County Board Connects, Hard Choices Loom

Public safety, service delivery among budget priorities

Washtenaw County board of commissioners retreat (Jan. 29, 2011): A budget retreat for county commissioners last Saturday – also attended by other elected county officials and staff – laid some groundwork for tackling Washtenaw County’s two-year, $20.9 million projected deficit.

Washtenaw County board of commissioners retreat

At their Jan. 29 retreat, Washtenaw County commissioners, staff and other elected officials gathered to talk about the county's budget priorities. The retreat was led by commissioner Conan Smith, the board's chair, who's sitting in the center of the horseshoe table. Other participants are sitting around the room's perimeter, off camera. (Photos by the writer.)

While no decisions were made, the group took steps toward reaching consensus on budget priorities. They identified among their main concerns: public safety, service delivery and human services. At the end of the five-hour session, several commissioners cited the main benefit of the day as building closer relationships with each other, which they hope will help the board and other elected officials – including the sheriff, prosecuting attorney and treasurer – work together more effectively as they make difficult decisions about programs and services to cut.

The retreat was led by board chair Conan Smith, who structured the day with time for sharing individual priorities and concerns, combined with small group work to discuss specific outcomes the commissioners hope will result from those priorities. For example, if public safety is a priority, a possible outcome might be the goal of responding to a 911 call in 20 minutes or less. The county could then budget its resources to achieve that outcome.

Though these kinds of examples emerged during the retreat, the work of setting priorities will continue. Smith said the goal is to develop a formal board resolution outlining their priorities, to guide the budget-setting process. The board will hold its next retreat on Wednesday, Feb. 9 from 6-9 p.m., immediately following its 5:30 p.m. administrative briefing. Both meetings are public, and will be held at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.

The county’s fiscal year mirrors the calendar year, and budgets are developed on two-year cycles. The current budget runs through the end of 2011. While there will likely be some additional cuts this year, most discussions are focused on the 2012-2013 budget, which commissioners will be asked to approve by the end of this year. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "'State of County' Tackles $20M Deficit"]

This report summarizes Saturday’s discussions of personal priorities, aspirations for Washtenaw County, budget priorities, and reflections on the process. For breakout sessions, we covered the group focused on public safety. By day’s end there were threads of optimism – Yousef Rabhi, one of four new commissioners, said he felt inspired that they were starting to work not just as a team, but “almost as a family.” But notes of caution were sounded as well, as veteran commissioner Wes Prater told the group that “the most difficult part is yet to come.”

Setting the Stage: Personal Priorities

After a discussion about what participants hoped to get out of the retreat, Conan Smith asked each person to tell the group why they got involved in county government. Here’s a summary of their remarks. [Unless otherwise indicated, the speakers are county commissioners.]

Kristin Judge (D-District 7): Issues of public safety, and her activism against Walmart – because of the safety issues the store in Pittsfield Township posed – caused her to run for office. Judge said she also got involved in county government to help create the kind of community where she wanted to raise her family, and to show her children that it’s important to be part of the process.

Catherine McClary (county treasurer): McClary said she was motivated to provide services to county residents in a non-bureaucratic way – so that people can access the county’s services without necessarily knowing the right number to call.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3): She noted that her sister Jessica Ping had been involved in county government, and that they talked about county issues a lot. [Jessica Ping, who previously held the District 3 seat, did not run for re-election in 2010. Prior to her election to the county board, Alicia Ping served on the Saline city council.] Services provided by the county are less “in your face,” Ping said, so it’s important to communicate to residents and let them know what they’re getting for their tax dollars.

Conan Smith (D-District 10): For residents of Ann Arbor, county government is largely invisible, Smith said. Six years ago, when he first came into office, he said he couldn’t have articulated all of its services – but he did know that the county did things that were visionary, and that was exciting. Smith cited the blueprint to end homelessness as an example. It was a critical issue then, and now it’s beyond critical – “but we have vision to deal with that,” he said. Similarly, the county has taken the lead in literacy and environmental issues. He didn’t see other governments approaching problem-solving in the same way, and he wanted to be part of that. It was inspirational, Smith said, and “I hope we keep doing that kind of stuff.”

Barbara Bergman (D-District 8): When Bergman worked as a social worker in the 1970s, she said she discovered that if you knew your county commissioner and the federal bureaucrat for your region, “you could get things for kids.” The county had the staff to work through the bureaucracy and get funds for child protection and youth services. That’s an important service, she said.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11): Rabhi recalled that when he was knocking on doors during his campaign for county commissioner last year, no one knew what the county did. “That’s a concern for me,” he said, because people need to know how their tax dollars are spent. His hope is to engage the residents in what the county does. The county cares about people – his top priority is providing people-oriented services, especially for people who are struggling. There’s a connection between services that the county provides, and economic growth, he noted. The environment and transportation issues are important, too, and the county plays a role in those as well. Within the county, there are 28 municipalities, Rabhi said. People should be willing to work together for better efficiencies in these areas – that’s the direction they should be going.

