December 20, 2014

Former Au Gres mayor and county supervisor speaks on his time in public service

Kevin Bunch
Christian Miller was the mayor of Au Gres, as well as the city's representative on the county's board of supervisors, during the 1960s.

By Kevin Bunch
Staff Writer | news@arenacindependent.com
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Au GRES — When Christian Miller moved up from Saginaw at the age of nine to Arenac County, he started on a path that would lead him to a decade of public service.

Miller, 87, said he had his first brush with public service in 1959, when he was approached about take a position on the Arenac County Board of Supervisors.

The board of supervisors was the predecessor to the current Arenac County Board of Commissioners, Miller said. Unlike the current system, where five commissioners are elected from districts throughout the county, each municipality appointed their own representative to the supervisor board, with Standish sending two. In total, Miller said the board consisted of 18 people.

“The previous supervisor, Gus Badour, was a friend of the mayor of Au Gres,” Miller said. “He talked me into it, as he was resigning. I decided to get into small-town politics.”

The city council appointed him to the seat, and so began Miller’s five-year tenure on the board, with his primary duty being assessing property values.

“Back then, you didn’t need to be certified to be an assessor like you are now,” Miller said. “They wanted you to be knowledgeable about homes and carpentry, and know about assessing.”

Miller had been working at the Au Gres-Sims school as the head custodian, where he said he did everything but heavy electrical wiring, so he was well versed in plumbing and carpentry when he went into the job. Additionally, he said he was already working as an assessor for Au Gres at the time.

“We had it harder than the people do now in one sense: we wrote out the township tax rolls by hand,” Miller said. “Some of them had help, but I did all of my own by myself.”

Help or no, Miller said people still made mistakes. The job required a lot of checking properties against similar ones, and one time, while doing just that, he found some other properties in the county did look like they were assessed properly.

Miller said he went to the county clerk’s office and sent a complaint to Michigan’s tax commission along with his findings, leading to a countywide spot check by the commission.

The tax commission found issues across the entire county, including Au Gres. Most municipalities were undervalued by 25-50 percent, Miller said, while Au Gres Township was undervalued by a full 90 percent.

“It brought in a lot of money for the schools,” Miller said. “Some members of the community were upset, but most understood the supervisors weren’t doing the job they were supposed to be doing.”

His fellow board members were not all pleased with the spot check, or him once they learned he was the one who sent the message.

“The board was piqued at me too, once they found out I called it in,” Miller said. “We would meet at Culver’s Bakery for lunch during meetings… one day when I got back I found a hangman’s noose on my seat. I never found out who put it there.”

Miller said budgeting and allocation was always something that produced a lot of arguments, but ultimately the county always ran in the black during his tenure on the board.

“Today, a lot more is demanded,” Miller said. “People want more money for things.”

The supervisors also oversaw the construction and move into the current county courthouse, which officially opened in 1964. Miller said the previous courthouse, while nice, was a multi-story affair that left them walking on stairs constantly with old, poor heating systems.

“When we went out of the old courthouse to the new one, we thought we had it made,” Miller said.

In 1964, Miller left the board to focus on running for the mayorship of Au Gres, a position he served in off and on since 1960. In total he spent seven years as mayor of the city over the course of the decade, he said, back when it was a specific position elected yearly. After a revision to the charter, the city council now appoints one of their number to the mayorship.

Miller said as mayor, the biggest controversy he had to deal with was the removal of an old bridge on Michigan Avenue to make way for a harbor project.

“It was spearheaded by a man named Ted Pendred,” Miller said. “He was the one who came up with the idea for the harbor, slated originally for Sims Township.”

While the idea of the harbor was generally popular, Miller said it was impossible to put in without getting rid of the bridge, which left residents on the eastern side of the city cut off outside of the US-23 bridge.

The result was a city divided, first in opinion and then geographically, after the bridge was removed. This divide extended even to the city council, where the mayor served as a tie-breaking vote.

“We had to purchase property for the marina to be built, and it was a 2-2 vote in the council,” Miller said. “I had to vote for it as the tiebreaker, and I voted for the marina.”

From there, Miller said the city had to go through the court system to get approval for the bridge removal.

“We petitioned to have the bridge pulled, and we had to go to the court to present our case,” Miller said. “The court approved it.”

This was followed by another 2-2 council vote to have the bridge officially brought down and the marina constructed, where Miller once again cast the tiebreaking vote.

Miller paid the price for his votes, losing to Gilbert O’Connor in 1961 by only 2-3 votes, he said. By that time, however, the marina project was underway, so Miller said he did not feel the need to run for office again until three years later, when he handily defeated O’Connor.

“Everyone was seeing the harbor project come together,” he said.

The project had an effect on his own livelihood, however, as the loss of the bridge cut the number of customers coming to his general store on Michigan Avenue from Point Au Gres, Miller said. The store ultimately closed in 1977.

By the time the store had closed, he had finally retired for good from AGS, doing so in 1974. Miller said pay was an issue, believing his work was worth more than they were able to pay him, particularly since he had a family to provide for. Miller said he was only 53, and decided to take up work in Bay City where he could put his plumbing, heating, and other skills to work. He worked there for years before retiring again in 1986.

Since then, Miller said he has kept busy assisting the owners of a car wash in Au Gres. He also published a small book about his life some years back at the behest of his family.

“I’ve had a few jobs, but was never out of work,” Miller said. “Some people were born to go into the shop and spend 30 years there before retiring, but that’s not for me.”

Miller said he believed that he was the last surviving member of the Arenac County Board of Supervisors, though he holds out hope there are still a few others he could get in touch with and catch up.

“I don’t regret any of it,” Miller said. “It was quite an experience, and I’ll never forget it.”

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