County Board Acts on Millages, Fees, Bonds

Meeting scant on discussion, public commentary

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Sept. 15, 2010): In a meeting remarkable mainly for its brevity – lasting less than 30 minutes – county commissioners on Wednesday passed several resolutions, ranging from approval of a millage that funds services for indigent veterans to new fees for remote-access online searching and copying of land records from the county register of deeds database.

Yousef Rabhi, Leah Gunn, Jim Dries

Yousef Rabhi, left, who won the District 11 Democratic primary for county commissioner, talks with commissioner Leah Gunn (District 9) and Jim Dries, chief deputy clerk, before the Sept. 15 county board meeting.

No one spoke during any of the four opportunities for public commentary, nor did anyone speak at a public hearing for the indigent veterans millage. The board set another public hearing for Oct. 6 to seek input on an economic development millage it plans to levy.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the board passed the five-year master plan for Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation, and gave initial approval to backing a bond for a $2.8 million Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority project. The project will include a facility upgrade to handle single-stream recycling.

The board also approved a $6.5 million first-quarter budget and personnel changes for the Community Support & Treatment Services (CSTS) department, which operates under a fiscal year that’s aligned with the state and begins on Oct. 1. CSTS is in the process of merging with the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan Health System. The board got an update on that merger at its Sept. 16 working session.

Millages for Vets, Economic Development

Commissioners acted on two millages at Wednesday’s meeting, giving final approval to one and setting a public hearing – plus initial approval – for another.

The board set a public hearing for Oct. 6 to get input on levying an economic development tax of 0.043 mills. Known as the Act 88 millage, it is expected to generate roughly $611,266 annually and would cost homeowners $4.30 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. The board is expected to vote on the millage at its Oct. 6 meeting.

It’s a slight increase over last year, when the board levied 0.04 mills under Act 88, and allocated funds to Ann Arbor SPARK, the Eastern Leaders Group, 4-H activities, horticulture/MSU Extension, agricultural innovation/MSU Extension, the Food System Economic Partnership, heritage tourism and the director’s job of the county Economic Development and Energy Department. So far, no specific allocation has been designated for the 2011 Act 88 funds. The resolution setting the public hearing simply stated that the board has the “option of assigning some of the generated funds to a non-profit organization which is engaged in the purpose of advertising the advantages of and encouraging trade within the County.”

Also on Wednesday, the board held a public hearing and gave final approval to levy 1/40 mill for indigent veterans’ relief. No one spoke at the hearing. The millage does not require voter approval and would raise an estimated $362,415 for services to local veterans. It was first passed two years ago, and cost homeowners $2.50 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. The funds are administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs, led by director Mark R. Lindke.

County Parks & Rec Master Plan

The board adopted a five-year master plan for the county’s parks and recreation department, spanning 2010-2014. Highlights of the plan were presented at a Sept. 2 working session of the board, and a draft is posted on the parks and recreation website. The master plan must be updated and adopted by the county every five years in order to qualify for certain state grants. The city of Ann Arbor is going through a similar process, updating its Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, known as PROS.

Among the projects in the county’s master plan are upgrades to the County Farm Park and Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, Cavanaugh Lake County Park, Independence Lake County Park, Osborne Mills Preserve, Pierce Lake Golf Course and Park, and several others. [.pdf file of action plan]

At the Sept. 2 working session, parks and recreation director Bob Tetens told commissioners that the department had been formed in the 1970s with land given to it by the county road commission. At the time, it was “not much more than a roadside picnic stand with a table and trash barrel,” Tetens said. Now, the system maintains 1,943 acres of parkland and 1,857 acres of nature preserves across the county.

The acquisition of nature preserves is attributable to a 10-year, 0.25 mill tax passed in 2000 to support the natural areas preservation program, known as NAPP. Since then, the county has established 17 new nature preserves. The millage will have generated about $27.5 million by the time it expires.

The NAPP millage is up for renewal this year, and commissioners have previously voted to put it on the Nov. 2 ballot.  Because of Headlee rollbacks, the renewal rate will be slightly lower – 0.2409 mill – and is expected to raise roughly $3 million in annual revenues if it passes.

At the Sept. 2 working session, commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. called the parks and recreation system “one of the jewels of this county.”

Bonds for Recycling, WCC

The board gave initial approval to backing a bond for a Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority project. The $2.8 million project would expand and upgrade WWRA facilities, including the addition of equipment for single-stream recycling. The facility serves Chelsea and the townships of Bridgewater, Dexter, Lima and Lyndon. Sylvan Township, Manchester Township and the village of Manchester are expected to be served by the facility in the future.

There was no discussion of the project at Wednesday’s meeting, but during the Sept. 8 administrative briefing – held to review the upcoming agenda – Leah Gunn, one of the commissioners representing Ann Arbor, asked why the western Washtenaw municipalities weren’t using the Ann Arbor Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), which was recently upgraded to handle single-stream recycling.

