What’s a Land Bank?

Program will help blighted neighborhoods in Washtenaw

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners administrative briefing (July 1, 2009): The county’s administrative staff have rearranged their offices a bit, which bumped Wednesday’s administrative briefing into a new location – a room that, unlike their previous meeting place, had windows. “Oh, it’s so bright in here – we’ll need sunglasses!” commissioner Kristin Judge said upon walking into the room.

The briefing also provided a window into the agenda for the upcoming July 8 board meeting. County treasurer Catherine McClary was on hand to brief commissioners on a land bank proposal she’ll be bringing to the board. They also were updated on several state and federal grants the county is receiving or applying for, and discussed a proposed food worker certification program. And following the briefing, a discussion about the committee appointments process brought to light a practice that some commissioners questioned – and resulted in a decision to more strictly enforce application deadlines.

We’ll start with the land bank.

Land Bank

In briefing the commissioners, McClary explained that a land bank is a mechanism the county can use to temporarily take ownership of land while they’re trying to put it back into productive use. Typically, land banks are used to handle tax-foreclosed property. McClary said her office works hard to ensure that few properties in the county are foreclosed due to tax delinquency – only 1% of all tax delinquent properties are foreclosed in the county, she said. However, because of the economy there are a growing number of both tax-delinquent properties and mortgage-foreclosed homes in the county, she added, and they need better options to deal with these properties.

The Chronicle had first heard of the land bank proposal in December 2008 at a neighborhood meeting aimed at revitalizing the Bryant area on Ann Arbor’s southeast side, north of Ellsworth and east of Stone School Road. Here’s an excerpt from our report:

Jennifer L. Hall, housing manager for the city/county office of community development … also mentioned that the city and county would be forming a land bank, and McClary elaborated on what that would entail. The land bank, which would be managed by the treasurer’s office, would identify condemned, blighted properties – that weren’t owner-occupied, she stressed – and demolish them to prepare for other uses, such as community gardens. When she stated that she didn’t think there was such a property in the Bryant neighborhood, several residents said, “Oh yeah, there’s one.”

In fact, a house in the Bryant neighborhood is now one of two properties that could be the first to be “deposited” into the land bank. At Wednesday’s briefing, McClary said it is a tax-foreclosed property built in a floodway. Without a land bank, current law would require her to hold a public auction and sell it to the highest bidder. Putting it into a land bank would buy some time, allowing neighborhood leaders and local elected officials to decide the best use for the property, which might include developing it as a community garden, a rainwater garden, or selling it to a nonprofit that would rehab it for affordable housing.

The other property is in Ypsilanti Township on Verna Street. The township has a court order to demolish the house – because it’s contaminated with mold spores. They’ll do a controlled burn as the demolition, McClary said. It’s an expensive process, she explained, and the only way the township can recover its costs is to place a lien on the property. However, the property has delinquent taxes and will be foreclosed – a process that extinguishes all liens. By putting the property into a land bank instead, the land bank could pay the township for its costs.

The land bank would be eligible for federal stimulus funding – specifically, through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. At a presentation to commissioners at their March 4 board meeting, Mary Jo Callan, director of the city/county office of community development, and Jennifer L. Hall, the office’s housing manager, told the board that $300,000 of the $3 million coming to the county through this program was earmarked for the land bank.

McClary is asking commissioners to approve two things: 1) an agreement to establish a Washtenaw County Land Bank Authority, and 2) an agreement that would allow the land bank to use county resources (such as its information technology and purchasing systems), and to use land bank funds to reimburse the county’s general fund for those expenses.

Commissioners would eventually appoint members to the land bank authority’s board, and there was some discussion about how that would be done. McClary said the board would include herself as county treasurer, a commissioner, and elected officials from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and the western part of the county. The specific appointees for the board would be determined at a future date.

McClary is asking commissioners to approve the agreements at their July 8 board meeting, noting that she hoped to have them in place for the state land bank authority’s next meeting, which is July 9. She also warned that while her staff has been working hard to prevent tax and mortgage foreclosures, “it’s getting harder and harder.” Last year, they were able to save 90 out of 140 houses that were at risk of mortgage foreclosure, she said. That percentage of success “won’t last,” she said.


Several state and federal grants are coming to the board for approval. Unless they require funding matches from the county, they do not have any impact on the general fund, which is facing a $26 million deficit over the next two years.

