Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Sept. 1, 2010): During a meeting that lasted less than 90 minutes – including a break for a photo op – commissioners covered a lot of ground at their first meeting following a scaled-back summer schedule.
Two millage-related issues were dispatched without discussion: making minor changes to ballot language for renewing the natural areas preservation program millage, and setting a Sept. 15 public hearing for renewal of an indigent veterans relief millage.
Commissioners gave initial approval, again without discussion, to transfer the use of $10 million in federal Recovery Zone Economic Development Bonds from the county to the Washtenaw Community College. WCC plans to use the bonds to fund construction of a parking structure.
Also getting initial approval was a resolution to authorize the county to issue dog license renewals year-round, and to add the option of a three-year license. Currently, one-year dog licenses can be bought starting Dec. 1 for the upcoming year.
An agreement with St. Joseph Mercy Health System was terminated, related to the operation of the Delonis Center – the county’s homeless shelter. The agreement, put in place when the shelter was conceived, called for St. Joe’s to step in and operate the center if the entity created to do that work – the Washtenaw Housing Alliance – couldn’t perform that task. The WHA subsequently subcontracted operations to the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County and Food Gatherers, which have been operating the shelter for eight years. St. Joe’s asked that they be released from the agreement, but will keep their representatives on the WHA board.
And after months of discussion and debate, the board approved two resolutions that revived the county’s land bank, which commissioners had voted to dissolve in March 2010. Leah Gunn dissented, and three commissioners – Ken Schwartz, Jessica Ping and Barbara Bergman – were absent. County treasurer Catherine McClary, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and Sabra Briere, an Ann Arbor city councilmember, attended the meeting to support the land bank, a tool used to help the county deal with foreclosed and blighted properties, and after the vote they all thanked the board for its action.
Land Bank Revived
The land bank, first formed in the summer of 2009, was dissolved in March 2010 after commissioners failed to reach consensus on issues of governance and funding. For background, see Chronicle coverage: “Banking on a Land Bank” (July 8, 2009 board meeting); and discussions during the county board meetings on March 17, 2010, July 7, 2010 and Aug. 4, 2010.
Land Bank: Public Commentary
Just as he’d done at the board’s March 17, 2010 meeting, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber told commissioners he was in favor of the land bank, and asked them to save it. He described the land bank as a tool that can enhance the work of the Washtenaw Urban County, a consortium of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and nine townships, responsible for allocating federal funding for low-income housing and other community development projects. Schreiber serves on the Urban County’s executive committee, which is chaired by county commissioner Leah Gunn.
Schreiber noted that during his recent primary campaign for mayor, he’d noticed that there were some neighborhoods with more foreclosure signs than campaign signs. Washtenaw County isn’t as bad as Genesee County, he said, but they can stem the tide here if they empower the land bank and look for funding sources. [Genesee County, where Flint is located, formed the state's first land bank several years ago.] Schreiber said he understood some of the commissioners’ concerns about funding and governance issues, and he asked for their patience. The land bank, he concluded, “is very important for Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township and I believe really the whole county.”
Land Bank: Commissioner Deliberations
Three resolutions were considered during the meeting: 1) a resolution proposed by Barbara Bergman to alter the composition of the land bank authority’s board in a substantive way, 2) a resolution that made changes to the original agreement forming the land bank, including some that related to the land bank authority board’s composition, and 3) a resolution to rescind the board’s previous vote to dissolve the land bank.
Commissioners first voted on Bergman’s resolution regarding the composition of the land bank’s governing body. Bergman, who was absent from Wednesday’s meeting, had introduced the resolution at the board’s Aug. 4 meeting, but it had been tabled. From The Chronicle’s report of that meeting:
The proposed intergovernmental agreement called for the board to consist of seven members: the county treasurer, two county commissioners, the mayor or councilmember from the city of Ann Arbor, the mayor or councilmember from the city of Ypsilanti, the supervisor of Ypsilanti Township, and a supervisor representing townships in the western part of the county. However, Bergman began the discussion by proposing an amendment to the intergovernmental agreement, to alter the composition of the land bank authority board. Her amendment would eliminate the requirement to have the Ypsilanti Township supervisor and a supervisor from western Washtenaw serve on the authority’s board.
