Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 16, 2011): The county board’s four-hour meeting on Wednesday evening was punctuated by a heated debate about whether some of their meetings are sufficiently in the public eye.
Ronnie Peterson started that debate by advocating for holding the board’s budget retreats and administrative briefings at the boardroom table, where they can be televised. The meetings are open to the public, but are more informal and not available on Community Television Network or online webcasts. The ensuing discussion revealed different perspectives on what kind of environments are most conducive to deliberations. At one point, board chair Conan Smith – who opposed a change of venue – argued that deliberations aren’t subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act. The county’s attorney, Curtis Hedger, advised the board that, in fact, deliberations do need to occur in open meetings, with limited exceptions allowed in closed sessions.
After roughly 90 minutes of debate, the board voted – with Smith dissenting – to hold future budget retreats in the boardroom following their bi-weekly working sessions. The retreats will be televised. An effort to relocate and televise administrative briefings failed, however, with support only from Peterson, Kristin Judge and Wes Prater.
In other business, the board appointed three staff members to a review committee that’s part of a new coordinated effort for funding human services nonprofits in the county. During a presentation by Mary Jo Callan – head of the office of community development, which is overseeing this process – Peterson expressed concern that smaller, community-based nonprofits will be unable to compete in this new system. Callan assured him that she understood his concerns, but felt that this new model could actually be better for those nonprofits. She noted that the board would ultimately control funding decisions for county dollars.
Catherine McClary, the county treasurer, delivered her annual treasurer’s report, giving an update on the county’s investment portfolio, delinquent taxes and foreclosures. She reported that the amount of residential tax foreclosures appears to be stabilizing, but foreclosures of commercial property are on the rise, especially for parcels of vacant, undeveloped land. Separately, the board approved the treasurer’s annual request to borrow funds – up to $50 million this year – to temporarily cover delinquent taxes in the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions. Last year, there was about $29 million in delinquent taxes, and McClary expects a small increase this year.
McClary also told commissioners that later this year she’ll be asking them to approve a civil infractions ordinance for dog licenses, as part of a stepped-up enforcement effort. Right now, not having a license is a criminal misdemeanor of 90 days in jail or a $500 fine.
During Wednesday’s meeting commissioners also delivered several liaison reports, including news that the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission had approved $600,000 for the Connecting Communities trail program. Part of those funds will support a project that will eventually link Saline and Ann Arbor through a non-motorized pathway. The commission also authorized $250,000 to build a boathouse and fishing dock at Ford Lake, in partnership with the state and Eastern Michigan University.
Coordinated Funding for Human Services
On the agenda was a resolution to appoint three representatives to a review committee that will help award human services funding to local nonprofits through a coordinated funding approach. The appointees are: Hazelette Robinson, community relations director for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization; Susan Sweet Scott of the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS); and Michael Smith of the county’s veteran affairs office.
The funding process coordinates the efforts of five major funders: the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, the Urban County, Washtenaw United Way and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. It is being managed by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, led by Mary Jo Callan, who gave a presentation to county commissioners at their meeting.
Coordinated Funding for Human Services: Public Commentary
Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, thanked commissioners for their support of safety-net services. Washtenaw County is a leader, she said, because it understands the importance of nonprofits in providing those services. She said the WHA has seen benefits from the coordinated funding approach that’s being managed by the office of community development.
The WHA has 27 member organizations all working on housing and homelessness-related issues. About two years ago, they came up with a list of shared outcomes, Steiner said, which help in their goal of being transparent to the community regarding how tax dollars supporting these organizations are spent. [.pdf of WHA outcomes] Saying she’d bring the board a more detailed report in the future, Steiner ticked through several outcomes identified by the group, including: (1) reduce the number of people who become homeless; (2) reduce the average length of stay in local shelters; (3) increase the number of homeless people who get permanent housing; (4) increase the percentage of people who stay in permanent housing for at least 12 months and 24 months; and (5) reduce the number of formerly homeless people who become homeless again. Steiner praised the staff of the office of community development, saying they were a great help in developing a database to track this information, and in training nonprofits in how to use it.
Joan Chesler introduced herself as coordinator for the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth (WACY). The group was formed just a couple of years ago, she said, and is in a planning and coordination phase using the national model called Ready by 21. [See Chronicle coverage: "Alliance Focuses on School-Age Kids"] The intent is to do some big-picture thinking about what groups are serving these children, what problems exist and what resources can be used to address those problems. They’ve developed some shared outcomes as well, and are looking at ways to coordinate services. It’s a long-term effort, she noted.
Several commissioners had comments and questions for Chesler and Steiner. Barbara Bergman said she hadn’t heard of WACY and wanted more information – as did other commissioners. When Rob Turner told Chesler that he still didn’t really understand what WACY did, she responded that they were just getting started – she could share their goals and plans, but those hadn’t been realized yet. Kristin Judge assured them that addressing homelessness and supporting youth are priorities for the board, and that commissioners are also fans of the OCD and Callan.
Wes Prater said he was glad to see the WHA’s focus on performance outcomes, and asked that Steiner provide a report to the board when it’s available. Steiner said they’ve just formed a new data leadership team – they’ll seek input on crafting benchmark data, with regular reports annually.
