Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (June 3, 2009): Before commissioners met on Wednesday, about 50 people gathered in the parking lot next to the county administration building for a rally organized by AFSCME Local 2733, the largest of the unions for county workers, representing about 700 employees. This wasn’t a marching-while-carrying-picket-signs rally, however. It was more of a eating-pizza-and-talking event, designed to get members to attend the 6:30 p.m. board meeting as a show of support for the unions.
Union workers mingled with commissioners and other county staff to talk about how to deal with a projected $26 million deficit in the county’s budget over the next two years – a topic that was the main item on Wednesday’s agenda for the board of commissioners.
Recommendations made during the meeting by county administrator, Bob Guenzel – which were aimed at balancing the $102 million general fund budget – included cuts to many departments and to funding for local nonprofits, the elimination of 26 positions (including 12 that are already vacant) and a caution that there’ll be more cuts to come.
Discussion of those recommendations by commissioners during the Ways & Means Committee portion of their meeting resulted in approval of four budget-related resolutions. Those resolutions will receive a final vote from commissioners during their regular board meeting on July 8. Meanwhile, the administration hopes to negotiate concessions from the 17 unions that represent roughly 1,000 of the county’s 1,350 work force. All parties agree that the outcome of those negotiations will be crucial.
Pre-Meeting Union Rally
Tonya Harwood, the union’s interim president, said it’s hard to get members to turn out for board meetings, even when the stakes are high. So the union offers incentives – in this case, 25 Little Caesars pizzas. Harwood said she wasn’t planning to speak during the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, but the turnout would send a message that the union membership is concerned about the situation. (And, in fact, the boardroom was filled to capacity at the start of the meeting, with many people spilling out into the lobby, where they watched proceedings on Community Television Network.)
The parking lot gathering was also a way for union workers to share their concerns informally with commissioners, Harwood said. Several commissioners – including Kristin Judge, Jeff Irwin, Leah Gunn, Mark Ouimet and Wes Prater – attended the event.
All 17 unions have contracts with the county running through 2010, with some contracts extending through 2012. It’s up to the membership to decide whether they’ll make concessions or not. Based on conversations The Chronicle had with workers on Wednesday, it’s not clear what they’ll decide.
Some expressed frustration, feeling that unions were being asked to shoulder more of the burden than the county’s nearly 300 non-union members. They believe the administration hasn’t made sufficient cuts elsewhere. Others told us that they were most concerned about keeping their jobs, and had been shaken by last week’s news that General Motors plans to close its Willow Run plant next year. They said that in Michigan’s struggling economy, no one is immune and they’d rather take concessions than lose their jobs – that’s a possibility if the administration can’t find enough other ways to cut costs.
The Ways & Means committee consists of all the members of the board of commissioners, and meets before each meeting of the board. At the start of the Ways & Means Committee meeting, two people spoke during the time allowed for public comment.
Ken Harrison: Harrison, an Ypsilanti resident, said he was concerned about funding for the Good Samaritan food program operated by Brown Chapel AME Church. The program feeds about 150 people every Friday, he said. They hadn’t heard back about grant funding from the county, and wanted to know one way or another so that they could make contingency plans. He told commissioners that Ypsilanti had for a long time in its past been the breadbasket for the county, but now “we need money, and we need help.” He wanted to see more funding in general for the eastern side of Washtenaw County. As a final note, he said he was proud to see Conan Smith as a commissioner, and remembered voting for Smith’s grandfather. [Smith's grandfather was Al Wheeler, Ann Arbor's first and, to date, only black mayor.]
Paquetta Palmer: Palmer was the only county worker to speak during the public comment session, though more than two dozen employees attended the meeting. She said she was grateful for her job, but had been stressed out for several months about the budget situation. As an employee who works with the Washtenaw Health Plan – which no longer has the capacity to accept new participants – she said she deals with the county’s most vulnerable residents. She urged commissioners to schedule community forums that were accessible to poorer people, at times and locations that would allow them to attend. And she said commissioners needed to look twice at projects they were funding, saying it wasn’t fair for some people’s pet projects to remain funded while the health plan had to turn away applicants. They need to fund human services in order to keep this the kind of place where people love to live. “Things aren’t ok,” Palmer said. “I hope you remember the most vulnerable when you make your decisions.”
