Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (July 7, 2011): Three seemingly disparate projects drew questions and in some cases concerns over the county’s role in them, as commissioners heard presentations this month on the Ann Arbor skatepark, plans for an expanded recycling facility in western Washtenaw, and proposed changes at the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO).
The longest discussion focused on a proposal by the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority, which is hoping to build a $3.2 million facility to handle single-stream recycling for communities on the county’s west side. The 20-year-old entity would like the county to issue $2.7 million in bonds, backed by the county’s full faith and credit, to be repaid through special assessments on households in participating communities, including the city of Chelsea.
Commissioners wanted more details on the project’s business plan and projected budget before they consider a formal proposal, likely in early September. Several commissioners also questioned why the WWRA wasn’t planning to partner with the Ann Arbor recycling facility. Commissioner Rob Turner, whose district covers much of western Washtenaw and who supports this effort, voiced some frustration that recent bonding for drain projects in Ann Arbor hadn’t received the same level of scrutiny from his fellow commissioners.
The skatepark presentation was relatively brief, and commissioners generally expressed support for the project. Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. felt the organizers were too Ann Arbor-centric, however. He reminded them that the county parks & recreation commission had committed $400,000 in matching funds for the project, and that organizers should consider fundraising and selling skatepark merchandise in other parts of the county, not just Ann Arbor.
The board also learned some details on a proposed transfer of about a half-dozen employees from the county payroll to the WCHO, as part of a restructuring aimed at limiting the county’s financial liabilities. The WCHO is an entity that receives state and federal funding to provide services for people with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse disorders. At this point, WCHO “leases” its employees from the county, and contracts for services through the county’s community support and treatment services (CSTS) department, which employs about 300 people. A CSTS employee spoke during public commentary, complaining that the staff hasn’t been adequately informed about these proposed changes.
And though commissioner Ronnie Peterson, at a June 28 agenda briefing, had advocated strongly for reordering the working session’s agenda in order to give more time to the WCHO discussion, he did not attend the meeting.
Ann Arbor Skatepark
Scott Rosencrans, a board member for Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark (FOAAS), gave a presentation to commissioners about progress the group has made toward their goal of building a skatepark in Veterans Memorial Park, on Ann Arbor’s west side. Other FOAAS board members – including Trevor Staples and Diane Kern – attended the meeting but did not individually address the county board.
The presentation was similar to one Rosencrans gave at the Ann Arbor city council’s June 20, 2011 meeting. He began by telling commissioners about merchandise sales that support the skatepark: T-shirts, coffee mugs and skateboard decks, which are sold by several local merchants: Acme Mercantile, Launch Board Shop, Play It Again Sports, Vault of Midnight, Roos Roast and Produce Station.
In 2011, FOAAS is focusing on two areas, Rosencrans said: skatepark safety, and accessibility for the physically challenged. He cited a Consumer Product Safety Commission study that showed skateboarding as being safer than basketball, baseball and soccer, based on the number of injuries per 100,000 participants.
FOAAS has done outreach on the issue too, Rosencrans said. They’ve visited and talked with organizers of the Riley Skatepark in Farmington Hills, which opened in 2009 and is similar in size and population to the Ann Arbor project. Anecdotally, he said, the experience at Riley reflects the injury statistics reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He noted that the highest injury rates occur when there’s physical contact between participants. Contact between skateboarders is an anomaly, not part of the sport, he noted.
FOAAS is also working hard to make the skatepark design accessible to people with disabilities, Rosencrans said, and they’ve sought input from that community. In March, FOAAS made a formal presentation to the Ann Arbor Commission on Disability Issues, and went on a field trip to the Riley Skatepark with members of that group. The result was a resolution of support from the commission for the skatepark, he said.