Leah Gunn (D-District 9): Gunn said she was first introduced to county government in the “ancient year” of 1972. Over the years she’s seen it become more visionary and proactive. She said she was proud that she worked on the homelessness task force, the blueprint to end homelessness, and the Delonis Center – the county’s homeless shelter. Less well-known is the fact that in 1988, voters in the county approved a millage to build SafeHouse, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Voters are generous, she said – they created the county’s park system, and its natural area preservation program. But the biggest crisis the county has now is in providing services, Gunn said: “The safety net is full of holes, and we need to do something about that.”

Dan Smith (R-District 2): His concern is the responsible management of “precious dollars” that taxpayers give the county. They need to find a way not to kick the can down the road. It’s their job to provide basic services, the core infrastructure of a county treasurer, clerk, water resources commissioner, and public safety services like the sheriff, prosecutor, and courts. That needs to be the No. 1 priority, Smith said.

Wes Prater (D-District 4): Prater’s primary interest is public safety. To have a decent quality of life, it’s mandatory to have good public safety, he said. The county needs to do a better job of performance management and tracking results – though he added that the sheriff’s office is doing a much better job at that than he can ever remember. The courts are very important, too – most commissioners support the courts, he said, and expect them to do a good job. That’s true for the prosecuting attorney too, he said.

Prater talked about a series of public planning forums that had been organized a few years ago by Tony VanDerworp, director of the county’s energy and economic development department. Feedback from the public was that transportation overall was the No. 1 priority – and the biggest element of that was roads. It’s still a major issue, Prater said, and will become more of an issue as revenues from the state continue to fall. Without state funding, it falls to local government to keep roads from deteriorating further. He pointed out that several municipalities have millages for road repair, which gives them more control. That’s going to become a major issue in this county, he said. He told the group they should keep in mind that unlike Washtenaw County, a number of counties have road commissions that are elected [as opposed to appointed].

Bill Reynolds (deputy county administrator): Reynolds said he still believes in the nobility of public service. County government is about people, he said. As a child of the system, Reynolds said, he fully recognizes the value of having services to take care of people. Every person they lose could be the person who changes the future.

Bob Tetens (director, county parks & recreation): Tetens said he first joined the county in 1978, working in the planning department. He worked on an inventory of county services, and helped develop units of measurement for county services. Over six months of doing the inventory, he said he was amazed on a daily basis with all the things that the county was involved in. It’s rewarding to see the county’s impact on the community. He left county government for several years, but said he returned because he wanted to have an impact. His main concern now is for stability – how do they implement a managed transition?

Rolland Sizemore Jr., Kristin Judge

County commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Kristin Judge at the Jan. 29 retreat.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5): Sizemore said he doesn’t remember a time when his family wasn’t in politics. Some people in the room have a more formal education, he noted, but he’s got street smarts from the streets of Ypsilanti. He said he likes to consider himself a fixer, and he likes to deal with “little guys and little programs.” He helped set up a place for kids to go after school, and vandalism dropped in that apartment complex. Some people just need a little bit of hope, he said, and that’s what he tries to give them.

Rob Turner (R-District 1): Turner’s main focus is on the local level – he served on the Chelsea school board for nine years, and said he loves serving the public. Former county commissioner Mark Ouimet approached him about running, Turner said, by saying it was an opportunity to serve more people. [Ouimet was elected to the state House in November, representing District 52.] On the school board, they learned how to streamline services with ever-shrinking resources, Turner said. The county government isn’t here to take your money, he said. It’s here to provide services, to help people get back on their feet and be productive citizens, so that they in turn can help others.

Dan Dwyer (Washtenaw County Trial Court administrator and mayor of Plymouth): Dwyer talked about his career – he had worked in probation for the state Dept. of Corrections in Wayne County. That system was geared toward volume, he said – getting people through the system as quickly as possible. In the 10 years he worked there, he said he didn’t get to know the judges or prosecutors. Then he came to Washtenaw County to run probation and got to know judges and others in the system. They were less focused on volume, and more on the quality of service. Next he ran the correctional facility in Ypsilanti, and he was at that job when he got a call from Judge Timothy Connors, for the job of trial court administrator. Dwyer said he’d finally found a place where justice is done the right way.

Brian Mackie (county prosecuting attorney): Mackie started by quipping that his personal priority is “about restoring balance in the universe.” He grew up poor in a rich community, and he hated the government. Every once in a while they’d see a sheriff’s deputy or the cops, usually coming to take a neighbor away. So Mackie said he became what he thought would be a lifelong defense attorney. He worked at the free legal aid office in Wayne County, and described two clients in particular who pushed him toward being a prosecutor.

One was a woman who killed one of her children, and abused her other child. He won her case. Another client murdered someone in a hotel, but pled the charge down to attempted manslaughter – he won that case, too. Mackie said he felt that a lot of people dropped the ball. Balance, he decided, would be restored by getting into prosecution. Mackie reminded the group that there was another motivation they all had: “There’s ego involved – we think we can do a better job.” If they’re going to have a decent community, it needs to be a safe community. He noted that most victims are poor, or just trying to make a living – like the small business owner that gets stuck with bad checks. They have a huge obligation to do the best job they possibly can in serving the county’s 346,00 people, he said.