Resolution: Commissioners’ Budget
The commissioners first considered a resolution to cut their own piece of the budget by 11.3%, and to create “flex accounts” that would pool previous line items for per diem, travel, and convention/conference expenses. The budget calls for $3,550 per commissioner for these flex accounts. The total budget for commissioners after the reduction is $532,885, an amount that includes salaries ($177,387), consultant fees ($55,150 for a lobbyist in Lansing), fringe benefits ($41,979) and an amount to cover administrative expenses (called the Cost Allocation Plan, at $143,462), among other things. The resolution also includes new guidelines for administering the flex accounts.
This resolution is the third iteration of an attempt to cut the commissioners’ budget, following two resolutions presented at the board’s May 20 meeting that did not receive sufficient support to pass. There was little discussion on the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.
Outcome: The motion carried, with Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn and Jeff Irwin voting against it.
Budget Recommendations: 2010 and 2011
Guenzel then presented recommendations for cuts and efforts to grow revenues in 2010 and 2011. Some of the recommendations could be implemented later this year, if approved. The Chronicle previously reported on those recommendations. They are also detailed on the county’s website, along with other information about the budget process.
For this report, we’ll summarize the Wednesday evening discussion following Guenzel’s presentation. Their conversation was wide-ranging – here, we’ve grouped the commissioners’ comments topically, as they relate to each of the resolutions.
The board was asked to consider three separate resolutions: 1) accepting the first phase of the administration’s budget recommendations; 2) accepting recommendations for cuts to non-union compensation, and 3) approving cuts to nonprofits funded by the county.
Resolution 1: Overall budget recommendations
Rolland Sizemore Jr., the board’s chair, said he would be supporting the recommendations for now, but he would reconsider if he didn’t get answers to several questions and concerns before the final vote on July 8. His questions included: When job openings are available, does the county try to fill those positions from current employees? As a way to address the budget crisis, some employees are asking for changes like flex-time and a cut in the number of paid holidays they receive – is the administration considering those ideas? What are other communities doing to deal with their budget crises? What’s the pay scale for executives at Ann Arbor SPARK, which the county helps fund? Is there any way to streamline the number of unions that represent county employees? Do the non-union employees have any input into the recommended cuts to their compensation and benefits?
Sizemore concluded by saying that maybe it’s time to ask the unions to come up with a plan, rather than putting all the responsibility on management and the board. Guenzel said he’d look into the questions that Sizemore raised.
Commissioner Jessica Ping had concerns about a proposed millage that is intended to raise funds for economic development – specifically, it would cover funding for Ann Arbor SPARK ($200,000) and SPARK East ($50,000) that’s currently allocated from the county’s general fund. [The millage could be approved by commissioners, rather than requiring voter approval, because the enabling legislation – Act 88 – predates the state's Headley Amendment. It would levy 0.017 mills, which equates to about $1.70 per year for every $100,000 in a property's taxable value.] Ping asked when a public hearing on the millage would be scheduled – Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, explained that it was proposed for July 8, but that commissioners could change that if they wanted.
Commissioner Kristin Judge had several questions and comments. She asked Guenzel to be sure that he listened to union leaders when they met, rather than just passing along information. She also was concerned about a proposed 18% cut to the public health/environmental health department, and asked the department’s director, Dick Fleece, to speak about how those cuts would affect services. [Recommended cuts would slash $476,493 from the department's budget, and eliminate five positions.]
Fleece said the proposal had been made when times were a little different – namely, before they’d found out that state funding to the department would also be cut. He said that the recommendations have a footnote stating that the department’s general fund allocation might be altered (i.e., increased) after the final state funding level is determined. Judge noted that public health was a mandated service, and she was concerned because the county might face a public health crisis in the fall, referring to the swine flu outbreak. She said she’d be uncomfortable short-changing the department.
Judge also had concerns about funding cuts for the public defender’s office, which is slated for a reduction of six legal clerk positions (four that had previously been agreed to last year, and an additional two in the coming year). Lloyd Powell, the head of that department, said his public defender’s office was taking a hit but that they would be able to maintain the same level of services. They’d use interns and volunteers who were licensed attorneys, as well as temp help on an as-needed basis, he explained. He joked that he’d congratulated his friend Brian Mackie, the county prosecutor, for emerging from the budget crisis untouched. [No cuts are recommended for the prosecutor's office.]
Judge responded by saying that if the county is a union shop, which it is, then they shouldn’t cut jobs and replace them with temporary workers – a comment which elicited applause from union members in the audience. She said she wanted to make sure the public defender’s office had the resources they needed to do their job.
