Washtenaw County Budget Set for 2012-2013

Despite appeals, cuts made to nonprofits; animal control unresolved

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Nov. 16, 2011): The main item on the Nov. 16 agenda was a final vote on the two-year budget for 2012 and 2013. Despite extensive public commentary – mostly from supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), and various nonprofits that provide human services like food and housing for low-income residents – there were no amendments that changed funding allocations from the version of the budget given initial approval two weeks ago.

Kirk Tabbey, Dan Smith

Kirk Tabbey, left, chief judge of the 14A-2 District Court in Ypsilanti, talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Dan Smith, vice chair of the county board's Ways & Means Committee. Smith chaired the Nov. 16 Ways & Means meeting in the absence of chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. Tabbey was on hand to introduce his new court administrator, Robert Ciolek, who replaces former court administrator Gene DeRossett. (Photos by the writer.)

The $97 million general fund budget included a range of funding cuts, aimed at overcoming what had been a $17.5 million deficit for the two-year period. Discussion focused for the most part on cuts to HSHV and Head Start, and drew sometimes heated rhetoric from commissioners – primarily from Ronnie Peterson. He advocated vigorously for support for both entities, but did not offer specific alternatives for funding.

The budget reduced HSHV’s contract from $500,000 this year to $250,000 each year in 2012 and 2013, an amount that HSHV officials have said doesn’t cover the cost of the services they provide. The state mandates that counties provide certain animal control services, but there’s disagreement between the county and HSHV about what those mandated services entail.

The HSHV’s current contract expires on Dec. 31, and the two groups continue to negotiate. Meanwhile, the county’s attorney has drafted a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit bids for animal control services. That RFP is being reviewed by other county officials – including the sheriff and prosecuting attorney – and will likely be issued within the next week or so.

Head Start’s situation remains unchanged, and the county will likely hand off the local program to federal administrators at the start of 2013. During deliberations, Peterson raised a range of concerns over how a transition would be handled, its impact on employees and children in the program, and the county’s debt obligations on the Head Start building in Ypsilanti.

Board chair Conan Smith lobbied for the county to explore other options, including keeping the federal grantee status but designating a single sub-recipient to administer it. There’s also new state legislation that could allow for creating an intergovernmental consortium – perhaps in partnership with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and the University of Michigan – to fund and operate the program. Smith proposed an amendment would have required a vote of the board before relinquishing control of the Head Start program, but that amendment failed. A majority of commissioners felt it would simply delay the inevitable.

The only amendment that passed involved re-hiring of retired employees. The amendment was initially proposed by Dan Smith, then approved in a modified form to require the county administrator to report to the board when retirees are hired back on a temporary basis. The issue will come to the fore as roughly 100 of the county’s 1,300 employees are expected to retire in the coming weeks, a situation described by Conan Smith as a potentially catastrophic loss of institutional expertise. The practice of hiring retired staff on a temporary basis is likely to be used to manage the transition. County administrator Verna McDaniel said she plans to use the turnover as an opportunity to restructure county operations in some areas.

Related to that turnover is the possibility that McDaniel will approve 8% raises for certain employees who take on extra work. Ronnie Peterson cautioned that giving raises in the wake of getting salary and benefit concessions from employees will hurt morale, and make labor unions less likely to agree to additional concessions in the future. The county is projecting deficits of $11.6 million in 2014 and $14.7 million in 2015.

The final budget vote was unanimous, though three commissioners voted no on specific line items. (Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent.) Peterson, Felicia Brabec and Alicia Ping voted no to cuts for animal control services. Peterson and Brabec also voted no to cuts for Head Start and the coordinated funding of human services. Conan Smith voted no to the line item for the board of commissioners, referring to it only by the line item number. He later said he’d been joking. [.pdf of 2012-2013 general fund budget]

The Nov. 16 meeting included several items not directly related to the 2012-2013 budget. Public hearings were set for brownfield plans at Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant and the Arbor Hills Crossing development in Ann Arbor. The board also gave initial approval to comply with the state’s “80/20″ rule, which will require about 95 employees represented by five collective bargaining units – those that did not agree to labor concessions – to pay for a greater amount of their health care costs.

The board gave initial approval to issue bonds for a new $3.2 million facility to be operated by the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA). The topic of county-issued bonds also arose during public commentary, when a resident of Sylvan Township asked what would happen now that township voters rejected a millage intended to repay the county for bond payments on a water and sewer facility. The answer? It’s not yet clear, commissioners said.

2012-2013 Budget

The main item on the Nov. 16 agenda was a final vote on the two-year budget for 2012 and 2013. Initial approval had been given at the Nov. 2 meeting, when the discussion was dominated by the issue of animal control services and the Humane Society of Huron Valley’s contract with the county.

As was the case two weeks ago, there was extensive public commentary from supporters who opposed proposed funding cuts. Most speakers focused on funding for the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV) and support for nonprofits that provide human services, including food and housing. The 2012-2013 budget cuts the county’s share of coordinated funding for human services by $128,538 each year – from $1.015 million in 2011 to $886,462 in 2012 and 2013. Those funds are distributed through a process administered by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development. [For background on coordinated funding, see Chronicle coverage: "Despite Concerns, Coordinated Funding OK'd"]

Here’s a sampling of public commentary from the Nov. 16 meeting.

2012-2013 Budget: Public Commentary – Mandated Animal Control

Stacey Weinrick, HSHV’s lead outpatient veterinarian, told commissioners that HSHV is more than just a shelter. She described its range of services, including basic veterinary care for people who can’t afford market-rate services. Among other things, this kind of care helps stem the spread of diseases, like rabies, that come from unvaccinated animals. Weinrick described the work of HSHV staff as hard, stressful and in some cases dangerous – and it’s work that would otherwise go undone. Most clinics aren’t equipped to handle it, she said. HSHV has saved many animals, Weinrick said, and she implored the board to make the right decision for both the animals and residents of Washtenaw County.

Susan Karp noted that the county has had a long-standing contract with HSHV. Removing funding won’t save the county money, she said. If the county doesn’t renew the contract and fund HSHV, thousands of animals will lose their lives. She noted that it’s the lowest funded shelter per capita in the state, yet it has the highest save rate. It’s also a public safety issue. Where will people turn to remove a rabid bat or raccoon? Karp alluded to the “tragic debacle” in Detroit earlier this month – a reference to a stray pit bull named Ace that was euthanized by Detroit Animal Control despite protests by rescue groups. Karp said the county can avoid situations like that. She said this isn’t the time to be giving county employees 8% raises – a reference to the possibility that some senior managers could be given temporary salary increases for taking on additional work. Karp noted that the county board had received emails and letters from her, her husband, her mom and her neighbors. Now she was here to ask commissioners face-to-face to do the right thing.

Eric Apollo gave a huge thanks to commissioners who had gone out of their way to meet with HSHV representatives and understand the situation. It’s irresponsible to take a vote on the budget when the issue of animal control is unresolved, he said. Apollo said he’s an active volunteer with HSHV and adopted a stray from the facility – the dog is not just a pet, but a family member. The issue isn’t just one of dollars and cents. One of the great things about Washtenaw County is its quality of life, he said, and HSHV helps make this area a desirable place to live.

