Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Nov. 7, 2012): A long post-election meeting included several debates with an impact on county finances.
Taking another step toward addressing a year-long controversy over how much to pay for animal control services, the board authorized contracting with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for $500,000 annually. The action enables the administration to negotiate a contract with HSHV for up to four years, with the option of adjusting the amount based on changes to the taxable value of property in the county. Voting against the resolution were Dan Smith, Wes Prater and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
The county would not likely pay that entire amount. There are preliminary commitments from five municipalities with their own animal control ordinances, to help the offset the cost of the HSHV contract. Those entities are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township, and Superior Township.
Several commissioners expressed concern that the county is essentially in the same position as it was when this process began. Wes Prater objected to the fact that the county’s procurement policy wasn’t being followed, because a request for proposals (RFP) wasn’t issued. Ultimately, a sufficient number of commissioners agreed to back the resolution, giving it final approval. The contract itself will not require authorization by the board.
In another move related to animal control services, the board gave final approval to a civil infractions ordinance, giving the county more flexibility to designate violations of other county ordinances as a civil infraction, rather than a criminal misdemeanor. [.pdf of proposed ordinance] In the context of animal control, enforcement of the county’s dog licensing ordinance is low because the current penalty – a criminal misdemeanor of 90 days in jail or a $500 fine – is relatively harsh. The idea is that enforcement would improve if a lesser civil infraction could be used.
Commissioners also debated options for changing their own compensation, ultimately giving initial approval to boost their base salaries from $15,500 to $15,750 annually and replacing per diem payments with stipends, effective Jan. 1, 2013. An amendment by Yousef Rabhi also increased the pay for chairs of the ways & means committee and the working session – bringing them to the same level as the board chair, at $3,000 more annually than the base salary of other commissioners. Voting against the changes as amended were Dan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. A final vote is expected at the board’s Dec. 5 meeting, when a final vote on the overall 2013 budget will also occur.
In non-budget items, Dan Smith brought forward a resolution to rescind the board’s previous support for a regional transit authority (RTA) that’s being proposed in Lansing. The RTA would include the city of Detroit and the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. Conan Smith has been an advocate for that effort, both as chair of the county board and in his role as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. During deliberations on the item, some commissioners criticized Conan Smith for acting on behalf of the board and not keeping them fully informed. Wes Prater felt Conan Smith’s actions reflected disrespect for other commissioners – but Smith said he meant no disrespect.
A sense of disrespect was also felt by a resident who attended the Nov. 7 meeting to advocate for the county’s help in establishing a daytime warming center for the homeless. Alexandra Hoffman chastised the board because no commissioner responded to commentary about a warming center, and instead the remarks by advocates for the center had been followed by “disturbingly lighthearted talk about haircuts.”
Hoffman was referring to an announcement earlier in the meeting by Yousef Rabhi, whose hair is longer than any other commissioner, male or female. He hopes to get donations of $500 for every inch he cuts, to raise money for three local nonprofits: Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Interfaith Hospitality Network, and SafeHouse Center. Rabhi told Hoffman that he was simply trying to raise awareness and money for the same issues that the warming center advocates supported.
The meeting fell the day after the Nov. 6 general election, which had resulted in the defeat of two of the nine commissioners who were running for re-election: Republican Rob Turner and Democrat Wes Prater. In District 1, Turner was outpolled by Democrat Kent Martinez-Kratz, decreasing the number of Republicans on the future nine-member board from three to two. Republican Alicia Ping won the District 3 seat over Prater – as the two incumbents faced each other due to redistricting that took effect with this election cycle. The last meeting for Turner and Prater – as well as for Democrats Leah Gunn and Barbara Bergman, who did not seek re-election – will be on Dec. 5.
It’s likely that the new board, which takes office in January, will eventually deal with a controversial topic that was raised during an appointments caucus on Nov. 7: Possible consolidation of the Washtenaw County road commission with county operations. During the caucus, held immediately prior to the regular meeting, Conan Smith suggested not yet reappointing the one road commissioner, Doug Fuller, whose term is expiring – though Fuller will continue to serve. Smith wanted to give the new county board some flexibility in discussing the future of the road commission. Some of the other issues emerging during the appointments caucus related to the role of the county’s historic district commission, economic development corporation, and the criminal justice community collaborative.
For Washtenaw County commissioners, changes to compensation for an upcoming term must be set by the board before that term starts. So for the two-year term beginning in January 2013, any changes in compensation must be made before the end of 2012. After the Nov. 6 election, the board had only two meetings to act regarding compensation: on Nov. 7 and Dec. 5.
At an Oct. 18 working session, board chair Conan Smith had indicated his intent to bring forward a proposal on commissioner compensation. Then on Nov. 5, two days before their meeting, Smith had emailed commissioners a draft proposal that he described as “a straw-man policy to poke at.” [.pdf of proposal emailed from Smith to the board]
At the Nov. 7 meeting, he introduced the resolution by noting that there had been many conversations among commissioners about compensation, and that his proposal was based on input from those conversations.
Most commissioners currently are paid a salary of $15,500. Smith said that in discussing the issue with county administrator Verna McDaniel, she had initially suggested setting the salary at half the median salary for county employees. But several commissioners had indicated to him that this calculation resulted in a salary that was higher than they could agree to, he said.
So the proposed amount of $15,750 was calculated by indexing it to one-half the median “step” of the lowest grade salary among county employees. According to a memo accompanying the resolution, Step 4 of Grade 12 (AFSCME Local 2733) is $31,507.75 – half of that amount is $15,753.88. Smith’s resolution directed future boards to adjust commissioner salaries based on this same calculation.