Her final comment expressed disappointment that the administration hadn’t been more creative in looking for ways to cuts expenses. She said she’d been hoping to see more proposals like cutting cell-phone usage or asking people to pay for parking. She hoped to see recommendations along these lines in the second phase of the budget proposal.
Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman responded to Judge’s remarks, saying that the county wouldn’t be acting alone in dealing with a potential health crisis – the county is part of a consortium that includes local hospitals and schools, she said. Regarding Judge’s concerns over the public defender’s office, Bergman said that this wasn’t a union-busting move, but rather an attempt to use the county’s resources in the best way possible for the community good.
In his remarks, commissioner Jeff Irwin warned his colleagues that these budget recommendations were just the first salvo – what comes next will be even harder, he said. He asked Guenzel whether they’d considered increasing the economic development millage to help fund other areas, such as the Food Systems Economic Partnership (FSEP), which is slated for 20% cuts in county funding (to $12,000 in 2010) and the Small Business Development Center, also in line for a 20% cut in funding (to $8,000). Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that as long as the entity was a nonprofit that did economic development work, it could be funded by the millage.
Irwin asked Ellen Rabinowitz, executive director of the Washtenaw Health Plan, to talk about why the plan had been closed for enrollment – a fact mentioned at a previous meeting and by Paquetta Palmer in her remarks during the public comment session. Rabinowitz said their revenues haven’t decreased, but they had to close enrollment due to an unprecedented demand for services. (The plan offers health insurance for low-income residents.) There are simply many more people in the community who are uninsured, she said, and the county doesn’t have the resources to serve everyone who needs insurance. She said she’s confident that the recommended funding levels will allow her staff to continue leveraging federal dollars for the program. She noted that the county has a mandate to provide health care for indigent residents, and no cuts are recommended at this time.
Moving to a different part of the budget, commissioner Ken Schwartz asked whether the budget recommendations reflected an increase in staff for the sheriff’s department when the jail expansion opens in 2010. No, Guenzel said – he’d be coming back to the commission to adjust the budget when that increase is necessary. Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, came to the podium and told commissioners that his department was doing a full analysis of staffing levels and operational costs. [Clayton was elected last November and took office earlier this year.] They are trying to reduce costs by renegotiating food and medical services contracts with the jail’s vendors – he said he hoped to have details about that effort by the commissioners’ July 8 meeting.
Schwartz said that he also hoped to see more progress by July 8 on negotiations with the Trial Court, which is currently negotiating with the administration over its lump-sum budget payment received from the county.
Commissioner Ronnie Peterson spoke at considerable length about his concern over how budget cuts would affect the public, though he did not offer any alternative recommendations to deal with the budget deficit.
Commissioner Wes Prater noted that an additional $12 million in cuts were yet to be made, reiterating Irwin’s comment and saying “the tough stuff” is yet to come. “I hate to think what it’s going to look like in the next round,” he said. “It’s going to be be dramatic.”
Responding to Peterson’s comments, commissioner Leah Gunn said the administration has worked incredibly hard to come up with their recommendations, and has responded to commissioners’ questions and provided information throughout the process. She warned that not supporting the recommendations would reflect badly on commissioners who chose to do that, since it would indicate that they obviously haven’t been looking at the situation very carefully. A lot harder work is ahead, she added, noting that she doesn’t like to see people losing their jobs or to see the county cut services. “It distresses me, but we have no choice.”
Outcome: The resolution passed Ways & Means, with Ronnie Peterson voting no. It will be considered for a final vote at the July 8 board meeting.
Resolution 2: Non-union compensation
The board voted on this resolution with little discussion. Recommended cuts, outlined in this previous Chronicle report, include salary reductions of 3% in 2010 and 2% in 2011, among other reductions.
Outcome: The resolution passed Ways & Means, with Ronnie Peterson voting no. It will be considered for a final vote at the July 8 board meeting.
Resolution 3: Funding for nonprofit agencies
Much of the discussion and commentary focused on the recommendation to shift some of the funding so that it would be administered by the Office of Community Development, a joint county/city of Ann Ann department. This affected three areas: 1) children’s well-being and human services funding, with $800,000 budgeted in 2010 – a 20% cut from the $1 million budget in 2009; 2) the Fair Housing Center, with $40,000 budgeted in 2010, a 20% drop; and 3) Michigan Tenant Counseling, budgeted in 2010 for $13,800, also a 20% decrease from 2009.
