Q&A with Isabella County administrator/controller, Nicole Frost

With over 100 years of public service in her immediate family, Nicole Frost has personally been working in county government for about 25 years. Her first career in county government was within the parks and recreation sector, and it's there she fell in love with public service. As her career progressed, she held county administrator roles for both Gratiot County and Dickinson County. Then, Frost returned to the lower peninsula and became clerk and treasurer for the city of Imlay City to expand her knowledge. From there, she returned to Isabella County and sat as a deputy county administrator controller, and when her predecessor retired “the board had enough faith in me to let me give it a try,” she shares. She’s under a three-year contract and just finishing up her first year as Isabella County administrator/controller. 

In this Q&A with Frost, discover an update on the new sheriff’s office and correctional facility being built in Union Township, and her hopes for what the building left behind may become.

Plus, the area could potentially have more curbside recycling pickup. Regionally, Isabella County could become a hub for recycling, and have a big statewide impact. Learn more about what’s in the works to make this happen.  

Epicenter: Nicole, what has your first year’s experience been like as county administrator/controller?
Frost: I think it's been busier than it would have been if I came from the outside. I think this first year has been making sure priorities align with the board and with our team, and we're doing a lot of long-term forecasting now.

Epicenter: Can you share some of that long-term forecasting?
Frost: We just entered an agreement with USDA on a 40-year loan agreement to build the new sheriff's office and correctional facility. It's about a $47.5 million project. So the great thing about this project is that we were able to secure with USDA a $41.5 million dollar loan – we've been working towards it for a couple of years. And we were able to lock it in at 2.125% for 40 years before all the interest rates started to go back up. We locked that in at the end of March 2022. And then that very next April 1, rates with USDA went up. 

The last time I ran the numbers, interest rates had risen so much it was going to cost the county at least $12 million more. 

It's hard to strap a community with a 40-year obligation when you're not going to be here to walk that last payment down to the bank. It's hard. But our current jail facility was built in the 1950s. There have been upgrades. But just last winter in March, one of the rooftop units failed that heats part of the building. The solution became that we ran a mobile unit to produce heat and move it to that part of the building. Then the sheriff had to move inmates because it'd be too cold in certain parts. So then we’d have a congregation of inmates, which is not best practice. You think about the expense and the logistics of transporting those inmates to another secure location for housing – that is just crazy. So everything kind of fell in place. We have a fantastic sheriff and a wonderful emergency management coordinator – that's our team here. 

So I’m excited and that's one of the bigger projects that we have going on.

Epicenter: What is the timeline for the new sheriff's office and correctional facility in Union Township?
Frost: We are hoping to break ground by the end of March. Although it's kind of a mild winter, so if all the approvals were to be in place – building permits and trade-permit approvals, site plan – then maybe they could start sooner. But the hope is the end of March. Substantial completion is December 5, 2024.

Epicenter: So this would be complete within your three-year term, correct? What’s going to happen with the current facility afterwards? 
Frost: Yes. I'm almost more excited about what's going to happen with the facility that's left over. The original plans called for it to be raised, and to demolish it and put a green space there, plus parking and a pavilion for employee lunches. I would love to look out at that [from my office window] but there's some good stuff there. It can't serve as a 200-bed jail facility for us. But there's a master control in there that we've invested a lot into, that is used for observing a residential population. There's a nice kitchen in there that is used to serving a residential population.

Can we convert that to a juvenile detention facility? You've likely heard of the governor's task force –  this is a need; it's a need locally. And when we have our youth in need of a juvenile detention facility, we're having to ship them out of our community. We're shipping them out of state. And that's not going to be the best solution – that's never going to lead to the best solution.

We have such a great community partner in the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. And I really love their holistic way of looking at health. And they're really that wrap-around culture. So I'm really just hoping for some kind of partnership to turn this into a facility so our youth can stay here, and get help with programming that we desperately need in that facility. So that's my hope for that facility. 

Epicenter: What other Isabella County projects are in the works? 
Frost: As a community, we put in a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in the very early 1990s with some Clean Michigan Initiative dollars. And it was put in as a dual-stream facility –  that was all the rage in the 90s – to separate our recycling and we're all going to hug each other and it's going to be sunshine and rainbows and free! Free because we got a grant to do it. So it’ll ‘never cost anything.’