In their place, Bergman proposed adding five other spots: 1) a representative from the banking industry, 2) a representative the local real estate industry, 3) a representative from local townships, recommended by the Michigan Townships Association, 4) an attorney recommended by the Washtenaw County Bar Association, and 5) a representative recommended by the Washtenaw County Home Builders Association. Her amendment required that all positions get final approval by the county board before being appointed.
There was no discussion regarding this resolution.
Outcome: Bergman’s resolution to change the composition of the land bank authority board failed. Casting dissenting votes were Kristin Judge, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Rolland Sizemore, and Conan Smith. Three commissioners – Bergman, Jessica Ping, and Ken Schwartz – were absent.
After the vote, Ronnie Peterson remarked that it seemed Mark Oiumet didn’t understand the resolution he had voted in favor of – Ouimet conceded that Peterson was correct, and that he had intended to vote no.
Peterson then asked corporation counsel Curtis Hedger to explain the resolutions they’d be voting on next. The board had given initial approval of these resolutions at their July 7 meeting, after a lengthy discussion that lasted more than an hour.
Hedger explained that second resolution would make four changes to the intergovernmental agreement that governs the land bank authority: 1) eliminating the position of sheriff from the authority’s board, 2) adding another county commissioner position, so that there would be two commissioners appointed to the authority’s board, 3) amending the agreement’s language so that votes would require a majority of the entire board, not just a majority of the quorum, and 4) strengthening the language so that the county board of commissioners would have the authority to terminate the land bank authority directly. [Previously, that power was held by the treasurer, though she had promised to abide by the county board's direction.]
The third resolution would rescind their March 17, 2010 decision to dissolve the land bank.
Before the vote, Sizemore asked county treasurer Catherine McClary whether the changes to the land bank would need state authorization as well – this had been required during the land bank’s first iteration. Yes, McClary said, the state Land Bank Fast Track Authority would need to approve the changes.
Sizemore then asked who would be responsible for seeking funds for the land bank. County administrator Verna McDaniel said it would be a collaborative effort, including her staff and the county/city of Ann Arbor Office of Community Development, which would explore possible federal funding.
Mark Ouimet noted that after their July meeting, when the board had discussed funding possibilities, he and McClary had met with officials of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and Washtenaw United Way, to explore possible funding from those groups. In order for the land bank to work, he said, they’ll need to find funding beyond government sources.
Prater said they shouldn’t forget about financial institutions, many of which have affiliated nonprofit foundations that might be able to provide funding. It’s in the best interests of those institutions to maintain property values, which a land bank will help do, he said. Prater said he believed it was possible to fund the land bank with sources outside of the county’s general fund.
Sizemore thanked officials from Genesee County for meeting with him and others last month to give advice about the land bank, and he thanked Peterson and McClary for pushing it along. In turn, Kristin Judge thanked Sizemore as well as McClary, saying it had been a group effort to get to this point. It’s been difficult to do, she said, but it’s worth trying. And if it doesn’t work, they can disband it again, she said.
Outcome: The two resolutions related to reinstituting the land bank were approved, with dissent from Leah Gunn. Commissioners Barbara Bergman, Jessica Ping and Ken Schwartz were absent.
Land Bank: Public Commentary, Round II
During the time for public commentary at the end of the meeting, three people spoke to thank commissioners for reinstituting the land bank.
Catherine McClary, the county treasurer, said she and her staff would definitely work with the county administrator to seek funding sources for the land bank. She also informed commissioners of a series free foreclosure prevention housing counseling seminars, organized by the Foreclosure Prevention Collaborative and held in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Manchester. The collaborative is a joint effort of the Washtenaw County treasurer’s office, the Michigan State University Extension, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, and Housing Bureau for Seniors.
Sabra Briere, who represents Ward 1 on the Ann Arbor city council, told commissioners that she served on the land bank authority board – or at least, she had been appointed to do so in its previous iteration, and hoped to continue to serve. She said she hopes they can find new ways to deal with foreclosure issues, which she described as heartbreaking. “The land bank’s just another tool, and I hope that we get to use it soon,” she said.
