Administrative briefing, County Board of Commissioners (Feb. 25, 2009): Washtenaw County is receiving a $3 million federal grant to buy and rehab foreclosed homes, destroy blighted buildings and redevelop demolished or vacant buildings. The funds would be used in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township, which are areas designated as high priorities by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). Separately, the city of Ann Arbor was awarded $850,000 under the same program.
News of the county grant came during an informal administrative briefing for county commissioners on Wednesday, a gathering that also featured an exploding pen and a word that one commissioner described as sounding like a sexually transmitted disease.
Aid for Foreclosed Properties
Foreclosures have been a concern countywide. At their Feb. 18 meeting, the board of commissioners heard from county treasurer Catherine McClary, who reported filing a record number of tax foreclosures earlier this month. And last year was a record for mortgage foreclosures in Washtenaw County, according to the county clerk’s office: 1,439 homes were auctioned at a sheriff’s sale in 2008, up from 1,151 in 2007 and 703 in 2006. In January 2009, 85 homes were auctioned after foreclosure, down from 106 last January and 88 in January 2007. In January 2006, 32 foreclosed homes were sold at the sheriff’s auction.
This new grant for the county is part of the nationwide $4 billion Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Locally, the grants will be coordinated by the Office of Community Development. Mary Jo Callan, the joint city/county community development director, will give a brief presentation about the program to commissioners at their March 4 board meeting.
In explaining the federal program at Wednesday’s administrative briefing, Joanna Bidlack of the administrator’s office said the funds can’t be used for foreclosure prevention, such as counseling or legal aid. Those services will still be handled by the county treasurer’s office, which has prevention programs aimed at mortgage foreclosures and tax foreclosures.
Other agenda items for March 4 meeting
Commissioners were briefed on several items that they’ll be voting on next week. They include:
- Through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation’s “Big Ideas” grant, the county is applying for $199,320 to support the Ann Arbor Region Success Strategy, a project that several county leaders are involved in. The community foundation will award up to $200,000 to as many as four projects, using funds Pfizer had donated after it announced plans to pull out of Ann Arbor. If the county is awarded the grant, they’d use it for project management support, and would provide an in-kind match of office space and staff time. Bidlack cautioned that many projects were vying for these funds, so it’s unclear whether the county will be granted this money.
- The county plans to raise the brownfield project application fees paid by developers. The biggest change is for projects under $1 million – currently the county charges $500 to apply, and plans to raise that fee to $5,000$3,000. Bidlack told commissioners that in this category, the county hasn’t been covering its cost to process applications and is far below national state benchmarks. Last year, these fees brought $12,000 in revenue. Under the proposed fee increases, that amount would have totaled $27,000.
- The board will be asked to authorize a vendor pool for as-needed construction and renovation projects. For general construction, the companies are Allied Building Service Co., Carver Construction Co. and Krull Construction. For electrical work, the companies are Huron Valley Electric, Ronald A. Meyer Electric and Shaw Electric. Except for Allied Building, all are based in Washtenaw County. The staff will be drafting a policy, which board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked to review, for how to assign work out of this vendor pool.
- The county is applying for a $24,140 state grant to begin testing for cylindrospermopsis – a toxin which can cause skin allergies and other health problems – in four area lakes: Joslin, North, Sugarloaf and Whitmore. It’s part of a broader program administered by the county’s Public Works group, which is developing a “toxin profile” of Washtenaw County lakes. They’ll simply be adding this test to the other water quality monitoring already underway, Bidlack said. (The toxin’s name prompted commissioner Jessica Ping to say, “That’s not a good word!” to which commissioner Ken Schwartz said, “Sounds like an STD to me.”)
In-Kind Contributions, Commissioners’ Expenses
At a couple of points during the briefing, commissioner Jessica Ping raised questions about the county’s in-kind contributions as part of various grant awards. For example, the county match for the cylindrospermopsis testing is $10,236. For the “Big Ideas” grant, it’s $107,160. Ping noted that almost every time there’s a grant awarded, it involves some sort of in-kind contribution from the county, and that adds up. Jeff Irwin pointed out that you could also view it as leveraging the county’s resources in order to get some of these grants. Ping asked staff to tally the in-kind contributions that the county commits to in a given year, and report back to the board.
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporate counsel, said he’d almost completed a report analyzing the county’s mandated and discretionary spending, department by department. The report is meant to help commissioners and staff as they look for expenses to cut in the upcoming 2010-11 budget. [As previously reported, the county faces a budget deficit unless expenses are cut or revenues increase more than projected.]
Commissioner Kristin Judge said they need to look at the board of commissioners and administration line items before anything else. Bob Guenzel said that the administration’s expenses would be scrutinized just like all other departments, but that it was up to commissioners to decide what to do with their expenses.
Commissioner Leah Gunn suggested that the staff send commissioners a line-item report related specifically to expenses for the board, so that they could look for possible cuts.
Guenzel reminded commissioners that the only thing they can’t cut is their salaries – they’d have to wait until next term if they wanted to do that. That prompted Jessica Ping to say that they don’t get paid enough right now based on the amount of time they put it, and Judge allowed that in that light, she probably earned about $1 an hour, if that.
“I’m willing to give up Jeff’s pay,” quipped commissioner Mark Ouimet, referring to Irwin.
Eight of the 11 county commissioners earn $15,500 a year. The board chair (Rolland Sizemore Jr.) makes $18,500, and commissioners who chair the ways and means committee (Conan Smith) and the board’s working session (Jessica Ping) get $16,500 each.
The Perils of Pens
Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, spent a portion of the meeting doing cleanup after a pen spurted blue ink onto his jacket and the cabinet where he was standing. Referring to Mark Ouimet, a Republican, Irwin said: “That’s what I get for stealing Mark’s pen.”
Commissioner present: Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr.