Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (March 17, 2011): Leaders of several local governments in Washtenaw County attended a working session earlier this month, where they explored with county commissioners, in a general way, how to collaborate on delivering services to local residents.
Their discussion comes in the context of declining property values – property taxes are the primary source of revenue for local governments. In Michigan, constraints on how local governments can generate revenues add an additional layer of complexity. For the county, commissioners and staff are weighing how to overcome a projected two-year, $20.9 million deficit – some feel that collaborating with other local governments is part of the solution.
The talk among Washtenaw County leaders about collaboration also reflects a push at the state level to encourage more such efforts. It’s been a mantra of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, an Ann Arbor area resident, who wants to use state revenue-sharing dollars as a carrot to get communities to work together. More dramatically, his administration is also advocating for legislation that would make it easier for cities and counties to merge.
Local government officials had been invited to the March 17 meeting to participate in the discussion and air their views on the possibilities for collaboration, as well as roadblocks they anticipate, like issues of cost or control. Many cited the need for better communication, and commissioners indicated a desire to get more involved in existing forums, such as the CEO Group – a monthly meeting of township supervisors led by Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly – and the Saline Area Sustainability Circle, which also meets monthly.
Representatives from Ann Arbor Township, Salem Township, Saline and Ypsilanti attended the working session. However, no one came from local governments of the county’s largest population centers – Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township or Ypsilanti Township – though those areas are also represented by county commissioners. Several people at the meeting expressed the hope that similar sessions would be held in the future, with the additional hope that more local officials would get involved.
Introductions, Framing the Discussion
Typically, working sessions for the county board entail presentations on one or two topics related to the county’s work, with the opportunity for commissioners to ask questions. But the March 17 session on intergovernmental collaboration had a different tone. Yousef Rabhi, chair of the working session, began by asking everyone in the room to introduce themselves, and he invited leaders from other local governments to sit at tables in the front with microphones, where they could participate directly in the discussion.
In addition to some county staff and a few members of the public, local officials at the meeting included Mike Moran, Ann Arbor Township supervisor; Todd Campbell, Saline city manager; Salem Township supervisor Robert Heyl; Salem Township treasurer Paul Uherek; Janis Bobrin, Washtenaw County water resources commissioner; and Gene DeRossett, 14-A District Court administrator. Pete Murdock, an Ypsilanti city councilmember, arrived about midway through the session.
Rabhi pointed out that one of the county’s guiding principles speaks directly to collaboration:
Provide leadership on intragovernmental, intergovernmental and intersectoral cooperation and collaboration aimed at improving services to County citizens.
He noted that at the March 16 board meeting, commissioners had approved a set of priorities and principles to guide the 2012-2013 budget. During that meeting, they’d talked a lot about intergovernmental collaboration, he said. One of the guiding principles that they’d approved dealt directly with that issue:
Guidance Four: Integrate efforts across agencies to meet strategic priorities. The Board seeks to substantively elevate the County’s role in providing leadership on intragovernmental, intergovernmental and intersectoral cooperation and collaboration aimed at improving services to County citizens. Partnership and collaboration are essential components of every County program. [.pdf file of 2012-13 strategic priorities and budget decision principles]
“This is part of that process,” Rabhi said. The county is already collaborating in a variety of ways, he noted, which they are documenting. [.pdf file listing current county collaborations] Examples include the sheriff’s office combining its dispatch operations with the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti; the county morgue contracting with the University of Michigan Health System to use UM facilities for autopsies; and the county providing IT services for the Dexter fire department, Chelsea police and the city of Ypsilanti.
What followed was a wide-ranging discussion among commissioners and leaders of other local governments. For purposes of this report, the discussion is organized by topic.
Is Collaboration a Priority – And at What Cost?
Rabhi observed that at the March 16 board meeting, some commissioners had indicated they didn’t want to collaborate if it cost the county money. So he posed a question: Should collaboration be a priority, regardless of its expense?
Conan Smith, the board’s chair, made some additional points to frame the conversation. They have an interesting opportunity, given the state’s economy, to re-examine how government services are provided, he said. One of the key questions is: At what level is a service optimally provided, and what entity should provide it? Issues that affect the character of a neighborhood probably aren’t a county government responsibility. But perhaps providing a payroll service to local governments is a service the county could offer.
He also pointed out that many issues cross jurisdictional boundaries – like the work of the county’s water resources commissioner, for example. Environmental issues should be looked at from a regional or metro area perspective, he said – or even on the scale of a watershed.
These aren’t necessarily clear-cut decisions, Smith said. And it’s complicated by the fact that different units of government have different authority. Police services and roads are examples where there’s overlapping entities involved. All of these factors should be part of the discussion, Smith said, and should help shape their legislative agenda.
Returning to Rabhi’s question, Barbara Bergman said that any collaboration they do should be cost neutral to the county. Though they should look for opportunities to collaborate, as a steward of public funds, she said, she felt strongly that they shouldn’t use general fund dollars to pursue collaborative projects.
No government wants to collaborate and end up paying more, Smith replied. But there’s recognition that kicking off a collaboration might cost money initially – the idea is that those upfront costs will yield a payoff down the road. The distinction is between one-time costs and longer-term costs, he said.
Bergman responded that if there are start-up costs that don’t result in savings within six to eight months, that would be hard to support.
At that point, Mike Moran – Ann Arbor Township supervisor – approached the podium to speak. He told Bergman that her view is very short-sighted. There are several examples of collaborations that have paid off, but that aren’t necessarily cost neutral, he said – pointing to the Washtenaw Metro Alliance and the Urban County, which both have relied on county staff. And some things didn’t save money, but were worth doing anyway, he noted. The Metro Alliance, for example, came up with a comprehensive open space plan – they didn’t start out with that as a project, but it became a valuable endeavor, he said.
Secondarily, Moran said, a lot of collaboration is happening that might not be officially considered as collaboration. He cited as examples the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) and the criminal justice collaborative council (CJCC), on which he serves – those aren’t included on the county’s list of collaborative projects, he noted, but they should be.
Moran also reported that Ann Arbor Township now requires that every development project be vetted by the staff of the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner. That’s not a county requirement, he noted, but another example of two local government entities working together.
Finally, Moran expressed skepticism that any money will be forthcoming from the state for local governments. If there’s a funding pool, it’ll be more like a “baby swimming pool,” he quipped.
Bergman replied that she also serves on the CJCC – when it started, the county was able to fund its start-up costs. But they’re facing a different economic climate now. “I wish now was then,” she said. “But now is now.” Bergman also noted that Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner, can manage her budget however she sees fit, “regardless of my comments regarding cost neutrality.” [The water resources commissioner is an independent, elected position. The budget for that office is set by the county board.]
Later in the meeting, commissioner Dan Smith observed that cost savings are the main reason driving collaboration. Over the years, local governments have developed the attitude that they want to deliver the best service possible, and the best way to do that was to do it themselves. But they don’t have the luxury of doing that anymore, he added, and they’re looking to collaborate to save money.
That might be true, commissioner Wes Prater said – the need to save money might have brought collaboration to the forefront. But there’s other value to collaboration, beyond savings. They also need to take into account that each of the local governments have different responsibilities, he said – the trick is to find collaborations that bring value to all involved.
Commissioner Kristin Judge said it was important to remember that the county is a member of SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments). They pay dues for that membership, she said, and should take advantage of SEMCOG staff who could support collaborative projects – SEMCOG staff is providing that kind of support to a regional IT collaboration that Judge participates in.
Peter Murdock, an Ypsilanti city councilmember, observed that Ypsilanti has been involved in collaborations for decades – he cited the Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority (YCUA) and the Ypsilanti District Library as examples. The city, which has its own police department, is also talking with Ypsilanti Township about providing police services for the township, he said. Ypsilanti Township currently contracts with the county sheriff’s department for police services.
They’ve already done a lot of cost cutting, Murdock said, and the next few years will be difficult. Collaboration and consolidation might be part of the solution, but Murdock indicated that strategy alone likely wouldn’t be enough to solve their problems.
Collaboration: Communication Is Key
Prater urged local leaders to think of Washtenaw County as one community. Each district is a little different, he said, but everyone is concerned about quality of life and public safety – they know those are crucial for economic development. There are other things, like transportation and good roads, he said, but fundamentally, public safety is the most critical thing for a good economy.
Commissioner Rob Turner said he comes to the discussion from the perspective of public schools – before being elected to the county board, he was a school board member for the Chelsea public schools. School boards throughout the county have a collegial relationship, he said, and collaborate via the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. Many service-sharing initiatives emerge from their discussions, he said, including collaborations related to food services and transportation. He said he didn’t see anything similar among township supervisors or other local government leaders – people just coming together and talking, as they were that night. He wondered if there were meetings taking place that he just wasn’t aware of.
Judge mentioned the CEO Group, a monthly meeting of township supervisors and other local government officials – it’s led by Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly. Former county commissioner Mark Ouimet previously served as an informal liaison between the county board and the CEO Group, she said. So the mechanism exists, Judge said – they just need to figure out a better way to take advantage of it. She suggested that perhaps the work of the CEO Group could be better publicized.
Prater noted that former Ann Arbor mayor Liz Brater had started the CEO Group in the early 1990s, when Prater served as supervisor of Ypsilanti Township. Initially, only a few people attended, he said, but now it’s a strong group and provides a forum for local governments to communicate.
Turner observed that county commissioners or staff would benefit from being more than just an occasional guest at those meetings. Judge recalled that when she was first elected to the county board, taking office in late 2008, she was invited to the group. At that time, there was distrust against the county related to a dispute over how townships and other municipalities were charged for sheriff deputy patrols, she said. A lot of work has been done to heal those relationships, she added, and now it seems that members of the CEO Group are more open to working with the county.
Those kinds of animosities generally stem from a lack of communication, Turner said. Moran agreed that the CEO Group meetings have been helpful in leading to more understanding among the different entities, which he said has benefited everyone. At one point he had suggested that each head of the county departments come to the CEO Group meetings to explain to the group what they do, and what their concerns are. A few department heads did that, he said, but it would be helpful to hear from more of them.
Moran also identified the county board’s public commentary rules as a constraint against better communication. During the two opportunities for public commentary at each of their meetings, speakers are limited in time – five minutes at the regular board meetings and working sessions, and three minutes during the Ways & Means Committee meeting.
It’s hard to have a dialogue when you’re limited to speaking for five minutes, Moran said. Also, given the way the county operates, by the time a resolution has reached the board for a vote, the decision about it has already been made, he said. Moran suggested more meetings like this working session would be valuable.
Rabhi noted that there seems to be interest in coming together like this. When he sent out an email invitation to local government leaders, he’d received a lot of responses from people who couldn’t come, but who told him they were “overjoyed” that the county was holding this kind of meeting.
Ronnie Peterson asked other local government leaders to weigh in – what did they want from the county? What are their feelings about how the county currently interacts with them? How can the county enhance existing collaborations? It might be as simple as sharing a dump truck or an office that’s unused. He said the county needs to look for partners to help deliver services to its residents, but some communities want to be isolated – they don’t want to be bothered with collaborative efforts.
Todd Campbell, Saline’s city manager, thanked the board for holding the working session, and said he hoped there’d be more of these meetings in the future, and that more people would attend. For his community, it’s all about providing quality services – and collaboration is key for the future success of all communities, Campbell said. He mentioned ways that Saline is already doing that, citing the work that the Saline police department does with the county sheriff’s office.
Campbell noted that there are 62 employees in Saline city government – 10 fewer than there were eight years ago. At some point, you can’t do more with less – you do less with less. And generally, of the ways to cut costs, they’d already picked the low-hanging fruit.
But there are times when other factors come into play, he added. For example, he said that Saline has a strong city assessor who’s fair and helps educate the public. [Saline's assessor is Catherine Scull.] It doesn’t make sense for them to outsource that job, he said, because she provides such a quality service.
Campbell also stressed the importance of communication. He pointed out that the Saline Area Sustainability Circle has been very helpful – its discussions tend to focus on land-use issues, but other topics are addressed as well. [The group, which Campbell chairs, includes Saline, the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce, Saline Area Schools, Lodi Township, Saline Township, York Township, and Pittsfield Township. Its meetings, held at different locations on the third Tuesday of each month, are open to the public.]
Addressing the topic of barriers to collaboration, Campbell noted that in the town where he previously worked, they talked about those barriers as turf, taxes and tradition. Efforts to collaborate can result in issues of local control, of revenue and of the loss of identify – he cited an example of two school districts that were asked to consolidate, after their sports teams had been bitter rivals for decades. These are some of the challenges.
Alicia Ping, a former Saline city councilmember who now serves on the county board, suggested that the county needs to communicate better with other local governments about the services it already provides. She noted that several years ago, Saline was looking to outsource inspection services. Now, they contract with the county’s water resources commissioner for some of those services – it’s fee-based, she said.
Turner said he’d like to see the county board continue the kind of forum they were having at this working session, perhaps holding them on a quarterly basis. They needed a time when they could just come together and talk with leaders of other local governments.
Moran pointed out that there are a lot of local governments that don’t want to engage with the county, but they should – more people need to attend these meetings, he said.
Campbell also said future forums like this were critical. Often at the state and national level, directives are handed down to local communities, he said – local governments are told what to do and how to do it. A better approach would be to invite local leaders to tell the county what their needs are, he said. That would be crucial – to find out what the ailment is first.
Barriers to Collaboration
Prater said he wanted to talk about why local governments don’t collaborate. All too often, it’s because people have always done things a certain way, he said – change isn’t easy, and it requires people to go outside their comfort level. A lot of people in government don’t want to think about new ideas, but they must, Prater said.
Collaboration also requires good, productive management, Prater said. They need to set performance measures, gather data, and look for efficiencies – it’s not easy, he said.
Moran asked how they would measure a collaborative project, with regards to cost neutrality. Would they measure it at the first dollar that’s spent? Ventures like the Metro Alliance might take a couple of years to pay off, he noted. Judging whether something is cost neutral is meaningless unless there’s a timeframe attached, Moran said.
Planning is key, Prater replied. If initial planning reveals issues that might result in a collaboration not working, then you stop it. These days, he said, it’s all about the revenues – or lack thereof.
Leah Gunn said it’s not just about the county’s revenues – declining property tax revenues are an issue for all local governments. Foreclosures are happening in all districts, including hers, she noted. [Gunn represents District 9, which covers a portion of Ann Arbor.]
In the end, collaboration will pay off, Gunn said. She called the list of current collaborations “amazing,” noting there are others – like the Metro Alliance – that aren’t listed. Her understanding is that the Metro Alliance, which has been inactive recently, is being reconstituted, which she said is a good thing. Recent collaborations among some of the county’s fire departments stemmed in part from the Metro Alliance’s request that fire chiefs to attend one of their meetings, she said.
Later in the meeting, Salem Township treasurer Paul Uherek told commissioners that after the last snowfall, it took the county road commission three days before the road was plowed in front of his house. It would be useful for commissioners to ask why some local governments didn’t want to engage in collaborations, he said.
Judge later clarified that the county board isn’t responsible for clearing the roads – the road commission is a separate entity, although the county board is responsible for appointing the three road commissioners who oversee that operation.
Peterson noted that sometimes, people feel their concerns get lost. To say that the road commission is a separate entity ignores the role that the county board plays in appointing road commissioners, he said. Other local governments need to feel they are members of the team, he said, and at the end of the day, people want to be able to pick up the phone and get something done. And at the end of the day, he said, the county board is responsible for the road commission. It’s all about trust, he said – unless the county government has the trust of all municipalities throughout the county, they’ll never get to where they need to be in streamlining operations and cutting costs.
Turner noted that he served as a board liaison to the road commission, and he offered to follow up on the Salem Township issue. He asked them to contact him if there are any problems in the future. Referring to a statement made earlier in the meeting – that most communities have already picked the low-hanging fruit of cost savings – Turner said they’ll need to stand on each others’ shoulders to get at the higher-hanging fruit. “We’re here to help you,” he said, “and that’s what we want to do.”
Moran said he now knows who to call at the road commission, and how to get results – but 10 years ago, when he was new to office, he didn’t. He suggested coming up with a list of important contact information that could be distributed to all local governments.
