What does a drain commissioner do?

Make sure you know the job you’re voting for on Election Day.

On November 8, millions of Americans will head to the polls to cast their vote in the presidential election, as well as many other elected offices. For residents across Michigan, one of those offices will be the position of county drain commissioner, known in some counties as public works commissioner, or water resources commissioner.

My colleague, Darren Bagley, recently published a series of Michigan State University Extension news articles looking at the number of elected positions Michigan residents vote for in an election cycle. The number will probably shock you. This article is part of a series that will take a specific look at some of the lesser-known offices that we vote for in Michigan.

While the drain commissioner is an often forgotten elected official, they are the one elected official in Michigan that can levy taxes and borrow money without a vote of the people or approval from the county commission or state legislature. This fact led former Shiawassee County Drain Commissioner Robert Tisch to say that the drain commissioner is more powerful than the governor.

Historically, Michigan had a lot of land that was too wet for farming or building. Although wetlands have many benefits for wildlife and the environment, they are not ideal for construction or crops. Without a good drainage system, land could not be developed. Deciding which areas of a county were drained first, or drained at all, would financially benefit the property owners in those areas and could be a very politically charged decision. About 75 percent of Michigan’s original wetlands have been drained.

The job of the drain commissioner is to oversee the county’s drains. In Michigan, this can be a natural or artificial creek or ditch or a pipeline for carrying storm water. The territory served by a specific drain, known as its watershed, is organized as a drainage district. It is in these districts that the commissioner levies tax assessments and directs construction or maintenance of drains and culverts. Most counties have many drainage districts.

The authority to levy taxes comes from the Michigan Drain Code of 1956, which authorizes drain commissioners to assess the cost of drain work to land owners in the drainage district. In addition to levying taxes, the drain commissioner is also responsible for general management of drainage districts, including keeping historical, financial and easement records, requiring permits for activities affecting the drain, responding to service requests, and scheduling maintenance.

Drain commissioners are also responsible for administering Michigan laws related to flood protection, storm water management and soil erosion. The role they provide is often overlooked, until there is a crisis. If a drain gets clogged near your property and your home is flooded because of it, the important work they do becomes immediately clear. In some counties, the commissioner is also responsible for drinking water and sanitary systems in the county.

Given the highly technical nature of the position and the specific knowledge and skills a drain commissioner requires to perform their job, some have asked whether the drain commissioner should even be an elected position, or whether it should be converted to an appointed position. Michigan is one of few states that elect drain commissioners, with the exception of Wayne County, which has an appointed drain commissioner. The Michigan Drain Code also allows counties with a population under 12,000 to eliminate the office of drain commissioner and transfer the powers and duties of the office to the county road commission. 

So, when you vote on November 8, don’t forget to vote for drain commissioner, and think about all the responsibilities of this office when making your decision. Also, consider whether you think this should be an appointed or elected position.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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