Jerry Clayton (sheriff): Clayton said he thinks government can work better. He worked in the sheriff’s office for more than 20 years, but said that one of the best things that happened was when he left and saw how the office operated from the outside, and the impact it has on people. He said that part of his reluctance to run for sheriff stemmed from his family. He was born in Alabama, and his grandfather marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. When Clayton came to work at the sheriff’s office, his relationship with his grandfather changed. Law enforcement had been the enemy – his grandfather had seen police dogs and fire hoses used against the civil rights protesters.

Clayton said he grew up poor. Similar to Mackie’s experience, from Clayton’s perspective, law enforcement wasn’t engaged with the community, it was punitive. Clayton said his response is that sometimes you have to make change from the inside. It’s easy to sit on the outside and complain – it’s much harder to get involved. He said he doesn’t think public service is noble. “I just think it’s what you’re supposed to do.” If you don’t like what’s going on, be a part of changing it, he said, “or shut up.”

Aspirations for Washtenaw County

Conan Smith asked participants to talk about their aspirations for the county, broadly as well as for the current budget cycle.

Yousef Rabhi: Rabhi said he’d been on a tour of the county jail the previous day, and someone there had pointed out that it’s good to see what the budget numbers actually mean. Every number and percentage they see in the budget connects with something on the ground – “that’s something we can’t forget,” he said. It’s not just numbers, but people. It’s also important to market the county to other units of government – what services can the county provide to them? Rabhi said he as looking at millage rates here compared to other counties, and Washtenaw County’s isn’t that high. He said he’s not proposing anything, but in tough times, millages are something to look at, too. To a certain extent he agrees with people who say the county needs to focus on certain programs and services, but at the same time, he hopes they can continue to provide a breadth of services.

Leah Gunn: Long-term fiscal responsibility is important, and maintaining services. It’s clear they can’t maintain all services, she said, so they need to decide which services are a priority.

Dan Smith: It’s important to be decisive. While they shouldn’t make swift decisions, if there’s something that can be done in March, don’t wait until December to do it, he said. Uncertainty is often worse for people – don’t belabor things. It’s also important to make structural changes in the most humane way possible. That means telling people as early as possible what will happen later in the year, so that they can plan. They shouldn’t wait until the end of the year to make decisions, he said.

Wes Prater: This will be a very difficult process, Prater cautioned. One thing he hopes for is that it be as transparent as possible. He noted that they’ve listened to him talk about complying with the Uniform Budget and Accounting Act. The county always gets a good mark on the audit, but in his opinion, it hasn’t been what it needs to be, in terms of clarity and transparency. They need to get reports on the revenue and fund balances at the beginning and ending of each year. He said he’s still waiting for a printed copy of the 2011 budget.

Bill Reynolds (deputy county administrator): The administration and staff are there to fulfill the objectives of commissioners, he said. But they also have an obligation not to jerk around department heads and employees.

Bob Tetens (director, county parks & recreation): The investments they make as an organization should meet the community’s needs and expectations, though they can’t do everything, he noted. Internally, he hopes for a managed transition as they implement some structural changes. They’ve got to break the cycle of budget deficits.

Rolland Sizemore Jr.: They need to take a look at the county’s buildings and grounds, Sizemore said. Also, programs for kid are important. He said he’ll be jumping up and down screaming about funding for those. His hope is that they can try to combine programs and departments to save positions, rather than cutting.

Conan Smith, Leah Gunn, Rob Turner, Barbara Bergman

From left: commissioners Conan Smith, Leah Gunn, Rob Turner and Barbara Bergman during a breakout session at the county board's Jan. 29 retreat.

Rob Turner: As they go through this process, they need to look at costs per service, Turner said. What county programs provide the most services for the least cost? He doesn’t want to cut 20% from all departments – they need to see what’s being done well, with best results and delivered in the most cost-effective way. In the areas where that’s not the case, those programs need to look for ways to restructure. This is a long-term situation – Turner said he recently heard the economist David Sowerby say the economy likely won’t see a turnaround until 2015. But if they prepare now, when money starts coming in again, the county will be able to provide services more effectively. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said.

Dan Dwyer (Washtenaw Trial Court administrator): Dwyer said they shouldn’t kick the can down the road – government has a habit of doing that, he said. Also, when everything’s a priority, he noted, nothing’s a priority. He said he’s not aware of any service in this county that’s not being done well, but something’s got to be a priority. Also, he hopes there’s an appreciation of both branches of government – the county and the courts. If they can go into budget discussions with mutual respect and appreciation of those roles, he said, they’ll be better for it.

Kristin Judge: Engaging the public and employees is important in these budget talks – Judge said she thinks they missed out on that last time. Forums in the previous budget cycle were more for informing people about decisions, not for getting ideas, she said. And for the past two years, they’ve been dancing around the task of identifying priorities. She hoped this is the start to actually tackling it, noting that they got away with small fixes last time.

Judge agreed that taking a little slice from everyone’s budget isn’t effective. She hoped they wouldn’t use the words “everything’s on table” – if you’re an employee, that just means that everyone’s job is on the line. She also hoped that the process is open and transparent. The board should have this kind of meeting once a quarter, she said. It’s valuable and inspiring to know they have same goals. She also asked that people not dig in their heels and protect their own priority programs. That’s what stymied the board during the last budget cycle – she said she had been doing it, too. If they start by keeping an open mind, they’ll get better results, she said.

