Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Sept. 5, 2012): Board chair Conan Smith has floated a proposal to raise taxes that support economic development and agricultural programs, and suggested revising the way those revenues are administered.
The proposal came in the context of an initial board vote to levy an annual tax of 0.05 mills, unchanged from the current rate. The Michigan statute authorizing this millage (Act 88 of 1913) predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, so no voter approval is required. The board can levy the tax directly.
The current rate is expected to bring in about $683,095 in 2013, and is allocated to a variety of organizations, including the economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK ($200,000) and its Ypsilanti office SPARK East ($50,000). Smith and county administrator Verna McDaniel serve on SPARK’s executive committee.
Smith, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, suggested that by raising the rate to 0.06 mills, property owners would see only a slight increase in their annual taxes. For the average taxpayer, he estimated it would increase from $4.25 to $5.10 per year, while the amount raised countywide would increase about 20% to $838,577. He also proposed that the office of community and economic development – a joint county/city of Ann Arbor department led by Mary Jo Callan – should be given the authority to allocate the funding, rather than having the county board earmark amounts for specific organizations.
No formal amendment was made, but Smith circulated a three-page memo the following night outlining his proposal. [.pdf of Smith's Act 88 memo] It’s likely the board will take up this proposal as an amendment before a final vote at its Sept. 19 meeting. Initial approval was given on Sept. 5 for the current rate of 0.05 mills on a 7-to-3 vote, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, and Dan Smith. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
Another pre-Headlee tax – for support of indigent veterans – also got initial approval from the board, at a slightly increased rate. The initial approval increases that tax from 0.025 mills to 0.0286 mills. Staff of the county’s department of veterans affairs say the increase is needed because of rising claims and services from veterans due to a struggling economy, an anticipated increase in the number of returning soldiers, and a drop in property values. The millage is expected to raise $390,340 in revenues during 2013.
In other action related to tax revenue, commissioners gave initial approval to an ordinance governing the county’s natural areas preservation program. The change would remove the current restriction that only 7% of millage funds can be used for management or stewardship. The intent is to provide more flexibility in managing the funds, allowing the county to build a reserve for long-term stewardship. It’s viewed as an important goal, in the event that the NAPP millage is eliminated in the future. Yousef Rabhi, a Democrat who represents District 11 in Ann Arbor, proposed an amendment that would set a minimum of 25% to be spent on stewardship. The amendment failed on a 1-9 vote.
In an item viewed largely as a formality, county commissioners “ratified” the articles of incorporation for a new countywide transit authority. The document had been slightly revised from what the board had previously approved on Aug. 1, 2012 – on a 6-4 vote. This time, the vote was 6-3, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Dan Smith. Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Ronnie Peterson were absent. Rob Turner, who had previously voted against the articles of incorporation, supported the item on Sept. 5.
Also approved was a resolution to support a policy change in the city of Ann Arbor related to affordable housing. The item was added to the Sept. 5 agenda during the meeting by Democrat Leah Gunn of Ann Arbor, and was not discussed by commissioners at the meeting. The resolution “encourages the Ann Arbor City Council to direct proceeds from the sale of the city-owned surface parking lots in the downtown to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, to be used to support sustainable, affordable housing.” [Earlier in the day, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board had passed a similar resolution of support. Gunn is chair of the DDA.] Dan Smith abstained from the vote. The following night, at a board working session, Alicia Ping announced that she had intended to vote against it, but had cited the wrong agenda number in casting her no vote.
Other action at the Sept. 5 meeting included initial approval of the county’s public health budget, which projects a 3.5 net increase in jobs. Voting against the budget were Alicia Ping and Dan Smith, who cautioned against adding new jobs as the county faces a deficit in 2013. A final vote is expected at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
Seth Best, a former resident of Camp Take Notice, addressed the board during public commentary about the need to tackle the root causes of homelessness. The homeless encampment had been evicted this summer from its most recent site in Scio Township.
And highlighting a letter that the county had recently received, commissioner Felicia Brabec raised concerns about the intent of Paxton Resources LLC to drill an exploratory oil and gas well in Saline Township. The board will likely revisit the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” at a future working session. Yousef Rabhi, who chairs those meetings, suggested wrapping it into a session he plans regarding the Pall/Gelman Sciences 1,4 dioxane plume. He sees a tie-in to the issue of industrial environmental contamination.
Millages: Economic/Agricultural Development, Indigent Veterans
Two taxes – for economic/agricultural development and indigent veterans services– were on the agenda for initial approval. Because the Michigan statutes that authorize these millages predate the state’s Headlee Amendment, they can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. Commissioners also were asked to set public hearings on these millages for the board’s Sept. 19 meeting, when a final vote will be taken.
Millage: Economic/Agricultural Development – Board Discussion
The 0.05 mill tax for economic development and agriculture is authorized under the state’s Act 88 of 1913. It will cost homeowners $5 for each $100,000 of their home’s taxable value. The millage amount at this point would be unchanged from the current tax.
The anticipated $683,095 in millage proceeds would be allocated to the following local entities in 2013, and are generally the same amounts that the groups received this year: Ann Arbor SPARK ($200,000), SPARK East ($50,000), the county’s dept. of community & economic development ($140, 331), Eastern Leaders Group ($100,000), promotion of heritage tourism ($65,264), Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP – $15,000), Washtenaw 4-H ($82,500), Washtenaw County 4-H Youth Show ($15,000), and MSU Extension, to support economic development in the local food system ($15,000).
Board chair Conan Smith introduced this item by saying that the county is facing an interesting phenomenon. The average household income is increasing steadily, he contended, but taxable values of homes have been decreasing. That means that there’s less money for local governments, which receive revenues from property taxes. So funding for government services has decreased. It’s unusual to be in a county where families are experiencing greater prosperity, while local governments struggle, he said.
This was background for his proposal to look at increasing the Act 88 millage from 0.05 mills to 0.06 mills. Average taxpayers are paying about $4.25 annually, he said, and it would increase to $5.10. The increase would help to maintain the solvency of the fund and support for the agencies that are funded through it, and would allow the county to do even more economic development, he said.
Smith cited an ongoing concern about the recent consolidation that created the office of community and economic development (OCED). He felt that the move pulled together several economic development activities under one umbrella, but there’s only one staff person dedicated to coordinating those services. It’s a challenge, he said, especially when you think about the synergies between economic development, community development and workforce development – which are now all handled by OCED.
In addition to providing more revenues for economic development, Smith hoped the board could consider allocating all Act 88 revenues to OCED, and giving that department the authority to analyze and distribute the funds, rather than having the board allocate specific funding for each agency. Instead, OCED could make recommendations to the board each year, in the same way that OCED staff handles allocations to local nonprofits through the coordinated funding approach.
Smith said he wasn’t prepared to make any amendments to the Act 88 resolution that night, but he hoped the board could have this conversation in a couple of weeks at its Sept. 19 meeting.
Leah Gunn expressed her support for the idea. Rolland Sizemore Jr. told Smith he hoped to see a proposal before the Sept. 19 board meeting, to give everyone a chance to review it.
Turning to the resolution at hand, Wes Prater expressed frustration that he didn’t know how these organizations being funded by the Act 88 millage were performing. There needs to be a report of results from the previous year, he said. County administrator Verna McDaniel replied that the information is available. She noted that Skip Simms from Ann Arbor SPARK was at the meeting, and that she and Conan Smith served on SPARK’s executive committee.
Sizemore said he was tired of not getting this kind of information in advance of the board meeting. McDaniel apologized, saying that the information is online, but not provided in one centralized report.
Prater specifically asked about the accomplishments of the Eastern Leaders Group (ELG), which is getting $100,000. He also wondered why the county was paying $65,264 to promote heritage tourism – why weren’t the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention and visitors bureaus doing that? [Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor CVB, attended the Sept. 5 meeting but did not formally address the board.]
Tony VanDerworp, who serves as OCED’s business development specialist, highlighted a three-page report that had been included in the board’s meeting packet. Information about the ELG is given, he noted. In general, the report provides details about jobs created, funds that were leveraged, and new programs over the past year, he said. VanDerworp added that he’d be happy to provide additional information as well.
Prater replied that he’d seen the report, but that it didn’t talk about how the county’s funding had been used. He wanted to know specifically what was accomplished with the dollars that the county had levied and spent.
Sizemore thanked Bob Tetens, the county’s parks and recreation director, for taking leadership on the ELG – it’s moving forward faster than it had been, he said. Sizemore also praised Shamar Herron, the county’s workforce development manager. Sizemore is more concerned about people who are making $10-15 an hour, rather than the jobs that Ann Arbor SPARK focuses on, which are at a higher salary level.
As chair of the board’s working sessions, Yousef Rabhi reported that he planned to schedule a working session later this fall focused on the Food System Economic Partnership and MSU Extension program, to explain how their allocations will be spent. He suggested including representatives from other agencies funded by Act 88 as well.
Regarding Conan Smith’s proposal, Rabhi said he wasn’t sold on it yet but he’d be interested in hearing from OCED’s director, Mary Jo Callan.
