Taxpayers footing bill to fix Coldwater River work

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HASTINGS, Mich. (WOOD) — Some residents along a Barry County stream were outraged when a government contractor cleared trees from the banks, comparing the scene to a war zone.

Now, the residents have learned they’ll have to pay for the cleanup — a property tax bill that, for some, is more than $1,000.

“I feel like I’m charged for the mistakes that the Intercounty Drain Board and the drain commissioner of Barry County made,” said Terri Geiger, who lives along the Coldwater River.

The river is part of the Little Thornapple River Drain, which flows from Jordan Lake toward Hastings. Residents along the watershed said they got a surprise in their winter property tax statement — a bigger bill than expected to clean up a mess they didn’t make.

For the Geigers, it was just over $100 — more than double what they expected, especially for something they don’t think they should have to pay a penny for.

Minutes of a July 2015 Intercounty Drain board meeting show they were told they’d pay about $4.50 for every acre they own in the watershed. Instead, it’s more like $10.

“It is the principle,” Geiger said.

The bills are going out to owners of 23,000 acres in the watershed — a total of $220,000. Some bigger land owners will pay more than $1,000.

“Do you want someone to come on your property and destroy it and then tell you you have to pay to fix it?” Geiger said.

In 2014, the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Board approved limited tree and debris removal along nearly 14 miles of the drain. But it appears many more trees than ordered were removed, part of the river was dredged and some of the river’s banks are now bare earth – leading to worries about erosion.

The work was supposed to stop in December 2014 and only continue with approval from the entire drain board. But a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture said it appeared Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger approved additional work on his own.

The DEQ issued a violation to both the contractor and the drain commission and ordered the work along the river to be stopped.

Yarger has been paddling upstream since the debris removal, which was meant to ease flooding on nearby Jordan Lake.

On Wednesday, he said he had no choice but to bill adjacent residents for the cleanup.

“That’s the way the drain code works,” Yarger said. “I have to live and die by the drain code.”

When asked if mistakes were made, he said:

“As far as a drain project, that was done the way all drain projects are done,” he said. “But it hadn’t been done in 40-some years, so the trees were bigger, there were bigger trees that had to come down.”

The cleanup will cost Barry County farmer Randy Spitzler about $1,200. He owns 120 acres along the river. But he isn’t complaining — yet.

“It needed to be done,” he said, because it was prone to flooding. “I think they did an excellent job. Probably some of it wasn’t by the rules, which I don’t understand them all, but they did the best they could to clean it up.”

His only concern is how long it will take to finish the job, and how much more it will cost.

“I’m just concerned with what they’re going to do from here on on this restoration, because this could go on forever,” he said.

Yarger said his office is still negotiating with the DEQ over the cleanup. He said property owners should expect another bill next year, though it will be less than this year’s.

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