Officers of the board currently earn more than other commissioners. The board chair, Conan Smith, is currently paid $18,500. The board vice chair, Alicia Ping, earns $16,000, while chairs of the board’s ways & means committee (Rolland Sizemore Jr.) and working session (Yousef Rabhi) are each paid $16,500.
Smith’s proposal recommended eliminating pay for vice chairs. He noted that only nine commissioners will serve on the next board, due to redistricting, compared to the current 11 members. Giving extra pay to chairs and vice chairs would mean that six of the nine commissioners – a supermajority – would be receiving extra compensation. So Smith proposed that vice chairs receive the same base salary as other commissioners, unlike the current compensation arrangement.
For chairs, Smith proposed keeping the same “bump up” – an extra $3,000 for the board chair, and an extra $1,000 each for the chairs of the ways & means committee and the working session.
Currently, commissioners also have a $3,550 flex account to use for per diem and mileage reimbursements, training or other authorized expenses. For example, a per diem of $25 per authorized meeting is allowed, as is mileage driven to those meetings – at a rate of $0.555 per mile. Some commissioners don’t use their flex accounts, however, and most don’t use the entire amount. The payments are administered through the county clerk’s office.
Smith proposed replacing the current per diem system – which requires that commissioners submit a request for payment – and instead paying commissioners an automatic stipend as part of their compensation. The total stipend amounts would be capped at the flex account level of $3,550 per commissioner.
The stipends would be calculated based on the number of committees or boards to which a commissioner is appointed, as well as the number of meetings that each of those groups is expected to hold. One or two meetings per year would pay $50, three or four meetings would pay $100, and the amounts increase based on the number of meetings. At the high end, more than 24 meetings would pay $1,000. Appointments of commissioners to boards and committees will be made at the beginning of 2013.
On Smith’s proposal, commissioners would be able to waive their stipends by giving written notice to the county clerk. According to a two-page document provided by Smith, stipends would be pro-rated, aggregated and paid out biweekly as part of a commissioner’s paycheck. [.pdf of draft stipend guidelines]
In explaining his rationale for the change to stipend payments, Smith said it’s important to make sure that serving on the board is accessible to everyone. People who are paid hourly shouldn’t have to choose between their job and their passion for serving the county, he said. The change also takes away the paperwork involved, he said, and attempts to be fair without adding complexity to the system.
Per diems came under fire during the 2010 election season, and resulted in repayment – by most commissioners who were on the board at that time – of a portion of their per diem requests that were determined to be ineligible under board rules. Smith was one of the last commissioners to make a repayment, doing so only in early 2012 and agreeing to repay only some of the money he had been deemed ineligible to claim, in an arrangement that appears to have taken place outside the independent review process. [See Chronicle coverage: "Compensation Change for County Board?"]
The proposed changes do not affect mileage payments – commissioners can continue to request reimbursement for mileage to authorized meetings. Nor does it affect fringe benefits. Fringe benefits include $1,163 that the county pays into a retirement account for each commissioner, as well as payment of 50% of health care insurance if the commissioner chooses to obtain health care through the county as a part-time employee.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate
Wes Prater asked whether these changes in per diem would apply to payments for members of the general public who serve on county committees and commissions. Conan Smith said the policy for those positions would be set by the next board at the beginning of 2013 – so there would be no changes to those per diem payments at this time.
Prater objected to the fact that there was no accountability built into the system for attendance. He also noted that depending on how many appointments a commissioner had, the stipend approach could account for a significant increase in overall compensation.
Smith replied that only one appointment – to the county road commission – would require more than 20 meetings per year. His thinking, Smith said, was that the road commission work is more intense than other appointments and that the other people at those meetings – the three road commissioners, who are appointed by the county board – each receive $10,000 in annual compensation.
Dan Smith thanked Conan Smith for his work in putting together this proposal. D. Smith said he’d given it a lot of thought, and had talked with a few other commissioners about the issue. The approach of using stipends recognizes that there’s work involved on these appointments that doesn’t entail just going to meetings, he said. He supported that approach, but not the salary increase.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate – Proposed Amendment (Salary Unchanged)
Saying that he felt it was the wrong time for a salary increase, Dan Smith proposed an amendment that would keep base salaries at the current level of $15,500. He liked the idea of pegging the salary to a specific level tied to other county employees’ compensation – he felt that was appropriate. But that should be left to future boards to implement. Regarding the argument that salaries hadn’t increased with inflation (a rationale for the increase that had been noted by Conan Smith in his cover memo for the resolution), Dan Smith said that previous boards could have addressed it, but didn’t. When the current commissioners took office, they were aware of the compensation level. As for the rationale that commissioners will be shouldering more work because the board will be smaller due to redistricting, Smith noted that other county employees also are being asked to do more work for about the same amount they’ve previously been paid.
In two years, the economic situation might be different and the next board could reconsider an increase, Dan Smith said. He moved to amend the resolution to keep salary levels unchanged.
Outcome: There was no second to this amendment, so it did not move forward for a vote.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate – Proposed Amendment (Stipends at $200)
Dan Smith then argued that the proposed schedule of stipend payments – with different pay based on the number of meetings that each board, committee or commission was expected to meet – was simply “putting per diems in stipends’ clothing.”
Here’s the stipend schedule:
Rather than use this approach, Smith proposed making a flat $200 stipend per appointment.
Conan Smith said he’d been grappling with how to deal with the different workloads of certain appointments. The stipend schedule was an attempt to reflect those differing workloads. He suggested that they try this approach for one term, to see if it ameliorates the discrepancy between appointments with only one meeting per year, and those that require 24.
