Five of Washtenaw County’s top elected officials – the sheriff, prosecuting attorney, clerk, treasurer and water resources commissioner – sent a letter to the Board of Commissioners Thursday morning asking the board to consider putting a countywide millage on the ballot in 2010. The millage is aimed at raising money to fund human services programs.
But their main message was this: The county’s basic mandated services – those that are required by law – can’t endure additional funding cuts.
The letter comes at a crucial moment in the county’s budget process, as officials battle a projected $30 million general fund deficit over the next two years. At their Sept. 16 board meeting, county administrator Bob Guenzel will be presenting budget recommendations, which will likely include job cuts. Commissioners – who are also elected – will spend the next two months deliberating, with the goal of adopting a 2010/2011 budget at their Nov. 18 meeting. County administration has tentatively set a public hearing devoted to the budget on Oct. 22.
Over the past few months, supporters of many human services programs funded by the county – from 4-H to Food Gatherers to vocational training for the developmentally disabled – have lobbied commissioners during their public meetings, making often-emotional pleas that programs not be cut.
Larry Kestenbaum, the county clerk/register of deeds, told The Chronicle on Thursday that he and other officials who sent the letter were concerned because there had been no voice of support for mandated services. Each of the five officials who signed the letter have responsibility for supervising mandated programs, ranging from staffing the county jail to prosecuting felonies and misdemeanors to recording documents like birth certificates and deeds.
Kestenbaum, who’s been designated as a spokesman for the group, said they aren’t attacking the value of the human services programs that the county funds. That’s why they’re proposing a millage specifically for that purpose, he said. But at the same time, they believe that mandated programs have already been cut to the bone and can’t sustain additional budget reductions.
This summer, commissioners passed the first phase of cuts to address the projected deficit. The $6.7 million in cuts included eliminating at least 26 jobs – many of them in departments responsible for mandated services – and reductions in compensation for non-union workers. The county administration has also been negotiating with union leaders over the past few months, hoping to gain wage and benefit concessions. About 1,000 of the county’s 1,350 employees are represented by 17 different bargaining units. If the unions don’t agree to concessions – at one point the county needed to gain as much as $12 million – then the next phase of budget cuts could be draconian, Kestenbaum said.
Though Thursday’s letter doesn’t propose a specific amount for the human services millage (see below for full text), Kestenbaum said that 1.5 mill would likely be adequate, raising about $22.5 million annually. Providing this funding mechanism for human services would help alleviate the budget pressure on mandated services, Kestenbaum said.
Currently, the county levies 4.5493 mills, and has a roughly $102 million general fund budget. [Previous Chronicle coverage of the county budget situation includes: "County Board: Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best"; "Opening Up the County Budget"; "Pizza, Payroll and Budget Pain"; "County Considers $12 Million More in Cuts"; and "County's Budget Crisis Gets Emotional."]
The group of five elected officials have been meeting regularly since early 2009 and have a good working relationship, Kestenbaum said. Much of their discussion has focused on the budget crisis. Knowing that commissioners would be presented with budget recommendations later this month, a week ago the group met for lunch at Quarter Bistro and decided to move ahead with a letter proposing the human services millage. Brian Mackie, the county’s prosecuting attorney, drafted the letter, with input from Kestenbaum, sheriff Jerry Clayton, treasurer Catherine McClary and water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin:
As office holders elected to provide essential services to all the people of this county, we have watched the budget process with great interest and growing concern. Having attended your committee and Board meetings, as well as the retreat held on April 11, we are concerned that competing demands for a vast array of programs and services have led to the lack of a clear Board consensus to adequately fund the basic mandated services that our citizens demand, pay for, and are entitled to as a matter of law and responsible government.
We have spent much time this year answering questions designed to inform the budget process. We have documented those services that are mandated by the Michigan Constitution and by statutes. We have worked through worst-case scenarios illustrating what would happen if the services we must provide were cut even further. These exercises further illustrated that across-the-board cuts, by whatever name, are not responsible. The essential services of county government – the reason that county government exists – cannot be cut further.
We are aware that the Board has a tradition of generous funding to non-governmental organizations that provide important human services. We also support these services. Clearly, however, county government can no longer provide tax money to generously support non-governmental agencies, and even certain important but non-mandated services within County government.
The commitment of members of this Board and the people who tirelessly lobby commissioners illustrates the strong support for human services in this community. To harness this support and provide adequate funding for these non-mandated services, we propose that a human services referendum be placed on the November 2010 ballot to fund those services that county government can no longer afford to support with current tax dollars.
We believe that the taxpayers should have a direct voice in determining if we should support good, though non-mandated services, and that service providers should become our partners in securing a sustainable source of funding by working for passage of such a millage. The likelihood of success is great when the cause is the right one. Recall, for example, that a millage to support Safe House passed in 1992 with over 60 percent of the vote. A human services millage would have an even wider potential base of support.
As county-wide elected officials, we commit to supporting and campaigning for a human services millage. We urge the Board to take the necessary action that will allow us to do so. We also urge the Board to adopt a budget that ranks those services mandated by the Constitution and state law as its highest priorities.
Kestenbaum said that the five elected officials had discussed a possible human services millage with commissioners earlier this year. “They were in a general way receptive,” he said, “but they didn’t pursue it.” Though the five department leaders are elected, just as county commissioners are, it’s the commissioners who hold the pursestrings, Kestenbaum noted. “This is a policy matter – this is for the Board of Commissioners to decide.”
Ultimately, if commissioners do put a human services millage on the November 2010 ballot, Washtenaw County voters would make the final decision.