Paul Schreiber, Ypsilanti’s mayor, thanked commissioners and said he looked forward to working with them and with the county treasurer on the land bank.
Commissioner Response to Public Commentary
Ronnie Peterson thanked his colleagues, saying that the land bank was an effort to address problems on the east side of the county, which he represents, but also throughout the county. He noted that Leah Gunn, who had voted against the land bank, had been very responsive to needs of residents on the eastern side of Washtenaw County. He took it as a challenge to win her over, he said, and to find sufficient funding for the land bank. Gunn is an outstanding commissioner for all county residents, he concluded.
Indigent Veterans Relief Millage
The board gave initial approval to renew a 1/40 mill that would raise an estimated $362,415 for the care of indigent veterans who live in Washtenaw County. The tax was first levied two years ago and is administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs, led by director Mark R. Lindke.
The board is expected to give final approval at its Sept. 15 meeting. On Wednesday, commissioners also set a public hearing to be held during the Sept. 15 meeting to get input on the millage.
The county estimates that property owners would pay $2.50 for every $100,000 of their property’s taxable value. Because of a general decrease in property values, the county estimates the millage will raise about $30,000 less in 2011 than it did this year.
Legislation for this millage was enacted prior to the Headlee Amendment, and therefore does not require voter approval.
The Department of Veteran Affairs offers services that help local veterans tap state and federal resources. The county expects demand for these services will increase because of the tough economy, ongoing war in Afghanistan and military presence in Iraq, and increased awareness of the county program.
Commissioner Kristin Judge said she’d received very positive feedback from her constituents about the millage. She said she appreciates the work of the department, and that this millage provides the discretionary funding they need.
Commissioner Wes Prater asked how support for veterans is being coordinated with the funds administered by the county/city of Ann Arbor Office of Community Development, which addresses human services needs like housing. OCD director Mary Jo Callan, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, came to the podium and told Prater that there’s a coordinating committee for groups that provide services for people who are homeless or who have housing crises. The staff of the veterans affairs department frequently attends those meetings, she said. Callan said they can do better in coordinating services, but they are doing it to some extent already.
Prater responded by saying he’s received two calls from veterans who’ve attempted to get assistance through the county, and who felt that they weren’t being helped. It’s difficult to find jobs, Prater said, and these returning veterans really need support.
Stimulus Bonds Transferred to WCC
At their March 2010 meeting, the Washtenaw County Economic Development Corp. discussed a quandary: the county had been allocated $33.066 million worth of federal tax-free bonds for private-sector projects, but no firms had stepped up to apply for them.
These Recovery Zone Facility Bonds were allocated as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and expire at the end of 2010. In addition, another $22.044 million in federal Recovery Zone Economic Development Bonds had been allocated to the county for public projects – those, too, were unused.
On Wednesday, commissioners gave initial approval to transfer the use of $10 million of the Recovery Zone Economic Development Bonds from the county to Washtenaw Community College. In July, WCC officials had formally asked the county for use of the bonds to fund construction of a parking structure on its campus. The board is expected to vote on final approval of the transfer at its Sept. 15 meeting.
The Recovery Zone Economic Development bonds aren’t tax-free – interest generated by the bonds is taxable. However, the public body issuing the bonds – in this case, WCC – will get a tax credit equal to 45% of the interest on the bonds. By comparison, traditional tax-free government bonds typically save the governmental issuer approximately 35% of the interest cost on that bond.
There was no discussion of the bond transfer at Wednesday’s meeting. However, at an administrative briefing held on Aug. 25 to discuss the agenda, commissioner Wes Prater asked whether the bonds could be used for bridge construction – either for the East Stadium bridges in Ann Arbor, or for some of the bridges that the Washtenaw County Road Commission is responsible for.
Responding to a follow-up email from The Chronicle, Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that those bonds could be used for public infrastructure projects such as bridges and roads, if the governmental entity responsible for such bridges and roads was willing to bond for those projects.