Rosencrans also reviewed why Veterans Memorial Park was chosen as a location. Among the reasons he cited: (1) it’s located between two high schools (Pioneer and Skyline), and on bus lines; (2) it’s near two major highways – I-94 and M-14 – to accommodate skaters from other parts of the county; (3) there’s lots of parking; (4) and it’s near emergency health facilities, ”though we know those won’t be used very often,” he joked.
In characterizing the importance of a skatepark, Rosencrans noted it would serve about 5,000-7,000 people, mostly kids, throughout the county. A survey for the update of the Ann Arbor parks, recreation and open space (PROS) plan found that skateboarding was more popular than hockey, volleyball and rowing, and had roughly the same level of participation as sports like baseball, basketball and ultimate Frisbee, among others.
Skateparks are also important for economic development, he said, citing the potential to draw visitors from three states, and beyond. Rosencrans also noted the growing trend of citizen participation as spearheading these kinds of public projects – examples of that, he said, include local dog parks, and involvement when public amenities like the city’s golf courses, Mack Pool or the senior center have been threatened with closure. He also mentioned the trend of private philanthropy supporting public projects, citing examples of the pétanque courts in Burns Park and the recent gift of $50,000 by the Morris family to renovate South University Park.
The future of community improvement projects like the skatepark will depend on public/private collaboration, Rosencrans told commissioners. Local governments have limited resources, and public servants have a stake in encouraging residents to participate in these projects, he said. Rosencrans urged commissioners to ask their constituents to become involved.
Ann Arbor Skatepark: Commissioner Discussion
Barbara Bergman began by saying that her two grandchildren will look forward to using the skatepark – when they come to visit now, there’s no place to skateboard other than on the sidewalks of Highland Road, which isn’t safe. She also appreciated information about where to by skatepark merchandise: ”I’ll be buying some birthday and Hanukkah presents.”
Conan Smith said he wanted to remind commissioners and the public that the county parks and recreation commission has approved $400,000 in matching funds for the skatepark. [See Chronicle coverage from March 2010: "County Offers $400K Match for Skatepark"] Every dollar that’s donated will be matched, he said, and he urged people to give generously.
Rosencrans explained that people could donate by going to the FOAAS website and clicking on the Crowdrise button.
Several questions by Rolland Sizemore Jr., whose district includes parts of Ypsilanti and Superior townships, reflected his frustration at the Ann Arbor-centric nature of the project so far. He asked whether any stores outside of Ann Arbor sold skatepark merchandise. Not yet, Rosencrans said, but skatepark organizers are working to make that happen. Sizemore said he thinks it’s wrong to exclude other parts of the county. He also objected to the fact that Washtenaw County wasn’t mentioned in the presentation or materials – given the county’s financial contribution, it should be included, he said, even though he knows that will probably irritate people in Ann Arbor.
Sizemore had raised the same issue at the March 2010 meeting of the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission, when he’d suggested that he’d like the county to get its due in terms of signage associated with the park. At that meeting, he’d asked: “Do we have any input, or is it Ann Arbor and skateboard people?”
Rob Turner echoed Sizemore’s sentiments. Turner, whose district includes Chelsea and other portions of the county’s west side, said there’s considerable interest in the skatepark by residents of western Washtenaw. That part of the county could also be a potential for raising skatepark funds, he noted.
Sizemore told Rosencrans that he started skateboarding when you still had to build your own skateboard – he supported the skatepark, but thought the organizers needed to broaden their reach. The skatepark effort needs to be publicized throughout the county, he said, adding that he’d be happy to help with that effort. Conan Smith noted that Sizemore has been a driving force in the county’s participation in the project – both Smith and Sizemore serve on the county parks & recreation commission.
Sizemore also wanted to know whether skateboarders would be required to wear safety equipment when they use the skatepark. Some kids he’s talked with have indicated they don’t wear helmets and other safety gear, but they would wear the gear if that was the only way to use the skatepark, he said.
Based on his experience as a former Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner, Rosencrans said that typically a committee would be set up to recommend rules for a facility like this. That was the process for creating the BMX/dirt bike course in Bandemer Park, he said.