Catherine McClary (county treasurer): McClary described how she grew up in Ypsilanti and Augusta Township. Both of her parents were public school teachers – they weren’t paid well, she noted, because teachers weren’t unionized at the time. Her dad moonlighted as a bus driver because those jobs were unionized and he could earn more. Her earliest memories were going door to door to solicit support for a school millage. Turning to the county’s issues, McClary said the new finance director [Kelly Belknap], new county administrator [Verna McDaniel] and deputy administrator [Bill Reynolds] have been great to work with. She gave an example of working through an issue related to bank fees, which have escalated for the county. There are choices to make, and they sat down and talked about their options – because of that, their efforts are better coordinated, she said.

McClary then cautioned commissioners about putting the budget cuts on the backs of the county’s unionized and non-unionized employees. Perhaps they should ask the administrator to look at ways to address poor performance, she said. As the county downsizes and selects programs or services to retain, and as there’s staff attrition, the staff that remains has to be as high-performing as possible. Finally, McClary noted that they hadn’t talked about two elephants in room: (1) state cuts and the reinvention of state government, and what that means; and (2) the denigration of a career in public service. When you adjust for education and experience, public employees do not make more than the private sector, she said. Aside from the question of whether public service is noble or just it’s their job help people, by and large they do it well in Washtenaw County, she said.

Alicia Ping: Saying she agreed with Prater’s comments, Ping added that she does plan to dig her heels in a little bit, when it comes to representing her district. However, she assured her colleagues of her commitment to the board: When they have achieved a consensus on their vision and direction, she’ll stand behind it.

Barbara Bergman: Bergman disagreed with Judge – everything is on the table. They need to do a cost/benefit analysis on county programs, she said. They need to look at the value of what they’re doing, she said, “and sometimes, there isn’t enough benefit.” Bergman said she’s not being glib when she says they can do less with less. But they can’t stress their staff to the point that they’ll implode. Most of the county’s staff is very high performing, she said. But there is a straw that breaks the camel’s back. The county wants their good people to stay.

Jerry Clayton (sheriff): In looking at their budget, they need to think about the state’s budget – the governor has intimated some things that will have impact on the county budget, he noted, like state revenue-sharing. The governor has talked about reducing the Dept. of Corrections – that means pushing people out of the state criminal justice system, Clayton said. But some people can’t be rehabilitated, he noted, and the county will be left having to handle the fallout, adding that there also have been cuts in state police.

Clayton also raised the issue of collaboration, saying that it’s a wonderful thing, and that the county has led the way in many cases. But they shouldn’t be doing it just for the sake of collaboration. They need to ask if they are gaining something by collaborating, if they are delivering services better. He said he’d also encourage commissioners to look outside of the county, if they’re hoping to collaborate – but again, they should be measuring outcomes. This isn’t the last budget conversation they’ll be having, he concluded, so it should set the stage for future budget cycles.

Catherine McClary, Brian Mackie, Tony VanDerworp, Bob Tetens, Dan Dwyer

Some of the participants at the Jan. 29 board of commissioners retreat, from left: County treasurer Catherine McClary; county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie; Tony VanDerworp, director of the county's energy and economic development department; Bob Tetens, director of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation; and Dan Dwyer, Washtenaw County Trial Court administrator.

Brian Mackie (county prosecuting attorney): Mackie began by saying there isn’t a day that goes by when he’s not glad that Jerry Clayton is sheriff. Clayton’s election ended an “eight-year nightmare,” Mackie said, referring to the tenure of former sheriff Dan Minzey. He also thanked McClary for raising the issue of how public service has been denigrated. He said he works with people who left the private sector to pursue a career in public service, and now they hear people say that they’re the problem. “We need to think a little bigger than that,” he said. Mackie said the false dichotomies of the last budget discussions – setting up human services against law enforcement – left a bad taste. Law enforcement is and always will be one of the first lines of defense for people in crisis, whether it’s your child going wild or your spouse not taking their medication and getting violent. People in crisis don’t call him or a mental health professional, Mackie said. They call 911. Law enforcement helps the mentally ill – it’s not a separate system.

Mackie also urged commissioners to think about the impact of their decisions. He recalled that during the last budget cycle, one commissioner said that due to budget cuts, some people might have to wait a couple of hours to get birth certificate – as though that weren’t a significant thing. That offended him, Mackie said, because for some people, coming to the county clerk’s office is a long trip. They need a birth certificate for some other purpose, he said, and they might be making minimum wage. If it takes them a half day to get what they need, you’re taking money out of their mouths.

Budget Priorities: Community Impacts

Participants were given colored index cards – Conan Smith asked them to think about the 10-20 year impact that current budget reforms might make. What would that look like? They’re setting the stage for future budgets, he said. Think about what you might brag about in 20 years, looking back on the impact of decisions that are made now. Think about what a headline might be in a couple of decades, as the result of decisions made in 2011. How did the community change?