Outcome: The proposed amendment failed, with support only from Dan Smith.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate – Proposed Amendment (No Stipends for Quorum)
Dan Smith cited a section of the proposed general policies that referred to meetings that are attended by a quorum of the board:
a. The Board of Commissioners shall identify the boards, committees and commissions eligible for compensatory service in its Rules and Regulations.
i. The Board of Commissioners may include on the list of eligible bodies any committee, subcommittee meeting or Working Session of the Board, provided that its meetings have been noticed in accordance with the Open Meeting Act, Public Act 267 of 1976.
He moved to strike (i), noting that these meetings should be part of the board’s regular work that’s covered by salaries, and should not be eligible for extra compensation.
Outcome: The amendment passed, with dissent from Alicia Ping. This means that regular board meetings, ways & means committee meetings, and working sessions will not be included in calculations for board stipends.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate – Proposed Amendment (Extra for Chairs)
The original proposal called for the chair of the board to earn $3,000 more than the base salary, and for the chairs of the ways & means committee and working session to earn $1,000 more. [A friendly amendment offered by Dan Smith changed the description of those latter two positions to "chairs of permanent standing committees."]
Alicia Ping objected to having different levels of increased pay for the chairs, saying that all chairs should get equal increases. The chair of the board is just a ceremonial figurehead, she said, and not more important than other commissioners. Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he’s served as chair for all three groups, and reported that it’s far easier to be chair of the working session. If you’re a good board chair, he said, “you’re working all the time.”
Conan Smith reported that when he was previously chair of ways & means, he attended budget planning meetings every other week, as well as meetings to plan for those budget sessions. None of those were eligible for per diems, he said. Now, as board chair, there are many “ministerial” duties – such as signing contracts – that eat up time, he said.
Yousef Rabhi proposed an amendment giving all chairs a $3,000 increase.
His amendment was supported by Conan Smith, who said the board will “work our chairs to death next year.” Smith cited a range of issues that the board will be dealing with: planning and policy decisions for the 2014-2015 budget, implementation of the new animal control arrangement, and the possibility of incorporating the road commission into the county operations. He also noted that a smaller nine-member board will mean a greater workload for everyone.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. objected to the change, noted that they’d been talking about the need to save money, but are now increasing expenses.
Rabhi said his intent was to reflect the leadership roles of the different chairs. He believed they should work as a team, and that their pay should be equal because of that. [There was no proposal or discussion about equalizing the pay by decreasing the chair's extra compensation to $1,000.]
The initial vote on this amendment was taken as a voice vote, but the outcome was unclear. A roll call vote was taken instead.
Outcome: The amendment passed on a 7-3 vote, over dissent by Dan Smith, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Rob Turner. Ronnie Peterson was absent. This means that all officers of the board will be paid $3,000 above the base salary.
Commissioner Compensation: Board Debate – Vote on Main Resolution
There was little additional discussion on the main resolution.
Outcome: Changes to compensation, as amended, were given initial approval on an 8-2 vote, over dissent by Dan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Ronnie Peterson was absent. The final vote will come on Dec. 5.
Humane Society Contract
A Nov. 7 agenda item called for the county board to authorize contracting with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for $500,000 annually. It would enable the administration to contract with HSHV for up to four years, with the option of adjusting the contract.
According to a staff memo accompanying the resolution, county administrator Verna McDaniel has received preliminary commitments from five municipalities that have their own animal control ordinances, and that have agreed to help the offset the cost of the HSHV contract. Those entities are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township, and Superior Township. The memo states that those local governments have agreed to execute contracts with the county to provide funding for animal control services. The Nov. 7 resolution also authorized McDaniel to finalize contracts with each of these local entities. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Task Force: Negotiate with Humane Society.”]
Conan Smith, the board’s chair, introduced the resolution by praising Rob Turner for his leadership on this issue, helping “with what could have been really treacherous waters.” Turner served on both the board’s policy task force and a separate group led by sheriff Jerry Clayton that helped determine the cost of HSHV services.
Humane Society Contract: Board Debate
Leah Gunn led off the discussion by calling it a “gnarly” problem, adding that she’d reluctantly support this resolution. She said she was “vexed,” contending that HSHV had never presented the county with a cost-per-dog amount, and never told the county how many dogs the county is responsible for. The county is not responsible for animals brought to HSHV that have owners. “We should not be responsible for people’s pets,” she said. Gunn concluded by saying she’d support the resolution out of respect for commissioner Rob Turner and county administrator Verna McDaniel, who had worked hard on it. But she also hoped to get more specific information from HSHV in the future.
Turner replied, saying he apologized if the cost breakdown wasn’t adequately shared, but he said that HSHV had provided the information. It works out to about $38 per day for stray dogs, he said, with an average 10-day hold. Just for stray dogs, HSHV calculated its annual cost for county services at about $542,000. In addition, the cost for handling animal cruelty cases is about $350,000, Turner said. So the total cost of county services provided by HSHV is about $890,000. He said the resolution is intended to get the county as close as possible to covering HSHV’s actual costs.
Responding to a question from Barbara Bergman, Turner reported that the costs don’t include a calculation of HSHV’s in-kind volunteer services. If that amount were included, it would increase the cost to $50-$60 per day, he said.
Bergman said she’d support the resolution reluctantly, but “I’m not happy about it.” Basic needs like food and shelter come first for her, she said, so she’d be diverting her charitable contributions to organizations that provide food for those in need.
Humane Society Contract: Board Debate – Procurement Policy
Wes Prater argued that the county’s procurement policy requires the county to issue a request for proposals (RFP). That policy isn’t being followed, he said, so the board is doing business in a way that violates county policy. Is this the kind of organization they’re going to run in a lame-duck session? he asked.
Prater observed that the county has been “diddling around” with this issue for two years. When commissioners adopted the general fund budget in 2011, they allocated $250,000 for animal control services in 2012 and 2013. Yet here they are, back at the previous $500,000 annual level, he said. Prater maintained that they were violating county policy and they shouldn’t be handling the situation in this way.
Prater noted that the resolution being considered by the board didn’t include a scope of services for the HSHV contract, or even a list of state-mandated services that the county is required to provide, to indicate whether the county is in compliance. Commissioners took an oath of office to uphold the law, he said, “and we’re absolutely not doing it.”
Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger responded to Prater’s concerns. HSHV is the only qualified, licensed entity within Washtenaw County that can provide these services, he said. The procurement policy has a provision for awarding sole-source contracts, at the discretion of the administrator. The board could still require a competitive bid, he said, but it’s important to take into account the cost of going outside the county for those services.
Prater replied that the county has contracts frequently with out-of-county vendors. Hedger noted that in this case, using such an entity would mean that Washtenaw County residents would be required to travel farther in order to pick up their pets. Prater indicated that if people wanted their pets, they could go and get them – regardless of the location.
Humane Society Contract: Board Debate – Amendment (Contract Adjustments)
Dan Smith was concerned about the first resolved clause – specifically, the phrase “with the potential to adjust for inflation.”
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners authorizes the County Administrator to work with the Office of Corporation Counsel to finalize and execute a contract for up to four years with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for $500,000 per year, with the potential to adjust for inflation.
Smith noted that the state’s Proposition A puts a cap on increases of taxable value at no more than 5% per year. [The state ballot initiative, passed by voters in 1994, put in place a cap of 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.] If inflation increases at a higher rate than 5%, then HSHV would be paid a higher increase than the county was getting in property tax revenues. He suggested amending the clause to substitute the phrase “with the potential to adjust based on property tax revenue changes.”
There was some confusion about the meaning and intent of Smith’s suggested amendment. Alicia Ping wondered how it would work, and how it would relate to inflation changes as measured by the CPI (consumer price index).
County administrator Verna McDaniel suggested changing the language of the resolution to put a 3% cap in place for potential contract increases.
Conan Smith observed that inflation affects the HSHV’s cost of providing services, while Dan Smith’s amendment ties any contract changes to the county’s ability to pay – a wiser approach, Conan Smith said. It recognizes the opportunity for increases, but limits it to an amount that’s within the county’s ability to pay.
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, pointed out that the word “potential” in the original clause was intended to provide the county with flexibility in negotiations. There was no requirement to adjust the contract amount.
Ping at one point indicated she’d like to amend Dan Smith’s amendment to include a 3% cap on any potential increases, as McDaniel had suggested. Conan Smith said he’d oppose that move because it would put an additional constraint on potential increases – a limit lower than the state’s 5% cap. He liked pegging any change to the county’s revenues in a straightforward way.
Barbara Bergman expressed concern about the potential of handing HSHV several million dollars, describing it as a “windfall” that none of the commissioners would want to consider. Conan Smith said that although the board wouldn’t need to approve the contract that McDaniel negotiates, commissioners would still be able to see it. The resolution they were voting on that night sets a framework for negotiations, he said. It doesn’t guarantee that the contract amount will be higher or lower in the future.
Saying that the discussion had become ridiculous, Ping withdrew her proposed 3% cap amendment. The vote then centered on a slightly revised version of Dan Smith’s original amendment (new language in italics):
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners authorizes the County Administrator to work with the Office of Corporation Counsel to finalize and execute a contract for up to four years with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for $500,000 per year, with the potential to adjust for inflation on the basis of the rate of taxable value change.
Outcome: The amendment passed on a 6-4 vote, with dissent from Leah Gunn, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Humane Society Contract: Board Debate – Amendment (New Revenue)
Several commissioners expressed concern about the final resolved clause. It stated:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners declares that new animal control related revenue or increased contractual revenue from those local governmental entities, which maintain their own animal control ordinances which may be identified during the four-year contract period between the County and Humane Society of Huron Valley, shall be directed to the Humane Society for Huron Valley.
Yousef Rabhi felt that this opened the door too much, and that it was not proper to direct all new revenue to HSHV. If there is additional revenue, the board should decide how it’s allocated, he said. Rabhi noted that he had asked for this clause to be removed from the draft, and wondered why it had been left in.
County administrator Verna McDaniel said there was keen interest on the part of HSHV to defray more of their costs, which she said they estimate to be closer to $800,000 annually for services provided to the county. This clause about new revenue was seen as a way to make the new contract more appealing to the HSHV board, she said.
Rabhi proposed adding an additional sentence: “Any other animal control-related revenue will be used to provide animal control services as directed by the board of commissioners.”
Conan Smith said the board had discussed how the county would likely incur costs related to enforcement of the animal control ordinance, so it would be appropriate to offset those costs with additional revenue.
Wes Prater objected again to the way the process was being handled, saying it didn’t make any sense to him – the county was giving HSHV absolute control of the purse strings. “I just can’t believe this is happening!”
Outcome: The amendment passed on a 9-1 vote, with dissent from Wes Prater.
Humane Society Contract: Board Debate – Concluding Remarks
Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he wouldn’t support this resolution. He felt that the administrator should bring back the contract with HSHV for approval – saying items like this should be approved by the board. He also had a “real problem” with HSHV, saying they hadn’t offered to help or provide any suggestions to address new ways of handling animal control services. The county will be negotiating with its unions and asking for cuts, he said, yet commissioners are prepared to give HSHV whatever it wants “without any questions.”
Sizemore also objected to the county “picking up the slack” of other communities that had their own animal control ordinances.
Rob Turner responded, noting that at the meetings held over the past few months by the policy task force and the sheriff’s working group, HSHV members had brought up many suggestions and ideas. HSHV has been very pro-active, he said. Although many of the other communities with animal control ordinances already have their budgets in place for 2013, Turner said, if the county can work out a longer-term contract with HSHV, it’s possible that negotiations can occur with those communities and that they’ll provide more revenues in the future.