Sizemore asked whether there might be room to expand the skatepark to include a BMX course at Veterans Memorial Park, too. Rosencrans said the skatepark won’t take up the entire area on that side of the park – the skatepark site is on the northern side of the park, off of Dexter-Ann Arbor Road.
Leah Gunn, an Ann Arbor commissioner, concluded the board’s comments by speaking to constituents who might be watching the meeting on Community Television Network (CTN) or online: “I sent a check, so all of you – send a check.”
Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority
Dan Myers, the county’s director of public works, and Frank Hammer, a Chelsea city councilmember and board member of the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority, gave a presentation and fielded questions from commissioners about a proposal for expanding the WWRA. Specifically, the authority is asking the county to issue $2.7 million in bonds to help pay for a $3.2 million new recycling facility. The bonds would be repaid through a special assessment levied on the communities in western Washtenaw that agree to be served by the facility.
Myers began by describing the history of WWRA, which was formed in 1991 as a response to the 1989 update of the Washtenaw County Solid Waste Plan, a state-mandated document. Eight communities participated, creating the authority under Public Act 233: the city of Chelsea, the village of Manchester, and the townships of Bridgewater, Dexter, Lima, Lyndon, Manchester and Sylvan.
A contract was struck between the county’s board of public works and the WWRA, and assessment districts were created by the BPW under Public Act 185 to pay for construction of the original facility. New assessments have been made every five years for operations – by 2006, over 11,000 households in these eight communities were assessed annually.
Hammer described the current services that WWRA provides, including curbside recycling in Chelsea and the village of Manchester, and drop-off stations in the townships. The original facility, now 20 years old, was put together on “a wing and a prayer,” he said. It has been operating at a reasonably high level with antiquated equipment, but staff believe it’s time to upgrade the system. About 18 months ago, the WWRA board decided that single-stream recycling was the way to go, he said. The WWRA got feedback that more residents would recycle if they didn’t have to sort materials, as they do now.
An expanded, upgraded facility for single-stream recycling would allow for a range of benefits, Hammer said. Those include: expansion of the types of materials that can be recycled; increased convenience for residents who recycle; ability to store recyclables to capture a higher market value; less material processing time; less fuel use; and decreased staff time.
Myers said that the WWRA has saved $500,000 to put toward the new facility, but needs $2.7 million in bonds to pay the remainder of the $3.2 million project, which includes a new building and equipment. So far, the governing entities of four communities have voted to support the project as “investing” members – Chelsea, and the townships of Dexter, Lyndon and Manchester. That’s a total of about 7,000 households so far that will be assessed to repay the bonds. In addition, the Bridgewater Township board has voted to participate as an “associate” member, with households paying a lower fee for service, but not taking on debt payments. The Lima Township board also voted to become an associate member. [Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Myers said Lima Township might consider becoming an investing member, pending a review of contractual obligations.]
Chelsea households, which will continue to receive curbside pick-up, would make debt payments of $68 annually, plus $6.35 for operating expenses. Households in the three investing townships would pay $24 annually, plus the $6.35 for operating expenses. Households in associate member communities would pay $24 annually. The plan is to pay off the bonds in 15 years, Myers said – or sooner, if possible. Residents of investing communities would see their annual operating assessments go down as the facility comes on line, while payments would remain static for associate member communities.
Next steps would be for WWRA’s investing members to approve a contract with the county. The county board would also need to approve the contract, authorizing the county’s full faith and credit to back the bonds. A formal proposal is likely to come before the county board for an initial vote in early September. The county board of public works would then establish the special assessments required for the debt and operating budget. Bonds would be sold, allowing for the new facility to be constructed.
Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority: Commissioner Discussion
Commissioners raised several concerns during an extensive discussion about the WWRA project. For this report, their comments and questions are organized by topic.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – Regional Cooperation, Governance
Rolland Sizemore Jr. told Hammer and Myers that he wanted to look at countywide recycling needs – WWRA might find additional savings that way. He asked how many years a community must commit to being an investing member. It’s a 15-year commitment for investing members, but associate members can opt-out after five years, Hammer explained.
Hammer also emphasized that the WWRA is already a regional effort, with multiple communities involved. He noted that Sylvan Township voted against participating in the project. But Sylvan Township has other issues, he said, adding that he hoped Sylvan would eventually sign on as an associate member.
[Sylvan Township has been struggling with $12.5 million in bonds issued to build a water and wastewater treatment plant intended to serve future development. The plan was to use revenue related to that development – from connection fees to the system – to cover the bond payments. However, the economy soured and development hasn’t materialized. Last year, the county board approved a bond refunding in order to restructure the debt and lower the township’s bond payments. Township residents will likely be assessed to cover those bond payments.]
Regarding Ann Arbor’s materials recycling facility (MRF), Hammer said it’s on the east side of the county – it would cost more to transport materials there than to build a facility in western Washtenaw, he said.
Sizemore then suggested that Rob Turner, a commissioner whose district covers parts of western Washtenaw, become a WWRA board member. He thought the county board should be represented. Hammer replied that it would entail revising WWRA’s articles of incorporation, but he didn’t see a problem with that. The WWRA board would likely need a special meeting to make that change, he said.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – Finances
Wes Prater asked whether WWRA had a business plan for this project. Hammer reported that they’ve developed a five-year budget, based on several scenarios – with budgets for four investing members, as well as plans based on having five or eight members. When all the communities finalize those decisions, WWRA will be able to finalize its budget, he said. Prater urged him to share that information.
Kristin Judge clarified that the county does not currently fund any portion of WWRA. She pressed the issue of whether WWRA had done a complete analysis of other options, and asked how residents were reacting to the prospect of a special assessment. Hammer reiterated that WWRA had explored other possibilities, but had found it would be cheaper to build its own facility. He said he hadn’t heard any negative reaction about the assessment.
Judge also questioned why the authority itself couldn’t issue the bonds, rather than the county. Hammer replied that WWRA had consulted two bonding agencies. WWRA had been informed that because the smaller communities don’t have a track record issuing bonds – unlike the county, most of the municipalities in the WWRA don’t have a credit rating – they’d be charged higher interest rates.
Hammer told commissioners that there would be zero risk to the county, because the bond payments would be made by assessments on existing households. Myers added that the WWRA is set up through the county’s public works board, so county administrative and finance staff, as well as the county’s bond counsel, have been involved in discussions about the project.
Barbara Bergman questioned the stability of the financing model – what if houses go into foreclosure? In this economy, that’s a real possibility. She also wondered how the pricing of recyclables – which she characterized as “interesting, at best” – is being factored in to the business model. Finally, Bergman wanted more details on WWRA’s analysis of a possible partnership with Ann Arbor’s MRF. Ann Arbor staff have expressed interest in that kind of partnership, she said, and MRF has done work with communities as far away as Lansing.
Hammer replied that if houses go into foreclosure, taxes and assessments will still be collected by the county treasurer. Myers said that even if a small percentage of houses went into foreclosure, and for some reason those assessments weren’t paid, the WWRA would be able to absorb those losses.
Bergman observed that she’d grown less optimistic over the years, and believed that 15-year plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The county itself had made very rosy financial forecasts “that crashed in our laps,” she said.
Hammer emphasized that their projections are very conservative. For example, revenue projections are based on prices paid for recyclables in January 2011, even though those prices have increased 15% since then. He also noted that the projections are based on conservative tonnage, and that WWRA has set aside contingency funds. Myers added that debt payments don’t rely on the price of recyclables – the debt will be repaid through assessments on households.