He said he volunteered at HSHV on Veterans Day, and was able to help a former marine who had fought in Operation Desert Storm find two pets for his family. It felt like a great patriotic duty to help the marine, he said. Apollo also disputed the potential cost-savings for contracting with another provider, saying that he works at Ford and often when people come up with ways to save money, it ends up being phantom savings – the savings don’t materialize. Apollo concluded his remarks with a quote from Mark Twain: ”In studying the traits and dispositions of the so-called lower animals, and contrasting them with man’s, I find the result humiliating to me.”

Later in the meeting Apollo spoke a second time, saying he wouldn’t mind seeing a millage on the ballot next year to pay for these services. He also gave another quote, which he said brought tears to his eyes. The quote is attributed to the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher: ”For fidelity, devotion, love, many a two-legged animal (man) is below the dog and the horse. Happy would it be for thousands of people if they could stand at last before the Judgment Seat and say ‘I have loved as truly and I have lived as decently as my dog.’ And yet we call them ‘only animals’!”

Jenny Paillon, Stacey Weinrick

Jenny Paillon, left, operations manager for the Huron Valley Humane Society, and Stacey Weinrick, HSHV's lead outpatient veterinarian.

Mike Sivack noted that he’s on the board of Friends of Wildlife, and he works with several cat colonies in the area. Groups like these would be seriously handicapped if HSHV funding is cut, he said, and it would be a threat to public health as well. These groups get hundreds of calls about wildlife, and refer people to HSHV – the staff at HSHV knows how to deal with diseased animals. He noted that rabies is 100% fatal in all species. If he encountered a skunk with signs of rabies, Sivack said he’d want to know he had someone to call who could provide an immediate response.

Jessica Anderson said that if the county contracted out to another agency instead of HSHV, animals would just be put down after a holding period. Veterinarians aren’t lining up to do that kind of work, she said. The county might have to build a gas chamber to do it, she said, and she wasn’t sure that would be legal. You can’t make the problem of homeless animals go away, she said, just like you can’t make homeless people go away. Getting rid of victims doesn’t stem the tide of needs. Anderson said she’s lived here for 22 years because of services offered in the county, and her expectation is that the board would preserve those services. She was disappointed in the budget process, and said the prep work for making this decision seems inadequate.

Olga Virakhovskaya told commissioners that this is the first time she’s been involved in local politics. She’s a volunteer for HSHV, and has adopted pets from the facility. This issue is about people – public safety and public health, she said.

Heather Karschner thanked the commissioners who had been trying to learn about animal control issues, adding that she’s not convinced all of them have done their homework. She sees no evidence that the county will save money by contracting with another agency. She noted that residents had voted commissioners into office. Before this issue arose, some of her friends who contacted commissioners for the first time about HSHV hadn’t even been aware that the board of commissioners existed. She asked that the board do its homework and make a decision based on facts, not assumptions.

Anne Alatalo said her family cares about the welfare of animals and people. They’re supporters of HSHV, she said, and they vote. This is a money problem. It seems the commissioners think the county will save money by using another agency, she said, but no other agency does the work that HSHV does. Alatalo thanked the commissioners who were trying to understand the situation. She said that after they consider the undesirable alternatives, she hoped the commissioners would reconsider cuts to HSHV.

John Koselka said he understood that times are tough. As a taxpayer who wants money to be used efficiently, he sees that it’s the 11th hour and nothing is in place as HSHV’s contract is ready to expire. As an attorney, he argued that the safest and easiest option is to negotiate with HSHV. It seems to be the fiscally responsible thing to do, too. He noted that there’s talk about the county issuing an RFP (request for proposals) for mandated animal control services. That’s a great idea, he said, because it would require that the county include a description of services – he hadn’t yet seen such a description from the county. He said he’d heard inaccuracies, like the mandate only applies to dogs. An RFP would also help assess costs, he said. HSHV says that $500,000 doesn’t cover the costs, and that they can’t do it for $250,000.

But there’s only six weeks left until HSHV’s contract with the county expires, Koselka noted. And on Jan. 1, the work will still need to be done even if the county doesn’t have a contract. It could end up costing the county more. He said this work should have been done 6-9 months ago, and it should have been done in a room with representatives and attorneys for the county and HSHV. He was shocked that it’s playing out in public meetings and in the media.

Jane Weaver said she’s originally from North Carolina and has lived in several places. She’s settled in Washtenaw County and this is where she wants to stay. If the contract isn’t renewed, there will be headaches and heartache. “This isn’t the end of it – this is just the beginning,” she said. The people at the meeting were only a small percentage of HSHV supporters. It would be a public relations nightmare for the county, she said. There would be a public safety issue if animals were allowed to run loose. In North Carolina, they ask what would Jesus do. They also ask what would Andy Griffith do. Washtenaw County might not be Mayberry, Weaver said, but it’s not so much what we are now, as it is what we want to be.

2012-2013 Budget: Public Commentary – Human Services

Margie Hagene, board chair for the nonprofit Food Gatherers, said she respected the board’s hard work. She urged them to maintain funding for basic needs, like food, under the county’s coordinated funding approach. The county and other funders had asked nonprofits to coordinate, collaborate and reduce inefficiencies – and that’s what they’ve done, she said.

This is the first full operating year under the coordinated funding model, and cutting funds would send a disturbing message to nonprofits that have gone through a rigorous vetting process, Hagene said. Yet there are outside agencies funded by the county that don’t go through this process, and that aren’t accountable in the same way, she noted. [This was likely a reference to HSHV, which has been funded under a contract and separate line item. A handful of other nonprofits – including SafeHouse Center and the Delonis Center homeless shelter – are also funded separately, and are not required to apply for support via the coordinated funding process.]

Hagene told commissioners that Food Gatherers and emergency food pantries that it supports are serving more people now – one of every seven residents in the county, and one of every six children face hunger, she said. The reduction in funding to HSHV is $250,000. Yet the total amount of funding for hunger relieve through coordinated funding is $166,000 – which would be reduced more if the cuts are approved. She urged the board not to reduce funding to the county’s basic safety net.

Eileen Spring, president of Food Gatherers, noted that Food Gatherers is the lead agency for hunger relief under the coordinated funding model. She said she had prepared a brilliant appeal that not only would have restored funding, but would have doubled the amount – the remark drew a laugh from commissioners. She described how as many as 100 people line up for food distribution at Bryant Community Center, gathering more than an hour before it opens. Food is passed out in a room no bigger than the women’s bathroom at the county administration building, she noted. Spring recalled how a young girl, at the season’s final fresh produce pickup on Oct. 31, started crying because it was the only source of fresh fruits and vegetables her family had, and they get so tired of eating mac and cheese.

Coordinated funding isn’t sufficient, but it helps, Spring said. With a network of 150 partners, Food Gatherers makes sure that anyone seeking food assistance gets the same experience, no matter where they go. They get wholesome food and access to food stamps, and are treated with dignity, she said.