Sizemore noted that if those communities don’t pay the county, there’s no recourse. Turner believed the county could withhold providing animal control services for those communities, if they didn’t pay. That’s a big incentive, Turner said. Sizemore countered by saying that the county would have to take responsibility for some of those services anyway, because of its state mandate.
Dan Smith said he was deeply bothered by this whole process. He characterized it as returning to “square one” – that is, the $500,000 level that the county had paid in 2011. There have been meetings on top of meetings, he said, with apparently no progress and insufficient information provided. He described the $38-per-day amount as “obscenely high,” equating it to payments for a $225,000 mortgage. For two dogs at $76 a day, it could provide them a pretty nice hotel room, he joked.
The proposal doesn’t seem like a solution, Smith said. It seems like the board is just putting the problem away for four years. Animal control services are one of the few mandated services for which the county uses a third-party contractor, and it creates a whole host of questions about who interprets the mandate, he said. Saying that he wished they had made more progress, Smith said he’d be voting no on the resolution.
Alicia Ping disagreed with Smith. The intent was never to get services at a lower level, she said. Rather, the process was intended to arrive at a determination about the cost of providing those services. Whether Smith agreed with the amount was irrelevant, she said. “The cost is what the cost is.” Ping didn’t feel the process had been a waste of anyone’s time, and she felt that the board had all the information they needed.
Ping then called the question, a procedural move intended to end debate and force a vote. The vote on calling the question was unanimous.
Outcome: The main resolution as amended passed on a 7-3 vote. Voting against the resolution were Dan Smith, Wes Prater and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
Civil Infractions Ordinance
An agenda item later in the meeting – also related to animal control services – asked commissioners to give final approval to a civil infractions ordinance. The ordinance would give the county more flexibility to designate violations of other county ordinances as a civil infraction, rather than a criminal misdemeanor. [.pdf of proposed ordinance] The board had taken an initial vote on the resolution at its Oct. 17, 2012 meeting.
In the context of animal control, enforcement of the county’s dog licensing ordinance is low because the current penalty – a criminal misdemeanor of 90 days in jail or a $500 fine – is relatively harsh. The idea is that enforcement would improve if a lesser civil infraction could be used. The proposed fines would be $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or any subsequent offense. An increase in dog licenses would provide additional revenue to be used for animal control services.
Civil Infractions Ordinance – Public Hearing
Thomas Partridge was the only person to speak during a public hearing on the proposed ordinance. He objected to “unnamed civil infractions and unnamed enforcers” that he believed would target people who are unable to protect themselves or unable to keep up their homes like country clubs with manicured lawns. He advocated that the board vote down the entire ordinance.
Outcome: There was no discussion on this item and it was approved unanimously as part of the board’s consent agenda.
2013 Budget Reaffirmation
At their Nov. 7 meeting, commissioners were asked to give initial approval to a 2013 general fund budget of $102.84 million, with a net increase of one full-time position. [.pdf of proposed 2013 budget]
The county works on a two-year budget planning cycle. In late 2011, commissioners set the budget for 2012 and 2013. However, state law mandates that the board must approve the budget annually. So this year, the vote on a budget is an “reaffirmation” for 2013, including several proposed adjustments. The original 2013 budget proposed a year ago was for general fund revenues and expenses of $97.066 million – $5.774 million less than the current proposal.
Property taxes typically account for about 63% of revenues, and the general fund budget is based on an operating millage rate of 4.5493 mills. Because property values have not decreased as much as originally anticipated, the county expects about $2.4 million more in property tax revenues for 2013 than it had previously accounted for in the 2013 budget. The budget assumes that property tax revenues will be 2% lower than in 2012. The 2013 budget includes a planned use of $3.287 million from the fund balance. Of that, about $2 million is estimated to be carried over from a budget surplus in 2012.
The largest expenditures relate to personnel, which accounts for 66% of general fund expenses. The proposed 2013 budget shows a $4.7 million increase in that category, compared to the original 2013 budget that commissioners approved in 2011. According to a staff memo, those additional costs relate to increases in fringe benefits, medical costs, and a higher number retirees than expected. There were 118 retirements in 2011, which added to pension costs.
2013 Budget Affirmation: Board Discussion – Borrowing from Fund Balances
Commissioners asked several questions for clarification. Dan Smith also raised concerns over one of the new policies that accompanied the budget resolution. It allows the county to replenish the general fund balance by “borrowing” from other county fund balances:
37. Due to the change in the timing of the collection of property tax revenue, which is now seven months into operations of a fiscal year, there is the likelihood that the General Fund (1010) cash balance may be depleted to a negative balance prior to the collection of the July tax levy. In the event the General Fund (1010) does experience a negative cash balance funds held within the Capital Reserve Fund (4060), Capital Equipment Fund (4010), and the 1/8 Mill Capital Improvement Fund (4010) may be utilized to be borrowed from as these funds are supported by allocated general revenues. In the event these funds have insufficient cash balances to address the negative balance within the General Fund other funds within the pooled cash account may be borrowed from. All funds borrowed will be repaid immediately upon collection of the July property tax levy.
Kelly Belknap, the county’s finance director, explained that the policy makes transparent the process of providing a financial buffer, as the county awaits receipt of tax revenues that aren’t available until July. From May until July, the general fund cash balance gets “really lean,” she said. This policy allows the county to borrow from its other fund balances to replenish the general fund until those July tax revenues are available. Then, the money is returned to the other fund balances.
Dan Smith noted that by using these other fund balances, there was no need to pay interest when borrowing occurred. But he wondered why this policy was needed now, though it apparently hadn’t been needed in the past?