Dan Smith said it’s true that most communities have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Now, as they brainstorm ideas for collaboration, they’ll face some serious roadblocks.
For example, consider the idea of a countywide fire department – though Smith stressed he wasn’t advocating for this. Residents don’t care where firefighters get trained or how many fire chiefs there are. They just want firefighters to respond when there’s a fire – they care about how quickly firefighters respond. It’s possible for this service to be delivered by a countywide entity, with lots of substations. But working through the details of that would be very difficult, he noted, given that there are currently multiple fire departments across the county.
Potential Areas of Collaboration, Next Steps
In looking at specific areas of possible collaboration, Conan Smith noted that the budget priority document the board approved on March 16 includes two outcomes that were relevant to the current discussion:
- Reductions in cost or duplication of the provision of “invisible” services; and
- Increased support for discretionary services that are board priorities.
Invisible services would include things that aren’t directly seen by residents, such as payroll or human resources. Smith asked if opportunities for collaboration existed in that area.
Campbell reported that from Saline’s perspective, they already contract out for their payroll services – they no longer do that in-house. He said that he heads up the city’s HR, because everyone wears many hats.
Murdock said that Ypsilanti had previously looked at the possibility of outsourcing some of those services, like HR and payroll. At the time, it didn’t make sense – or cents – to pursue, he said. Those aren’t big-ticket items like police or fire, where they could see significant savings from changes.
Conan Smith observed that one consistent theme had emerged that evening – the importance of dialogue and conversation. He said they needed to enter a process of discovery, cataloging all the existing opportunities and reviewing how the county board might participate in them. For example, they haven’t been active in the CEO Group – they could increase their engagement in that. They could also have a representative attend the Saline Area Sustainability Circle, and the Eastern Leaders Group.
Bergman added the community health collaborative to that list, saying they could put more muscle into its activities.
Judge suggested creating a menu of services that local governments could provide to other entities. For example, if there are services that one community provides particularly well – like Saline’s assessor – then perhaps other local governments could contract with them for those services.
Peterson said that for their next meeting on collaboration, they should solicit input from a broader range of elected and appointed officials throughout the county. How do they think the county can work better with their communities?
Picking up on an idea mentioned earlier in the meeting by Moran, Gunn suggested creating a list of contact information for county services. When you’re new to office, there’s a steep learning curve, she said. Bergman proposed posting this information on the county’s website. She also said it was important to get more input from other local governments about how to continue this dialogue.
Peterson felt it should be more than just a list of numbers. New county commissioners get an extensive orientation regarding county services, which includes the opportunity to meet with heads of departments and programs. Something like that might be helpful for leaders of other local governments.
Conan Smith cautioned that it seemed they were on the verge of creating a new project, and he was sensitive to the constraints on their budget and staff time. He asked for some commissioners to look into how much it might involve, and to bring back a report to the board. Rabhi, Bergman and Peterson volunteered for that task.
Peterson then noted that they’ve invited members of other local governments to the table, and that long-term relationships like this might bring some costs. “Let’s not ask for a date if we can’t afford to take them out,” he said.
Judge also expressed concern over creating a new project, noting that other forums already exist, including the CEO Group and the Metro Alliance. In addition, the board’s budget priorities, which they had approved at their March 16 meeting, include a priority to market the county’s services to other entities – that’s something they’ve already asked the county administration to do. She’d rather see them simply add to whatever already exists, not develop something new.
Turner said he understood Judge’s position, and if they can work with existing forums, that’s fine. However, he noted that so far, that hasn’t seemed to work very well – there are still significant communication gaps. They might need a different venue to do that, with a more comfortable atmosphere.
Robert Heyl, Salem Township’s supervisor, said he liked what he heard that night. He noted that each commissioner represented different parts of the county, and they could reach out to other local government leaders within their districts. Meeting one-on-one with other elected officials in their districts would be helpful, he said. The forum that night had been a good start, he said, and he hoped it would continue.
Rabhi wrapped up the working session by saying the discussion had opened a lot of doors, and that they’d hold more meetings like this in the future. The county is eager to work with everyone to best serve the residents, he concluded, “because that’s what we’re all here for.”
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.
Absent: Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, April 6, 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.