Smith responded to Prater’s concerns about evaluating performance. Current analysis of the Act 88 grantees isn’t being done, he acknowledged. But OCED has developed a process to evaluate the grantees for human services, who receive money through the coordinated funding approach. That process should be easily replicable for economic development funding too, he said, and would allow for greater oversight of those funds.
Outcome: The initial vote on the Act 88 millage passed on a 7-3 vote, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Dan Smith. Ronnie Peterson was absent. A public hearing is set for the board’s Sept. 19 meeting, where a final vote is expected, with the possible amendment mentioned by Conan Smith.
The following night, during the board’s working session, Conan Smith emailed commissioners a three-page memo outlining his proposal. [.pdf of Smith's memo] Smith projected that the proposed increase in the tax – to 0.06 mill, compared to the current 0.05 mill – would represent a 20% increase in revenues, raising an additional $139,762 for a total of $838,577 in 2013.
Millages: Support for Veterans – Board Discussion
Also on the Sept. 5 agenda was a tax to support services for indigent veterans. The proposal called for an increase to 0.0286 mills, to be levied in December 2012. That rate is expected to raise $390,340 in revenues for use during 2013. The current 0.025 mills brought in $344,486 in 2012.
According to a staff memo, the increase is needed because of rising claims and services from veterans due to a struggling economy, an anticipated increase in the number of returning soldiers, and a drop in property values. The county first began levying this millage in 2008. Services are administered through the county’s department of veterans affairs.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked why an increase is needed. Michael Smith, the department’s director, reviewed the reasons stated in the staff memo. He noted that when the millage revenues were first collected in 2009, the tax brought in about $393,000. Each year that amount has decreased, while costs have increased. The office helps indigent veterans pay for things like utility bills, gas and food. A $300 food voucher doesn’t buy as much as it did just a few years ago, he said, so the county’s veterans affairs committee – which the county board appoints – decided it was time to ask for an increase. They were very cautious and debated the decision at length, he said.
Smith described other services that his office provides. They help veterans pursue getting benefits from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, for example, and pay $300 toward the burial costs for veterans or their spouses. In addition, veterans are entitled to a free memorial marker, but sometimes cemeteries require a base for those markers. And the cost for the base varies widely, he noted, from $35 in Manchester to more than $800 at United Memorial Gardens.
Smith also cited the uncertainty about how many veterans would be returning to Washtenaw County as the military demobilizes. About 300,000 soldiers are expected to be coming home nationwide, he said. Army reserve units will be returning as well.
Several commissioners expressed support for the work of Smith and his staff. Alicia Ping asked Smith to review the history of the millage. Smith explained that the state legislature had passed a law in 1899 to support indigent veterans, mandating that counties levy this tax. [Today, few counties actually levy the millage. Washtenaw County did not levy it until 2008, when former commissioner Ken Schwartz notified the board that the option existed. Previously, the county's department of veterans affairs was supported by the general fund.] Public Act 214 reads in part:
…each county shall annually levy, a tax not exceeding 1/10th of a mill on each dollar, to be levied and collected as provided by law… for the purpose of creating a fund for the relief of honorably discharged indigent members of the army, navy, air force, marine corps, coast guard, and women’s auxiliaries of all wars or military expeditions … and the indigent spouses, minor children and parents of each such indigent or deceased member.
If the county levied the maximum rate, the full 1/10th mill would raise more than $1 million in Washtenaw County, Smith said, which is more than is needed. In times of emergency, the county has the authority to levy as much as 2/10ths of a mill, he noted.
Sizemore also wondered why the department had decided to lock its doors – he was concerned about that. Smith explained that the department had been short-staffed, because two employees unexpectedly decided to retire at the end of last year. He didn’t have the staff to handle the office’s normal walk-in hours, he said, and he had to figure out how to manage their work flow.
In addition, the office – located at 2155 Hogback Road – is in a building that’s not very secure, and they work with a population that can be volatile, he said. The office is co-located with the county’s facilities warehouse. Deliveries are made there frequently and people are walking through the building unsupervised. The department has files with sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, Smith said, so he decided to lock the office doors. A sign is up indicating that people can knock for service, and most of the work is handled through appointments. They’ve never turned anyone away, he said. New employees are being trained, and he plans to return to full walk-in service in the future.
Sizemore responded, saying that if security is a problem, perhaps the county should find a more suitable location for the office. Wes Prater also expressed concern, saying that it had been a very hot summer and they don’t know what the winter will be like. He hoped that veterans wouldn’t have to wait outside in the cold. Smith agreed, saying he was working toward the goal of full walk-in service again.