Belknap replied that the county’s reserve of state-shared revenues, which previously had been as high as $26 million, had helped provide the kind of buffer that was needed. But as those funds have been spent – the reserves will be depleted in 2013 – that buffer is gone.
Smith thought the situation provided an argument for building up the general fund balance. That way, there wouldn’t be the need for borrowing. He said the proposed policy set an extremely dangerous precedent, creating a habit that the county shouldn’t start. Smith noted that when the county received higher-than-expected property tax revenues in 2012, those revenues were spent, not saved. He also wasn’t happy about the $5.7 million increase in the 2013 general fund budget. The county is still in dire financial straits, he said. “We need to bank that money, not spend it.”
Alicia Ping wondered whether there were any regulations over this kind of internal borrowing. She was especially concerned about the timing, and didn’t want the county to start dipping into those borrowed funds any sooner than was absolutely necessary. Belknap said the board could set any parameters it wanted – it was all county money. The goal is to not borrow until as close to July as possible, she said. Belknap also noted that the county hasn’t needed to draw as much from the fund balance as it has budgeted for in 2012, and she hoped that trend would continue in 2013.
Both Belknap and county administrator Verna McDaniel acknowledged the need to build the fund balance. McDaniel said it was about $4-5 million away from being stable – a level that could secure a better bond rating for the county.
At the end of 2012, the general fund balance is expected to be $16.544 million. The 2013 budget calls for using $3.287 million from the fund balance, with a projected balance of $13.257 million at the end of 2013. A year ago, the county had anticipated needing to draw more than that from the fund balance in 2013 – $3.805 million.
2013 Budget Affirmation: Board Discussion – Long-Term Liabilities
Wes Prater was concerned about the county’s long-term liabilities, which he pegged at $430 million. In 2007, he noted, that amount had been about $379 million – it had grown nearly $50 million in five years. Kelly Belknap pointed out that the amount Prater referred to included not just retirement obligations but all long-term liabilities, including debt from bonds for public works and other capital projects.
Prater said the county needed to take these liabilities seriously, and that they couldn’t afford to accumulate those amounts at the same rate each year.
Outcome: Initial approval for the 2013 budget was given on a
9-1 7-3 vote, with dissent from Wes Prater, Dan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Ronnie Peterson was absent. A final vote and public hearing will occur at the board’s Dec. 5 meeting.
At the county board’s Oct. 17, 2012 meeting, commissioner Wes Prater had asked for an update about proposed state legislation regarding creation of a regional transit authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan – the city of Detroit and the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. Conan Smith has been an advocate for that effort, both as chair of the county board and in his role as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
About a year ago, at its Sept. 21, 2011 meeting, the board unanimously passed a resolution of support for the RTA. From then until the Oct. 17 meeting, little discussion of the RTA has taken place at commission meetings, and several commissioners seemed unaware of the county’s level of involvement in that effort.
At the county board’s Nov. 7 meeting, Dan Smith brought forward a resolution to rescind the board’s previous support. [.pdf of resolution to rescind support of the RTA]
The resolution also stated that the board opposes any other legislation that would involve Washtenaw County in an RTA:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners opposes legislation which would include Washtenaw County in a Regional Transportation Authority, which does not protect:
- The ability of county entities to manage designated transportation funding.
- The right of county entities to independently mange a transit system.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners supports the concept of a Regional Transportation Authority to enhance interconnectivity among the communities of the southeast Michigan region, but feels that Washtenaw County and the voters thereof should determine when to join the Authority.
Smith’s original draft – which was distributed to commissioners – had included references to specific pending state legislation. After a sidebar discussion with Conan Smith, Dan Smith revised the language to eliminate the citations to HB 5309 and SB 909.
Public Transportation: Board Debate
During deliberations, Conan Smith and Yousef Rabhi both thanked Dan Smith for “softening” the resolution, though both said they couldn’t support it, despite that change.
Rabhi said he was very supportive of the RTA legislation, and he knew that everyone in Lansing believed more amendments were needed. That process is underway, he said. Rabhi noted that when he and Barbara Bergman had been appointed to an advocacy group called R-PATH (Regional Partners Advocating Transit Here), they attended meetings at which a range of concerns had been aired. Yet the overwhelming sense was support for the general concept of the RTA, he said. Regional transit has been tried many times but has failed in the past because everyone wanted to hold on to their turf, he said.
Conan Smith spoke at length about the challenges and need for the RTA. It’s been a complicated process that they’ve been working on for more than a year, he said. The interests of Washtenaw County have been difficult to elevate because of the relative size in population and the weight that it carries. But as home to major universities, the county has an extraordinary role to play, he said. The vision of the future – of Detroit as a vibrant urban area – is compromised by the current reality. It’s a mighty mountain to climb, he said, and there’s a long way to go.
Conan Smith also summarized several issues and concerns that had been raised by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority in regards to a possible RTA, including the impact of federal pass-through funds to the AATA, the ability to set fares and schedules, and the issue of providing sufficient funding for local transit services.
Saying he felt he’d be compromising his past conversations with the governor and others if he didn’t support the RTA, Conan Smith said he’d reluctantly oppose Dan Smith’s resolution, though he agreed with its values.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he wasn’t happy that Conan Smith had gone to Lansing and the Mackinac Policy Conference without informing the board. Yet noting that he serves on the board of the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, Sizemore wondered if the county board would be shooting itself in the foot by not supporting an RTA. He wasn’t sure how he would vote, but he did want the board to be updated regularly about these efforts. County residents should be informed, too, he said.
Wes Prater supported the RTA, but said it should be the county board that’s involved, not just the chair. It bothers him when someone speaks on behalf of the board “when they really don’t have the authority to do so.” Other commissioners don’t know what kind of commitments Conan Smith made, he said. “I think you disrespect us – I really do.”