Ronnie Peterson said it was good to see Chesler “back in action.” [She previously served as executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti.] He hoped they could schedule a working session on the issue of services for youth in the near future, and said it was important that the county departments get behind these types of consortiums to support them.
Coordinated Funding for Human Services: Presentation
Mary Jo Callan, head of the office of community development (OCD), began her presentation by introducing three county employees who were nominated for appointments to a funding review committee. The committee, part of a new coordinated funding model, will evaluate proposals from local nonprofits seeking financial support from five major funders: the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, the Urban County, Washtenaw United Way and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.
Susan Sweet Scott of the county’s Employment Training & Community Services has been with the county 22 years, and leads the community services portion of Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS). Hazelette Robinson, community relations director for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, is another long-time county staffer, with a 19-year tenure. The third appointee was Michael Smith, who leads the county’s veteran affairs office.
Not only do these three people bring their experience to the review process, Callan said, but they will also take away a better understanding of the programs and services available outside of county government.
She then gave a presentation she’s delivered many times over the past year – an explanation of how the coordinated funding model works. [The county board voted to join the partnership at their Nov. 3, 2010 meeting. Callan had briefed them on the project at an Oct. 7, 2010 working session. She has given similar presentations to the Ann Arbor city council and Urban County executive committee, in addition to other groups.]
Though Conan Smith jokingly asked whether she was tired of talking about it, Callan replied that it might be the commissioners themselves who were tired of the topic. However, she noted that four new commissioners had joined the board since she’d last spoken to them, and she hoped this overview would answer any questions they had.
The county has a strong safety net of social services, through local government programs and nonprofits, she said, but it’s been handled in a shattershot way. They haven’t gotten the most out of their investments, and this coordinated approach attempts to focus on community priorities in a coherent way. It involves entities that are already planning and coordinating efforts for specific areas – like the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Success by Six – along with major funders and the programs that directly serve people in need. There’s also a piece for strengthening the nonprofits themselves, funding “capacity building” needs like staff training, financial software or paying for mergers between two nonprofits.
The funding model focuses on these key areas: housing/homelessness, seniors, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, and health/nutrition.
Most of the dollars will be used for programs and services, Callan said. For the funding cycle that begins July 1, 2011, they hope to have just over $5 million as a “baseline investment”: $2.7 million from the three government entities, $2.3 million from United Way and $300,000 from the community foundation. Obviously, a lot can change in terms of available funding, she noted – both the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are working to address budget deficits in their coming fiscal years, and the Urban County faces cuts from federal funding it receives. [Chronicle coverage of possible reductions in human services allocations by the city of Ann Arbor: "Ann Arbor 2012 Budget: Parks, Plan, People"]
The process will be streamlined, Callan said. Instead of five applications for funds, there’s one. The same is true for the review process and final recommendations – there will be one set. However, the governing boards of each funding entity will retain control over how their dollars are allocated. Callan noted that they’ll be making those decisions in the context of what all partners are doing, and her hope is that everyone will look in the same direction, with the same strategy to achieve the same measurable outcomes.
Benefits include leveraging the funders’ investment, Callan said – for every dollar that’s invested, local nonprofits bring in $10 from state, federal and private funders. The coordinated approach is also minimizing duplication of efforts for both nonprofits and funders, and maximizing the effectiveness of their investments. She said her office has already seen benefits from previous coordination of funding by government entities, in terms of saving roughly 600 hours of staff time – those benefits will be even greater, with additional partners.
After getting approval from the governing boards of all five funders last year, the application process for the next funding cycle has already begun. Nearly 60 nonprofits applied to the first phase of the application process, in which they were asked to supply basic financial and governance documents. Of that group, 51 were qualified to respond to a request for proposals (RFP) that was issued Jan. 28. The deadline for applying is March 4, with reviews conducted in March and early April, and recommendations presented to funders in April and May.
For the county, funds will be invested in programs that reflect the board’s priorities, Callan said: school-aged youth (37%), pre-school children (19%), “safety net” health (22%), housing/homelessness (15%), aging (4%) and hunger relief via Food Gatherers (3%).
The need is great, Callan said. Unemployment remains stubborn, poverty has increased – an estimated 10,000 children and 2,000 elderly live at poverty levels in Washtenaw County – and roughly 8% of county residents are uninsured.
Coordinated Funding for Human Services: Commissioner Comments
Ronnie Peterson began by asking whether the guidelines given to nonprofits who applied for funding were the same as those used by United Way – he said it would have been useful for the board to see those guidelines. Callan said she’d send the board a copy. They aren’t identical to the United Way guidelines, but were developed with input from that agency.
Peterson, whose district covers Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township, then asked if funds from the city of Ann Arbor only served Ann Arbor residents. Callan replied that the city supports agencies that serve residents in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Pittsfield Township.
Peterson expressed concern about the status of smaller nonprofits, those that he called “community-based.” Sometimes those only have a couple of volunteers running a clothing bank or giving some other kind of assistance, he said. Years ago, the county set aside funds for those kinds of nonprofits, but over the years the funds have been going to larger, more “institutionalized” nonprofits, he said. He wanted to make sure the smaller nonprofits could compete within this new funding model.
He also asked whether the Ann Arbor city council or the county board could reject funding recommendations that are brought to them after the review process. It’s “absolutely within your power” to reject the recommendations, Callan said. If that happens, her staff would need to go back to the other funding partners and possibly reallocate the remaining funds. She said the county board has not historically done that – the board has in the past accepted the recommendation of the office of community development (OCD), and she would anticipate that to continue.
Peterson said the board hasn’t rejected recommendations since Callan joined the OCD, but in the past that did happen. He clarified that it would be possible to take 5% from one agency and shift it to another, for example. Callan said it would be possible, though she’d advise against it. She also told Peterson that she was aware of his acute concerns for smaller nonprofits, and felt that this model would actually be better for those groups. With capacity-building grants available for small nonprofits that provide a priority service, they could be strengthened, she said. And there’s nothing to say that small or innovative programs can’t get funded, she added, though there are minimum requirements – like having a functioning board, and meeting basic financial standards. The idea is that taxpayer dollars are accounted for.
Of course there should be accountability, Peterson said. He just wanted to ensure that nonprofits aren’t disadvantaged because of their size, and that the board has some flexibility in allocating funds. He noted that it’s unclear how much funding will be available from the county in 2012 and 2013. [The county faces a projected $20.9 million over that two-year period.]
Barbara Bergman said she supported the coordinated funding approach. It’s one thing if a small nonprofit can meet the criteria, she said, but the county isn’t a research organization – they’re not there to fund the development of someone’s good idea. They need to fund groups that demonstrate best practices. She said she won’t vote against the OCD recommendations: “I’m not willing to put a pot (of money) over here for my bright ideas.” Bergman added that it saddens and scares her that holes in the safety net are growing, and that the county can’t meet all the needs of its residents. She would hope that in the future, other funders would join the coordinated funding initiative, too.
Yousef Rabhi, whose district covers part of Ann Arbor, praised the city for funding work that serves other communities as well – it reflects the fact that Ann Arbor’s fate is tied to the fate of the county, he said. Referring to the statement that every dollar invested yields $10 in other funding, he asked Callan how much of that leveraged $10 goes directly toward programs and services. She estimated $7-$8. Wes Prater then clarified that a $5 million investment by the five funders would bring $35-40 million to the community from other sources. When Callan confirmed that it would, Prater replied, “Well, get going!”
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to appoint Hazelette Robinson, Susan Sweet Scott and Michael Smith as county representatives to a review committee for the coordinated funding of human services nonprofits.
Delinquent Tax Borrowing
On the board’s Feb. 16 agenda was a resolution permitting the county treasurer to borrow against the amount of delinquent property taxes in all 80 taxing jurisdictions throughout the county, including cities, townships, schools systems and libraries, among others.
The process works like this: After Feb. 28, these jurisdictions turn their delinquent taxes over to the county – the first step in a long tax foreclosure process. The taxing jurisdictions are reimbursed for that amount by the county, and the county treasurer assumes responsibility for collecting the delinquent taxes. It’s a standard practice that’s conducted annually at this time of year. The funds that the county borrows – an amount not to exceed $50 million – are used for cash flow purposes, to fund operations for the first half of the year. The delinquent tax collections are receivables on the bonds.
Delinquent Tax Borrowing: Commissioner Comments
County treasurer Catherine McClary did not give a formal presentation about this request, though later in the board meeting she presented her annual treasurer’s report. However, some commissioners had questions on the bond issue.
Dan Smith thanked McClary, saying that as someone who previously served on a township board, he appreciated the fact that the county made the township whole early in the year. [Smith was a former trustee for Northfield Township.]
Conan Smith noted that the county covers the potential risk to other jurisdictions, and asked McClary to comment on how economic conditions are affecting this process.
McClary reported that the amount of delinquent taxes turned over to her office for collection has more than doubled in the past seven years. For the last two years, the county was not able to self fund the delinquent taxes. Last year, there was about $29 million in delinquent taxes, and she expects a small increase this year. But the request is to borrow the same amount as last year – an amount not to exceed $50 million. She commented that the figure “takes my breath away.” One change is that interest rates on the bonds will be higher this year than last year, due to the tightening credit markets.
McClary explained that every year, the treasurer’s office sets up a separate delinquent tax revolving fund, where money is deposited as the delinquent taxes are collected. If the county is unable to collect the taxes by year’s end, they charge back that uncollected amount to the taxing jurisdiction, charging them the same interest that’s charged for the bonds – last year, interest was around 2%, McClary said.
McClary characterized delinquent taxes as a leading economic indicator. For residential properties, it’s starting to level off, she said, but there are increases in commercial properties, and especially in undeveloped vacant land.
Yousef Rabhi asked about the cost of administering this process. Is that money recovered, or is that simply a service the county provides? McClary explained that state law requires a county’s general fund to pay for the salaries of the treasurer’s office. They don’t charge taxing jurisdictions an extra agent’s fee for handling the delinquent taxes – the county could do that, she said, but when she tried to bring forward a resolution to that effect last year, she was asked not to do it. There is interest charged on the delinquent taxes, she said – 1% per month for the first year, and 1.5% per month for the second year, plus a 4% administrative fee. Those funds are also deposited into the delinquent tax revolving fund.