Bergman concluded her comments by saying she wanted more information about why collaborating with Ann Arbor’s MRF wouldn’t work. As an Ann Arbor commissioner, she said, “that’s my very parochial interest.”
Regarding a partnership with MRF, Hammer said there were some very serious flaws in the assumptions on which an analysis by Ann Arbor staff was based. Certain information related to labor costs and insurance hadn’t been factored in, for example. Any way you look at it, he said, transferring recyclables to Ann Arbor’s MRF makes no sense for residents in western Washtenaw, he concluded.
Leah Gunn wondered how projected revenues would be affected, now that the village of Manchester and Sylvan Township had decided not to participate. Hammer said he’s continuing to talk with Sylvan Township officials about the possibility of being an associate member. He was disappointed about Manchester’s decision, but said that the project can proceed without them.
Gunn then noted that she’s seen Ann Arbor’s MRF – it’s a complicated place. So in the WWRA’s business plan, she’ll be looking at items related to operations and maintenance. She said she’s especially sensitive to that because she’s also an Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member. “I’ll give you two words,” she said. “Parking structures.”
Hammer invited Gunn and other commissioners to tour WWRA’s existing facility, saying they’d find it to be well-maintained and organized.
Alicia Ping, whose district covers southwest Washtenaw, said it was commendable that WWRA had been operating 20 years and had no debt. She confirmed that WWRA also provides recycling services to other communities on a contract basis. Hammer said those revenues hadn’t been factored in to the project’s budget. Ping told her fellow commissioners that when they saw the business plan, they’d be very impressed with it.
Sizemore said he’s a little gun-shy about offering the county’s full faith and credit, but he’d support the project.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – Double Standard?
Rob Turner, a Chelsea resident whose district covers several communities that participate in WWRA, said the recycling authority has provided excellent service for 20 years. The single-stream service will be extremely helpful in increasing the amount of recyclables collected, he said.
Turner pointed to the concerns that fellow commissioners were expressing over issuing $2.7 million in bonds, and wondered why he hadn’t heard the same concerns at their previous meeting. Without discussion, on July 6 the board had approved five drain projects in Ann Arbor that required the county’s full faith and credit on over $6 million in bonds. There hadn’t been this kind of scrutiny of those projects, he observed. “Where’s the pushback – why wasn’t there pushback on these other five issues?” The same questions that are being asked of the WWRA could have been asked about the Ann Arbor drain projects, he said, but weren’t.
Responding to Turner, Leah Gunn noted that the county has had a “long and satisfying relationship” with the county water resources commissioner [Janis Bobrin], and there had never been any defaults in drain assessment districts. [The office of the water resources commissioner made the requests for the drain projects mentioned by Turner.] Gunn said she has confidence in Bobrin, based on past experience. The reason why some commissioners are skittish, Gunn continued, is because of the “mess” they’re in with Sylvan Township.
Kristin Judge noted that when Bobrin comes to them with requests for drainage work, it’s typically related to flooding. Dealing with that is a necessity. Recycling is important and she supports it, but it’s not a necessity, Judge said. Also, it’s technically possible for the WWRA to get services from Ann Arbor’s MRF, she noted. For the drain requests, that’s not possible.
Turner responded by saying the WWRA project is very different from the Sylvan Township situation. Sylvan officials had planned to make bond payments with tap fees from future developments – those developments never materialized, he noted. The WWRA will be assessing existing households.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – Why Not Privatize?
Dan Smith said he’s generally quite supportive of recycling, but noted that the community where he lives – Whitmore Lake – is served by a private company. He wondered whether that might be an option. Everyone talks about doing things differently, he said, and now WWRA is presented with an opportunity to shake things up and look at providing the recycling service in a different way. He had no objection to taxpayers determining how they want to spend their money, but he had some concerns.
