No decisions about budget cuts were made at Saturday’s retreat of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners – since organizing it a few weeks ago, they’ve said all along that wasn’t the purpose. Rather, the group of 11 commissioners spent three hours talking through their priorities for the county, a discussion that some commissioners hope will lay a foundation for where to cut expenses as the county deals with a projected $26 million deficit in 2010-11.
The half-day retreat at Rolling Hills County Park was also attended by other elected officials – including sheriff Jerry Clayton, water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin and county prosecutor Brian Mackie – as well as leaders of a few of the 17 unions representing county employees, some county staff and the media. Though some of these people commented during the meeting, for the most part the event was focused on commissioners sharing their thoughts about refining county priorities. The discussion was led by Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools and a lifelong Washtenaw County resident.
One piece of news did emerge: county administrator Bob Guenzel, in response to a query from commissioner Wes Prater, said the 2009 equalization report had just been completed and showed that the county’s taxable value was down less than expected. They’d projected a drop of 3%, but the decline in taxable value came in at 2.29%. Though they’d make some adjustments, Guenzel said, “2009 is not our problem.”
Board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. kicked off the retreat with, “Let’s get it on so I can go home and wash windows.”
Three union leaders – Caryette Fenner of AFSCME Local 2733, Nancy Heine of AFSCME Local 3052 and John Reiser of the assistant prosecutors union – all spoke during the public comment portion of the retreat. (They were told they’d have time for public comment at the end of the retreat as well, but the meeting adjourned without providing additional public comment time.)
Reiser first commended the commissioners for holding this retreat, then reminded them of the cuts that the union had already made. They took a zero percent wage increase in 2008, a half-percent in 2009 and will receive a 2.25% increase next year. In addition, they’ve agreed to a tiered health insurance plan and contributions to VEBA (a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association, which is a medical plan for retirees). “I realize the landscape has changed and we need to do more,” he said, adding that he wanted to keep the dialogue open. He said one way they’re doing that is with the bi-weekly meetings between labor leaders and administration.
Heine, whose union represents a portion of county supervisors, also thanked the commissioners for having this discussion. She noted that the most recent union contract included over 11 major cost-saving measures for the county. She said she’d made several requests for information from the administration, but hadn’t yet received a response. Her union has been decimated over the years, she said, giving several examples of departments in which union positions had been eliminated, only to be replaced by non-union supervisory jobs. She said that the $4.5 million saved if union members didn’t receive raises would be a “drop in the bucket,” adding that “my local has done more than its fair share of sacrificing.”
Fenner, who is president of the largest union for county workers, said her members believed they wouldn’t be asked to make concessions again, since they’d just made cuts in their most recent contract. She cataloged the loss of union jobs in several departments, saying that she couldn’t give a complete history of layoffs because there was no one document containing that information. Fenner concluded by reading from an email sent to her by a member of the union, who felt she’d been misled about the stability of her job.
Several commissioners responded to these comments. Conan Smith said the board had prioritized keeping job losses to a minimum, but that would mean there’d be cuts to salaries and benefits. He said he wanted to know the priorities of the unions, too. Sizemore said part of the problem is that people keep asking for more information. It’s time for management and union leaders to sit down and start working together, he said. “It’s time we get to it.”
Barbara Levin Bergman said her goal is to preserve jobs wherever possible. She said when they look at making cuts to wages and benefits, she wants to take into consideration the income level of those being asked for concessions. “Many of our workers are a paycheck away from a crisis,” she said. Kristin Judge told the union leaders that the commissioners had asked for a report on the county’s history of layoffs, and that they’d share that with the unions, too.
The bulk of the retreat was spent discussing each of the county’s seven priorities, which had been developed in 1998. Commissioner Kristin Judge, the main organizer of the retreat, began by saying she hoped they’d emerge with some budget priorities, to use as guidelines when making decisions about spending cuts. That prompted commissioner Ronnie Peterson – who had originally not planned to attend the retreat – to say he believed such a discussion deserved more than three hours, and that he felt it was a discussion that should occur in the board chambers in the public eye. [Saturday's retreat was open to the public, but unlike regular board meetings, it was not televised.]
Judge said that the discussion could certainly continue, and that the deliberations on actual spending cuts would be made at upcoming meetings. However, she said that if they didn’t start a conversation about priorities, they wouldn’t know where they needed to go.
Wes Prater said that he’d never noticed this list of priorities before. Graden said he felt that for the most part the priorities had withstood the test of time, and asked that commissioners start considering them one by one. For this article, the original priority statements are provided in full, followed by a recap of the commissioners’ discussion as it related to that priority.
Financial and Fiscal Integrity: The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners use long-term financial planning in its decision-making process. The Board of Commissioners will also have an in-depth understanding of the County financial and fiscal issues and the County’s policy choices. Programs and services will be based on the needs of County residents, available resources, and demonstrable outcomes for services provided by the County or by partner agencies. The County will pursue new sources of revenues, will continue recapturing the direct cost of services through fees, and will advocate full funding by the federal and state government for the functions or services through County provides on their behalf.
Commissioner Leah Gunn said her concern wasn’t so much the next two years, but rather 5, 10 or 15 years down the road. Proposal A limits their ability to tax to the rate of inflation, which is zero, she said. So they really need to be talking about how to restructure the entire county government. ”It doesn’t make me happy to have to say that,” she said.
Bergman wanted more emphasis placed on demonstrable outcomes, which she said doesn’t always happen: What were the goals and priorities of each department for the year, and were those met? Funding needed to be based on the ability to achieve results, she said.
The ability of a department to generate revenue should be considered, Judge said. “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face.” Gunn added that they also needed to consider whether departments and programs leverage matching funds. Related to that, Bergman said they need to look at how community groups leverage funds provided by the county.
Jeff Irwin said that long-term projections were important – to which Bergman responded, “I think any projection beyond 5 years is pure fantasy.” Judge said that there’s a difference between projections and plans, and that the county definitely needs to plan for how its structure will look under financial constraints.
Irwin also suggested making transparency a part of this priority. The more that the public is informed, the more they can help.
Several commissioners discussed the issue of the county’s fund balance – a portion of revenues held in reserve. Ken Schwartz said there needed to be more emphasis on savings when times are good, and that the county’s savings rate didn’t match the high growth rate of revenues in previous years. ”Savings wouldn’t have gotten us out of this,” he said, “but would have softened the blow.”
Smith noted that Irwin has been a proponent of building the fund balance. (Board policy sets the fund balance at 8.5% of general fund revenue, or about $8 million currently.) Previously, Smith said, the county would spend excess revenue to expand programs and services, rather than save.
Mark Ouimet, a former bank executive, said that typically government entities focus on income statements (an accounting of revenues and expenses) rather than the balance sheet (a summary of an institution’s overall assets and liabilities). They need to pay more attention to the balance sheet, he said. The county’s budget discussions haven’t, for example, factored in contributions to the retirement board or fund balance, he said. He noted that many school systems are raiding fund balances to cope with their financial crisis, to their long-term detriment.
Gunn said that sounded like a policy: Do not use the fund balance.
Prater said this discussion wasn’t addressing their current problem, and that they needed to discuss ways to more aggressively find new sources of revenue. Smith said that one thing was relevant, and that was to stick to their current fund balance target. Schwartz noted that touching the fund balance would affect the county’s bond rating – another reason not to mess with it.
Children’s Well-being: Washtenaw County will provide leadership in promoting and coordinating services for children’s well-being, and greater and easier access to physical and mental health services. Special emphasis will be placed on poor, disabled, pre-school age and other special needs children. The County, as part of this leadership role, will develop and help implement a community-wide plan to provide for the well-being of children, including a safe and secure family environment and neighborhood.
Bergman started the discussion by saying she wanted to fund programs that have outcomes congruent with other priorities. Gunn said that leveraging funds also comes into play here, where county dollars are used to capture state and federal funding. At that, Schwartz said he didn’t want the board to become hypnotized by the term “leverage.” Sometimes, he said, dollars are leveraged to fund a program that’s poorly run or that doesn’t meet the county’s needs.
There was some discussion about the need for better coordination, and whether the county’s Community Collaborative was the best way to do that. “The collaborative presently is just this side of a joke,” Bergman said. Judge said that if it’s not working, they need to address that.
Sizemore said that collaboration is happening in some areas, specifically citing a youth summit being organized for programs that focus on young people countywide. Bergman expressed surprise, saying this was the first time she’d heard of such a summit, and that it highlighted her point about the need to better coordinate and share information. She lobbied for a body to take on that task.
Jessica Ping said it didn’t seem necessary to add another layer of bureaucracy, and that perhaps county administration could manage that. Bergman said it didn’t have to be the county government, but that somebody needs to look at what’s happening in human services locally. “We stay terribly fragmented in this community,” she said.
Ouimet said one example of a coordinated effort is Success by Six, a partnership focused on programs from birth until age 6 countywide. Judge said it sounded like they needed to get everyone into one room and talk about services for kids.
Public Safety and Justice: Washtenaw County will strive to be a safe, secure and just place. Emphasis will be placed on prevention of crime and efficient public safety collaboration across governmental jurisdictions. The County will work toward equality and justice by supporting the efficient organization of the courts and other necessary infrastructure. The Board of Commissioners will support programs which result in successful reintegration of persons who have come through the criminal justice system. A basic level of services will be maintained.
Bergman said that one issue they needed to discuss was the level of mandated services, as well as unmandated services like community corrections, which she described as “my pet.”
Sizemore said that Jerry Clayton, who was elected sheriff last November, has already stepped up and has shown he’s committed to working together. With that kind of support, Sizemore said, he thinks they’ll be able to find ways to cut costs.
Smith said there were a lot of structural problems with this area, and that they needed to look at at public safety from a countywide perspective, not jurisdiction by jurisdiction. [Funding of police services has been an ongoing contentious issue, resulting in lawsuits filed by three township against the county in a years-long legal battle.]
The different parts of public safety and justice have become silos, and aren’t integrated in a collaborative way, Smith said. In part that’s because of how these groups are funded, he added – the judiciary gets a lump sum, with flexibility over how it’s administered, for example. Judges are less likely to think collaboratively, he said.
Gunn agreed, saying she’s particularly concerned about how the trial court sets itself apart.
Clayton and Mackie were invited into the discussion, and Clayton said he viewed his department as the gateway to human services for many of the people who enter the criminal justice system. “We probably have contact with those individuals first,” he said, and his department recognizes the need to partner with human service agencies. He said they provided public safety to all of Washtenaw County, and that their services affect communities even if those communities don’t contract for police services through the sheriff’s department. In a tough economy, crime will increase. It’s a quality of life issue for the entire county, he said, and he hoped the commissioners wouldn’t look at the department only as it related to public safety.
Mackie said he agreed with Clayton, and that the prosecutor’s office was also involved in a wide range of efforts that affect the community’s quality of life. Those range from collecting child support to participating in the child death review board, which looks at underlying causes for deaths of infants in the county. From that group evolved the Safe Sleep Initiative, he said, which is now a statewide program.
Gunn said she was certainly an advocate of public safety, but the question was who pays for it. She represents Ann Arbor, and said the city faces laying off police officers because of budget cuts. Meanwhile, the county paid over $1 million in legal fees related to the lawsuit over what townships pay to contract with the sheriff for police services. Ann Arbor has been carrying the freight, she said, and it’s time for townships to step up to the plate.
Irwin said they need to focus more on prevention. Recidivism is a huge issues – it’s the repeat customers that cost most, in terms of the system, he said.
Judge, noting that she’s new to the commission and also represents an area with its own public safety force (Pittsfield Township), said she hoped they could move past the police services issue. She said she realized they couldn’t finish the budget process until everyone was comfortable with that issue.
Smith said he wanted to move away from the jurisdictional approach to public safety. The model should aim at addressing disparities, he said, applying resources equitably across the county. The current contracting system doesn’t allow the sheriff to do that, he said.
The approach should be one of both prevention and enforcement, Gunn said. With the new sheriff, she said, law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions are more willing to work with that department.
Clayton said the contract approach, in which individual townships pay for sheriff deputy services, was originally designed to save money, though it’s unclear if that happened. The county needs to decide if they’re in the public safety business, he said, and at what level they want to fund that. Then, he said, his department could determine what levels of service they could provide for that amount. He said that by mid-2010 he’d be in a better position to report on what it will take to run the jail and provide other services. He said they shouldn’t judge his department based on what happened before he came into office.
Clayton also stressed that his department should be involved in discussions about crime prevention, saying that the criminal justice system is an integral part of that. Prevention shouldn’t just be focused on people who’d never been in the system, but should also target repeat offenders. The county as a whole needs to address root causes, he said, and take an approach that includes youth programs, employment programs as well as the sheriff’s department.
Sustainable Development: Washtenaw County will collaborate with other governmental units and provide leadership for long-term county-wide sustainable development and redevelopment incorporating a diversified economy, environmental protection, workforce development and social needs. Through comprehensive and regional planning, the County will promote good land use practices. The Board of Commissioners is committed to a county free of environmental and economic discrimination. The County will assist the educational and business community to help prepare people for jobs that provide solid futures. The County will encourage the use of community resources and technology developed by educational institutions to help businesses be more successful.
Schwartz said they should focus on urban areas, with strategies like infill development. “Sustainable development today is a lot different than it was even five years ago,” he said.
Neighborhood stabilization was important, Gunn said. That’s also where some federal stimulus dollars are headed – she cited the $3 million being received through a federal program targeting foreclosed homes as well as $4 million for a weatherization program.
Smith said he subscribed to the triple-bottom line: Environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social equity. He wanted the county to hone in on tax-base stabilization, which meant protecting neighborhoods and maintaining a quality of life that would be attractive to employers.
Prater said that some 75% of the U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending. “You’ve got to have jobs,” he said, and since manufacturing jobs are disappearing, there needs to be something to replace that. Smith noted that some of the lost manufacturing jobs won’t ever return, so higher education needs to be a priority.
This priority statement has aged the worst of all seven, Irwin said. It needs to be rewritten to focus on what works best, including urban revitalization and infill, planning teams and transit. There are also things that the county does to incentivize or de-incentivize lifestyle choices, he said. The choice of living far away from where you work is one, and every time the county does something to encourage that, it’s bad. The county shouldn’t be putting money in the pockets of people with wasteful lifestyles, he said.
Ouimet said the county does a good job in partnering for economic development, and understands that education is key. He said they need to ensure that there’s no duplication of services with regard to economic development efforts.
Homelessness and Housing: Washtenaw County will promote a wide range of affordable housing opportunities to meet the housing needs of all residents of the County, with emphasis on people with mental illness and others who have few options for shelter. The County will assist with the infrastructure and services necessary to help the homeless make the transition to permanent affordable housing.
Commissioners cited the need for transitional housing, for both families and individuals. Several noted that foreclosures are adding to local housing problem.
Brian Mackie, county prosecutor, said that not enough emphasis has been placed on eviction prevention. One landlord evicted a renter for not making a $30 payment, he said, and it ended up costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal and support services. That might be true in some cases, Schwartz responded, but it’s also true that the lack of eviction enforcement has wreaked havoc in some neighborhoods, causing the housing stock to deteriorate because renters who should have been evicted weren’t, and destroyed property.
Gunn said the county should emphasize existing housing stock, rather than new development.
Smith said he’d asked county staff to map the extent of the decline in SEV (state equalized value) for properties countywide – he had hard copies of that map, and said he would request an electronic version. He said it reinforced his mantra about an investment strategy for housing: There were specific neighborhoods in the county that had been in decline, and they needed to figure out how to stabilize those areas. They also needed strategies for making sure stable neighborhoods stayed that way, he said.
Health: Washtenaw County will promote a physically, mentally and socially healthy population by assisting health services and the engagement of the local health infrastructure. The County will place emphasis on providing access to quality physical, mental and community health services for the poor (including the working poor), the uninsured or underinsured, and those with special needs. The County will strive to ensure a physical environment that promotes good health.
Gunn advocated for a single payer, universal health care system. Bergman asked whether the county should prioritize preventive services.
Prater said he’d been told that 11% of county residents don’t have health insurance, equating to about 36,000 people. He asked Guenzel how many people were participating in the county’s health care plan, which serves low-income residents. About 8,000, Guenzel said.