When the bonds are paid off, any remaining money in the revolving fund is transferred to the county’s capital projects fund, to be used as the board and administration sees fit, McClary said. Last year, $5.5 million was transferred – double the amount that had been budgeted.
Every year, the county treasurer gives a report to the board. This year, commissioners began by giving Catherine McClary a round of applause – her presentation was the last major agenda item, and it followed an unanticipated, lengthy discussion by the board about how they handled their budget retreats and administrative briefings. [See report below.] They thanked her for her patience.
McClary described how her office manages the investment portfolio for the entire county – at the end of 2010, cash and investments totaled $147.545 million. That figure is invested in the following ways: $56.509 million in certificates of deposit (CDs) and money market accounts; $45.815 million in commercial paper; $35.660 million in U.S. treasuries and agencies of the U.S. government; and $9.561 million in bank accounts, including deposits in the Ann Arbor State Bank, Bank of Ann Arbor, Chelsea State Bank and Michigan Commerce Bank, among others. [.pdf file of two-page treasurer's report]
She clarified that the $147 million includes more than just the investments made using general fund money, which had only about $30 million in its account at year’s end. In addition to general fund monies, the total includes funds from the Washtenaw County Road Commission, Washtenaw Parks & Recreation Commission, funds from the water resources commissioner’s office, and the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO).
She reported that 2010 revenue from her office totaled $10.6 million, from five main sources: $737,602 from investment earnings; $6.262 million from delinquent taxes and fees; $3.539 million from the accommodation tax; $37,922 from dog licenses; and $24,971 from fees for tax searches.
Michigan’s Public Act 20 governs the types of investments that her office can make, McClary said, and decisions also conform to the board’s investment policies. The 2010 average weighted yield was 0.559% – “that’s not the best part of the presentation tonight,” she said, adding that nonetheless it outperformed the three-month Treasury benchmark of 0.12%.
The treasurer’s office is charged with safeguarding public funds, and they do that through diversifying investments and implementing strong internal controls, McClary said. Their other duty is to collect delinquent property taxes. These services raise money so that the county can fund its mandated activities, as well as support other programs that are board priorities – like those discussed earlier in the meeting, she said, for children, veterans, or others in need.
They do this with a staff of 11.5 employees, McClary said. They take receipt of a half-billion dollars each year, though much of that is a pass-through. For example, the treasurer’s office collects the Michigan education tax, which it passes on to the state. However, she noted, for the two weeks that the county holds those funds before passing them on, they were able to earn $30,000 in interest income.
McClary had spoken briefly about delinquent tax collection earlier in the meeting – when commissioners authorized her office to borrow up to $50 million to temporarily cover the cost of 2010 delinquent taxes for the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions. She elaborated on the issue, saying that in order to get a top credit rating, it’s important that the county demonstrates strong management. The credit markets are tightening and rating agencies are especially scrutinizing public funds, she said. McClary reported that she’s working with county administrator Verna McDaniel and Kelly Belknap, the county’s finance director, to meet with the some of the major rating agencies, with the goal of ensuring that the county retain a top rating.
Regarding interest income, McClary acknowledged that the rates are very low, but the county’s earned income was well above the benchmark rate. Interest income on all county funds was $737,602 for 2010. The interest income for the general fund was considerably lower, she noted, in part because the amount of general fund dollars that can earn interest is low. At the end of the year, there was $30 million in the general fund account – of that, $17.5 million had been transferred in from the county’s revenue-sharing reserve fund.
McClary also reported on revenues from dog licenses, which totaled $37,922 in 2010. She thanked the board for approving a change last year that allows her office to issue multi-year licenses – that’s been well received by the public, she said. What’s not been as well received is an increase in the license fee, which was raised for the first time since 1981. [For spayed/neutered dogs, the fee is $12 for per year. It costs $24 per year for dogs that aren't spayed or neutered.]
Her office also collects fees for dog park licenses, and is working with the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation to step up enforcement, McClary said. This spring or summer, she’ll likely be bringing a resolution to the board to adopt a civil infractions ordinance for dog licenses. Right now, not having a license is a criminal misdemeanor of 90 days in jail or a $500 fine, which McClary indicated is excessive. For a civil infraction, you’d simply be issued a ticket. The treasurer’s office is coordinating with Kirk Tabbey, chief judge of the 14-A District Court, who is interested in having the court help with collections, McClary said.
After adopting a civil infractions ordinance, a final step would be to conduct a dog census, McClary said. There are many unlicensed dogs in the county, she said, but without an ordinance in place, it doesn’t make sense to do heavy enforcement. She said they anticipate dog licenses will be a future revenue stream. They’re also exploring having a fee to pay for sheriff’s deputies who do kennel inspections, and perhaps adding a fee for checks that are returned for insufficient funds.
Treasurer’s Report: Mortgage and Tax Foreclosure Prevention
Efforts at tax foreclosure prevention aren’t supported by the general fund, she noted – it’s paid out of fees attached to a parcel after it enters foreclosure. Still, she thanked the board for approving the jobs in her office that deal with the program – including two social workers, who were probably the first social workers in the country to be hired by a county treasurer’s office, she said.