Commissioner Mark Ouimet, whose district covers parts of the county’s west side, said he’d asked that same question of Frank Hammer, chair of the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority’s board. Apparently, Ouimet said, there are some townships that don’t want to deal with Ann Arbor. When Gunn pointed out that MRF has contracts with Lansing and Toledo, Ouimet said, “It’s like anything else – it seems to be an issue of control.”

Ken Schwartz – a commissioner who represents the townships of Ann Arbor, Superior, Salem and Northfield, and portions of Webster Township – noted that he serves on the county’s board of public works, which will be establishing special assessments to pay for the bond over 15 years. He said the sentiment on the west side of the county is that their recycling efforts have been successful because of the local focus.

If all eight communities participate, the assessment will be about $21 annually per household. If only the current five communities are part of the project, that assessment will be roughly $29 per household. In addition, $26 per household in the townships and $44 for Chelsea and Manchester residents would be assessed annually to cover ongoing maintenance and operations. Schwartz said he didn’t expect there’d be much opposition to the project.

The county board is expected to vote on final approval for the bond at its Oct. 6 meeting.

Also on Wednesday, commissioners gave final approval 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. The county has been allocated just over $22 million for this type of bond as part of the 2009 federal stimulus bill, but has not used any of its allocation, which expires at the end of 2010.

Fees: Land Records, Dog Licenses

County clerk Larry Kestenbaum and chief deputy clerk Jim Dries both attended Wednesday’s meeting, on hand to answer any possible questions regarding a resolution related to their office: Fees for remote online-access searching and copying of digital land records.

The board gave initial approval to the resolution, which sets the following fee schedule:

  • Single document reproduction: $1.20 per page
  • One week unlimited search and reproduction: $400 per week
  • One month unlimited search and reproduction: $1,300 per month
  • Annual unlimited search and reproduction: $12,000 per year (unchanged)
  • Records can be searched for free at the register of deeds office during business hours.

The county has an electronic database of property record images dating back to January 1969. According to a memo accompanying Wednesday’s resolution, the database is used by homeowners, realtors, title insurers, financial institutions, legal professionals, law enforcement, local and regional planners, real estate developers and local assessors to determine ownership of real property and to identify any encumbrances that may affect such ownership.

Previously, fees were paid annually or on a per-copy basis via remote online access. The clerk/register of deeds office expects to bring in $7,800 in monthly revenues from the fees.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the board gave final approval to year-round dog license renewals, with the added option of a three-year dog license. Currently, a one-year dog license is available for purchase starting Dec. 1 for the upcoming year. 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.

The licenses are administered by the county treasurer’s office. Applications can be filled out online.

CSTS Budget Approved

The board approved a $6.5 million budget for the Community Support & Treatment Services (CSTS) department for the first quarter of its fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The approval included included several personnel changes related to the CSTS merger with the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), which is in progress. The WCHO is a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan Health System. CSTS provides mental health services under contract with the WCHO, which offers a range of services for residents, including ones related to substance abuse.

The board got an update on the merger at their Sept. 16 working session from Patrick Barrie, WCHO’s executive director, and Donna Sabourin, CSTS director.

Transfer of Travel Money Item Removed from Agenda

At the Sept. 1, 2010 board meeting, commissioner Kristin Judge had proposed transferring no more than $1,300 from commissioner Ronnie Peterson’s expense account, to be moved into her own account. According to Judge, the funding would be used to cover travel expenses. From Chronicle coverage:

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. [at Washtenaw Community College's Morris Lawrence Building]. 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.

However, at the Sept. 1 meeting, commissioner Leah Gunn objected to the transfer. Conan Smith moved to table action on it until Sept. 15, which the board agreed to do – with dissent from Judge and Peterson.

The item appeared on Wednesday’s agenda, but during the meeting Judge asked that it be removed from consideration. There was no additional discussion.

Misc. Communications

Two commissioners gave updates during the time set aside for items for current or future discussion.

Wes Prater reported that at their last meeting, Washtenaw County road commissioners reviewed a five-year, $30 million capital improvement plan (CIP), from 2011-2015. Those $30 million in road projects will be funded from the Michigan Transportation Fund. However, Prater said, another $101 million in road projects for the county are unfunded, and the road commission is still looking for funds to replace six bridges that are out, mostly located in the western part of the county.

Kristin Judge told her colleagues that the SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) legislative task force had held its first meeting earlier that day. She and Saline mayor Gretchen Driskell are members. The group looked at possible issues that they might lobby for at the state and federal levels, Judge said, including transportation, brownfield redevelopment and regional collaboration.

There was consensus that Michgian needs a new tax structure, she said, and that if SEMCOG and other groups can come together on the issue with one strong voice, there might be opportunity to get something done in Lansing – especially with new legislators and a new governor coming into office. [Gov. Jennifer Granholm and many state legislators are term-limited and can't seek reelection.] Judge noted that the group of new legislators might include some current commissioners – Republican Mark Ouimet and Democrat Jeff Irwin won their primaries for state representative in Districts 52 and 53, respectively.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith.

Absent: Jessica Ping

Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 6, 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]