He clarified that WWRA was projecting 20% revenue growth over five years. D. Smith noted that he’d been involved in putting together some revenue projections several years ago, and had been very conservative. Yet even those conservative numbers had proven to be too optimistic, he said. Related to foreclosed properties, D. Smith observed that in some cases the county treasurer had difficulty selling foreclosed properties at a price that would cover the taxes owed on the property. There aren’t any guarantees, he said – this economy is different from any situation they have ever experienced.
The county board is concerned about extending its full faith and credit. D. Smith noted that commissioners had lengthy discussions on the issue as it related to a private developer. [Smith was referring to a request made earlier this year for the Packard Square project at the former Georgetown Mall site in Ann Arbor. Developers had asked to use the county’s full faith and credit as a guarantee for a state loan the developers intended to apply for. And after concerns were raised by commissioners, the developers ultimately withdrew that request.] D. Smith said that for the WWRA, it was another government entity making the request, so it’s a different situation. Still, the WWRA needed to follow up on the issues that were being raised, he said.
Hammer responded to D. Smith by saying that the WWRA had approached two businesses – Recommunity Recycling and Republic Waste Services. Neither one were interested in the work, he said.
The WWRA model is very much like a private business, Hammer continued. The WWRA has run the facility for 20 years without incurring debt, and has paid for its equipment in cash. The main difference is that the authority’s bottom line isn’t profit – it’s public service, he said.
D. Smith said it’s appropriate for the county to pledge its full faith and credit for a project that’s providing a public service. At the same time, he added, the county isn’t a bank. What’s the difference in interest rates between having the county issue bonds, compared to the WWRA issuing bonds? Hammer said they’ve been told it would be a difference of at least 2 percentage points.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – Length of Discussion
After about an hour of questions, Barbara Bergman noted that several people had come to the meeting for the night’s final presentation – on proposed changes to the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO). She felt that questions regarding the WWRA were becoming repetitive, and asked that commissioners wrap up the discussion. Leah Gunn suggested that commissioners send their questions to the county administrative staff, then the answers could be emailed to the board at a later date. It’s a complicated issue, she said, and these questions wouldn’t be resolved that evening.
Wes Prater disagreed, saying the point of a working session was to ask questions about a project.
Conan Smith made a motion to limit the remaining WWRA discussion to 15 minutes.
Outcome: On a 5-4 vote, commissioners limited the WWRA discussion to another 15 minutes from that point in the meeting. Dissenting were Kristin Judge, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Two commissioners – Ronnie Peterson and Yousef Rabhi – were absent.
WWRA: Commissioner Discussion – General Comments
Conan Smith voiced strong support for the proposal, reminding commissioners that the WWRA’s mission would ultimately be valuable to the entire county, not just the western portion. It’s about serving the public, he said, and if residents in that part of the county want their own facility and are willing to pay for it, “let’s help make that happen.” He said he was excited at the prospect of increased recycling because of this project. The finance model works, he said, and the special assessments provide strong financial protection for the county. ”I’m fully supportive of it,” Smith concluded.
Rolland Sizemore said he didn’t like the presentation he’d heard. Many of the questions that were asked had been previously communicated to WWRA, but the county board still didn’t have answers, he said. He cautioned Hammer and Myers to be sure to address these concerns when they came back to the board with a formal request.
Changes at Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO)
Before the presentation on a restructuring proposal for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, Barbara Bergman – a commissioner who also serves on the WCHO board – apologized to people who had waited through the preceding presentations, and thanked them for their patience.
Patrick Barrie, WCHO’s executive director, began by quipping, “I have a five-hour presentation.” That prompted commissioner Wes Prater to reply, “We’ll stay – we’ll stay!”
Barrie noted that he’s an historian by trade, and he began by giving a brief overview of the WCHO’s “extremely complicated history.” In 1974, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation that enabled the state to shift responsibility for public mental health services to the counties. It was slow going until Gov. William Milliken pushed for financial incentives a few years later, Barrie said, to encourage the transfer. Washtenaw County was one of the first counties to take on that responsibility, he said. Budgets for county mental health programs grew dramatically, both from expanded state funding as well as federal dollars.