Beth Adams, executive director of the Housing Bureau for Seniors, described the services that the bureau offers, and gave several specific scenarios in which those services have been used. She urged commissioners not to cut funding, saying it would likely lead to layoffs at the bureau at a time when its services are needed more than ever. Seniors are facing more foreclosures and more evictions, yet there are fewer services to help them find and maintain affordable housing. Seniors need the county’s help, she said – please don’t add to their burden.

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of the domestic violence shelter SafeHouse Center, thanked commissioners for paying attention to human services. She was there on behalf of coordinated funding as well as funding for SafeHouse, which gets county support as a standalone line item. [The budget reduces SafeHouse funding from $96,000 in 2011 to $48,000 in 2012 and 2013.] Every day, nonprofits are working together, she said – in the audience that night were several people that she had seen earlier in the day. The partnerships are especially strong around housing, homelessness and issues of poverty, she said. The dollars they receive from the county are precious because the funds are used to leverage other dollars. Even a $10,000 reduction cuts to the bone, she said. The nonprofits are working together and making this a better community.

Faye Askew-King, executive director of SOS Community Services, began by saying that she hates to speak in public. The only reason she was there was because it’s important to speak up on behalf of people who can’t attend the meeting – low-income residents that the county has supported for years. The need is increasing, she noted. Last month, SOS became the single point of contact for low-income residents with housing issues in the county, and since then they’ve received about 500 calls. It’s important to remember that you can’t pick the family you’re born into, she said, and that determines so much. Nonprofits like SOS make a meaningful impact on people’s lives, she said. She urged commissioners to think about the people who don’t believe their voices are heard.

Tracy Van den Bergh, a staff attorney with Legal Services of South Central Michigan, told commissioners that last year, Legal Services helped more than 1,850 low-income families in Washtenaw County. Her organization is seeing increased demand, she said, including many people who are newly poor and have never before asked for assistance. “The floodgates have really just opened.” There’s an increased need for safety-net services from nonprofits like those that have been represented at that night’s meeting. She gave an example of a client that she’d recently helped, a single mother who was facing eviction and being cut off from financial assistance, and who was also mentally ill and the victim of abuse. Legal Services was able to help, Van den Bergh said, but she has over 100 other clients who are in similar circumstances. There are many others who don’t make their way to find assistance, or who can’t be fully helped. On behalf of these families, she asked that the county continue to fund these services.

Maureen McDonald of Michigan Ability Partners said that as a clinical supervisor, she’s on the front line of providing social services. She’s asked people what their lives would be like if they didn’t have help. One man looked her in the eyes and said he wouldn’t be alive. She asked commissioners to keep that in mind when they made their decision.

Tracy Van den Bergh, Mary Jo Callan

Tracy Van den Bergh, left, a staff attorney with Legal Services of South Central Michigan, talks with Mary Jo Callan, director of the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community and economic development. Callan's office administers the coordinated funding effort, which pools money from the county, city and other partners to support local nonprofits.

Katie Doyle, executive director of Ozone House, said she wanted to echo the comments of previous speakers in thanking commissioners. She noted that in the month of October, Ozone House – a shelter for homeless teens – had served more people in its emergency shelter than it had during any three-month period last year. The county’s investment allowed them to do that, she said. The investment also helped Ozone House do outreach to teens in Ypsilanti who need their services. They have great partnerships, like one with Food Gatherers – she joked that the county wasn’t paying for the chocolate that Eileen Spring had passed out earlier in the meeting. Doyle described a young woman whose wedding she attended – the woman had met her husband while living at Ozone House. The woman later went to college, is a special ed teacher, owns a house and is paying taxes – taxes that support the people who came after her.

Doyle said that commissioners display real leadership in funding human services, because the county isn’t obligated to do that. But without supporting organizations like Ozone House, teens would be on the street, in foster care, in the hospital or detention center. “We’d be paying for it, one way or another,” she said. The county’s investment is stemming the tide that could be more costly downstream.

Jan Ulrich told the board that she’s a social worker, with clients who have infants and young children. Three years ago, only one of her clients was homeless. Now, out of the 18 clients she serves, seven are either homeless or have been homeless in the past three months. Ulrich became visibly distraught as she described the situations that some of her clients have struggled to overcome – facing medical problems and at risk of losing their children to foster care. Ulrich said she’d asked some of her clients to attend the meeting but they couldn’t make it. When she asked her clients what they would want to tell commissioners, one client had said it’s rude to be in this position – to have to beg for help, and to face having the little assistance that’s available be cut even more. Ulrich urged commissioners to fully fund human services, in the interest of investing in the next generation.

Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, said she’d been inspired by the other speakers. She thanked commissioners, saying they now had an idea of the kind of work that’s going on in the community. She implored the board to support coordinated funding and human services, and spoke about the breadth of work that’s being done in the community. The housing alliance, for example, has 27 partners and another 12 groups working with them. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs is at the table too, she said, supplying housing vouchers for chronically homeless veterans. Food assistance from Food Gatherers helps people to be able to stay in their homes. She said that there’s a myth that DTE Energy won’t shut off utilities in the winter, but that’s not true. Nonprofits are frightened that the people they help support will be without heat this winter – she expects they’ll see a huge number of cases like that. Steiner concluded by thanking commissioners for so many years of support, and for their careful deliberations.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Response to Public Commentary

Dan Smith, who chaired the Ways & Means Committee meeting in the absence of Rolland Sizemore Jr., said it was great to see so many new faces during public commentary, and he thanked people for coming to participate.

Leah Gunn also thanked people for attending, especially those who spoke in support of coordinated funding for human services. The funders have made nonprofits jump through hoops, she noted, and the nonprofits are accountable for the funds they receive. Gunn said she was proud that the coordinated funding model had recently been honored as the 2011 Nonprofit Deal of the Year. It wasn’t easy to bring together the private and public sectors, she said, but the nonprofits have made it work.

Yousef Rabhi said he’d been moved to tears as people from human services nonprofits described their work. It’s important to take care of humans who are struggling, facing a cold winter with no food. “I want to be there for them,” he said. He assured the nonprofits that he’d do everything he could to fully fund the coordinated funding model going forward.

Rabhi said he wanted to dispel something that he’d heard repeatedly – that the commissioners don’t care about animals. There isn’t one commissioner who feels that way, he said, and the same is true for county staff. It’s been at the top of their agenda. The previous night, Rabhi said, he’d talked to HSHV board president Mike Walsh. Walsh told him that too many different people are involved in talking about the issue – Rabhi said that should indicate to the public that commissioners and staff are trying to get to the bottom of it. It’s a tough situation, he said, and evaluating the numbers is critical. Although HSHV has provided some financial information, there are still more details needed, he said.

Yousef Rabhi, Barbara Bergman, Leah Gunn

From left: Washtenaw County commissioners Yousef Rabhi, Barbara Bergman, and Leah Gunn.

But that aside, it’s important to find a way to work with HSHV, Rabhi said, adding that he’s committed to finding solutions. There are ways that more funding can be raised, and it doesn’t all have to come from the county. This is a real problem, as is the funding situation for human services, he said. He thanked members of the public who came forward with productive ideas, and who had thanked the county for what the county has done for HSHV in the past. If the county’s relationship with HSHV ends this year, he’d have trouble seeing it resume later. They need to continue to find a way to be partners and continue their long-term relationship.