Outcome: An initial vote to increase the millage for veterans relief passed unanimously. A final vote and public hearing is set for Sept. 19.
Natural Areas Preservation
An amendment to the ordinance governing the county’s natural areas preservation program was on the Sept. 5 agenda for initial approval.
The change would remove the current restriction that only 7% of millage funds can be used for management or stewardship. The Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission had been briefed on the proposal at its May 8, 2012 meeting. At that time, the proposal would have raised the limit from 7% to 25%. Now, however, the proposed ordinance amendment would eliminate all percentage restrictions on set-asides for management and stewardship.
The proposal would amend Section 8 of the NAPP ordinance (deleted text indicated in strike-through):
SECTION 8: Natural Areas Acquisition Fund
Available funding for the purchase of natural areas land shall be deposited in a special fund in the office of the Washtenaw County Treasurer (“Acquisition Fund”). Money in such Acquisition Fund may be temporarily deposited in such institutions or invested in such obligations as may be lawful for the investment of County money.
The revenues from the deposit and/or investment of the Acquisition Fund along with the revenues from the sale of any natural areas property purchased pursuant to this Ordinance shall be applied and used solely for the purchase, stewardship and administration of natural areas land (75%) and agricultural development rights (25%) under this Ordinance, however, that no more than 7% of increased millage funds used to purchase land under this Ordinance may be used annually to administer a land preservation program or maintain lands purchased under this Ordinance.
According to a staff memo that was part of the county board’s Sept. 5 meeting information packet, the goal would be to use $600,000 per year for management and stewardship. Of that, roughly $240,000 would be used for ongoing stewardship activities, and $360,000 would remain to be invested in a dedicated reserve for long-term land stewardship. By 2020, when the current millage expires, that annual investment is expected to have built a dedicated reserve of $6 million.
Though no percentages are identified in the revised ordinance, $600,000 would work out to about 25% of annual millage revenues.
Voters first approved NAPP funding in 2000 and renewed it in 2010, each time for 10 years. The current millage – at 0.2409 mills – will expire in 2020. It generates about $3 million annually.
Natural Areas Preservation: Board Discussion
Conan Smith said he was very supportive of this change, because it provides greater flexibility. He also floated the idea of eliminating a separate ordinance requirement for allocating 75% to the acquisition and maintenance of natural areas and 25% for agricultural land. He hadn’t consulted with parks and recreation director Bob Tetens about this yet, Smith said, but if commissioners are interested, he’d bring forward a formal proposal at a future meeting.
Yousef Rabhi said he had some reservations about eliminating the 75/25 allocation, but was very supportive of the proposal that was on the table that night. Rabhi then asked Tetens to describe what kinds of maintenance activities are done in the county’s natural areas.
The work varies by preserve, Tetens explained, but includes trail maintenance, removal of invasive species, trash pickup and other activity. Rabhi hoped to see the balance of activities tip in favor of ecological restoration. He acknowledged that public accessibility was part of the program’s mission, but noted that increasing the health of the ecosystem is another important role. Tetens replied that the staff’s work is tilted toward that ecosystem aspect.
Rabhi then clarified with Tetens some information in the staff memo, which indicated that $240,000 annually would be used for stewardship. That’s an internal goal, Tetens replied. The current proposal grew out of discussions that occurred when the staff talked with commissioners and others prior to the NAPP millage renewal in 2010. Even with the 7% cap on spending for stewardship, he said, the program has set aside about $2 million for future stewardship activity.
The intent of the ordinance change is to to set aside even more dollars, so that by 2020 – when the county board has to decide whether to put a renewal on the ballot again – they’ll have some options. The assumption is that land acquired by the county through NAPP will be protected forever, Tetens said. They need to save more money so that they’ll be in a position to take care of the land in perpetuity, regardless of whether there’s a millage to support it.
Natural Areas Preservation: Board Discussion – Amendment
Rabhi said that as someone who works in the field, he understand the crucial role of stewardship. [Rabhi, a Democrat representing District 11 in Ann Arbor, works with the city's natural area preservation program.] He believed that instead of eliminating percentages completely, the ordinance should indicate a minimum of 25% for stewardship. He proposed that as an amendment to the resolution. It was seconded by Barbara Bergman.
Leah Gunn noted that she had been on the board when the original NAPP ordinance had been passed in 2000, and said she had worked hard campaigning for the millage to support the program. She said she couldn’t give enough praise to the parks and recreation commission and the staff, and she trusted them to do their jobs. Gunn told Tetens that the board should “let you do what you think is best, and if we find we’re dissatisfied with it, we’ll probably let you know,” she quipped.
