GENESEE COUNTY — Clerk John Gleason said he will fight to lower, not raise, fees for vital records charged by his office.
Gleason called a press conference Aug. 19 in which he said he is opposed to raising the rates for vital records — like birth, death and marriage certificates — as a way to generate more revenue for Genesee County.
He also announced an online poll at www.gcclerk.com, where people could sound off about the rates and show their support or approval for the rates.
But it wasn’t long before Jamie Curtis, chairman of the Genesee County Board of Commissioners pulled the plug on the site, saying Gleason did not have the right to use the county website for a “political ploy.”
Gleason told the media Monday morning he thinks the county’s rates for vital records — the fourth highest in the state — are gouging the public, often times hurting the poor and elderly who cannot afford to pay for records they need.
He wants the fees rolled back to 2010 levels after rising to $25 for certified copies and $10 for non-certified copies this year. He said the rate increase has created a surplus in his department and he objects to that money being rolled in the general fund.
Gleason said he would like to see certified copy fees lowered to $15 and non-certified to $8.
“This is illegal,” said Gleason. “It’s taking taxpayer money and using it for a purpose it was not intended for.”
Curtis said this is not true, adding marriage license funds specifically go to the general fund, all other rates can’t be higher than what the state allows, which Genesee County’s are not.
“We are not in violation of Bolt (vs. the State of Michigan), we are not in violation of the Headlee Amendment, we are not in violation of the state Constitution,” said Curtis. “We are in compliance across the board.”
Curtis said he and the commission have also not said they want to raise the rates higher, as Gleason has stated. He said it is an option to help defray future costs from what is anticipated to be a $1.6 million shortfall this year.
“Mr. Gleason’s department has 26 people. Revenues are down, the county commission has been in painstaking negotiations and both the commission and the unions have agreed its better to have a job than to not have a job. We have to provide services with the money we have coming in.”
Gleason argues he and his department see hard-luck cases often, citing an elderly woman who came into his office to get a birth, marriage and death certificate for insurance purposes on her deceased husband — costing her more than she could afford.
“Because the state mandates these things, I think we should offer certificates and copies at the lowest fees,” said Gleason.
Curtis said for Gleason to ask for what amounts to $500,000 in reduced revenue at a time when the county is struggling financially is wreckless and irresponsible.
“If we lost that revenue now, (Prosecutor David) Leyton would lose half of his prosecutors, the sheriff would see two floors of jail shut down, the courts would be stripped back,” said Curtis. “The fallout is no exaggeration with what Gleason is proposing.”
He said the county subsists on $45-46 million generated by taxable value of homes and property, but still maintains a $78-79 million budget, with most of the difference made up by federal and state grants and statutory revenue sharing.
Despite hardships, Curtis said the county has managed to raise its bond rating from A to A-plus, but it has taken the cooperation and teamwork of county government as a whole to get there.
“I’m very proud of this board, it has turned over three times since I’ve been here, but the commissioners take their jobs seriously,” he said. “The days of a slap on back and throwing money at a problem are over.”
Curtis said the commission does not intend to raise the rates, but it also is not likely to entertain Gleason’s reduction of fees. He said the finance committee was expected to hear Gleason’s request Aug. 21, but results were not available at press time.
Gleason and the commissioners have not seen eye-to-eye since he took office in January, having fought previously over staffing cuts. He said he has repeatedly asked the commission to sit down with him and discuss the issues.