Barbara Bergman thanked everyone for speaking during public commentary, especially those who spoke in support of human services. She said she’d work in the coming months to make human services funding whole again. Turning to the HSHV issue, Bergman said she was one of the five commissioners who attended a meeting with HSHV staff and board members earlier in the month. She thought there’d be an opportunity to discuss their differences, but it wasn’t a discussion, she said. It was HSHV telling commissioners what they believed the law is and what the county must do. While HSHV had its staff and legal counsel on hand, the county’s administration and legal counsel hadn’t been invited, she noted.

HSHV had provided some data, but not a detailed cost analysis, Bergman said. She did not want to continue giving HSHV a $500,000 annual block grant, and on Day 1 when the first invoice was presented years ago without an itemized listing of costs, the county should have refused to pay it, she said. “We let it slide to now – our stupidity,” she added. Though other municipalities have animal control ordinances, the county does not, Bergman noted. HSHV needs to seek funding from those other municipalities to help pay for enforcement of those ordinances, she said. She also supported having the county issue an RFP, which she hopes HSHV will respond to.

Bergman said she hoped the threats from HSHV supporters would end – she’s sick of being told how bad she is and how bad the county is. They all need to find a productive way to work within the county’s budget, “because that’s the money we have,” she concluded.

Felicia Brabec also thanked those who spoke during public commentary, especially those affiliated with human services nonprofits. She said she’s a psychologist and social worker, and those services are close to her heart. She urged the people involved in human services to take care of themselves – their work is vital, but they can’t continue if they don’t also take care of themselves. As for HSHV supporters, Brabec called the organization a tremendous provider that the county is lucky to have. But the county needs to evaluate its options, she said, and she hoped that responses to an RFP would help move negotiations forward in a positive way. People are involved too, not just animals, she noted. So she hoped they could find ways to fill the funding gap.

Rob Turner thanked HSHV for its invitation to commissioners to talk about the situation, calling the county’s relationship with HSHV a precious one. He looked forward to coming up with a fair agreement for both sides. Regarding human services, he told the public speakers that they are his heroes – they work so hard for so little. He said he’d work hard to restore the county’s safety net.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – Animal Control Services

Ronnie Peterson asked for clarification on negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley. County administrator Verna McDaniel replied that the county has budgeted $250,000 per year, plus another $180,000 that was previously allocated to the sheriff’s department for animal control services. That would bring the total to $430,000 in 2012 – compared to the $500,000 in the contract with HSHV that expires Dec. 31. However, she said, HSHV has indicated that they don’t want the extra responsibility for animal control and couldn’t do it for $180,000. Nor would they accept the $250,000 per year amount for the same level of service they’ve been providing. It’s been a struggle to get information from HSHV about per-unit costs, she said, but they are continuing the dialogue.

What if they can’t agree to a new contract? Peterson asked. What happens then? McDaniel replied that the county is preparing to issue an RFP (request for proposals) for animal control services. HSHV has indicated that it would be willing to provide interim services for $250,000 through June of 2012. However, that would wipe out the county’s budget for the year for animal control, she noted, so it’s not the best plan.

Peterson then asked for more details about the county’s financial obligations regarding the HSHV building. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, explained that the county issued the bonds for construction of the facility, but HSHV makes the bond payments. The balance is between $3 million to $4 million, he said, with the last payment due in January 2015. The county owns the building and has a long-term lease on the property – those were requirements in order for the county to be able to issue bonds for it, Hedger said. After January 2015, however, under terms of the contract the county will have no financial interest in the building or the property. The county also has contractual remedies it can exercise if HSHV doesn’t make the bond payments, he said.

Peterson asked what the county’s debt obligation would be if HSHV walked away from making bond payments. About $1 million a year, Hedger replied. He said his understanding is that HSHV has a lot of money in reserves, as the result of an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise money for the new facility. HSHV could choose not to use their reserves, Hedger said, but the humane society has a vested interest in the facility.

Peterson pointed out that in addition to bonding for the building, the county gave HSHV a $1 million investment to fund it. If HSHV walks away from making bond payments, he said, that would mean the county would be investing as much as $5 million in total on the building. He said he wasn’t sure how the county could talk about going to another provider when it was investing that much in HSHV. He wondered why HSHV would continue making debt payments to the county, when the county is saying that HSHV is not worthy of a new contract. It’s in the best interest of the county to keep HSHV alive, Peterson said. He encouraged a more aggressive negotiation to reach a new agreement.

Rob Turner noted it’s not the Humane Society of Washtenaw County – it’s a humane society that the county helps support. By issuing bonds for the building, the county helped it secure a more reasonable interest rate, he noted. The county also contributed $1 million toward construction of the facility. HSHV isn’t going to go out of business if the county cuts its funding by $250,000, Turner said. HSHV serves other counties, not just Washtenaw – they even take in puppies from other states, he noted. Its mission is broader than just the county mandate.

The county does need to continue negotiating with HSHV, Turner said. Funding from other municipalities that have animal ordinances should be sought to offset the county’s funding cuts – the county has been paying for those services, he noted. He said HSHV has so far provided “sketchy” figures regarding the cost of mandated services, so it’s unclear how to calculate what the county should be paying. HSHV officials keep telling the county that it costs HSHV over $1 million to provide services that the county requires, so if the county asks HSHV to cut back on those services, it should save HSHV money, he argued. He said it’s important to maintain the relationship between HSHV and the county.

Peterson said he’d like to see a schedule of negotiations that will occur with HSHV between now and the end of the year.

Alicia Ping noted that five new commissioners came on the board and were put into the hot seat regarding the existing contract with HSHV. [Commissioners elected in 2010 and taking office in early 2011 include Ping, Yousef Rabhi, Dan Smith, and Rob Turner. Felicia Brabec was appointed by the board in October 2011, following the resignation of Kristin Judge.] The monthly billing from HSHV is unacceptable, she said – it needs to be more detailed. The services that the county requires need to be more clearly defined. Issuing an RFP will help to do that, she said.

However, there’s no better organization than HSHV to do the work, Ping said, and the county should be prepared to pay whatever it takes to cover the cost of mandated services – whether it’s $250,000 or $500,000 or $750,000. She said she wouldn’t be supporting that $250,000 line item in the budget.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – Head Start

Ronnie Peterson asked for an update on the Head Start situation, including the status of the workers, the debt on the county’s Head Start building, and the decisions affecting “our darling little children.” [The 2012 budget includes $528,048 in funding for Head Start, but eliminates county support in 2013. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Head Start Advocates Make Emotional Plea"]

County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that the federal administrators of Head Start’s Region 5, which includes Washtenaw County, would come in and run the program, if the county board voted to end its grantee status. The federal officials would issue an RFP and select the next grantee. The Head Start program would continue to operate, she said.

Peterson replied that it appeared Washtenaw County babies would become wards of the federal government. He characterized the county as “defaulting” on its Head Start commitment, saying that it’s the only major program that the county has walked away from. What type of program would the federal government run – what standards would they maintain? The county should be concerned about its reputation, he said.