Dan Smith weighed in, saying that the intent of changing the original ordinance was to simplify it. Ordinances should be crafted to last a long time, he said, and including percentages makes that more difficult. By adding back in a different percentage, Rabhi’s amendment adds complexity to the ordinance that’s unnecessary. [Smith is one of three county commissioners who serve on the parks and recreation commission. Others are Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Barbara Bergman.]
Smith read from the current ordinance, noting that the parks and recreation commission is an agency of the county. The ordinance gives the county board a lot of leeway to give direction to the parks and recreation commission, if it chooses. For those reasons, he did not support Rabhi’s amendment.
Wes Prater clarified with Tetens that none of the proposed changes would increase NAPP’s budget. Responding to another query from Prater, Tetens said that the issue is how to allocate the millage revenues. While the parks and recreation commission has a certain amount of discretion over NAPP’s budget, it doesn’t have authority to make ordinance revisions – only the county board of commissioners can do that.
Bergman praised the parks and recreation commission and staff, and said it’s important to maintain the county’s natural areas, especially regarding invasive species. To her, the amendment was meant to be advisory in nature, sending a message to future commissions.
Felicia Brabec asked Tetens what the impact would be on administering the program, if hard percentages are in the ordinance. When the ordinance was originally developed, the percentages were relatively arbitrary, Tetens replied. Regarding the proposed minimum 25% spent on stewardship, right now the program probably wouldn’t need to spend that much, he said. And depending on how much additional land is acquired in the future, they might need to spend more than that in the coming years. It’s important to keep manageable the amount of land that the county owns, he said, and to ensure that the county has sufficient funds to sustain maintenance indefinitely.
Conan Smith felt that Rabhi’s intention was “spot on,” and perhaps one way to address it would be to add language to the ordinance that expresses a commitment to maintenance. He did not make a formal motion to add such language, however.
At this point Alicia Ping called the question, a parliamentary move aimed at ending discussion and forcing a vote. The motion to call the question passed on a voice vote.
Outcome on amendment: The amendment failed on a 1-9 vote, with only support from Yousef Rabhi. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
Natural Areas Preservation: Board Discussion – Final Comments
Wes Prater asked about the current fund balance for NAPP. About $1.9 million is set aside for stewardship, Bob Tetens said. The total fund balance for NAPP is between $7-8 million, he added.
Leah Gunn said the purpose of the ordinance change is to set policy. It’s not to take control of the budget. She trusts the parks and recreation commission, which is appointed by the county board, to make decisions about NAPP’s budget. The program is also overseen by another group, the natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC), she noted. The board needs to trust the people they’ve appointed to do the right thing, she concluded.
Outcome: The initial approval for changes to the NAPP ordinance passed unanimously. A final vote is expected at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
Later in the meeting, Rabhi stressed that he doesn’t distrust the parks staff or administration. He said he was simply trying to ensure that maintenance was financially supported at an adequate level. He understood that the staff is very well-qualified, as are members of the oversight bodies.
Countywide Transit Accord
In an item viewed largely as a formality, county commissioners were asked to “ratify” the articles of incorporation for a new countywide transit authority. The document was slightly revised from what the board had previously approved on Aug. 1, 2012 – on a 6-4 vote. The effort to more toward a broader public transit entity is being led by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA).
The ratification of the articles of incorporation does not incorporate a new transit authority. Rather, it establishes the document that will be used to incorporate a new authority. The articles of incorporation will be filed by Washtenaw County with the state, when the AATA requests that it do so. After incorporation, the new authority – to be called The Washtenaw Ride – would not receive a transfer of AATA assets until a voter-approved funding mechanism has been approved.
The Sept. 5 agenda item to re-approve the articles of incorporation was prompted indirectly by the board’s action on Aug. 1, when it voted to amend the document that had already been approved by three other parties in a four-party transit agreement. Those other parties include the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Because of the amendment, the articles of incorporation had to be re-authorized by the other three parties.
The county board’s Aug. 1 amendment made a change to the size of the majority needed, in order for the new transit authority’s board to change the articles of incorporation – from 2/3 to 4/5 of the 15 board members. When the amended document was sent back to the Ann Arbor city council, the city’s legal staff made additional changes that were driven by a desire to harmonize the county board’s amendment with the rest of the document, as well as with Act 196 of 1986 – the act under which the new transit authority will be incorporated.