Commissioner Ronnie Peterson was particularly upset that funding for children’s well-being and human services would be shifted to the Office of Community Development, and he wanted to know why. [Background: 28 local nonprofits received county grants from the $1 million previously committed to children's well-being and human services. Here's links to listings of the grants awarded: children's well-being ($700,000) and human services ($300,000).]
Mary Jo Callan, community development director, came to the podium and explained that the goal was to create an integrated funding system. In the past, nonprofits had to go through three different grant application processes – one for the county, one for the city of Ann Arbor, and another for the Washtenaw Urban County, a group of 11 municipalities that participate in the federal Community Development Block Grant program. Funding from the city and Urban County – specifically in the areas of housing, health, children’s and youth services, and economic stability – is now administered through the Office of Community Development. If commissioners approve, the county will be included in this integrated funding approach.
There are several advantages for the funding agencies, Callan said. It brings increased coherence to the funding process, allowing the city, county and other municipalities to better understand how their investments are being used. It gives the city/county staff more time to work with nonprofits and it makes the monitoring process more efficient for both her staff and the nonprofits. For years, she said, they’ve asked the nonprofits to collaborate with each other. By integrating these three funding sources, she added, the community development office is following its own advice.
Peterson wasn’t satisfied, saying he was concerned that an already busy office was taking on additional responsibility. He also didn’t want the county to lose control over how the funding would be allocated.
When asked by commissioner Mark Ouimet, Callan confirmed that one consideration in determining whether a non-profit got funded was its overall financial health. In general, groups with diversified funding sources and healthy reserves are seen as a good investment, she explained: For financially unhealthy agencies with longstanding difficulties, the reality is that they’ll have a difficult time providing services. Community development’s job is to know how these nonprofits are doing – and they should be concerned if a nonprofit doesn’t appear to be financially sustainable, she said.
Commissioner Leah Gunn said the point of an integrated approach isn’t simply the financial piece. It’s also a way to better coordinate how services are delivered and how funding supports the county’s strategic plan. Further, the community development office can also coordinate with other funding agencies, like Washtenaw United Way and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. She also maintained that this approach doesn’t mean the county is losing control over its funding.
Commissioner Kristin Judge urged Callan to come up with creative ways to help nonprofits, beyond funding. She suggested the idea of providing space to house nonprofits, given that some county buildings have vacant offices available – though she cautioned that the county shouldn’t compete as a landlord with the private sector.
Responding to a question from commissioner Ken Schwartz, Callan said that the county would select three representatives to serve on a review panel – the city and the Urban County each have three representatives as well. Her staff had developed a scoring matrix to use in selecting which nonprofits would be funded. Criteria include how well the nonprofit serves a community need and how well they leverage local funding for state and federal dollars, among other things. Noting that she’d been on the other side of the process as a director of a nonprofit [she previously served as executive director of Ozone House], Callan said her goal was to make the funding process fair, transparent and objective.
Both Schwartz and commissioner Jessica Ping urged Callan to factor geographic distribution into her office’s funding decisions. They were concerned that their districts – located in the county’s northeast and southwest quadrants, respectively – were getting left out. Callan said her office does notify nonprofits throughout the county to alert them about available grants, though it’s up to the nonprofits themselves to apply.
Callan said that ultimately commissioners had to trust the process, because funding would be made based on objective criteria, not on the whims of individual reviewers.
Outcome: The resolution passed Ways & Means unanimously. It will be considered for a final vote at the July 8 board meeting.
Budget Update: First Quarter 2009
Jennifer Watson, the county’s budget manager, gave a budget update on the first three months of 2009, January through March. Despite slashing more than $15 million from the 2009 budget late last year, the county is facing a $3.3 million deficit for the year. Proposed solutions include continuing a hiring freeze that was implemented last year, and enacting the cost cuts recommended for 2010 and 2011 as early as possible. If necessary, she said, they can tap balances from the county’s risk management fund ($1.15 million available) and the child care fund ($630,000 available).
Next steps include implementing the administration’s budget recommendations. Another update on the 2009 budget will be made in August.
Final Public Comment
Thomas Partridge, who regularly speaks during public comment periods at meetings of the board of commissioners as well as other local government entities, was the final speaker on Wednesday evening. He spoke of the need to maintain government services and not seek quick fixes to the budget, like cutting payroll.
Next board meeting: The board is starting its summer schedule, with regular meetings held only once a month. The next meeting is Wednesday, July 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.