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Sand Lake drain upgrade to cost taxpayers $633,000

By Judy Reed

A simple petition to the Kent County Drain Commission has turned into a financial nightmare for residents in Nelson Township and the Village of Sand Lake.

The call to the Drain Commission a year ago by a property owner and his neighbor about sinkholes in their yard (which had been present for nearly 20 years) started a chain reaction that no one saw coming. According Drain Commissioner Ken Yonker, the clay tile was reportedly over 90 years old and had collapsed. In order to fix it, the Village of Sand Lake needed to petition the Drain Commission. A board of determination was then held by the Drain Commission back in February, and it was determined that the drain needed to be upgraded. What no one knew, until recently, was how much it was going to cost: $633,369.28.

That’s $415,490.08 to the special assessment district (residents); $19, 562.65 for Kent County Roads; $13,496.17 for Village roads; $101, 675 for Nelson Township at large; and $83,144 for the Village of Sand Lake at large.

A letter was recently sent out about a meeting on the assessments. Taxpayers were told they did not have to attend the meeting but could go online to see their assessment. While some may only pay a few hundred spread out over six years, others will have to pay much more. 

“Some people are being assessed $20,000, $40,000 and more,” said Nelson Township Supervisor Robyn Britton, who said she is heartsick for these residents. “People here live paycheck to paycheck. Many are farmers. People are going to lose their homes.”

One resident, Dean Wall, is being assessed $135,000 over the six-year period. When he looked at his assessment, he made a call to the Drain Commission about it, and then began asking his neighbors if they had looked at their assessments to alert them to what was going on. In a Zoom special meeting put on by Nelson Township Tuesday evening for questions and answers regarding the issue, Wall questioned Drain Commissioner Ken Yonkers. Yonkers then blasted Wall, accusing him of stirring up his neighbors.

“I’ve been getting feedback from people that you’re the one that’s angry and stirring everybody up and making a lot of false accusations and I’m letting everybody know. Number one, you were invited to bid this project. Number two, you’ve seen the design of this project, when you bid it you never made a comment about this being a poor design. You bid it. Number three, you didn’t get the job, then this whole thing flared up. And as this thing continues to flare up, that cost—that computation of cost—is going up. Every day, the attorneys got to deal with this thing, the cost is going up. And everybody—the calls I’ve gotten in my office—from people stirred up, your name is the one consistent name that keeps coming through.”

People in the meeting were surprised by Yonker’s outburst, and Supervisor Robyn Britton told him she was taken aback by his comment, considering they had only just got the numbers Thursday, and it was hurtful to tell residents the costs were going to keep going up if they complained.

“As an elected officer that is elected to represent the community he serves, that was embarrassing,” Britton told the Post. “It was shameful. He is not ‘hired’ to do this (as he said), he is elected. And he’s threatened the residents about the cost going up.

“Dean Wall had every right to talk to his neighbors,” she added. “He has lived and worked in this community all of his life. He had the right to ask his neighbors if they knew about this. Many of them don’t even have internet. He was the only one to let them know.”

According to information given by engineer John Moxie during the Zoom meeting, the drain is being upgraded to a much larger size to last another 50-100 years. “We don’t want to come back and have to do this every decade,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, the Nelson Township board made a motion to pursue an appeal, but it failed. “They didn’t want to spend money on something they felt would fail, based on past experience with the drain commission,” she said.

Britton said she doesn’t think the residents who made the complaint had any idea the effect it would have. In fact, a former Sand Lake Village board declined to do a petition, after finding out what it would entail. 

“I’m worried about the single mother with four kids and a deadbeat dad who can’t afford another $700,” said Britton. “Or those on disability—a fixed income. And Resurrection Lutheran Church, they’ve been assessed $16,000. Churches don’t have any money,” she added.

For now, it doesn’t look like there is any way for residents to get out from under the assessment, but she would keep looking for ways to mitigate it.

The project would start sometime in 2021.

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