BY MATT MACKINDER
Clarkston News Editor
Susan Bisio has been embroiled in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit with the City of the Village of Clarkston since 2015.
She was recently offered a $35,000 payout from the city, but her attorney and husband, Richard Bisio, would not go into detail, saying, “$35,000 is not a settlement amount. As of now, the case is not settled. I anticipate discussions will continue.”
On her website ClarkstonSecrets.com, Susan Bisio recently condemned the Clarkston government for what she called “fiscal irresponsibility.”
“It’s August 24, 2020, and the city council had just learned that we owed $98,921.06 to Independence Township, and they knew they had $57,165 from the four SAD (Special Assessment District) closeouts sitting in the general fund,” Bisio wrote. “Taxpayers Robyn and Cory Johnston suggested applying the money to the $98,921.06 bill from Independence Township. Taxpayer Chet Pardee suggested that the money be used on road maintenance.
“Did they do that? Of course not. Silly you for even thinking that they would. You should know better by now. So what did they do instead? They decided to spend $33,000 on signs.”
Bisio also wrote having residents pay for the city hall and DPW expansion last year was something “most of us didn’t want.”
“I personally believe that our city government avoided authorizing necessary repairs and maintenance on city hall to bolster the argument that the building needed to be expanded and updated in a major way,” Bisio said. “The first time that the city council tried to push the city hall/DPW expansion through, the taxpayers revolted with a petition signed by 116 residents, emails to city council members, a lawn sign campaign, and two mass mailings sent to Clarkston residents that were financed by concerned citizens.
“That first proposal failed. The second time, the project was repackaged as a ‘community project’ and shoved through quickly, despite the city council members knowing that the taxpayers didn’t want our money spent this way.
“The city manager and city council claimed that with donations of labor and materials from local businesses (the ‘community’ aspect of the project), they could accomplish the rebuild for $300,000 – even though it admittedly would have cost only $48,000 to do the repairs that were necessary, something the city manager characterized as the ‘do nothing option’ during his community project marketing presentation. (FYI, the $300,000 didn’t include, for example, $24,557.01 in interest, the salaries that we paid DPW employees to work on the project rather than other things, professional fees, the $50,000 driveway that we just put in excluding engineering charges, or the $46,363.11 that they wasted trying to unsuccessfully push the first city hall/DPW expansion project through).”
With regards to the Bisio-Clarkston lawsuit, the settlement agreement is still in process and we are not at liberty to discuss it,” said Clarkston City Manager Jonathan Smith. “We anticipate issuing a brief statement once the agreement is finalized.
With regards to social media (Bisio’s website), it is city policy to not respond to comments made in this forum. Residents or the general public wishing to ask a question of council or myself are encouraged to speak during public comments in a city council meeting or contact the city offices.”
Clarkston City Council member Sue Wylie would comment, however.
“I want to start by saying that I appreciate the honesty and hard work from city officials, such as City Manager Jonathan Smith, City Clerk Jennifer Speagle, DPW Director Jimi Turner, City Treasurer Greg Cote, and all other city employees,” Wylie said. “As Mrs. Bisio states in her post, city employees are underpaid, and I will add, underappreciated. Like all elected officials, I do not always agree with every decision from city council, but as a group we try make the best decisions we can based on the best information at hand.
“I did vote for the expansion, repair and updating of the city hall. Interestingly, I was one of the people who signed the petition to stop the planned expansion in 2016. I still have most of the ‘No DPW Expansion’ signs stored in my shed. I thought that project was too ambitious, and the cost was too high. I was aware that city hall required updating and improvements, but not as much as the original project called for. A facilities committee worked hard to develop plans for a scaled back project, and the inclusion of community project aspect provided a good alternative to bring about many of the desired changes at a lower cost.”
Wylie added among her concerns that were addressed by the final project included replacing the too-small meeting area with a larger room, replacing the staff’s cramped workspaces with expanded workstations and offices. Along with more space, the new work areas are now enclosed in a section that increases the security for the staff and their work.
Replacing the off-site, rented storage space with expanded storage areas meant for equipment and files that the city needs to maintain are stored on-site and a rental fee was eliminated. For years, Depot Park users raised concerns about the need for restrooms that would be available when the city offices were closed.
“Adding a new restroom accessible from an outside door, with a timed lock, improves the experience for park users, but last time I checked, COVID concerns prevented full implementation of this feature,” Wylie said. “I do not label the project as a fiasco. Yes, the project did cost the city more than the original $300,000 projection, but only repairing and maintaining the building did not address the concerns about how the building is used at this time.”
Bisio added that “every water and sewer bill that you’ve paid over the years was slightly higher than the actual costs for these services.”
“Your excess payments gradually accrued as surplus funds inside of the water and sewer accounts (they are two separate accounts). The purpose of having those pools of our money available is so that the city is able to pay for any necessary water and sewer-related expenses as they arise. So, it shouldn’t have been a problem to reimburse Independence Township for the $98,921.06 that we owed them out of our sewer fund.
“We didn’t have the money to actually pay for the ‘community project,’ so the city council raided, er, ‘borrowed’ from the surpluses in our water and sewer funds. And they didn’t just ‘borrow’ a little. They took the whole $300,000 out of the water and sewer accounts.
“While I appreciate the work that our city employees do and it frustrates me that they are underpaid, the primary reason that is the case is because the city manager and city council prioritized this very expensive ‘community project’ over everything else the city should be doing – including taking care of the people who handle the day-to-day city operations. They thought it was better to spend over six times more than would have been necessary to simply repair and maintain our city hall building.
Bisio said that now there is an emergency to use for the sewer funds, paying the city’s share of the repairs for the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor Drain, after Independence Township paid the city’s costs.
“In order to pay Independence Township the $98,921.06, the city has had to shift the internal ‘community project’ loans around, transferring the debt to the water fund so that the bill could be paid from the sewer fund,” said Bisio. “Taxpayers are now required to ‘reimburse’ the sewer fund, which means that your $117.42 quarterly sewer bill will increase to $162.02 for the next four payments (one year’s worth of bills), as discussed in the February 8, 2021 city council meeting. So you have to pay more for sewer service because the city effectively spent the money that was in the sewer fund on an unnecessary city hall expansion.”
“The city’s share of the costs to repair and update the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor Drain was unexpected,” added Wylie.
“Yes, we city officials should have been mindful of the potential of a future large expenditure to maintain our sewer system, and we should have anticipated that the future needs of surplus funds in the sewer account. When I voted in favor of borrowing money from the sewer fund for the city hall construction project, I should have asked more questions. I think we borrowed the funds and crossed our fingers in hopes that the money would not be required before the loan was repaid.”