Fast forward to now, the general fund of the county is supplementing the operations of the MRF to the tune of $400,000 to $500,000 a year. And it's not to say it's not a mandated service. We know the community wants it. We want it – but at what cost, right?

So we underwent a feasibility study, which the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe paid for through their two percent grant funding requests they had. They had granted us some monies for some curbside recycling trucks in the past. And we basically went to the tribe and said we don't know what direction we want to go, it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest in a curbside truck, maybe curbside is not continuing; a feasibility study is the way to go. So they actually let us kind of use those monies that had been pre-approved: the council said, ‘yeah, use them for your feasibility study.’ They really support recycling. 

We are getting the results of that back momentarily. We entered the feasibility study last summer and we're looking forward to those results.

Epicenter: Have you seen recycling being a big topic of concern for Isabella County residents?
Frost: COVID really brought that to light, because when we shut down in March of 2020, and the county shut down operations, the commissioners’ phones rang off the hook – not because of a deadly virus or health concerns; it was because of feedback about recycling piling up. People were asking: ‘When are you going to open the MRF?’

We know it's a need. We know it's a want. We know that the residents will support it. And that's really what brought it to light. They were one of our first departments that opened back up because of that pressure. And because facilities were able to retrofit some protections for distancing and safety – I guess, it was an issue that brought forth maybe a great potential. 

Epicenter: How will a retrofitted MRF impact recycling for residents? 
Frost: The thought is, if we retrofit this MRF to a single stream, then those major haulers – Granger Waste Management, Republic – they're in our communities. But they take that recycling to Grand Rapids. They take it to Lansing. They take it to Traverse City. So imagine if we could accept it here. They're not going to pay the gas, tires, and oil to get it to Traverse City. They're going to bring it here. So it's time we take advantage of our situation in our location.

EGLE at the state is really promoting this hub-and-spoke model. And that's really what we want to become. Midland doesn't have this. Gratiot doesn't have this. Montcalm doesn’t have it. Mecosta doesn't have it. Clare doesn't have it. It just makes sense. We're here.

Epicenter: Will there still be curbside pickup? 
Frost: Yes, I think there would be more curbside pickup because you'd have more waste haulers that are able to service an area because they can bring it right to our MRF – we'd be happy to take single stream.

Epicenter: So locally, we could potentially have more curbside pickup. Regionally, we could become a hub for recycling … And have some statewide impact?
Frost: Absolutely. I can't believe the numbers I was seeing on statewide stuff. It was something like nationwide, I want to say, 34 percent of materials get recycled. In Michigan, it’s like 18 percent.

I think that you'll see a lot of federal dollars come to Michigan to help lift us up in that regard. Where is it more important than here?

Epicenter: What are some of your other goals for the county in 2023?
Frost: Staff retention and attraction are huge issues right now. We have some very long-standing county employees. I get to work with a lot of long-standing department heads and elected officials and it's just so valuable when they're a part of the conversation. So I'm really not looking forward to losing that institutional knowledge. But of course, we've got a lot of young folks, too – some new employees, fresh eyes, helping us see things in new ways. But attraction and retention is at the forefront for us.

Epicenter: Lastly, what is something that you hope that residents of the county would know about?
Frost: I have been very pleased to see that employees and the commissioners tend to treat taxpayer dollars like their own here. I think that is very much something that the taxpayers would want to know – would be happy to know. And I'm proud to be able to say it.

And take your recycling to the MRF! Use the MRF and recycle! 
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Read more articles by Courtney Jerome.

With 15 years of professional media experience, Courtney Jerome has found a passion for storytelling and showcasing our region in a positive light. She's written stories for television broadcasts, numerous magazines, and digital publications. In addition, she owns a boutique creative marketing agency that focuses on social media, photo, and video storytelling for small businesses across Michigan and the country — courtneyjeromemedia.com. Contact Courtney, the managing editor of Epicenter, at editor@epicentermtpleasant.com.