Barbara Bergman, Yousef Rabhi, Dan Smith, Wes Prater

From left: county commissioners Barbara Bergman, Yousef Rabhi, Dan Smith and Wes Prater write down their long-term goals for the county.

These thoughts will help them articulate the outcomes they need from this current budget cycle, Smith said. They need to be able to tell the administration that they want to invest in certain areas, in order to get specific outcomes that will help them achieve long-term community impacts.

After working individually to write down their thoughts, retreat attendees broke up into small groups to try to categorize the ideas on those index cards. They then reconvened as a large group to share the results.

The outcome was a set of six categories: public safety, service delivery, human services/children’s services, fiscal management/responsibility, energy and economic development. Here’s a summary of the long-term community impacts that were grouped into each category. These impacts represent the ideas of individual participants, not a general consensus.

Public Safety:

  • making the county a safe place to live and work
  • providing rapid access to mental health services
  • providing response to emergency calls within 15-20 minutes or less
  • housing stability
  • a community where kids don’t use drugs, and parents don’t condone substance abuse
  • consolidation into only two law enforcement agencies in the county – the sheriff’s office, and the Ann Arbor police department

Service Delivery:

  • a government that serves people efficiently and collaboratively
  • a fully integrated partnership of human services and police services
  • a county that’s a leader in preserving open space, recreation, public transportation, human services, and general quality of life
  • reduced overlap in government services
  • a government that’s respected and trusted by all residents
  • when the public accesses county services, they are directed to the appropriate staff member, regardless of who they originally call or email
  • a county government that collaborates and consolidates services with cities, townships and nonprofits to enhance services
  • county investments have created communities that are more economically prosperous, more environmentally sustainable and more socially just
  • the county’s “systemic” investments focus resources on outcomes across department/agencies

Human Services/Children’s Services:

  • a safety net for those most in need
  • all residents are aware of services that will/could impact their lives during good/bad times
  • homelessness ends
  • no food scarcity
  • child abuse is all but gone
  • early education is promoted and supported so parents have the tools they need to give their children the best possible start to their education
  • every child in the county has enough to eat, a safe place to live, health care, educational opportunity, and a world-class quality of life

Fiscal Management/Responsibility:

  • a top bond rating given to the county
  • a small county budget surplus projected
  • an increase in structural revenue collection (no “grant chasing”)
  • never see a headline saying the county loses money in investment or embezzlement
  • realistic benefit packages
  • health care benefits not only save money, but also provide wellness and prevention services, resulting in a healthier workforce


  • reduce energy consumption in county buildings by 40%
  • county government’s energy use is fossil fuel-free

Economic Development:

  • high employment opportunities
  • a place that people and businesses want to come to, not leave
  • local economy grows, thanks to small business owners
  • tourism becomes a major draw

Breakout Groups: Public Safety

The group then used “dotmocracy” to determine which of the six categories of general services they felt were priorities – that is, each person used colored paper dots to vote for the categories they prioritized. The top four vote-getters – public safety, service delivery, human services/children’s services, and fiscal management – were then chosen as topics for small group breakout discussions.

Colored index cards on white paper

Each index card indicates a "community impact" goal that at least one person at the county board retreat felt was important. These cards all relate to public safety – the category that received the highest priority after a "dot voting" exercise.

Staff members facilitated these breakout sessions, and four small groups of elected officials rotated through each of the topics for about 15 minutes each. Public safety received the most votes, so The Chronicle observed the breakout sessions for that topic. It was facilitated by finance director Kelly Belknap, who has a personal connection to the issue: Her husband is a sergeant in the Pittsfield Township Dept. of Public Safety.

The question posed for each category was this: What are the direct outcomes you hope to see from the investment of the 2012-2013 budget, that help achieve the county’s desired community impacts?

The public safety community impacts that were mentioned by commissioners and other elected officials included (not in ranked order): (1) making the county a safe place to live and work; (2) providing rapid access to mental health services; (3) providing response to emergency calls within 15-20 minutes or less; (4) housing stability; (5) a community where kids don’t use drugs, and parents don’t condone substance abuse; and (6) consolidation to result in only two law enforcement agencies in the county – the sheriff’s office, and the Ann Arbor police department.

[It's important to note that there was no effort to reach a consensus on these community impacts – they were simply identified by individuals as the impacts they'd like to achieve.]

Public Safety Group 1: Mental Health, Consolidated Services

The first small group included commissioners Barbara Bergman and Kristin Judge, and sheriff Jerry Clayton. Bergman began by saying they needed to provide better services for the mentally ill and substance abusers, especially in the 48197 and 48198 areas – the zip codes for Ypsilanti. She suggested that they should collect better data on the need for such services throughout the county.

Clayton asked how she would propose aligning that with the budget. If it’s a goal of the county to target certain areas for the delivery of services, would the board tie funding to that priority?

Belknap noted that there are two county agencies – the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) and Community Support & Treatment Services (CSTS) – that have primary responsibility for mental illness and substance abuse services. In total, they receive about $1.7 million in general fund dollars, with additional revenue from state and federal sources.

Judge raised another public safety issue that was mentioned as a community impact – having fewer police agencies in the county. At this, Clayton responded that the idea would scare the heck out of some people. Already there are those who won’t come to the table to talk about consolidating services, because they think that’s a precursor to getting rid of their own police departments.