In 1996, amendments to the state’s mental health code allowed community mental health services programs (CMHSPs) to be established in three different ways: (1) as an agency of the county; (2) as an organization under the state’s Urban Cooperation Act (UCA); or (3) as a mental health authority – a governmental entity that’s separate from the county, with its own governing board. That code change led to the establishment of the WCHO in 2000, in a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan, set up under the UCA. Governance shifted from the county board to the WCHO board.
With a total budget of $112 million from multiple funding sources, the WCHO serves as the community mental health services program for Washtenaw County, and is the Medicaid prepaid inpatient health plan (PIHP) – a federal designation – for Washtenaw, Monroe, Lenawee and Livingston counties. The PIHP accounts for about 80% of WCHO’s funding. The WCHO is also the substance abuse coordinating agency – a designation under the state’s public health code – for Washtenaw and Livingston counties.
The WCHO primarily serves people with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse disorders, Barrie said. But managing the services is a complex process, he said, because each of the different funding sources has its own set of legal constraints, eligibility requirements, service qualifications and benefit arrangements.
The WCHO has some organizational “peculiarities,” Barrie said. The WCHO uses lease and contract agreements with the county for staff, direct services, facilities and equipment. The WCHO has no employees of its own, he said – “I’m leased.” Its primary contract for services and personnel is through the county’s community support and treatment services (CSTS) department. That county department employs a total of about 300 people. While this arrangement was appropriate at WCHO’s inception, Barrie said, it appears contrary to the intent of the enabling legislation, which seems to indicate that employees would eventually shift over from the county to the WCHO.
There’s also a question of liability for the county, he said. In many ways, there doesn’t appear to be any real distinction between the WCHO and the county – and that exposes the county to liability for the WCHO’s operations. So in consultation with the county administration and legal counsel, the WCHO board is requesting that a small number of administrative, non-union positions – including Barrie – be shifted from the county to the WCHO. Initially only six employees would be transferred, he said, with possibly an additional eight employees transfered at a later date. The employees would be limited to those who are necessary for the operation of the agreement between WCHO and the county, he said. And all of the transfers are being vetted to ensure that no employees would be disadvantaged because of the change, in terms of their salaries and benefits.
There are no plans to transfer employees beyond this core group, Barrie said, and the change would not significantly affect other financial arrangements between the county and the WCHO. The intent is to establish an arm’s length relationship between the two entities, he said, and to put some key administrative positions under the control of the WCHO board.
Changes at WCHO: Commissioner Discussion
Leah Gunn noted that she has sat next to Barbara Bergman at county board meetings for 15 years, and during that time Bergman has explained how WCHO has been organized and reorganized over the years. It’s extraordinary what the organization delivers in terms of services, she said. Gunn described the organization as complex and she didn’t completely understand it, but she said she had confidence in Barrie.
Wes Prater said the county is carrying a liability now, and would benefit from making these changes. He asked for more details, including a proposed timeline for the changes.
Initially, Barrie said, the WCHO is looking to shift over six administrative employees, including himself. There might be an additional eight employees in a second wave, assuming the employees qualify as people who are essential to the functioning of WCHO’s mission. This would establish an arm’s length relationship between WCHO and the county, he said. The interlocal agreement between WCHO and the county states that the county isn’t liable for WCHO’s debts, but the current structure of the organization belies that, he said.
WCHO’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, and that’s the timeline the organization has set for making these changes, Barrie said. The WCHO has hired attorney Jerry Lax to evaluate each employee’s status and ensure that employees wouldn’t be disadvantaged by transferring to the WCHO – Barrie said the WCHO, not the county, is footing the bill for that legal work. He hopes to make the change prior to any state legislative changes, he said, adding that every day in Lansing bills are introduced that weaken protections for public employees. ”So sooner rather than later is probably a good idea,” he said.