In response to another query from Peterson about the county’s debt on the Head Start building, McDaniel noted that the federal government also has a financial interest in the building at 1661 Leforge Road in Ypsilanti. It’s unclear what kind of financial arrangement will be made – that depends in part on the interest of the entity that takes over operation of Head Start, she said. It might be that the building is sold, or that it’s kept by the next grantee. Those are decisions for federal officials, she said. There’s the potential that the county won’t lose one dime, McDaniel said, and that’s the goal she’s working toward. Head Start will continue to offer services, even after the county relinquishes control, she said.

Peterson responded by saying that anyone who’s tried to sell a house recently knows how difficult the real estate market is. He believed the county will see a loss. He vowed to do as much as he could to restore funding to the program before it’s put into the hands of the federal government. The county hasn’t made sure the baton is passed smoothly. He expressed frustration that there hadn’t been a public process about this decision, and that parents had to read about it in the newspaper or hear about it on TV. He criticized the budget process more generally, saying that commissioners weren’t asking questions and that the county hadn’t adequately tightened its spending.

Ronnie Peterson,  Rob Turner

From right: County commissioners Rob Turner, Ronnie Peterson, Leah Gunn, Barbara Bergman, Yousef Rabhi.

He then asked about the Head Start staff – how many employees are involved, and have they been consulted? McDaniel said there are about 30 people employed by the county for Head Start, many of them represented by collective bargaining units. Union contracts lay out the county’s obligations for this kind of situation, McDaniel said, and county administrators will be meeting with Head Start staff to talk about the impact of this transition.

Peterson requested a cost analysis for the county’s obligations to employees regarding severance or buyouts – he said the board should have had that information before taking a vote on the budget. He then asked for more details regarding the county’s debt obligation for the Head Start building.

Kelly Belknap, interim deputy county administrator, reported that the county makes $167,000 in bond payments annually for the Leforge building. She did not know what the existing balance is, but promised to provide that information to commissioners after the meeting.

Peterson again criticized the process at length, saying that federal officials should be at the meeting to talk about the transition. The county should stop making claims that it is committed to children, he said, because they’re hypocrites.

Felicia Brabec said she appreciated the work of the county administrator and staff, but said she felt uneasy about the transition plan. She hasn’t had time to get answers to her questions or do due diligence. Brabec said she might end up at the same place as the administration, but she hadn’t worked through the issues yet to her satisfaction.

Rob Turner said he appreciated Peterson’s passion for the Head Start children. He noted that when the board heard a presentation on Head Start this summer, he had indicated that he’d like to see Washtenaw Intermediate School District take it over. He said he independently talked with WISD officials about it, because he didn’t think the federal government could operate the program at the same level of quality, and that would break his heart. His hope is that they could negotiate with the feds to see if WISD could take it on and expand the program even more. In the western part of the county, for example, it’s underutilized, he said.

Peterson said he was glad that Turner had admitted to talking with the WISD – those talks should be happening at the county board meetings in public, he said. WISD should be doing more on the eastern side of the county, Peterson said, where high school drop-out rates are unacceptably high. [Peterson represents District 6, which covers Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township.] He felt the WISD already had its hands full, without the additional responsibility of Head Start.

Later in the meeting, Conan Smith said he also had concerns about the transition, and that he wasn’t comfortable with it yet. There’s no clear path forward, he said, even though commissioners were voting to relinquish the program by voting on a budget that doesn’t include funding for Head Start in 2013.

Smith then proposed an amendment that would require a vote of the board before relinquishing control of the Head Start program. The amendment wouldn’t change the budget, he noted – there would still be no funding allocated for Head Start in 2013.

Leah Gunn said she had trouble with this because Head Start is a federal program, and always has been. There are thick manuals that layout the standards, policies and procedures required by the federal government. Whatever entity runs the program – the county, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District or anyone else – has to follow those requirements, she said. The county has an obligation to let the federal government know about its plans, and this amendment will just be delaying that process, she said.

Dan Smith agreed. It’s a hard decision, but the time to make it is now, he said.

Conan Smith noted that the county still had time to explore other options, including keeping the federal grantee status but designating a single sub-recipient to administer it. That would give the county more control.

C. Smith said that at some point, as board chair, he’ll be the one asked to sign the letter to the federal government that relinquishes the county’s grantee status. He doesn’t want to do that until the board is comfortable with that decision. Yes, there are 30 county employees involved, he said, but there are also about 120 other employees who work for other agencies that partner with the county’s Head Start program. It’s a $4.5 million program that serves 455 kids, he noted, and the county needs to handle the transition responsibly.

Peterson said he was proud of Conan Smith. It had been hard to hear commissioners praise human services earlier in the meeting, Peterson said, while on the other hand planning to eliminate this safety net for children. All C. Smith is asking for is to take the time to check out potential organizations that will take over the program, Peterson said. When you have children, you always interview more than one babysitter or day care center, he said, until you find the right one. “That’s what responsible parents do.” It’s been a Washtenaw County program for more than 40 years, he added, with standards that are higher than the federal standards. Commissioners should be proud of that.

Both Barbara Bergman and Alicia Ping voiced opposition to C. Smith’s amendment. Ping said it’s an empty promise – not identifying funds, but putting pressure on the county to find alternatives. McDaniel noted that federal officials have indicated they want to know the county’s decision as soon as possible, by Jan. 1 at the latest.

C. Smith again noted that the only way the county will retain control is if it retains grantee status. If commissioners relinquish that, it’s largely out of their hands, and there are concerns about who’ll take over the program. The decision could be driven by not by what entity offers the highest quality, but by cost effectiveness, he said.

There might be ways to restructure the program for cost savings and still retain grantee status, he said. They could try to find a sub-recipient and work through the labor issues involved in a transition. There are uncertainties involved with that, he said. Another option is to take advantage of new state legislation that could allow for creating an intergovernmental consortium – perhaps in partnership with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and the University of Michigan – to fund and operate the program. The legislation would allow them to evade the labor issues – wrongly, he felt, but it would be possible. So there could be budget savings.

Even if the board doesn’t come up with a preferable option by next spring, that would still give the county time to relinquish control to the federal government, C. Smith said. And by delaying, the county might come up with a better solution for the children who use Head Start, he said.

At this point, Gunn called the question – a procedural move that forces a vote.

Outcome: The amendment failed on a 4-6 vote, with support only from Conan Smith, Ronnie Peterson, Rob Turner and Felicia Brabec. That means the county will likely hand off the local Head Start program to federal administrators at the start of 2013.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – SEMCOG

The 2012-2013 budget proposed by the county administrator had recommended eliminating $125,000 in annual membership dues for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. SEMCOG executives had attended a Oct. 13, 2011 working session of the board, lobbying commissioners to retain membership. Some commissioners had expressed concern about the decision, and in an initial vote on the budget at the board’s Nov. 2 meeting, Ronnie Peterson had voted against that line item.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, county administrator Verna McDaniel reported that the county now planned to retain its membership, and was working with the Washtenaw County road commission and the county water resources commissioner to find ways to cover the $125,000 membership dues.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – Personnel Policy Amendment

Dan Smith spoke about how the board and staff have worked on this budget for more than 10 months, with numerous discussions at public meetings. They had discussed levels of serviceability, and the need to address root causes in order to keep people out of the criminal justice system – these are just some of the examples of issues that drove their budget decisions, he said. No sooner than they finish this budget cycle, they’ll need to start looking toward 2014-2015, he said, pointing to projected deficits of $11.6 million and $14.7 million respectively. They’re by no means out of the woods, he said.