Each year, her office handles about 11,000 parcels with delinquent taxes. Her office works with owners to try to help them pay off the taxes, but that doesn’t always happen. Since 1999 – when action was taken on properties that had delinquent taxes from 1997 – the county foreclosed on 539 parcels. Of that total, 391 foreclosures occurred last year.
The properties that the county has lost money on – those that were sold at auction for a lower price than the delinquent taxes that were owed – were on undeveloped vacant land, McClary said. Right now, there are 900 parcels in the foreclosure process, McClary said, including 550 parcels of vacant land. She or her staff have talked to the owners and lenders on each of those 550 parcels, and at this point expect to collect on only 150 of them.
Regarding mortgage foreclosure prevention, the treasurer’s office only handles that directly when tax foreclosure is also involved. Beyond that, they partner with other agencies, including the Michigan State University Extension program and the county office of veterans affairs.
McClary urged people to contact her office if they needed help: either via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 734-222-9595. Even if the county can’t help directly, her staff can refer them to the right resources, she said.
McClary described three waves of the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The first wave they saw was caused by predatory loans, which were easy to modify because interest rates were too high and they primarily affected vulnerable populations. The next phase concerned middle-class homeowners who had prime credit, but who lost their jobs and could no longer afford their mortage. These are the hardest to deal with, McClary said, because the income just isn’t there. The final phase are walkaways – owners who just leave their property because they owe more than the value of the parcel. That kind of foreclosure is the most detrimental to neighborhoods, she said, because the properties are simply abandoned.
Foreclosure prevention isn’t a mandated service, McClary noted, but with the board’s support, she said her office has been able to provide a valuable community service.
Kristin Judge noted that SEMCOG – the Southeast Michigan Council of Govvernments – recently released foreclosure data for counties in this area. Percentage-wise, Washtenaw is doing well compared to other counties, and she thanked McClary for her work.
Commissioners gave initial approval to create a new full-time position – a veterans relief program specialist – as part of a minor restructuring in the county’s veterans affairs department. The restructuring includes downgrading an administrative assistant position to office coordinator. The moves are expected to result in about $20,000 in structural savings for the department. The board will likely take a final vote at its March 2 meeting.
The new position is estimated to cost $75,000 and will be funded from the indigent veterans relief fund, which gets proceeds from a dedicated millage and has a fund balance of $250,000. The job will entail coordinating the county’s veterans relief efforts and doing public outreach activities.
At Wednesday’s meeting, several commissioners praised the department and its leader, Michael Smith. All four of the board’s new commissioners – Dan Smith, Rob Turner, Alicia Ping and Yousef Rabhi – had visited the department recently, as part of an orientation tour of county facilities. They all applauded the staff’s efforts to assist local veterans. Ping cited the ability to leverage local dollars for state and federal funds, while Turner said the department served as an example of what he’d like to see all county units do – provide great services efficiently.
Rabhi asked about the percentage of staff salaries that are paid from the general fund, versus the veterans relief fund. Smith clarified that the percentages wouldn’t change. The general fund pays for 90% of his salary, 60% of the salary for analyst and service officers, and 57% of the department’s assistant – the millage pays for the rest. The percentages are based on the amount of time each staff member spends on indigent veterans relief activity – the millage can only fund those activities, he explained.
There’s been an increased demand for veterans relief, Smith said – that’s why the new position will be paid exclusively from the millage proceeds.
Smith gave credit to county administrator Verna McDaniel and her leadership as being an inspiration to him. The state has 19th and 20th century laws to take care of 21st century warriors, he said. Reservists are coming home to their communities with a plethora of problems, he said. Some counties haven’t even levied the veterans relief millage – Wayne and Macomb counties were sued over the issue, and Macomb still hasn’t levied it. Without those millage funds, Smith said, his department wouldn’t have been able to access the other resources it is tapping. He told the board they’d been brave to comply with Public Act 214, which authorizes the county to levy the millage without voter approval. [The 1/40 mill is expected to raise an estimated $362,415 this year. It was first passed two years ago, and cost homeowners $2.50 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value.]
Smith also told the board that he planned to offer internships later this year to disabled veterans who are pursuing degrees at local universities. The U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs pays for such internships, he said – it would help the interns, provide more services to the local veterans community, and not cost the county.
Rabhi told Smith that the veterans affairs department had been his inspiration at the recent board retreat, when he’d suggested that the county provide help desk services to residents – he’d seen that model in action at Smith’s department.
Trial Court Memorandum of Understanding
Without discussion, commissioners gave final approval to a memorandum of understanding with the Washtenaw Trial Court, outlining the rights and responsibilities of each unit of government. Initial approval was given at the board’s Jan. 19, 2011 meeting, which included a presentation by chief judge Donald Shelton. A previous MOU expired in December 2010.
As part of the agreement, the county will fund operations of the trial court in four “lump sums,” allocated separately to: (1) the 22nd Circuit Court (including circuit court administration, juvenile-general fund, friend of the court and community corrections); (2) Probate Court (estates & mental health); (3) 14-A District Court; and (4) the child care fund. The county will not have line-item budgeting authority, but the trial court has agreed to submit a bi-annual line-item budget, and provide quarterly financial projections. The amount of the lump sum payments has not yet been determined.