For example, the 4/5 majority requirement for changes to the articles of incorporation is at apparent odds with one kind of change to the articles specifically mentioned in Act 196 – a change in jurisdictions that are part of the authority. Act 196 explicitly indicates that a 2/3 vote is required. So an administrative change undertaken after the board’s Aug. 1 meeting was to add the clause: “… unless another vote of Board is required under the terms of these Articles or provided for in Act 196.”
Although it wasn’t clear whether the changes required a re-vote by the county board of commissioners, some commissioners were concerned that the changes might be construed as substantive and contrary to the intent of the county board, which could become an unnecessary point of contention down the road. For more details on this series of changes, see Chronicle coverage: “Washtenaw Board to Re-Vote on Transit Accord.”
Earlier in the day on Sept. 5, the AATA board released a final draft of a 5-year service plan as part of a possible transition to The Washtenaw Ride. An 0.584 mill tax to support expanded service could be placed on the ballot by May 2013. [See Chronicle coverage: "Revised 5-Year Transit Plan: More Service, Cost."]
Outcome: With no discussion, the board voted 6-3 to ratify the articles of incorporation, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Dan Smith. Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Ronnie Peterson were absent. Rob Turner, who had previously voted against the articles of incorporation, supported the item.
Public Health Budget
A net increase of 3.5 full-time-equivalent positions was part of the 2012-2013 department of public health budget on the Sept. 5 agenda for initial approval.
Seven full-time-equivalent positions (a combination of part-time and full-time jobs) are being reclassified in the proposed budget. Last year, the department eliminated a net of nearly seven FTEs. The $10,998,870 budget includes a $3,553,575 allocation from the county’s general fund – unchanged from the previous year. Of that general fund allocation, $548,052 will be used to fund the county’s medical examiner program, according to a staff memo.
Unlike the county’s general fund budget, which is aligned to the calendar year, the public health budget runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, in sync with the state’s fiscal year.
This coming year, the public health budget also includes two new vaccines that can be administered at the department’s clinics. Effective Jan. 1, 2013, meningococcal vaccines will be available at $120 per child and $125 per adult. HPV vaccines will be administered for $140 per child and $145 per adult. [.pdf of full fee schedule]
Public Health Budget: Board Discussion
Felicia Brabec asked Dick Fleece, the county’s public health director, about possible state cuts to the budget, and what the impact might be on clients served by the department. Fleece replied that there are concerns about across-the-board state budget cuts – that’s part of the uncertainty that the department faces. Some new grants the department is seeking are seen as promising, as well as current grants that are typically renewed. But none of those funding sources are finalized. As for the impact of possible funding cuts on clients, Fleece said it wasn’t possible to know until those cuts are determined – the department will have to make adjustments during the year, as necessary.
Fleece also noted that the department is projecting that it will end the year without needing to tap its fund balance.
Wes Prater pointed out that the positions reflect increased pay grades, which will cost the county in the long-term. He wondered why they couldn’t hold the line with pay grades. Fleece replied that for several of the positions, the increases will be covered by billing Medicaid. He noted that the department tried cutting some nursing positions during the previous budget cycle, but it had been hard to manage without them. That’s why this budget calls for two public health nurse positions. Currently, the department is turning away clients because there aren’t enough nurses to handle the demand for services.
Barbara Bergman described the funding from Medicaid as important – if the county didn’t take advantage of that, it would be like “leaving money on the table,” she said. She also defended the higher pay grades, saying that the county has been hemorrhaging staff and that at some point, people won’t be able to afford to work for the county.
Yousef Rabhi clarified with Fleece that no jobs were actually being eliminated – positions are simply being reclassified, or created.
Dan Smith said he’d be voting against this budget because it created a net of 3.5 new positions. The county is facing a budget deficit, and in that context, no new positions should be added.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. wondered if the budget cost the county more money. County administrator Verna McDaniel replied that there’s no increase in general fund support for the department. Fleece added that the general fund support is the minimum that’s necessary in order to receive state funding.
Outcome: Commissioners gave initial approval to the budget on a 8-2 vote. Voting against the budget were Alicia Ping and Dan Smith. Ronnie Peterson was absent. A final vote is expected at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
Food Policy Council Appointment
One appointment was made by commissioners at their Sept. 5 meeting. Sharon Sheldon of the Washtenaw County public health department was appointed to replace Jenna Bacolor on the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council. The slot is designated for someone in the public health sector. Sheldon also serves on the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) board and is a former board member of the nonprofit Growing Hope. She currently works as a program administrator in the county public health department’s health promotion/disease prevention division.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Sharon Sheldon to the food policy council.