Every commissioner would like to fund various services and activities at higher levels, D. Smith said, but “we simply don’t have the money to do so.” He agreed that they should try to work with HSHV to find solutions.

D. Smith then proposed an amendment. The item involved the practice of hiring back staff on a temporary basis after they’ve retired – a practice that the budget document prohibited “unless authorized by a specific Board of Commissioners project or the County Administrator.” He proposed striking “County Administrator,” to ensure that the board has control over those decisions.

The issue will come to the fore as roughly 100 of the county’s 1,300 employees are expected to retire in the coming weeks – the practice of hiring retired staff on a temporary basis is likely to be used to manage the transition.

Conan Smith said he appreciated the sentiment of D. Smith’s amendment, but the loss of institutional memory in the coming transition is potentially catastrophic, he said. One way to lessen that impact is to tap the expertise of retired employees. Giving the county administrator the flexibility to do that is an important tool, he said. He preferred to leave the item unchanged.

Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County administrator Verna McDaniel.

Some commissioners felt D. Smith’s amendment would equate to micromanaging the administration. Barbara Bergman said commissioners are policy-makers, and should trust county administrator Verna McDaniel to make appropriate decisions. If they can’t trust McDaniel, she said, then they need a new administrator.

Wes Prater argued that McDaniel should inform the board about these decisions – it’s a matter of communication, he said. The board very seldom denies her requests, he noted, so he didn’t see why the board shouldn’t have the ability to authorize the requests.

McDaniel said she’d be happy to bring this information to the board. She noted that they’ll have about 100 employees retiring soon, and in some cases an entire department’s “brain trust” will be retiring. She agreed that it could be catastrophic to lose that institutional history. The plan is to ensure an appropriate transition, she said, and she hoped to retain the authority to make such hires. Hires might come at critical junctures, when there’s not sufficient time to bring it to the board, she noted. It gives her the ability to keep the operation going, McDaniel said, adding that she had no problem with making monthly reports the board.

Dan Smith said he had no intention of taking away the tool, but he thought the board should be more involved. If it’s just a matter of having the board ratify McDaniel’s decisions, that’s fine, he said. It’s a sensitive issue, and he’s heard from several people that they have concerns about the practice of hiring back retirees. Given that, the board should be more involved, he said.

Ronnie Peterson said that with so many people retiring, it should be an opportunity for a major restructuring of county government. This opportunity might not come again for several years, he said. The board needs a meeting to talk about this possibility, he said.

Yousef Rabhi asked McDaniel a series of questions, eliciting her intent to fill positions only as needed on a temporary basis, and to look at restructuring departments based on the retirements. She noted that in some cases, because of requirements that an employee hold certain licenses or certifications, it would likely take longer to fill those jobs. That’s why it would be useful to hire back retirees, until qualified replacements can be found. She also stated her intent to look for people to promote internally.

Rabhi said he had full faith in her decisions. The board does need to discuss restructuring, but he wanted to give McDaniel the authority she needed.

Peterson asked how McDaniel defined “temporary.” He said it seemed like the county was spending like the Roman empire, while facing another $11 million deficit in 2014.

Restructuring will be one way to address the projected deficits, McDaniel replied. And temporary might range from one month to nine months, depending on the situation.

Peterson said he didn’t think the county would be able to secure any additional concessions from unions in future contract negotiations. Union members won’t be forgiving when they see situations like this, he said. The administration has asked union employees too many times to give up too much, he said.

Conan Smith then proposed a substitute amendment, requiring the county administrator to report to the board on a monthly basis about the temporary rehiring of retirees. The amended item would state [italics indicate added text]:

B. Positions Authorized and Personnel Matters

9. The Board of Commissioners instructs the Human Resources Department to ensure that any person who is a retired employee shall not be paid as an employee, contracted or otherwise, unless authorized by a specific Board of Commissioners project or the County Administrator. The Administrator shall report to the Board on an monthly basis regarding any temporary rehiring of retirees.

Prater noted that in 2010, the county spent $60 million on personnel. That amount grew to $63 million in 2011, he said, and the board needs to be paying attention to that expense.

Outcome: The amendment passed on a 9-1 vote, with dissent from Wes Prater. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – 8% Raises

Ronnie Peterson noted that one of the speakers during public commentary had mentioned raises being given, and he wanted to know whether there had been any raises or bonuses awarded in this budget.

Verna McDaniel said that no raises have been given. When pressed by Peterson about whether raises will be given, McDaniel said that hadn’t yet been determined. Is it in the works? he asked. McDaniel said she’d give a full report at a later date.

Conan Smith said that the county has a long-standing policy applying to both union and non-union positions – when employees are asked to do more work than their job position previously entailed, they are entitled to an 8% bump in salary. It’s a fair policy, he said, especially given the amount of turnover that’s coming. He said when he talks to people, they were most concerned about raises previously proposed for members of the administrator’s “cross-lateral” team. Those raises didn’t happen, he said, but the policy of giving 8% raises remains in place, at the county administrator’s discretion.

Peterson said he hoped the board could revisit the policy before the end of the year – he finds it discomforting. These bonuses and raises hurt morale, he said. “If we’re going to sacrifice, we’ll all sacrifice together,” he said. It doesn’t send a good message to give out 8% raises when they’re heading into an $11 million deficit in 2014, or when they’re making cuts to HSHV and Head Start. Many county employees are hurting – they’ve taken concessions for two budget cycles, he noted.

2012-2013 Budget: Commissioner Discussion – Final Vote

Just after 11 p.m., the board concluded its discussion and a roll call vote on the budget was taken.

Outcome: The 2012-2013 budget was unanimously approved on a 10-0 vote. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. However, several commissioners voted yes to the overall budget, but no on specific line items. Ronnie Peterson, Felicia Brabec and Alicia Ping voted no to cuts for animal control services. Peterson and Brabec also voted no to cuts for Head Start and the coordinated funding of human services. Conan Smith voted no to the line item for the board of commissioners, referring to it only by the line item number. He later said he’d been joking, but the vote stands.

During the final opportunity for public commentary, Thomas Partridge asked board chair Conan Smith to explain what had just happened regarding the budget vote, and its impact. He criticized the vote for taking place so late at night. Partridge said many issues weren’t discussed, like affordable and services for senior citizens. These issues are even more important than what happens to cats and dogs, he said. Smith replied that the budget had passed with only one minor amendment, but that no dollar amounts had been changed.

Rob Turner noted that it had been a long night and a long budget process. The vote happened late in the evening because the meeting had included so much public commentary, Turner said, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. They wanted to hear everyone’s opinion, he said.