Prater said the situation is becoming like the contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which was discussed earlier in the meeting. It seems like the RTA would provide very little service in Washtenaw County, he said – just a stop in Ypsilanti and at Ann Arbor’s Blake Transit Center. He didn’t see that as being beneficial, and he wondered how much it would cost and how it would be paid for. “We should have learned from what happened with AATA,” Prater said, alluding to the effort to expand transit under an Act 196 authority.
[The following evening, at its Nov. 8, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted to opt out of the Act 196 authority. The action effectively ends that particular approach to expanded public transit, although the council's resolution did call for continued discussion of regional transportation options. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "End of Road for County Transit Effort?"]
Conan Smith apologized to Prater, saying he did not lack respect for his colleagues. At times, all commissioners are called on to speak on behalf of the county, he said. There was never any intent on his part to sneak anything past the board.
Rob Turner called the question, to end debate and force a vote on Dan Smith’s resolution. The vote to call the question passed over dissent by Conan Smith and Felicia Brabec.
Outcome: The resolution rescinding support of the RTA passed on a 6-4 vote, with dissent from Conan Smith, Yousef Rabhi, Felicia Brabec and Rolland Sizemore Jr. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
The board had originally scheduled an update on the RTA for its Nov. 8 working session – from Gary Owen with Governmental Consultant Services Inc., the Lansing-based firm that serves as the county’s lobbyist on state issues. However, following the board’s action on Nov. 7, that update was cancelled.
The board made a raft of appointments to various boards, committees and commissions at its Nov. 7 meeting. Although there was no discussion other than a reading of the appointees’ names during that meeting, commissioners had discussed the choices for about an hour during an appointments caucus held immediately prior to the evening’s regular meeting. [.pdf of appointments application grid]
Appointments – Public Commentary
Benjamin Muth addressed the board during public commentary, saying he was there to advocate for his application to the Huron River Watershed Council. He wanted commissioners to see him and understand his intent. He’s a graduate of the Vermont Law School, which he described as the nation’s top environmental law school. He said he was born and raised in Michigan, and wanted to return to practice law here – specifically, a focus on water law to protect the Great Lakes. According to the cover letter and resumé provided to the board, Muth was born in Ann Arbor and attended Pioneer High School.
He told commissioners that he understood that the decision about appointments might already have been made. If so, he hoped they would consider him for future appointments. In addition to HRWC, he listed several other areas of interest, including the natural areas technical advisory committee, the agricultural lands preservation advisory committee, and the brownfield redevelopment authority.
Muth concluded his remarks by stating, “If you give me the opportunity, I’d like to go to work for you.”
Commissioner Alicia Ping told Muth that the appointments had been determined, but that they were excited he had attended the meeting. She said she was sure that when there’s an opening, he’d be getting a call.
Appointments – Pre-Meeting Caucus
All but one of the 11 commissioners attended an hour-long appointments caucus that began at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 7, prior to the start of the 6:30 p.m. ways & means committee meeting. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
Commissioners were given a packet of materials that included cover letters and resumés for most applicants, as well as a grid that provided: (1) brief summaries of each board, committee or commission; (2) an indication of the number and types of appointments that were needed (some appointments require certain qualifications); and (3) a list of people who had applied.
Yousef Rabhi suggested that there are too many of these groups, and that a review is needed to see if some of them can be eliminated. If necessary, the responsibility for some groups could be shifted to others, he said.
Here are some highlights from that caucus discussion:
- Community Action Board: There were two open positions and two current members seeking reappointment: Mike DuRussell and Shoshana DeMaria. Conan Smith noted that in the past, the CAB had developed an “entitlement mentality” – that is, board members expected that in exchange for serving on the board, their groups would be awarded funding. That culture is changing, he said, but it’s been difficult. Other commissioners noted that the CAB members had also been accustomed to being paid for travel and meals at nice restaurants with their spouses. Leah Gunn described DuRussell, the current CAB chair, as not being “part of the problem” – she suggested that he be reappointed, and he was. However, DeMaria was not reappointed, and that position remains unfilled.
- Criminal Justice Community Collaborative: There were six vacancies but only three applicants, including two – Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran and Ann Arbor resident Mike Fried – who applied for reappointment. Barbara Bergman described CJCC as “basically pretty useless,” with nothing to do. Conan Smith reported that sheriff Jerry Clayton felt it should be dissolved. Smith noted that judges don’t attend the meetings: “It’s hard to collaborate with justice when justice isn’t there.” Wes Prater suggested looking at the resolution that created CJCC to see if its original purpose might be served by another group.
- Economic Development Corporation: There was one opening for a member of the general public. The current representative, Pam Horiszny, did not seek reappointment. She is CFO at the Ann Arbor YMCA, and a trustee of the Washtenaw Community College. There were five new applicants. However, Conan Smith said he’s interested in restructuring the EDC so that it could be a convening forum for members of other entities, like local downtown development authorities (DDAs), local development finance authorities (LDFAs) and other groups doing economic development work. The idea would be to help coordinate those activities countywide. In light of that, no appointments were recommended. [In March of 2012, The Chronicle covered on of the EDC's rare meetings: "County EDC: Money to Loan, But No Deals."]
- Historic District Commission: Conan Smith said he hoped to shift the HDC’s focus to be a driver of economic development. In the past, this group hasn’t leveraged its capacity in that regard, he said – by exploring tax credits for historic preservation, for example. Leah Gunn noted that the group tends to get bogged down in “minutia.” Smith wanted to appoint people who would see the value of their role in economic development. Though there were some concerns expressed about reappointing local attorney Jean King – as her health problems sometimes prevent participation. There were no other applicants to fill the required slot for an attorney, so she was reappointed. Other appointments were new to the HDC: Leslie Ledbetter, James Mann, Courtney Miller, and Tony Ramirez.