Later in the meeting, during the time for communiciations from commissioners, Rob Turner and Rolland Sizemore Jr. reported that they’d had recent meetings with Shelton and other staff of the court, regarding renovations to the downtown courthouse. They said Shelton has indicated that he hopes the renovations will be finished in April, but Sizemore said they told him there are no guarantees – “and I think he understands that,” Sizemore added. Bids are also being solicited for the demolition of the Platt Road courthouse, where the juvenile court is located. The juvenile court will be relocated to the downtown courthouse, after renovations there are completed.
Where Should Commissioners Conduct Business?
A seemingly routine item on Wednesday’s agenda led to an animated debate that revealed disagreements among commissioners about how they conduct their business.
The discussion began when Ronnie Peterson asked about a resolution to approve a timeline and guidelines for the 2012-2013 budget process. Where were the guidelines? he wondered – they hadn’t been included in the meeting’s board packet. [The document had been part of the board's Jan. 19, 2011 meeting packet, when they gave initial approval to the process. .pdf file of budget timeline/guidelines]
Peterson then asked whether the board retreats were part of that process. Conan Smith, the board chair who has led the two budget retreats this year, clarified that the retreats are part of the budget process. The outcome will be a formal resolution of guidelines and priorities that the board will post, get public input on, and vote to approve, ideally at a board meeting in March, Smith said. The next retreat – possibly the last one – had been scheduled to follow the board’s Feb. 23 administrative briefing. [See Chronicle coverage of the Jan. 29 and Feb. 9 budget retreats.]
Peterson said he wished that the retreat discussions would be more in the public eye, held at the boardroom table and televised. [The retreats, unlike the board meetings and working sessions, have not been televised on Community Television Network.]
Budget decisions will affect the more than 1,000 county employees as well as constituents who depend on the county for services, he said. This is the board’s main job, he said, and he didn’t understand why they weren’t doing it more publicly – at a working session, for example.
The county will be downsizing, and some departments may be eliminated or consolidated, he said. People want to know how their tax dollars are spent – it’s frustrating when the budget is delivered and people don’t have the opportunity to understand the complexity of the decision-making. People distrust government because they don’t have the opportunity to see how it works, Peterson said.
Media coverage isn’t sufficient, he continued – the press only covers what they think is hot at the time, but people want more. Especially as the county faces a deficit, the public “should see everything we do.”
Peterson then moved an amendment to the budget timeline/guidelines resolution: to hold the budget retreats and the administrative briefings in the boardroom – where both could be televised. [Briefings are currently held in a small conference room.] Kristin Judge quickly seconded the motion.
Barbara Bergman noted there would be a cost to televising the administrative briefings, though she didn’t know what that would be. She also described benefits to the current format, which she said is more informal and allows for interesting give-and-take – and there’s less risk of appearing ignorant if you have questions. The meetings are open to the public and attended by the press, she noted. [The Chronicle attends all administrative briefings; there are rarely any other media or members of the public in attendance.] Meeting in the more formal boardroom venue would stifle discussion, she said.
Judge pointed out that the city of Ann Arbor has been using the boardroom and county staff to televise their meetings while renovation work is done at city hall. The county hasn’t charged the city for that, she noted. If the county can do it for Ann Arbor, surely they can televise meetings for county residents, she said. And while she understands the desire not to feel ignorant, that can be handled in other ways – by asking staff for clarification privately, for example.
The briefings are open meetings and deliberations are done there, Judge said, though some of the newer commissioners might not have experienced it yet. But many people expect to see the deliberations at the televised meetings, which they can also watch online. She described herself as an advocate for the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act – saying this is one of the reasons she got involved in local government. The administrative briefings “should be in the public eye.”
Wes Prater also supported that view. It might be a bit inconvenient and require some adjustment, he said, but it’s the proper thing to do.
Rob Turner disagreed. He said he didn’t care if the meetings were televised, but he wanted to keep the more informal setting. They were able to get a lot done by working closer together, or in small groups. How would that be televised? Would they have to rebuild the boardroom to accomplish that? He said he planned to vote against the amendment.
Yousef Rabhi reiterated the statements of other commissioner who noted that the retreats and briefings are open and that the press attends. He offered a compromise – that future retreats be held immediately after the working sessions in the boardroom, so that they could be televised. [Rabhi chairs the working sessions.] As for the briefings, he suggested that they agree not to deliberate, and simply listen to Joanna Bidlack – the staff member who leads the meetings – as she reviews the agenda items. That would save the cost of televising.
Dan Smith felt that Rabhi’s suggestions addressed Peterson’s concerns. The staff does a good job of reviewing the agenda at the briefings, he said, but sometimes the discussion goes off topic. He noted that at a recent briefing, he had to steer the group back to the agenda item. [He was referring to the Feb. 9 briefing, when Judge proposed adding a resolution to the agenda that would allow the county to join a dental discount program being piloted by the National Association of Counties (NACo). The ensuing discussion focused on the merits of such a program – after several minutes, Smith noted that they were getting ahead of themselves and should focus on whether to put the resolution on the agenda. It was not added.]