Adjustment to 2011 Budget

In addition to action on the 2012-2013 budget, commissioners took a final vote on adjustments to the 2011 general fund budget – the current fiscal year’s budget.

An initial vote had been taken at the board’s Nov. 2 meeting. At that meeting, the board received a third-quarter budget update from the county’s finance staff. The total projected 2011 shortfall is $983,629. That includes a projected net revenue shortfall of $363,690 and a net of $619,939 in higher-than-budgeted expenses. The current projected general fund budget for 2011 is $101.26 million.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved adjustments to the 2011 budget. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. 

Sylvan Township: Aftermath of Millage Vote

On Nov. 8, Sylvan Township voters rejected a proposal to levy a 4.75 mill, 20-year tax, by a vote of 475 to 328. Proceeds from the millage were intended to help with payments on $12.5 million in bonds issued by the county in 2001, at the township’s request, to build a water and wastewater treatment plant that was intended for future development. The township expected that connection fees from developers would cover the bond payments – under a contract with the county, the township is obligated to reimburse the county for the bond payments. But the development never materialized and the township has been struggling to make payments.

Now Sylvan Township – located west of Ann Arbor, near Chelsea – is not expected to be able to make its May 2012 payment. The county has backed the bonds with its full faith and credit, and will continue to make the payments, even if it isn’t reimbursed for those payments by the township.

Even if the millage had passed, proceeds from that tax alone would not have been sufficient to cover the entire cost of the bond payments. That would have already forced the county to tap its capital reserves. The millage proceeds were also intended to repay the county to cover any amount used from the county’s capital reserves, as well as interest. The proceeds would also have been used to repay the county treasurer’s office, which advanced about $1.2 million to the township in 2007 and 2008 related to this project.

At its Oct. 19, 2011 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners gave final approval to a contract with Sylvan Township related to the township’s bond repayment schedule. However, the contract was contingent on voters passing the 4.75 mill tax, and will be nullified in the wake of the Nov. 8 vote. A staff memo accompanying the contract resolution indicated that if the millage failed, the county could file suit against the township for breach of contract in failing to meet its debt repayment obligation. Such legal action could result in a court-ordered assessment on township residents.

Sylvan Township: Aftermath of Millage Vote – Public Commentary

Kurt Koseck, a resident of Sylvan Township, spoke during public commentary at the Nov. 16 meeting. He said he’d come to ask questions about the situation, but it appeared that the public commentary format didn’t allow for a Q&A. What are the county’s next steps to resolve this situation? Is the county going to wait until the township fails to make a bond repayment, and then sue the township? He wondered where he could go to get this information.

Residents live in Sylvan Township because they want government to have a limited role in their lives, Koseck said. Now they find themselves in the water and sewer business, which isn’t viable. Some have suggested that if Sylvan Township residents had been more involved, they wouldn’t be in this mess, he said. But back in 2003, when there were grumblings about this project, the county had provided assurances to citizens, he said. The county, by backing the bonds, facilitated this project, he said. County officials, including the county’s bond counsel, all looked at the project before issuing the bonds, he said. So it’s ironic that the county would encourage the project, then sue the township over it, he said.

Why doesn’t the county just take over the water and sewer project? he asked. When he had to build a well, he had to secure a permit from the county’s water resources commissioner, so the county is already involved in these kinds of things.

Finally, he said that in researching this issue, he noticed that the county has a dispute resolution center. Is that something that Sylvan Township residents can use, rather than have the issue go to court?

Sylvan Township: Aftermath of Millage Vote – Commissioner Response

Wes Prater noted that information about the Sylvan Township situation can be obtained from the county under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Dan Smith said he didn’t think commissioners had the answers to Koseck’s questions. The board had approved a contract that was contingent on Sylvan Township residents approving a millage on Nov. 8, but that didn’t happen, he observed. That outcome only occurred the previous week, he said, and the board is in the middle of a budget approval process that’s taking their attention.

Smith said he imagined the board would discuss some of the questions that Koseck raised. Regarding the bonds, Smith pointed out that the county has a AA+ bond rating, and the county has been doing a lot to maintain that rating. Having a high bond rating benefits taxpayers, because the county can borrow money for projects at lower interest rates. He noted that on the agenda that night was an item authorizing bonds for a recycling facility in western Washtenaw.

Although no decisions have been made regarding Sylvan Township’s situation, Smith said, it’s likely the county will step in because otherwise its bond rating would be hurt. But these issues will play out in the coming weeks. He said the board was disappointed in the outcome of the township’s millage vote.

Rob Turner apologized to Koseck for the meeting format, saying that the board meeting was more of a meeting in public rather than a public meeting. But there had been three public forums in the Sylvan Township area this fall regarding the millage, he noted, and he personally had spent more than 100 hours on the issue, trying to come up with a solution. Most of the questions that Koseck asked had been addressed at those public meetings, Turner said, but he offered to give Koseck his cell phone number and email address, or meet him anywhere to talk about the issue.

Turner said he couldn’t say what will happen next – that’s a board decision, and commissioners haven’t discussed it yet. They’ll have several options, and he said he’d work hard to pursue whatever option makes it easiest for Sylvan Township residents – although the easiest thing would have been to pass the millage, he noted. Time is running out, he noted.

Turner said that while he needs to look after the interests of his district – which includes Sylvan Township – he also has responsibility to look after the interests of the entire county, and that includes protecting the county’s bond rating. A good rating provides savings for all taxpayers, he said. Turner said he didn’t have all the answers, but that the residents of Sylvan Township would know as soon as the board made a decision.

“80/20″ Rule for Health Costs

Commissioners were asked to give initial approval to a resolution stating that the county will comply with Section 4 of the state’s Public Act 152 of 2011, also known as the “80/20″ rule regarding health care costs.

On Jan. 1, 2012, public employers like Washtenaw County will be prohibited from paying more than $5,500 for health benefits annually for a single employee, $11,000 for an employee plus spouse, or $15,000 for family coverage. However, the law allows a public employer, by a majority vote of its governing body, to choose another option: to pay not more than 80% of the total annual costs of all the medical benefits plans it contributes to or offers its employees and elected public officials.

The vote – if given final approval at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting – means that collective bargaining agreements entered into by the county on or after Sept. 15, 2011 must comply with the 80/20 rule. Five of the county’s 17 bargaining units, representing about 95 employees, do not yet have agreements with the county for 2012-2013.

The units that haven’t accepted concessions are those representing the prosecuting attorneys, the prosecuting attorney supervisors, attorneys in the public defenders office, supervisors of attorneys in the public defenders office, and AFSCME Local 3052 representing general supervisors. Those employees would be subject to the 80/20 rule, which will place more responsibility on employees for the cost of health care.

The only comment on the item came from Conan Smith, who expressed regret that the board had to enact the 80/20 rule. He hoped in the future that the unions could work more collaboratively with the county so that the board could vote to opt out of the law entirely, as allowed by an annual vote with a two-thirds majority of the board.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to adopt the 80/20 rule regarding health care costs. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. A final vote is expected at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting.