Judge noted that they weren’t at the retreat to “hold hands” – there were difficult decisions to make. Clayton observed that the county can’t force Pittsfield or Saline or any other municipality to get rid of its police department – that goal is too presumptuous, he said. However, the county can be a leader in service consolidation, he added – services like dispatch, SWAT, canine units, or computer forensics.

Over time, as budgets shrink, consolidation might happen, he said. But the fear of it, at this point, is already driving some people to their corners. And if the sheriff’s office is out of the conversation, he noted, then they’ll never get anywhere.

Clayton then proposed another outcome: Better integration of human services and public safety. When Bergman observed that cops aren’t social workers, Clayton replied that most of what they do is social work. He noted that they’re now talking with the University of Michigan School of Social Work, to possibly bring in interns to work at the sheriff’s office. The hope is to keep the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system, he said, and get them the services they need.

Bergman said the county needs a drug court on the east side, as part of the 14-A District Court. Clayton asked whether that would be a priority of the board. Having one sure would help, Bergman replied.

Public Safety Group 2: Sheriff’s Road Patrol

The next small group consisted of commissioners Conan Smith, Dan Smith and Rob Turner. Conan Smith started the discussion by saying he wanted to develop a definition and rationale for the county’s support of sheriff deputy road patrols. [Each deputy is known as a police services unit (PSU) – the term refers to a sheriff's road patrol deputy who is under contract with a municipality, with the amount including indirect costs as well as salary and benefits.]

Dan Smith suggested collecting data – things like the number of 911 calls received in each municipality, how many miles of roads there are to cover, what the response times are – then developing metrics to evaluate what services are needed, where services are needed, and who should pay. The outcome is a framework for determining the price of a PSU. What they should try to achieve is an understanding of what drives the cost/price, he said.

Conan Smith noted that there was a process to determine the cost – it had been important to reach agreement on that, he said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Police Services: What's It Cost?"] Now, they need to do the same on price, he added.

Turner raised the issue of the level of service, and how to provide an acceptable level at the most economic price. He said his business is in Dexter Township, and if there’s a break-in, he can get there in 30 minutes, but would wait much longer for a response from law enforcement. Dan Smith said that’s why they need data – if response times are 90 minutes, for example, and they think that’s unacceptable, they could set a goal for better response times, and determine what resources they need to reach that goal. There needs to be a countywide discussion on these issues, he said.

That discussion needs to be about the values around public safety, Conan Smith said, and the metrics behind them. Setting goals will help that conversation, he added. If they can say to a contracting municipality that it will take X number of PSUs to reach the goal of a 45-minute or less response time, then they can shape the conversation around how the county and the municipality can share the cost of reaching that goal.

Public Safety Group 3: Consolidation, Public Education

The third small group included commissioners Leah Gunn and Alicia Ping, and county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie. Looking at notes from the previous two groups, Gunn said that the discussion needs to include not just issues related to the sheriff, but also the courts, prosecutors and public defenders.

Mackie stated that they want the reality and perception of a safe county, but they might have hit a wall on addressing the public safety issue – police chiefs can only do so much, he observed. Mayors and township supervisors need to start talking about it, too. Gunn asked if Mackie sees turf wars among the police chiefs. Not among them, he replied, but among their bosses. Gunn said the Metro Alliance – a group that brings together leaders from the county’s major municipalities – would be a good place to have those discussions.

We’ve done the easy stuff, Mackie said – the hard decisions, yet to be made, will mean people’s jobs are at stake. Communities want control over how their police services are delivered. So how can you get them to the table to talk about consolidation? he asked. The message has to be that your citizens can get better service for less money.

Ping raised the issue of the cost of a police services unit (PSU). Most citizens don’t know what services they get when their municipality contracts with the county for PSUs, she said. Gunn pointed out that the county’s general fund subsidizes the cost of each PSU by about $25,000, as well as funding 12 “general fund” deputies that are deployed throughout the county, as needed.

Ping wondered how the county can incentivize collaboration related to public safety. Saline Township, for example, doesn’t contract with the county – nor does it have its own police department, as the city of Saline does. But when something happens in Saline Township, those law enforcement entities respond. She noted specifically a mobile home park on the edge of the township that’s a problem.

Overriding everything is public education, Mackie said. He cited the recently released community report by the sheriff’s office as an effort in that regard. [.pdf file of sheriff's office community report] Gunn called the report a “splendid propaganda piece,” adding that she was a Clayton supporter. “He’s very smart, that Jerry.”

Mackie talked about the general climate of public safety. He noted that Michigan has a lower number of police officers per capita than any other Great Lakes state. What goes into the mind of someone who’s thinking of investing here? he asked. They bounce down the roads that are in disrepair – that’s a negative, he said. They look at the schools, they read what’s happening in the news, and if they’re from out-of-state, they probably associate this area with Detroit. Other cities – like Saginaw, Pontiac and Flint – suffer from crime, which in turn has caused property values to plummet. Mackie noted that the FBI has ranked Saginaw the most violent city in America for its size.