Noting that it’s a quality of life issue, Peterson said this was a topic they should act on fast. A lot of people who’ve held jobs and been solid taxpayers are now unemployed and without benefits. Unless the health industry steps up, he said, the burden will be on the county to deliver health care services to people who’ve paid taxes and never relied on the government, but now find themselves in need.
Quality County Services: Washtenaw County strives to provide a level of services which is high-quality, effective, and efficient. The Board of Commissioners endorses the Guiding Principles, the Business Improvement Process, and Professional Development as management tools to accomplish this objective.
Smith cast the issue as either providing world-class services for a few areas, or average services for a broader number of areas. If they want children’s services to be a priority, do other things go by the wayside? He said his personal feeling is that the outcome for 2010-11 shouldn’t be on world-class service but rather on providing neighborhood and tax-base stabilization. “If some services go by the wayside or decline because they don’t help us achieve that goal, that’s going to be OK with me.”
Judge says she wants to get through 2010-11 with the least damage to citizens and employees. She asked whether anyone would really suffer if they suspended professional development for a year. If the county provided services to the homeless but didn’t do professional staff development, she’d said she’d be OK with that. It’s an extra.
Sizemore disagreed, saying that professional development was important. “We need to let employees know we’re concerned about them.” He said he was developing a training program for county employees that he hoped to offer to other municipalities, too. Judge countered that it’s a matter of cutting things like professional development versus cutting jobs. She said she’d like to get input from the employees about that.
Smith asked Janis Bobrin whether some of her staff training was mandated. It was, she said – some employees require certain types of professional certification. Smith said he thought that training and professional development should be outcome-oriented.
Ouimet noted that when there’s dramatic change in an organization, a lot of services could go by the wayside. If there are fewer people handling certain transactional services, there’ll be longer lines. Or if there are additional clients because of the difficult economy, the level of service will change. ”We have to understand how you manage that and still get acceptable outcomes,” he said.
At 2 minutes after noon, Graden announced that they’d completed discussing the list of priorities – and the commissioners clapped. But they weren’t quite done. What are the board’s next steps, he asked.
Smith said he wanted to look at the problem not as how to cut $26 million from the budget, but rather how did they want to spend the $90 million they had. “That’s not going to solve all our problems,” he said. “But it might be the place for us as a board to start and leave the real problems for Bob.”
Peterson asked for a timeline. Smith said that they hoped to get initial recommendations in June, but that Sizemore, as board chair, had indicated he wanted to act sooner rather than later. Judge suggested putting together a committee to refine the priorities, and maybe hold community forums to seek more input. Gunn said, “Sooner or later, we’ll have to put numbers on these things.”
Prater said they needed information on taxable value, which will indicate how much revenue the county will collect. Guenzel said the numbers had just come in for 2009 and that they fared better than expected, with a decline of only 2.29%. He said he’d like to have their priorities nailed down by June, so that his staff can come back with numbers and recommendations, as well as what that might mean for the level of services. He said by then they’ll have a better idea of what 2010 will look like as well in terms of revenues. “We’re hoping there are some decisions you can make in June.”
Ouimet said the projected $26 million deficit didn’t include retirement obligations coming in, and he wanted to get that information too. Bergman said she wanted to know what decisions the administration is flirting with: “I need almost an administrative diary.”
Prater said they needed to start thinking about where reductions are going to be in both mandated and non-mandated services. He said they also need to know what kind of concessions employees will make – that will determine how many jobs will be cut. One way or another, Prater said, “there’s going to be elimination of positions, bottom line.”
Guenzel said he hoped they’d have an agreement with unions by June 3, but it might take longer than that. He said commissioners had asked to receive documents that department heads had prepared, which outlined how they would deal with cuts to their budget of 5%, 10% or 20%. He said they’d deliver that to commissioners within the next week or so, but he asked that they take it as points of information, not decisions. Just because they mention something doesn’t mean a decision’s been made, he said.
Bergman said, “I just want to know what’s in the meat grinder.”
Gunn said that commissioners need to cut their own expenses, too, and that even though she’s tried to do this before and been shot down, she’d be returning with a list of recommendations to cut their expenses.
Asked by Smith, Judge agreed to write a rough draft of revised priorities.
And with that, the retreat came to an end. Schwartz wrapped it up this way: ”We don’t want a slow bleed. We want surgery, healing, recovery.”