Leah Gunn proposed amending Peterson’s amendment, to keep the briefings as they are and move the retreats to the working sessions. When Judge objected – noting that it would reverse the intent of the original amendment – corporation counsel Curtis Hedger agreed, and Gunn’s amendment was modified to say retreats would immediately follow working sessions.
Peterson recalled that he wouldn’t have been allowed to join a country club years ago – he will never find a backroom where it’s acceptable to conduct the public’s business. He said he worked hard to tear down those walls, and he was shocked and alarmed to hear people who called themselves progressives shutting others out of the process.
Outcome on Gunn’s amendment: The board passed the amendment to hold the budget retreats immediately following the board’s working sessions, and in the same venue, with dissent from Conan Smith.
Peterson’s amended amendment was then considered: To hold future retreats in conjunction with working sessions, and to hold administrative briefings in the boardroom, where they can be televised.
Both Judge and Prater argued that deliberations did occur during the briefings, and the meetings should be held in a more public venue. If there were no deliberations, Judge said, she’d have no problem with the meetings held where they are now. But “it has not been that way since I’ve been there,” she said. They’ve done a lot of the people’s business in that small conference room, and it’s made her very uncomfortable. Prater said the briefings are really unnecessary – Bidlack could simply review the agenda with the three board leaders: the chair of the board (Conan Smith), the chair of the ways & means committee (Rolland Sizemore Jr.), and the chair of the working sessions (Yousef Rabhi).
Conan Smith weighed in, saying he wasn’t supportive of Peterson’s amendment. Deliberations could and should happen in different contexts and environments. They have different kinds of conversations that don’t happen at the boardroom table – that’s important for good government, he said. The intent of the Open Meetings Act isn’t to situate people physically or require televised meetings, Smith said. It’s to ensure that when they make a decision, it’s done in public. “The process of deliberation isn’t subject to the Open Meetings Act,” he contended. When they face contentious topics – as they inevitably will, he said – they need a space to have that kind of dialogue, to arrive at a solution.
Prater asked Hedger to review Smith’s statement. Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, clarified that deliberations are, in fact, subject to the Open Meetings Act. The exception is when the board holds an executive session, but that’s only limited to certain purposes, he said. But both deliberations and decision-making are subject to the OMA.
Saying she agreed that briefings shouldn’t be used for deliberations, Gunn then proposed setting a new rule to limit discussion at those meetings. Hedger advised dealing with this at the next ways & means committee meeting, since it would be setting board policy. [The board's ways & means committee, on which all commissioners serve, immediately precedes its regular board meetings. Resolutions are first reviewed and voted on at ways & means before being considered for a final vote at the regular board meeting.]
Saying he meant no disrepect to Peterson’s past experience, Turner said he agreed with Conan Smith. The backroom meetings of past years, to which Peterson referred, weren’t open to the public or the press. The board’s briefings are, he said. Good deliberations happen there, he said – deliberations that wouldn’t occur in the more formal boardroom setting.
Gunn then proposed separating out the two issues in Peterson’s amendment, and suggested voting on the budget retreat first – to hold future budget retreats during working sessions.
Peterson clarified that the retreats would be held after the regular working session, and expressed dismay that such an important issue – the budget – would come last.
Outcome: The amendment to hold future budget retreats during working sessions passed, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Conan Smith, Dan Smith and Rob Turner.
The discussion then focused on the administrative briefings. Peterson noted that he hadn’t attended one in years. [Since The Chronicle began covering the briefings when the publication launched in September 2008, Peterson has been the only commissioner who hasn't attended a single briefing.] He clarified that the briefing included an agenda, opportunity for public comment, and that minutes were taken. [The briefings are attended by deputy county clerk Jason Brooks, who records the minutes.]
Peterson said that until about eight months ago, he wasn’t aware that decisions were being made at these briefings – it didn’t used to be that way, he said. He’d found out that some of the things he advocated for – including the land bank – had been killed in the briefings. It’s a cop-out to say that the press is there, he added. They were elected to the board of commissioners, not the board of administrative briefings. He noted that the conference room where briefings are held is so small that there’s not enough room for the public to attend. “That’s not the way you do government business,” he said.
Regarding some commissioners who don’t feel comfortable having these informal briefings televised, Peterson said that those who make jokes about staff members “need to check yourself, because you need to stop.” Everyone should be respected, he said. And for those who are uncomfortable, they should get another job. “We’re not here for a comfort zone,” he said. “You find your loving at home.” The board isn’t a lovefest, he said, it’s a place to do the government’s business. He said he knows people are upset with him about raising these issues, but whatever he might say in private he’ll say in public, too.
Rabhi noted that he’d heard both his experience and his progressiveness called into question that night, and said he’d yield on the first issue. [Rabhi took office in January, and at age 22 is the board's youngest member.] What’s come out of this debate is the question of what an open meeting is, he said. Not everyone has a television or Internet connection – that’s not what makes a meeting open. He agreed that they should do the public’s business on television if it reaches more people, but he argued that they don’t do business at the briefings. He said he yielded on the question of his experience because perhaps deliberations have occurred in the past. He supported Gunn’s proposed rule change to limit discussion. He said he agreed strongly with Peterson about the importance of open government, but was approaching it a little differently.