In that light, Ping observed that public safety is an important issue for the health of the local economy, and for economic development.

Public Safety Group 4: Homelessness, Levels of Service

The fourth group included commissioners Wes Prater and Yousef Rabhi, and county treasurer Catherine McClary.

In reviewing notes from other groups, McClary agreed that more services were needed for the mentally ill – she suggested adding services for the homeless, too – but disagreed that those services were only needed in the Ypsilanti area. It’s important for the whole county, she said, and pervades everything, from public safety to economic development.

Yousef Rabhi

Yousef Rabhi hangs a sheet of paper on the wall that lists county goals for service delivery in Washtenaw County.

When they talk about the cost of police services units (PSUs), Rabhi felt they needed to draw out how much it would cost per deputy for a municipality to fund its own police department. The county’s cost for a PSU should be lower than that, he said.

Prater noted that the state constitution mandates that if a citizen calls with a public safety problem, the sheriff must respond. However, it doesn’t mandate how quick that response must be, he added – it could be minutes, or two hours, or eight hours. Regarding cost, Prater said a study commissioned by the county indicated the county should pay 34% of the cost of a road patrol deputy, with the contracting municipalities paying the rest. Over time, the percentage that the county pays has shifted downward, he noted.

[By way of background, Prater was referencing what's known as the Northwestern study, conducted by the Northwestern University Traffic Institute (.pdf of Northwestern study) (.pdf of Northwestern staffing analysis chart). For more details on the road patrol issue, see Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Police Services: What's It Cost?"]

Prater said the sheriff has done a good job at trying to get at the true cost of a deputy patrol. The price charged is about $150,000, while the cost has been identified as roughly $176,000. That means the county is paying about $26,000 per deputy – “which is nowhere near 34%,” Prater said.

McClary again raised the topic of homelessness, saying she felt it should be addressed as a public safety issue. Rabhi noted that homelessness is usually considered in the human services category, which received fewer “dot votes” among the group than did public safety. Perhaps it’s a matter of framing the issue, he suggested. For example, is the Delonis Center – the county’s homeless shelter, on West Huron Street – really a public safety asset? If funding to address homelessness is facing cuts because it’s considered part of human services, maybe they need to look at it as a public safety priority instead.

Breakout Groups: To Be Continued

At the end of the breakout session, the group reconvened as a whole. They were running short on time, so rather than debriefing as a group, Conan Smith asked that each facilitator write up their notes, which will be distributed to the entire group in the coming week. He noted that they’d been missing key voices in the discussion. For example, he said, environmental issues hadn’t been at the forefront, but one of its main advocates – Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner – hadn’t been able to attend. They needed to capture the discussions from the retreat and disseminate that information, he said, but also get feedback from a diversity of voices.

Next Steps: Continuing the Retreat

When the scheduled end time of the retreat arrived, the group hadn’t addressed the final agenda item related to structural reform: (1) How should the county assess what their business should be; and (2) how does the board inform the county administration about where they need to make deeper, more structural reforms.

The group discussed the possibility of continuing the retreat – this final topic, as well as further priority-setting discussions – at an upcoming working session. [Working sessions are held twice a month, on Thursday evenings following the board's regular Wednesday meetings. Like its regular meetings, board working sessions are televised on Community Television Network (CTN).]

Rob Turner expressed preference for the more informal setting they’d used at the retreat, rather than sitting around the boardroom table. It allowed them to become closer and get to know each other as individuals, he said – and that makes them more effective working together. In response to a suggestion that they hold the discussion after the working session, but move to a different part of the room, Yousef Rabhi pointed out that it would be odd to start the meeting on-camera, then continue it off-camera.

Wes Prater suggested holding these discussions after their bi-weekly administrative briefings, which are held on the Wednesday a week ahead of the regular board meeting, to preview that meeting’s agenda. The briefings are public but are held in a conference room – they are much more informal, rarely attended by members of the general public and are not televised.

Prater noted that the meetings would need to be noticed to the public. Joanna Bidlack of the county administrative staff said she’d check with Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, but she said they’d likely need to notice it as a special meeting.

[They later set the next retreat for Wednesday, Feb. 9 from 6-9 p.m., immediately following the board's 5 p.m. administrative briefing. Both meetings are public, and will be held at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.]

Wrapping Up

Before ending the retreat, Conan Smith asked everyone to make a brief statement about the work they’d done during the day.

Several people commented that they had begun the day very skeptical – even cynical – with low expectations regarding the outcome. For some, this was based in part of their negative experiences at the last retreat, held in April of 2009. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Commissioners Review Priorities"] Even those who hadn’t attended that retreat, like Alicia Ping, had heard negative reports on it. But Ping described Saturday’s work as “phenomenal,” saying she got a lot out of the day. Kristin Judge said it was the best day she’s had as a commissioner so far – she took office in January 2009.

Yousef Rabhi said the day had inspired him, making him believe they could work not just as a team, but “almost as a family.” In the toughest of economic times, there are challenges, but also opportunities, he said. “It’s a time for hope, and a time for rebuilding on a foundation that’s stronger than it was before.”

