BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Continuing budget deficits loom as Grand Traverse County's biggest challenge, county board hopefuls agree, but candidates in three contested races are also highlighting their personality and philosophical differences.
Green Party candidate Tom Mair said incumbent Republican Christine Maxbauer causes "rifts" among the board and staff with her aggressive style, while Republican challenger Ralph Soffredine maintains he's more "tightly wrapped into the community" than incumbent Ross Richardson.
Richardson, the first Democrat to serve on the board in two decades, faces a full-out push by area Republicans to recapture his District 5 seat in the county's only Democratic leaning district.
Soffredine, Traverse City's long-serving former police chief, serves on 13 different boards and commissions since his retirement, including a seat on the Traverse City Commission he'll have to resign if elected.
Richardson forced Soffredine and Garfield Township trustee and Republican activist Molly Agostinelli to resign from the county Department of Social Services Board in 2009 when he discovered they were serving illegally due to their elected positions.
Soffredine at the time referred to Richardson as "lower than a snake" for not coming to him first, but both candidates deny it's created any personal animosity.
"I don't know why Ralph is running, it seems like on most major issues he is following my lead," Richardson said. "I think I've brought an independent voice to the commission that desperately needed one."
But Soffredine said in two years Richardson hasn't led on anything other than a proposal to have the county take over the city senior citizen center, which the two worked on together.
"He's a liberal and I'm a conservative," Soffredine said. "I have more experience than he does in budgeting, government, and knowing this community."
Yet the two candidates agree on several major issues facing the county.
Both are willing to use some fund balance to avoid drastic cuts in services, and favor eliminating drop-off recycling bins but not the rest of the county's recycling services.
Both oppose county funding of the septage plant because it taxes those on sewers and takes away money the county may need to maintain services in the future. They both prefer users pay for the plant, though Soffredine said a loan would be appropriate if the plant could pay it back in the future.
Mair, who lost to Maxbauer in 2008 by almost 40 percentage points to represent the west side of Traverse City and northwest end of Garfield Township, said the big difference between the candidates is personality.
"Christine's had a good run and I agree with a lot of things she's done,... but I think it's time for a different approach," Mair said. "My personality is different. I treat people respectfully."
Mair cited one example as Maxbauer's challenge to the county board to televise its meetings. He would have worked more with the community to accomplish the goal.
"The board would have come along, but maybe more slowly," he said.
Maxbauer personally videotaped board meetings and ran them on public access television. She sued the board for violating the Open Meetings Act when it dissuaded her from taping a board retreat.
Maxbauer disputed the accusation she doesn't get along with fellow commissioners, but said sometimes you have to push to accomplish your goals.
"When fellow commissioners tell you televised meetings will occur 'over their dead body' you have to push the issue," Maxbauer said.
The board currently televises and podcasts all of its meetings live and keeps an archive of past meetings on its web site.
Maxbauer said the biggest issue facing the county is its budget and how the board addresses falling revenue. She said the board needs to cut more now by eliminating programs that offer the least value to residents.
Mair said the fairest way to trim the budget is by percentage cuts across the board, but would spare cuts that reduce the number of sheriff's deputies.
He called it a mistake for the county to eliminate the drop-off recycling bins from the county and would have liked to see one downtown.
Maxbauer said the bins were expensive - $330,000 a year - and inefficient. She favors county-wide curbside recycling.
Republican candidate and Tea Party activist Jason Gillman ousted board incumbent Bruce Hooper in the primary race for District 1 that includes all of Peninsula Township, Traverse City north of East Front Street, and East Bay Township north of Hammond Road and west of Four Mile Road.
Democrat candidate Bernie Soutar lost to Hooper in 2008 but believes voter dissatisfaction, his "moderate" position and an earlier start to his campaign will allow him to capture the Republican-leaning district.
The candidates differ on their approaches to the county budget and how to address the septage plant.
Gillman wants to open the budget up and evaluate every county program. He opposes further use of the county's fund balance, thinks the county should delay capital projects and proposes to roll parks and recreation operations into the facilities department.
"I tend to be more conservative, and would look at whether or not a particular program is providing any real value to the community," Gillman said.
Soutar proposes no specific cuts, but said the county needs to find other savings before laying people off.
"I look at the big picture, and the most critical thing is to keep money flowing in this community, and to me that means keeping every job you possibly can," Soutar said.
Soutar opposes using the county fund balance to bail out the septage plant. He said the high treatment cost causes people to delay pumping and increased the number of septic system failures. He proposes mandatory pumping every five years and an annual fee, which would lower the cost to pump.
Gillman said the county should try to privatize the plant and look at using a nearby rail line as a way to import waste for treatment.
Coming Sunday: Two city proposals could reshape the future of Traverse City Light & Power.