Column: Limited Edition

Washtenaw County's unions decided to be part of the solution

In my favorite movie “Animal House,” John Belushi delivers a classic line: “Over? Nothing is over until we say it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no, and it ain’t over now!”

With the same level of determination and a lot more smarts, 700 members of AFSCME Local 2733 and members of six other smaller bargaining units gave back contract benefits totaling about $6.6 million to help reduce Washtenaw County’s projected 2010-11 budget deficit. I have lived in Ann Arbor 49 years and do not recall a similar circumstance. Were county services over? Were the jobs of up to 150 union members over? The Locals said “Hell, no.”

It was a big deal.

The big deal wasn’t the savings of $6.6 million. It was the commitment of more than 700 union members. They got involved and were part of the solution. Likely they will stay involved, taking an even greater interest in county government and providing a balancing oversight for future spending practices. These unions now have a dog in the hunt.

My grandfather knew something about dogs. On a hot summer night, he used to sit in his rickety rocker on a wooden porch in the foothills near Maggie Valley. I may have had a good day, or I may have had a bad day … but his response to the report of how my day went was always the same. “Sonny, just remember – the sun don’t shine on the same dawg’s ass every day.” So before I went to bed that night, everything was put back in a more balanced perspective: That day was neither a good day nor a bad day, and I slept a lot better because of his wisdom.

I think the sun might shine on the ass of the county unions’ dog in the not-too-distant future – hopefully to the tune of restoring the $6.6 million in wages that they gave up for the betterment of their members and the people of Washtenaw County.

Like the county, the city of Ann Arbor is also facing a financial deficit. Their director of labor relations, Robyn Wilkerson, is currently negotiating five contracts that have already expired. She reportedly stated that she is not completely sure of what that deficit might be. That’s not a good sign.  If you don’t know where you are, it’s hard to negotiate you way to where you need to be.

Over the years, I have known all of the city administrators going back to Guy Larcom in the early 60s, and I’ve spent too many of those years auditing the financial accounts of the city. Administrators in many other cities have a very short shelf life – not much longer than an opened can of white albacore tuna. In recent years, the city has been fortunate to have the services of its current administrator, Roger Fraser.

The number of full-time city employees has been significantly reduced during his tenure. Roger believes that frequently work expands to fill the size of the workplace. The only way to gain efficiencies is to eliminate positions and see if the work goes away without impairing city operations.

The city’s finances are more complex than those of the county. The county takes in property taxes, fees and government subsidies, pays for recording/collection operations (via the clerk and treasurer), maintains county drains, staffs the sheriff’s department and operates the jail.

The city, on the other hand, has more separate funds and fiefdoms. And in the distant past, all of the Downtown Development Authority revenues were going into the city’s general fund to pay for police, fire, streets and sewers, parks, assessor, human resources, etc.

Now, the parking structure/lot revenues go to the DDA to pay for parking operations and for improvements downtown. Plus, the increase in property taxes within the DDA district –the “increment” in tax-increment financing (TIF) – goes to the DDA. To determine accurately the city’s projected financial deficit, the working capital and the projected revenue and expenses of all of the funds – including those of the DDA – need to be considered. I agree with Robyn at this point: I am not exactly sure of what the projected deficit number might be.

But as John Belushi said, “Nothing is over until we say it is.” So let’s hope that the city and its employees can also work together in solving what will be an increasingly difficult financial position over the next three years.

About the writer: Del Dunbar, a CPA and partner with Dunbar & Martel, has lived in Ann Arbor since the 1960s.


  1. By LIsa PT
    October 18, 2009 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    I’m no history major, but I know who bombed Perl Harbor. Please fix?

  2. By Mary Morgan
    October 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm | permalink


    Del accurately quoted the line from “Animal House,” which reflects the fact that Belushi’s character was an idiot and didn’t know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I believe that’s why Del refers to the union members as having “a lot more smarts.”

  3. By LIsa PT
    October 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm | permalink

    Thanks Mary, I hoped it was something like that. Guess I need to watch more movies.

  4. October 19, 2009 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Del, for taking note of what the County staff has done for all of us. It’s about union jobs to be sure, but more than anything it’s about maintaining a mess of critical services in a very tough time. The jobs they saved through these concessions include everything from Head Start to public health to environmental protection. The County would be a much less wonderful and supportive place to live next year without their generosity.

    Our unions were under no obligation to come to the table this year since they were operating under signed contracts, so I’m really overwhelmed by their willingness to be, as you say, a part of the solution. In a very real way the people of Washtenaw will benefit from their commitment to put the needs of the county and its residents before their own.

  5. By D
    October 20, 2009 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    Commish Smith,
    Why don’t you and your fat cat Commisioners cut their budgets? Do you really need all that money for subscriptions, travel, and training? Do you really need a stipend for actually attending the meetings you were elected to attend? Not to mention, you are already getting a salary for doing this. These facts are not lost by the rest of the employees that are being shook down. Your move first Mr. Smith.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am | permalink

    Doesn’t it seem like Chronicle comments are getting meaner, more sarcastic, more aggressive, less respectful, less Generous lately? Maybe it’s anonymity, or maybe it’s just a cost of success–as this place gets more established, it attracts more of the commenters that make traditional newspaper sites such a hell on earth.

  7. By AntiRedRidersNo1
    October 21, 2009 at 11:21 am | permalink

    Mostly, it is is the same 5-10 posters who usually post on the same topics and recite the same lines. It’s tiresome, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen not read Arbor Update anymore.

    It was heartening to see that a story about a very real issue, that of the WISD millage, had more comments than one about a piece of art or some dam.

  8. October 21, 2009 at 11:48 am | permalink

    #7: We need fewer anonymous posters. Its hard to take someone seriously who is ashamed to attach their name to their viewpoint.

  9. By Brian
    October 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    It is also interesting to see an anonymous poster criticize someone in government who had to make a tough decision impacting employees. Clearly “D” is one of those and chose to take it out on Mr. Smith w/o reading the news about the economic times we are in.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the county commissioners haven’t had a pay raise in the last several years while county employees received one nearly every year during that period. It is quite hypocritical to now claim the county board should take a pay cut. I don’t know what they make, but it can’t be that much, stipend or not. Maybe if they had been getting raises all along… Otherwise, move on.

  10. By D
    October 22, 2009 at 4:25 pm | permalink

    D is a county employee and worried about D’s job. Thanks for the offer of “insight” about D’s motivation though, Brian. D listed facts, not suppositions. If you were really paying attention to the issues and news regarding the concessions, Brian, you would know these things. Nothing D said is inaccurate. Are you seriously going to take the BOC’s side on this and say they make too little? These people should be doing this as a calling, not as a job. Most have other jobs. I don’t feel sorry for them if they have to unsubscribe to Newsweek for the rest of the year. The unions are expected to make most of the sacrifice. Not until the unions demanded that non-union make the first move was there any serious consideration for the non-union cuts. And those cuts are not set in stone. They can be reversed at any time.

  11. By D
    October 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm | permalink

    Brian, by the way…the BOC and Admin aren’t the only ones who have to make tough decisions.