Nearly everyone weighed in that they felt the day was productive. Dan Smith said one reason why it was successful was that it was so well-organized. “We weren’t just standing around the pickle barrel chewing fat.” He was among several people who thanked Conan Smith for his leadership at the retreat – the board chair received a round of applause.

Conan Smith told the group that he was more touched than he could have imagined during the morning session – when people had discussed their personal priorities and aspirations – and he thanked everyone for sharing their passion for county service.

Several commissioners also noted that this is just the beginning. “I just want to caution you that the most difficult part is yet to come,” Wes Prater said. Rob Turner observed that while it looks like they have a lot of common ground, the challenge will be how to implement their priorities. There was a lot of value in the retreat’s conversation, he said, but the long-term value will be in implementation.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton agreed that there was a lot of heavy lifting to do. He said he walked in to the retreat feeling very cynical – he’d told his staff that he was not just nervous, but actually afraid of what the discussions could mean for the county’s employees. Now, he was less afraid – and he credited Conan Smith for keeping the group on task.

Brian Mackie, the county’s prosecuting attorney, said he was glad to hear the board’s support for staff, but that the next steps – putting dollar figures to their decisions – will be the painful ones, “so it’s important that we have our lovefest today.” He noted that in 2009, commissioners were looking for easy answers, and that’s not an option now.

Staff members who attended the retreat also weighed in. Bill Reynolds, the deputy county administrator, told commissioners that employees “need you to succeed.” Commissioners need to deliver their vision for the county. “We’ll get you there,” he said, but “until we have that, we’re just spinning our wheels and going in circles.” The last thing they want to do, he said, is to deliver a plan that isn’t what the board wants.

Reynolds also noted that the 2009 budget cycle took a toll on employees. It was a real negative impact, he said, adding that his goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Joanna Bidlack of the county administrative staff observed that there’d been a lot of dissension on the board recently, and that she’d thought it would be hard to actually get commissioners to talk to each other during the retreat. When there’s dissension on the board, she said, it’s extremely painful for staff – it keeps them awake at night. So it was exciting to see the outcome of the retreat, she added, saying it would benefit the organization.

Kelly Belknap, the county’s finance director, told commissioners that employees can have hope when they see the board working together. She urged them to remember this day when times get tough – “because it will get tough.”

Deputy county clerk Jason Brooks said he’ll be able to give a positive report back to his colleagues and county clerk Larry Kestenbaum – unlike the 2009 retreat, when commissioners just “talked a lot.” He also said he appreciated the lunch. [Conan Smith paid for catering from Zingerman's Deli – he said it was not expensed to the county.]

Smith closed the retreat with an exhortation, verging on a cheer: “Keep the positivity – live the mission!”

Present: Commissioners Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner. Other elected officials who attended the meeting: Sheriff Jerry Clayton, county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie and treasurer Catherine McClary. Several county staff members were also present, including deputy administrator Bill Reynolds; Bob Tetens, director of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation; finance director Kelly Belknap; and Dan Dwyer, trial court administrator.

Absent: Ronnie Peterson

Next retreat: The discussions that began during the Jan. 29 retreat will continue on Wednesday, Feb. 9 at a special meeting following the board’s administrative briefing, which is held to preview the Feb. 16 board meeting. The briefing begins at 5:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. The special meeting focused on the budget is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. [confirm date]


  1. February 3, 2011 at 11:41 am | permalink

    I’m sorry to see that environmental health services did not make it onto the commissioners’ list. The county is the place where public health (human disease and morbidity, also promotion of health issues) and environmental health (including safe drinking water, restaurant inspections, etc.) services are provided. These are mandated by the state but the county has the responsibility. They are an important facet of “public safety”. Maybe it was so obvious that the commissioners didn’t need to list it.

  2. By Leah Gunn
    February 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm | permalink

    Vivienne – actually we did list it, but because these are mandatory services, and we all agreed that we will certainly be continuing to do it, we left it out of the conversation. Not to worry – we know and appreciate the esssentials of these services. The BOC is, for now, the Public Health Board and the environmental health comes under Jansis Bobrin, the Water Resources Commissioner. I trust her to keep us informed about what we need to do.

  3. By Leah Gunn
    February 4, 2011 at 2:30 pm | permalink

    I need to clarify my response to Vivienne – Environmental Health is part of the Health Dept., not the Water Resources. Dick Fleece is our Public Health Director and the depts. were combined a few yeard ago.

    I got mixed up because other environmental health concerns such as wells and septic systems, soil erosion, storm water management, etc. are overseen by Water Resources.

    In any case, Mr. Fleece assures me that everyone works togther for a healthier county.

    Sorry, folks!

  4. February 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    If Dick Fleece is in charge, it is all good. He combines technical skill with a real sense of caring about people.

  5. By John Dory
    February 5, 2011 at 11:18 am | permalink

    One authoritative source I have reviewed expects that 2011 will see a new record number of real estate mortgage foreclosures. This is not to mention the number of property tax foreclosures has also mushroomed.

    These foreclosures have not only a significant impact on the property owenrs themselves(including homelessness, as cited above), but also affects surrounding property values as well as timely collection of property taxes.

    I hope the county will continue its efforts to provide assistance to troubled homeowners in these regards.