  • $82,682 from the U.S. Department of Justice to strengthen the medical examiner program, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Health System’s pathology department. The goal is to develop a regional death investigative system that would be accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. This is about $12,000 less than the county received last year.
  • $466,489 in federal funds to develop 1) a resource kit for local health organizations, and  2) a network for serving vulnerable populations during a health emergency. The funds would be used in part to hire a health educator and a sanitarian for the project, which is funded through September 2010. This is a new grant.
  • $124,265 from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to fund local improvements for the Head Start program. The funds would be used to buy dental equipment at the Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti, computers and other equipment at the Ypsilanti Head Start site, playground modifications at the Willow Run site, and air-conditioning and other equipment at the Whitmore Lake site. This is also a new grant.
  • $64,500 to help low-income residents weatherize their homes. The funding will serve about 25 homes, compared to last year’s grant of $75,250, which served 28 homes. However, a separate $4.1 million grant under the federal stimulus package means that the overall weatherization program is growing dramatically.
  • $10,664 in state funds for a foster grandparent. The money will be used to pay low-income people over 60 who volunteer to work with special-needs children. The volunteers will receive a small stipend – $2.60 an hour – plus transportation, one meal per day and an annual medical exam, as part of the program.

Additionally, the county is applying for $449,460 in state funds to partially reimburse the prosecuting attorney for expenses related to paternity cases or non-payment of child support cases. The county will also seek $3.9 million in state funds for the trial court’s Friend of the Court program, to provide services for residents trying to establish paternity or child support orders.

Finally, the county is applying for $395,276 in state revenue for the community corrections program, which offers services and alternative sentencing options – such as electronic monitoring and education – at the county’s trial court.

Food Worker Certification

One of the administration’s proposals to generate new revenue is to implement a food worker certification program, which would require employees at local restaurants and other food establishments to pay $15 and go through a training program on food safety. If approved, the program would bring in an estimated $50,000 in 2010 and $100,000 in 2011, according to deputy county administrator Verna McDaniel.

Several commissioners took issue with the proposal. Wes Prater asked why it couldn’t be a lower fee, perhaps $10 instead of $15. “For some people, 15 bucks is a heck of a lot right now,” he said, adding that he didn’t think food safety issues were a real problem in the county.

Ken Schwartz wondered if it would be a barrier to employment. How long would it take for someone to get certified, he asked, and could they work in the meantime? Rolland Sizemore Jr. also didn’t like the proposal. “It sounds like a way to make money to me more than anything.”

Joanna Bidlack, an administrative staffer who was running Wednesday’s briefing, told commissioners that Dick Fleece – director of the county’s public health/environmental health department – was prepared to give a presentation on the proposal in August.

“Dick should be prepared for a lot of questions,” Sizemore said.

Committee Appointments

After their briefing, commissioners discussed appointments for seven different boards, committees and commissions. Appointments are officially made by the board chair, and voted on by the board. (The previous appointments caucus was held in January.) In most cases, there are either too few applicants or the exact number of applicants for the available slots. That was true for this batch, with one exception.

There were two applicants – Doug Bradley and Paul Seelbach – for one opening on the Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee, in a slot designated for someone representing fisheries biology/aquatic ecology. Seelbach missed the application deadline, but it’s been the practice to accept applications even if they are turned in after the deadline.

Commissioner Kristin Judge questioned that practice, calling it unprofessional to miss the deadline. It would be different if there weren’t another qualified applicant, she said, but in this case there is.

A complicating factor is a letter of recommendation from Bob Tetens, the county’s parks and recreation director, on behalf of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. The letter stated that they were “fortunate to have two highly skilled environmental scientists” interested in serving, but the parks and recreation commission voted unanimously to recommend that Seelbach be appointed.

Commissioner Ken Schwartz said that if they were to bend the deadline for this fisheries biology/aquatic ecology slot to accommodate the recommended candidate, “it looks a little fishy” and undermines the integrity of the process.

Jason Brooks of the Washtenaw County clerk’s office, who recently took over the responsibility of handling the applications, said the practice of accepting late applications was set out in an internal procedure document, which could be modified if that’s what commissioners wanted. The consensus among commissioners present for the discussion was that the procedure needs to be changed.

Among the other positions to be appointed, there were no applicants for a spot representing an architect on the building code/construction board of appeals, and none for a position representing a food service establishment on the hearing board for the health department/food service regulations.

Other proposed appointments:

  • For three positions on the community action board, the three applicants are Daniel Brady, Danielle Choi and Mary Smith.
  • For three positions on the emergency medical services commission, the three applicants are Danielle Choi, Shoshana DeMaria and Geoffrey Fowler.
  • For four positions on the workforce development board, the four applicants are Debra Adams, Daniel Brady, Shoshana DeMaria and Paul Ganz.
  • For multiple positions on the local emergency planning committee, only three people applied: Pat Ivey, David McMahon and Jolea Mull.