Kristin Judge said she gave her full support to this transition, and that taking care of WCHO’s customers should be the No. 1 goal.
In response to a query from Bergman, Barrie explained that the WCHO has been able to find creative ways to maximize federal grant support for services – when federal stimulus funds were available, about 75% of WCHO’s budget was from federal funding. All states are preparing for the upcoming changes in 2014 resulting from federal health care reforms, he said. Unless Congress alters the current law, Medicaid will expand the number of eligible recipients significantly in 2014, and funding is available for poorer states to help handle that influx. “We were a donor state for a lot of years,” Barrie said, “but now we’re living off federal dollars.”
Bergman joked that with WCHO as a separate entity, the county might be able to sell some of its assets to the organization. Barrie quipped that WCHO could be a toxic asset fund, but quickly noted that he had said that in jest. Barrie said he’s very concerned about the future configuration of health care services in Michigan, citing Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to make an announcement related to health care in September.
The WCHO is working on how to use its affiliation with UM to come up with novel ways to keep control of mental health services in the public sector, rather than see it shift to private sector entities.
Rob Turner praised WCHO and CSTS, referencing specifically a partnership with the nonprofit Faith in Action that serves the western part of Washtenaw County, which he represents. He supported the reorganization, and said he thought it would allow WCHO to grow and serve local residents in even better, more efficient ways.
Changes at WCHO: Public Commentary
Three people spoke on the issue of WCHO restructuring at the meeting’s final public commentary period.
Paquetta Palmer told commissioners that she works in the CSTS department. The staff has been left out of the discussions about these changes, she said. The way that these changes are communicated is crucial to the staff’s comfort level – but they’ve just been hearing rumors, she said. The process should be laid out very clearly. There are also other counties that have gone through this kind of change, Palmer said, and it hasn’t always been effective.
The timing is also an issue, since right now unions that represent county employees are in a negotiating period, and people are fearful about what might happen to their jobs, she said. As a taxpayer, she’s also used the services of the Washtenaw Health Plan, Palmer said, and a lot of people are concerned about what the changes will mean to these services.
If the WCHO is separate from the county, for example, will CSTS be a preferred provider of services? Or will it be only one of a number of contractors that WCHO will consider? Palmer also indicated that she had previously expressed interest in serving on the WCHO board, but was told that county employees couldn’t do that. However, she noted that commissioner Barbara Bergman was on the board, as were people from UM and the community – but no county staff were represented. She reiterated that the county staff has useful input, and that the board and administration should seek that input.
Peg Ball expressed appreciation for the county in supporting these services, and said the time is right for a change. She hoped that commissioners would support the proposal. Responding to Palmer, Ball said she felt like communication would improve – she’d hard WCHO board members talk about the importance of communication with WCHO, CSTS employees and people who use the services.
Dennis McDougal, a WCHO board member, said he welcomed the support of commissioners for these changes. He praised Bergman for her support during this transition. And as a consumer of WCHO/CSTS services himself, he also wanted to support the staff for their work.
Several commissioners responded to the public commentary. Bergman thanked her fellow WCHO board members, then told Palmer that she felt the new organization would better serve county residents. They need to continue improving communication, she said.
Alicia Ping said she’d heard similar complaints from staff about poor communication regarding the reorganization of the employment training and community services (ETCS) department, which is merging with the office of community development and the economic development & energy department. It’s a balancing act, she said, especially during labor negotiations. But the board needs to be sensitive to the rumors that are out there.
Rob Turner concluded the discussion by saying that the more the staff knows, the more likely they’ll be to support and take ownership of these changes. Employees can be a big help, he said.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.
Absent: Ronnie Peterson, Yousef Rabhi
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Aug. 3, 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. In addition, the board will hold a July 21 working session on the 2012-2013 budget, starting at 6:30 p.m. in the same location.
Next working session: Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. The working session will focus on the 2012-2013 budget.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!