Separately, the city of Ann Arbor was allocated up to $11.511 million worth of Recovery Zone Economic Development bonds. At its Aug. 5, 2010 meeting, the city council designated the entire city as a “recovery zone” – a step necessary in order to issue the bonds. At this point, however, no projects using these bonds have been proposed for the city. In August, the city applied for TIGER II grants from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to fund the East Stadium bridges replacement project, estimated to cost about $23 million.
St. Joe’s Agreement for the Delonis Center
Commissioners voted to terminate a joint operating and lease agreement with St. Joseph Mercy Health System for the Delonis Center, the county’s homeless shelter. The agreement had been signed at the shelter’s inception, when St. Joe’s agreed to take over the lease and operations of the center if the entity created to handle those responsibilities – the Washtenaw Housing Alliance – failed to do so. The agreement also gave WHA board members from St. Joe’s a greater level of responsibility in approving budgets and out-of-budget expenditures.
There was no discussion of the resolution to terminate the agreement during Wednesday’s meeting. However, during an administrative briefing for commissioners held on Aug. 25, county administrator Verna McDaniel said that St. Joe’s has been discussing this possibility for several months. They felt it was time to take a step back from the operations, though they’ll retain seats on the WHA board of directors and remain a “quiet force,” McDaniel said. Kathleen Rhine, vice president of administrative services for St. Joseph Mercy Health System, serves as president of WHA’s board of directors, and Yvonne Gellise, the system’s senior advisor for governance, is a board member.
Also at the administrative briefing, commissioner Barbara Bergman expressed concern about whether the county/city of Ann Arbor Office of Community Development had sufficient staff to take on support for the Delonis Center. McDaniel said that OCD’s director, Mary Jo Callan, is careful to make sure her staff has adequate resources for the projects that they tackle. So far, McDaniel added, they haven’t had to ask for general fund support – they’ve been able to find grants and other funding sources to do the work.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. noted that OCD had taken on several additional responsibilities over the past year, as had Callan. “I just don’t want to burn her out,” he said.
Leah Gunn described St. Joe as having been a great partner in the Delonis Center. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to them,” she said. Bergman suggested finding some way to publicly acknowledge the role that St. Joe’s played.
Transfer of Travel Money Tabled
During the time for commissioners to propose items for current or future discussion, Kristin Judge made a motion to approve the transfer of no more than $1,300 from commissioner Ronnie Peterson’s flex account, to be moved into Judge’s account. The funding would be used for travel, Judge said. Peterson supported the motion.
By way of background, in 2009 commissioners approved the creation of flex accounts that pooled previous line items for per diem, travel, and convention/conference expenses. The budget calls for $3,550 per commissioner for these accounts. When the accounts were approved, three commissioners – Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin and Barbara Bergman – voted against the change.
On Wednesday, noting that she had voted against flex accounts, Gunn said she didn’t feel that commissioners should spend more than they are allocated. Given the demand for county services, anything that’s left over should return to the general fund, she said.
Conan Smith moved to table the proposal until the Sept. 15 meeting – his motion passed, with dissent from Judge, Peterson and Prater.
Peterson asked that the board be provided with all policies related to the flex accounts prior to their Sept. 15 meeting. Judge explained that she exceeded her allocation because of her work on a cyber-citizen coalition, an initiative she’s spearheading to address Internet-related crime. The effort is being recognized by the National Initiative on Cybersecurity Education, based in Washington, D.C. Judge said she traveled to D.C. to participate in a NICE meeting, and she hopes to get grant funding for the Washtenaw effort. A kick-off event for that effort is set for Oct. 6 from 8-10 a.m. Internet crime is the No. 1 concern of constituents, Judge said, adding that Washtenaw County needs to stay at the forefront of efforts to address it.
Natural Areas Preservation Program Millage
At their Aug. 4, 2010 meeting, commissioners voted to put a millage renewal on the Nov. 2 ballot to fund the county’s natural areas preservation program. At the request of the county clerk’s office, which oversees elections, on Wednesday the board approved three minor revisions to ballot language for the NAPP millage. The changes include shortening the title of the ballot proposal to “Natural Areas Millage Renewal”; specifying that the ballot proposal is “Proposal A”; and capitalizing the proposal’s first word.