Two appointments to fill vacancies on the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission had originally been on the Sept. 5 agenda but were pulled by board chair Conan Smith. Both slots had been for members of the general public. The board’s meeting packet had indicated that John McCurdy, an Ypsilanti Township resident and associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, was to be appointed to a term expiring on Dec. 31, 2012. Courtney Miller was to be appointed to a term ending on Dec. 31, 2013. She lives in Ypsilanti and previously served as a preservation planner with the city, serving as staff to the Ypsilanti Historic District Commission.
Smith stated that “technical” reasons resulted in the decision to remove the appointments from the agenda. Wes Prater asked Smith whether it was because the positions hadn’t been advertised, and Smith indicated that this was the case.
In an email to The Chronicle following the meeting, Smith clarified that although there is no requirement to “notice” these vacancies, he had “pledged to the commissioners that they would receive the appointments information further in advance and that I would personally vet them with staff. I hadn’t had a chance to do that when these two came to the board this evening.”
Ann Arbor Land Sale Policy
An item added to the Sept. 5 agenda during the meeting was a resolution to support a policy change in the city of Ann Arbor related to affordable housing.
The resolution “encourages the Ann Arbor City Council to direct proceeds from the sale of the city-owned surface parking lots in the downtown to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, to be used to support sustainable, affordable housing.”
Earlier in the day, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board had passed a similar resolution of support. County commissioner Leah Gunn (D-District 9) is chair of the DDA, and brought the resolution forward for the county board’s consideration.
At the city council’s Sept. 4 meeting, councilmember Sandi Smith – who also serves on the DDA board – had announced her intent to bring a resolution to the council on Sept. 17 that would establish a policy of depositing proceeds from city-owned land sales into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The policy Smith is calling for would represent a return to a previous policy that was rescinded in 2007. That policy dates back to 1996. [For detailed Chronicle coverage, see: "City Council to Focus on Land Sale Policy."]
Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners voted 8-1 to approve the land sale resolution. Dan Smith abstained. Ronnie Peterson and Rolland Sizemore Jr. were absent.
At the board’s Sept. 6 working session, Alicia Ping announced that she had intended to vote against the land sale resolution. But she had stated the incorrect agenda item number when she cast her dissenting vote, and had voted unintentionally against the board’s approval of claims. She hoped the record could be clarified.
Communications & Commentary
During the evening there are multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. Here are some highlights.
Communications & Commentary: Camp Take Notice
During public commentary, Seth Best told the board that he now lives in Ann Arbor, but he’s a former resident of Camp Take Notice. He was identified as a female at birth, but he’s been male in his mind and heart, he said. In 2006, he made a life-affirming decision to transition to become male. It cost him his job, and by 2008 he was homeless. He was in the South at the time, where the faith community had a lock on providing services for the homeless, he said. But because he was transgender, he was not welcome.
He came back to Michigan because he’d heard that the Delonis Center would accept him. They did, but had a 90-day limit on his stay there. That passed quickly, and again he found himself at the mercy of the faith community, he said. After a few weeks he learned about Camp Take Notice, and asked if he could join. He found himself where his gender didn’t matter. He was among like-minded people in a safe, drug-free place. He felt empowered as the camp grew, and it helped him. He’s no longer on the streets.
Best told commissioners that homelessness can’t be ended with just a house or a job. The root causes need to be addressed, and that’s related to mental health issues, he said, including drugs and alcohol.
Communications & Commentary: Camp Take Notice – Board Response
Several commissioners responded to Best’s commentary. Yousef Rabhi thanked him for coming, and called his story inspiring. Barbara Bergman noted that she serves on the board of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), and she hoped their outreach efforts had been of some assistance.
Rob Turner said he’d first met Best at a recent town hall meeting regarding Camp Take Notice. The meeting had been hosted by the University of Michigan School of Social Work, and led by emeritus professor Bill Birdsall. It had been held on a Sunday, Turner said, because every Sunday the camp members have dinner together, followed by a town hall meeting. [For some of the history of Camp Take Notice, including the tradition of those Sunday gatherings, see Chronicle coverage: "Laws of Physics: Homeless Camp Moves" and "Laws of Physics II: Homeless Encampment."]
Turner said he’d been struck by the sense of community among members of the camp, which had been dislocated this summer from its most recent site in Scio Township. [The camp had been set up on property owned by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, off of Wagner Road near M-14.] Turner recalled that the county had helped fund assistance to provide housing, but several people were still without housing.
