Public servant James Byers ends long run

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
James Byers will have Tuesday nights free come 2016. He spent many evenings in the board room of Antrim Township over the past two dozen years.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

James Byers experienced both during his 24 years as Antrim Towship supervisor. He was elected to the post in 1991, and served for four six-year terms.

Now 55, he opted to enter politics as a young man.

“I’ve always wanted to be involved in government,” he said. “It is people’s responsibility to be involved in the local community.”

Self-employed in the construction industry, Byers was encouraged to run for the board by supervisor B.J. Roberts Jr. and others. The slate of candidates included incumbent Elwood Myers as a write-in, Byers and Bob Whitmore.Russell Shoemaker did not seek re-election. Byers and Whitmore were seated in January, to work alongside Roberts, Scott Diffenderfer and Larson Wenger. Paul Klinger was township manager at the time.

The issues

Through the years, a number of controversial agenda items surfaced. Citizens weighed in on the issues, and the supervisors had to take action. Though he met many good people and employees he otherwise would not have encountered, Byers said the job was not easy.

“You don’t please everybody, but you try to make the best decision with all the residents in mind,” he said. “You have to keep your emotions out of the decisions.”

He was proud of several accomplishments. Antrim had an eight mill real estate tax when he started. It dropped to four, and eventually was eliminated.

“I’m happy I was a part of that,” Byers said.

There was also flak when the township ran a sewer line to Shady Grove, and the residents who were not on the public utility really protested. Opinions ran both ways when Antrim granted Mountain View Reclamation a landfill expansion permit. Listening to people during four nights of hearings was “tough”.

During the days of Planned Residential Development popularity, Antrim faced the potential of thousands of lots converted into housing. The citizens were not in favor of turning farmland into subdivisions.

“Nobody wanted any growth and they thought we had the power to vote no,” Byers said. “We must follow the township code, which is dictated by the state. And property owners have rights.”

The recession took care of the dilemma for the present, but several of the plans are still on the books.

The good and bad

His hardest vote came when Antrim Township Community Park was under consideration. Many people called Byers opposing the project, telling him not to get into the park business. Two supervisors favored the endeavor, two were against. Byers voted yes.

“I was the swing vote,” he said. “We needed to secure the land because we had taken over Martins Mill Bridge. I was willing to let the park take 50 years to complete. I never expected it to be developed so quickly and be as nice as it is.”

He enjoyed the professionalism of the employees through the years, especially crediting secretary Marie Myers with helping Antrim reach a balance of $21 million in the bank. During periods of inflation, she was good at investing money into CDs and other funds, shuffling the money around for the best interest rates, he said.

The ugly

There were also events that weren’t so fulfilling during Byers’ tenure.

“It was a very difficult time when six employees were let go. They were very good and faithful employees. It was based on a $30,000 study that was a joke,” Byers said.

On Aug. 21, 2008, board members Fred Young III, Rick Baer, Curtis Myers and Sam Miller terminated township manager  Ben Thomas Jr., utilities director Charles Goetz, utilities superintendent Larson Wenger, roadmaster Paul Barnett, assistant roadmaster Robert Wible, and finance secretary Eileen Strausner.

“I never had any idea they were going to do that that night,” Byers said. He was on vacation, and had notified the board earlier in the summer of his schedule.

The board had budgeted $15,000 for a “Management, Operations, Staffing and Spacing Needs Assessment and Plan” and hired Dhillon Management Services, Fullerton, Calif. in May, when Byers was absent. Dhillon’s report indicated the township would save $517,000 annually by following his proposals.

“Most of the recommendations in the study have never been followed through,” Byers said. “We bought more equipment when we were supposed to get rid of it. We have hired most of the positions back. It was a dark time for the township.”

The future

Time heals one way or another, and the soon-to-be private citizen is more optimistic today.

“It took a long time for the township to recover. Now things are going smoothly,” he said.

Byers’ flexible work hours were a bonus for Antrim. He was able to get into the office to sign payroll checks during the day, and could be available at other odd times. Like all of the supervisors, though, he sacrificed time with family to attend meetings, with the number increasing during budget planning, or when dealing with contentious issues. Overall, the service was rewarding, though.

“It’s been an awesome 24 years,” he concluded.