The 10-year millage was first approved by voters in 2000, and will have generated about $27.5 million by the time it expires. The 0.2409 mill tax is expected to raise roughly $3.5 million in annual revenues if approved by voters in November.
Changes to Dog Licensing
Commissioners gave initial approval to year-round dog license renewals, and added the option of a three-year dog license. Currently, only a one-year dog license is available for purchase starting Dec. 1 for the upcoming year. Under the existing system, dog owners have until March 1 to buy a one-year license before their previous license expires.
The board also approved a new fee schedule: Licenses will cost $1 a month for a maximum of 3 years for spayed or neutered dogs, or $2 a month for unaltered dogs. A final vote on the changes is expected at the board’s Sept. 15 meeting.
Census 2010 Coda
Toine Murphy, a partnership specialist from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Detroit office, returned to the board – he had spoken at the March 3, 2010 meeting to mark the Census 2010 kick-off – and gave a brief update and thanks for commissioners’ help in achieving a high participation rate.
Washtenaw County had a 79% participation rate, he said – higher than the state and national averages. He presented each commissioner with a plaque commemorating the count, and asked if it would be appropriate to take a group photo for the bureau’s newsletter. The board accommodated his request, taking a short recess to gather for some quick picture-taking.
Other Photo Ops – On CTN
During Wednesday’s meeting, board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked the county’s new deputy administrator, Bill Reynolds, to introduce his two sons. When Reynolds noted that it appeared the boys had retreated to his office, Sizemore quipped, “We will get them and we will remind them that they are on TV.” [The meetings are broadcast live on Community Network Television (CTN).]
The boys – Cedric, 12, and 10-year-old Keenan – soon returned to the boardroom and approached the podium, as their father introduced them as two of the area’s newest residents. Reynolds noted that they’d been through this drill before, at his previous job. [Before being hired by Washtenaw County earlier this year, Reynolds led the county administration in Chippewa County, Wisc.] The boys received a round of applause, then Cedric waved to the camera and said, “Bye-bye, people!”
A similar scene was repeated the following night at the board’s Sept. 2 working session, when commissioner Jeff Irwin’s family dropped by prior to the meeting. Sizemore urged Irwin to bring his young daughter, Sylvia, to the podium for an introduction. Irwin obliged, introducing her as “one of our newer citizens in Washtenaw.”
At Irwin’s prompting, Sylvia said, “Hello, Washtenaw County!” Sizemore joked that “she already talks better than you, Jeff.”
During the Sept. 1 board meeting, Thomas Partridge spoke three times during the evening. During one of his speaking turns, after berating the two Republican commissioners – Jessica Ping and Mark Ouimet, who represent Districts 3 and 1, respectively – Partridge declared himself a write-in Democratic candidate for District 3, which covers the southwest quadrant of the county. He said those districts had suffered neglect, and that Democrats must stand up for a progressive agenda. It was embarrassing, Partridge said, that Republican candidates boast about how much money they spend to get elected, specifically citing Ouimet and Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder, the GOP candidate for governor. They put businesses first, Partridge said, not employees, or the unemployed, or senior citizens, who make up a large percentage of voters.
Partridge also criticized commissioners for transferring the $10 million allocation of recovery bonds to Washtenaw Community College for a parking structure. Instead, that amount – at a minimum – should go toward basic human services, he said, such as affordable housing, health care, public transit and education.
During the time available for commissioners to respond to public commentary, Leah Gunn said that Partridge’s partisan attacks were offensive to her personally. [Gunn is a Democrat.] She said she’s worked with Ouimet and Ping during a very difficult year, when the board had to cut $30 million out of the budget. During that time, Gunn noted that Ouimet has served as vice chair of the board, and Ping is chair of the working session. All the commissioners worked as a team, she said, adding “I do not appreciate his [Partridge's] partisan attacks.”
Present: Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith.
Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Jessica Ping, Ken Schwartz
Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 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. (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. [confirm date]