Brownfield Plans for Ford, Arbor Hills Crossing

Commissioners voted to set two public hearings regarding brownfield plans for projects in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township. Because Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township are members of the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, the brownfield plans require approval by the county board.

A public hearing for a brownfield redevelopment at Ford Motor Co’s Rawsonville plant was set for Wednesday, Dec. 7 during the county board meeting, which begins at 6:45 p.m. in the administration building at 220 N. Main St., Ann Arbor. The brownfield plan would allow Ford to apply for $625,000 in Michigan Business Tax credits. According to a staff memo, the plan – with the potential tax credits – would allow the company to retain 260 jobs by bringing back work that’s currently done in China and Mexico. Investment in 2012 would be about $20 million, with total jobs stabilized at about 700 workers.

Another public hearing was scheduled regarding the brownfield plan for the Arbor Hills Crossing redevelopment project at 3000-3120 Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor. The hearing will take place on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 during the county board meeting, which begins at 6:45 p.m. in the administration building at 220 N. Main St., Ann Arbor.

The site plan for the $25 million project – a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw – was approved by the Ann Arbor planning commission at its Oct. 18, 2011 meeting. The Ann Arbor city council will need to vote on both the site plan and the brownfield plan – that might happen as soon as the council’s Nov. 21 meeting.

The Arbor Hills Crossing brownfield plan involves cleaning up three areas of contaminated soil on the site. The developer intends to remove some soils and to cover others with clean fill, or with a vapor barrier within the building.

Yousef Rabhi, who serves on the county’s brownfield redevelopment authority board, commented on the Ford brownfield plan, highlighting its job retention potential. It would “in-source” jobs back to the U.S., he noted. “That’s pretty impressive, folks – that we can bring some jobs back.”

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to set both public hearings on brownfield plans for (1) Ford’s Rawsonville plant and (2) Arbor Hills Crossing in Ann Arbor. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. 

Bond for Western Washtenaw Recycling

Commissioners were asked to give initial approval to issue up to $2.7 million in bonds – backed by the county’s full faith and credit – to help pay for a $3.2 million facility operated by the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA). The board had approved a contract for this project at its Sept. 21, 2011 meeting.

The WWRA plans to use $500,000 from its reserves to fund part of the project. The $2.7 million in bonds will be repaid through special assessments on households in participating WWRA communities: the city of Chelsea, Dexter Township, Lima Township, Lyndon Township, and Manchester Township. Bridgewater Township is participating in the WWRA, but will not help fund the new facility. The village of Manchester and Sylvan Township have withdrawn from the WWRA.

Drop-off recycling bins will be located in the townships, where residents will be assessed $24 per household per year. In Chelsea, where residents will receive curbside recycling service, the assessments will be $56 per household per year. The first of the 15-year assessments, established through the county’s board of public works, will be on the December 2011 tax bills for these areas.

Outcome: The board unanimously voted to authorize bonds for the WWRA facility. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. A final vote is expected at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting.

Salary for Director of Nursing

On the agenda was a resolution giving initial approval to hire a director of nursing for the public health department at a salary above the midpoint for this non-union job. All hires above the midpoint must receive approval by the board.

The requested salary of $83,000 is less than the $95,342 paid to the previous director of nursing – Susan Lee, who retired in September – but above the position’s $73,964 midpoint. The suggested salary range is between $59,641 and $88,285. According to a staff memo, the previous salary reflected an 8% increase because of a temporary assignment of duties – part of a restructuring in the public health department due to declining revenues. Deborah Cain, who is expected to be hired as director of nursing, attended the Nov. 16 meeting. Commissioners had no comment on the item, which was passed unanimously as part of the consent agenda.

Outcome: Without comment, commissioners unanimously approved the above-midpoint salary. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent. A final vote is expected at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting. 

Misc. Communications, Commentary

During the meeting there were multiple opportunities for public commentary, and for communications from the administration and commissioners.

Misc. Comm/Comm: Public Commentary

Douglas Smith referred to an issue he had raised in previous public commentary at the board’s Nov. 2 and Oct. 19 meetings. He had submitted an appeal to the board for a Freedom of Information Act request that had been denied by the county, related to an incident that he says involves a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s office. At the Nov. 16 meeting, Smith told the board that he’d been contacted by Cindy Reach, an attorney with the Ann Arbor-based Reach Law Firm. The purpose of the call, he said, was to threaten him and try to prevent him from filing a FOIA lawsuit. He said he was quite confident that he’d win, if he decided to sue the county.

Smith told commissioners that a lawsuit would cost the county a lot of money. Did the board really authorize the county’s corporation counsel to hire outside counsel for this kind of thing? He said he was confident about his legal position because if you search YouTube.com, you’ll find a half-dozen videos that have been part of the sheriff department’s internal investigations. The sheriff has already set a precedent in releasing these other videos, Smith said. The tens of thousands of dollars spent by the county should be given to the humane society or Head Start, rather than spent on this futile attempt to hide the video, he said.

In addition to the comments reported above, Thomas Partridge spoke during three other opportunities for public commentary. He described himself as an advocate for those who are less fortunate, and called for an aggressive Democratic agenda to serve those who are most in need. He called on the board to reverse the proposed budget cuts and come up with more revenue to address the needs of the county’s most vulnerable residents. He wondered by no commissioners had proposed a Headlee override, which would allow the county to collect more taxes. The board should ask the wealthiest residents and corporations to do their part, he said.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Absent: Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. 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.

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  1. November 21, 2011 at 5:44 pm | permalink

    The Sylvan Township situation is painful for everyone, including me. It was one of my failures as a commissioner.

    I was on the Board of Public Works when it was being considered. The BPW had a (successful) history of providing sewer service to lakes communities (the MultiLakes region) in the NW part of the county where water quality in lakes bordered by residences was threatened. These projects were funded by special assessments for the local region being served.

    The Sylvan project was overtly a development facilitation. Rather than serving existing parcels, it was an ambitious effort to make city-class utilities available to a large portion of Sylvan Township abutting Chelsea (which was then a village and had municipal service of its own). The developers promised to pay for the system with special assessments on property not yet developed.

    I objected strenuously to the project both because I did not see the role of the county as facilitating development and because the deal sounded fishy. But the township officials strongly supported it, including a former supervisor (now deceased). I managed to delay it for several months while a number of questions were asked. But the commissioner who represented this area made it clear that he expected the BOC to pass the bonds and serve his constituents. It passed though several other commissioners also had misgivings but ultimately gave in to the urgings of the township officials. I don’t think it fair to suggest that “the county” encouraged it by providing the wherewithal, but I hope this serves as a cautionary tale.

  2. By Conan Smith
    December 1, 2011 at 6:06 am | permalink

    Thanks again for a thorough review of a complex meeting! Just one clarification regarding the 8 percent salary increase policy. It’s not for doing “more” work, which unfortunately has been the norm in the public and private sectors throughout the economic downturn (Freakonomics recently had a blog post noting that productivity has increased during the recession: [link]). Rather the salary bump is awarded for taking on responsibilities at a higher pay grade (i.e., doing work your boss used to do for a higher salary).