There are more than 4,000 homeless people in Washtenaw County, Turner said. The camp had been a place where people could feel safe, if they couldn’t stay at the Delonis Center. He said that several elected officials had been invited to the meeting at UM, including state Rep. Mark Ouimet, state Sen. Rebekah Warren, and sheriff Jerry Clayton. No county commissioners had been invited, Turner said, but he was the only elected official who came – he’d read about the meeting in the Chelsea Standard, and had brought his two daughters.
Recidivism into homelessness is high, Turner continued, because people often don’t have the ability to follow up with services that might help them stay in housing. Without community support, it’s hard. Turner said he’s impressed with the community that Camp Take Notice has built, but it’s not a perfect solution. He’d like to talk to their leadership, and try to tap into their volunteerism and community support to help some of the county’s programs. It could be a wonderful resource, he said.
Rabhi thanked Turner for attending the meeting at UM, and said he had also been involved – he’d gone out to the camp when the members were evicted, and had participated in a working group of people that included law enforcement, neighbors and others. Camp Take Notice worked hard to have a good relationship with the community, he said.
Bergman noted that the county has already provided considerable resources to Camp Take Notice. She felt that ending homelessness probably won’t happen, and curbing homelessness is a better goal.
Communications & Commentary: Fracking
Felicia Brabec highlighted a letter that was included in the board’s meeting packet from Paxton Resources LLC, indicating that the company has filed an application with the state to drill an exploratory oil and gas well in Saline Township. [.pdf of Paxton letter]
Brabec said she was very concerned. A Paxton representative had attended a working session earlier this year, and Brabec characterized his remarks about the board’s concerns regarding fracking as very dismissive and flippant. She wanted to revisit the issue.
Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, said he plans to schedule a session on the Pall/Gelman Sciences 1,4 dioxane contamination. That situation involves decades-long industrial contamination at the former Gelman Sciences manufacturing plant in Scio Township, now owned by Pall Corp., that spread to the aquifer. The company has implemented court-ordered remediation, overseen to some extent by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. Rabhi said he planned to invite members of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD) to address the board.
He indicated that there might be a tie-in to the fracking issue, and that it could be handled in the same working session.
Communications & Commentary: IT Award
Kevin Moore was on hand to present the county with a 2012 Digital Counties award from the Center for Digital Government, Digital Communities program and the National Association of Counties (NACo). Washtenaw County ranked 9th in the the category of counties with a population between 250,000 to 499,000. Moore noted that Washtenaw County has ranked in the top 10 for 9 of the past 10 years.
Andy Brush, who leads the county’s IT staff, thanked Moore for coming into “hostile territory.” [Moore works for Quest Software, which is based in the Columbus, Ohio area. So it was an allusion to a college football rivalry between the university in that city and one located in Ann Arbor.] Brush also thanked the board for their support of technology, which he said helps make democracy accessible.
Leah Gunn thanked the IT staff for being gracious in helping “technological idiots like me.” Barbara Bergman also thanked the staff, noting that people in her generation are “digital immigrants,” unlike children who are “born with mice in their hands.” Conan Smith joked that he’d like to see the county advance above 8th place next year. [This is apparently a standard joke. When the county was awarded the 4th place ranking in 2011, Smith said he looked forward to the day that the county would be ranked No. 3.]
Communications & Commentary: Voting Rotation
During the meeting, Alicia Ping noted that in the past, votes had been taken by calling the commissioners’ names in rotation – that is, each roll call vote began with a different commissioner, so that the same person wouldn’t end up voting last each time. Now, the rotation doesn’t change, and Ping expressed a desire to return to the former practice. It makes a difference, especially on controversial votes, she said.
The task for administering the board’s roll call votes falls to Pete Simms of the Washtenaw County clerk’s office. Responding to an email from The Chronicle, Simms said the decision about rotating the vote is made by the
county clerk [Larry Kestenbaum] clerk at the meeting. [Simms currently fills that role.] In the future, the voting order will be rotated, he said.
Communications & Commentary: November Election
Thomas Partridge spoke during the both opportunities for public commentary. He noted that it was an historic day – the eve of the Democratic National Convention’s nomination of the first African American U.S. president, Barack Obama, for a second term. It’s important to support Obama and all progressive Democratic candidates in the Nov. 6 election, he said. It’s important to put forward a plan that puts services for people first, and cast aside the Republicans and their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who put money before people, Partridge said. He also called for a commitment to end homelessness, and support for public transit. During his second turn at public commentary, Partridge said he planned to be a write-in candidate for either the District 53 state representative or Ann Arbor mayor. [Partridge had previously lost to incumbent state Rep. Jeff Irwin in the District 53 Democratic primary on Aug. 7.]
Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.
Absent: Ronnie Peterson
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 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. [Check Chronicle event listings to 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 commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.
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