Judge told Rabhi that lack of experience can be a positive thing – she didn’t intend it as a criticism. It brings new ideas and compromise, and she appreciated that. However, she said it saddened her to hear a public official say they can have better conversations when the cameras are off. She would hope they could have that dialogue at the boardroom table, noting that hundreds of employees are watching. She said she’d never be comfortable saying it’s better to do board business elsewhere. As for having dialogue, “if we all agree, then we’re probably not going our jobs.”
Turner told his colleagues that he doesn’t often get passionate, but that he was now. Pounding his fist on the table, he said the briefings aren’t “backroom” meetings – they’re open to the public. What’s more, he said, “I have never talked about anybody’s character or said anything derogatory about staff members.”
Peterson, who sits next to Turner, said that in his remarks he wasn’t referring to Turner.
Turner again said he didn’t care if any of the meeting are televised, but that it’s important to have the informal setting. He learns from the give-and-take, much more so than in formal sessions. He noted that having served on the Chelsea school board for nine years, he’s very familiar with the Open Meetings Act. He knows that their discussions at briefings are open, but values the informality. “Please don’t take that away from me.”
Bergman agreed with Turner. If the meetings are more formal, the discussions will be taken out of view of the public and press, she said – it’ll become “telephone buzz.” She also objected to Peterson’s comparison of these meetings to racial or religious discrimination. Bergman, who is Jewish, said she’s been the subject of discrimination, when a house wasn’t sold to her family. “It ain’t the same,” she said.
At this point, Gunn called the question – a parliamentary move that prompts action on the motion that’s on the table. The motion to call the question passed, and a roll call vote was taken on the amendment.
Outcome: The amendment to the budget timeline/guidelines – to hold the administrative briefings in the boardroom, where they can be televised – failed, with support only from Judge, Peterson and Prater. The resolution adopting the budget timeline/guidelines was later approved as part of the regular agenda.
Misc. Communications, Commentary
There were several communications from commissioners, and one speaker during the regular board meeting’s time for public commentary.
Raymond Mullins introduced himself as co-founder of The Loyal Opposition to the Status Quo (LOSQ), a nonprofit group launched to address disparities between African-Americans and Caucasians, including the academic achievement gap, imprisonment and poverty. [Mullins, former president of the Ypsilanti/Willow Run chapter of the NAACP, spoke on the same subject at the January 2011 meeting of the University of Michigan board of regents.] He said he was there to plug the group’s Fourth Annual Celebration of African-American Life in Washtenaw County, on Feb. 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Peace Neighborhood Center in Ann Arbor. They’re inviting the whole community, he said, not just African Americans. The free event will feature panel discussions and exhibits, and will highlight accomplishments of people from Washtenaw County who’ve distinguished themselves in ways that aren’t widely known. Mullins told the board that he hoped this was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Rob Turner said he’d met Mullins at the recent African American Writers Celebration at the Ypsilanti District Library, and he plans to attend the Feb. 26 event as well.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. suggested that Mullins contact the B.Side – an entrepreneurial program at Eastern Michigan University. He described the B.Side as an excellent program led by Jack Bidlack, the husband of Joanna Bidlack, who works in the county administration office.
Communications from Commissioners
Several commissioners gave liaison reports from the committees and commissions on which they serve, as well as other various communications. Highlights include:
- Conan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. both serve on the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission. Smith reported that the commission recently approved $600,000 in grants for the Connecting Communities trail program. The projects include one in Pittsfield Township that will be part of a non-motorized path eventually connecting Saline to Ann Arbor. Sizemore noted that the commission also approved $250,000 for a project to build a boathouse, to be used by crew teams, and a fishing dock on Ford Lake. The project is in partnership with the state and Eastern Michigan University, he said. Kristin Judge noted that it will be the only boathouse in Michigan that’s ADA compliant, and she thanked Sabrina Gross of Pittsfield Township for her efforts on the project.
- Rob Turner, a liaison to the Washtenaw County Road Commission, said the road commission is hoping that the rest of the winter is a mild one, given their budget constraints. [.pdf of 2011 road commission budget] Two mechanics are retiring and the commission is replacing them – they’re down to six mechanics, he said, though the standards for their fleet size call for 11.
- Yousef Rabhi gave reports from two groups: the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority is moving to single-stream recycling, which Ann Arbor adopted last year, and the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) has changed a policy toward employees, becoming an at-will employer. He also reported that Gretchen Driskell, the mayor of Saline, is urging local officials to contact state and federal representatives to advocate for keeping the Community Development Block Grant program. Communities in the county receive several million dollars each year in federal CDBG funds, but the program is targeted for deep cuts in the proposed federal budget.
- Wes Prater, a liaison to the county’s public health advisory board, highlighted a letter from a resident of Lodi Township, Melissa Higgs, regarding the county-certified inspection of a water and sewage disposal. [.pdf of Higgs' correspondence] Prater said the letter, which is highly critical of the county operations, troubled him. He asked county administrator Verna McDaniel to make sure that someone followed up on it.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge , Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.
Next meeting: The board’s administrative briefing, to preview the March 2 agenda, will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 5:30 p.m. in the offices of the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. The board’s next regular meeting is on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 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. [confirm date] (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.