher standards. It's wrong to think it's easy.
Only when we understand these leadership lessons, and resolve never to repeat them again, will we be able to adopt a sweeping program like this in the future.
In temperature and in politics, summer 2012 was brutally hot. I learned this campaigning door to door, in my sister’s purple car that didn’t have AC. So. on a cloudless July day, I pulled up to a ramshackle cabin in a damp, buggy swamp, less than enthused. When I knocked on the door, the shadow of tall, old man demanded I identify myself. I said “I’m Ben Geiger..” He said 'yes, my county commissioner.'
He extended his hand, and welcomed me into his home. After a few minutes sitting there on a harvest gold, plastic-wrapped couch, I garnered this was a man of little wealth, few visitors and limited days. The old man, with a smile on this face, peppered me with questions about everything.
He asked about goals, my aspirations, leadership, and how it felt to serve the public.
And when he ran out questions, the old man, still smiling longingly gazed out the window and shared seven words I’ll never forget. He said, “I always wanted to be a commissioner.” He said, “I always wanted to help my neighbors.” He said, “I always wanted to make a difference.”
Sometimes I think about that old man. Sometimes I wonder what he'd work on if he had one day in my shoes. He wouldn’t devote his day to politics. He’d devote his day to people.
As county leaders, sometimes our vision is limited. We’re too close for perspective. Sometimes our vision is limited.
That’s why it’s you we depend on, the people. Barry County has 26 boards, commissions and authorities that rely on citizen members. From encouraging recycling, to promoting parks, from protecting mental health to reviewing county finances, county government depends on more than 150 dedicated citizen appointees who don’t hold a title – but do hold a passion to serve.
For too long, we’ve viewed filling these positions more as a hassle than an opportunity.
That changes in 2018. Beginning next week, I will place before the board the components of a new recruitment strategy for our citizen boards. We must seek out new voices with energy, passion and heart.
We must seek people of all ages and backgrounds, who understand our rich history and strong institutions weren't built by a person who pushes their sole agenda; but by a team that pulls in the same direction.
Just imagine the possibilities when our best and brightest step forward in civic duty. Just imagine the possibilities when 150 public servants are handed the tools to make a difference. Just imagine the places they'd lead us. Just imagine this county, our home. With that, thank you for your time. Let's have a great year together.”