- Road Commission: Conan Smith suggested not making an appointment, but letting the current road commissioner whose term is expiring continue to serve. That road commissioner is Doug Fuller. [The two other road commissioners are Fred Veigel and Ken Schwartz, a former county commissioner.] Smith wanted to wait until the board of commissioners could have a conversation next year about possible consolidation of the road commission with overall county operations. Currently, the road commission operates independently, although its governing board of three road commissioners is appointed by the county board. [Past attempts by the board to make changes at the road commission – to expand the number of commissioners, for example – have been contentious.]
Appointments – Board Vote
Outcome: Appointments were approved unanimously, without discussion.
Two items were introduced during the meeting that related to finance policy.
The board was asked to authorize a policy on the use of lines of credit issued by vendors. According to a staff memo, using lines of credit reduces the need to issue employee credit cards, but there is not a current policy in place to ensure effective internal controls. [.pdf of resolution and policy]
During the Nov. 7 meeting, Kelly Belknap – the county’s finance director – told commissioners that the proposed policy simply formalizes what’s already in practice.
The board was also asked to approve an update to the county’s procurement policy. [.pdf of updated procurement policy, with changes highlighted] According to a staff memo, the changes do the following: (1) remove the procurement card process from the policy; (2) reflect the processes/internal controls regarding the use of a county credit card; and (3) direct departments to use environmentally appropriate products when appropriate. The memo notes that because banks offer the same limits and software for procurement cards and credit cards, there is no need for the county to use both types of cards.
Outcome: The two resolutions to the county’s finance policy were approved unanimously as part of the board’s consent agenda. Both initial and final approvals were given at the Nov. 7 meeting.
A one-year extension for a pilot program using a “coordinated funding” model to support local human services was on the Nov. 7 agenda for final consideration. An initial vote had been taken on Oct. 17, 2012.
The county is one of five partners in the coordinated funding approach. Other partners are the city of Ann Arbor, United Way of Washtenaw County, Washtenaw Urban County, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The Ann Arbor city council approved the one-year extension at its Oct. 15, 2012 meeting.
The process has three parts: planning/coordination, program operations, and capacity-building. The approach targets six priority areas, and identifies lead agencies for each area: (1) housing and homelessness – Washtenaw Housing Alliance; (2) aging – Blueprint for Aging; (3) school-aged youth – Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth; (4) children birth to six – Success by Six; (5) health – Washtenaw Health Plan; and (6) hunger relief – Food Gatherers.
The total process puts $4.935 million into local human services nonprofits. The extension of the coordinated funding approach for a third year means that nonprofits receiving funding currently would not need to reapply for support. The extension by one year would allow for the evaluation process for the pilot period to finish, likely by early 2013. It would also allow a better opportunity to provide the outcome data on the program so far.
Coordinated Funding – Public Commentary
As she has on several occasions at meetings of the county board and other local governing bodies, Lily Au spoke against the coordinated funding approach.
Outcome: Without discussion, the board gave final approval to a one-year extension for the coordinated funding program.
Communications & Commentary
During the evening there were multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. Here are some highlights.
Communications & Commentary: Haircut for Charity
At the start of the meeting, Yousef Rabhi signaled that something was different by letting his nearly-waist-length hair down – he typically wears it tied back.
Rabhi announced that he hadn’t cut his hair in a long time, and he thought he’d get a haircut and turn it into a fundraiser, too. He hopes to raise $500 for every inch he cuts, to raise money for three local nonprofits: Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Interfaith Hospitality Network, and SafeHouse Center. Supporting these shelters is especially important as winter approaches, he said.
Rabhi said he plans to give his hair to Locks of Love or a similar organization. The highest donors might also be able to vote on his new hairstyle. His goal is to make it a fun activity and engage the community while raising as much money as possible for these groups. He hopes to post a website for the effort by Thanksgiving, and run the fundraiser through year’s end.
Several commissioners pledged support. Conan Smith said he’d give $500 for the first inch, plus $50 for each quarter-inch of facial hair that Rabhi removed.
Dan Smith wondered if Rabhi intended to match the hairstyles of sheriff Jerry Clayton, corporate counsel Curtis Hedger or Greg Dill, infrastructure management director – all three men have shaved heads. Rabhi indicated he wasn’t sure he’d go that far. Wes Prater said he’d pledge $500 for the inch of hair that’s closest to Rabhi’s scalp.
Communications & Commentary: Warming Center
Four people addressed the board during public commentary about the need for a daytime warming center for the area’s homeless. Orian Zakai told commissioners that now, there are only two places for people to go during the day: (1) the Ann Arbor District Library, where you have to be careful not to fall asleep or you’ll get kicked out; and (2) a limited number of chairs at the Delonis Center, where you can stay during the day if you’re fortunate enough to be housed there, she said. Zakai described the Imagine Warming Centers effort, and said the group is now holding activities once a week at the Delonis Center. That’s successful, she said, but they need a permanent space.
Several supporters in the audience applauded after remarks by Zakai and two others who spoke in support of a warming center.
During the second opportunity for public commentary later in the meeting, Alexandra Hoffman said she hadn’t planned to speak. But there had been no commissioner response to the previous commentary about a warming center, she said, and instead their remarks had been followed by “disturbingly lighthearted talk about haircuts.” It’s important to talk about the successes in dealing with homelessness, she said, but it’s equally important to talk about failures. It’s atrocious that there’s no longer a daytime drop-in center at Delonis. The temperatures are already falling below freezing. The supporters of the Imagine Warming Centers are doing the best they can, but they need support, Hoffman said. She urged commissioners to please open the door, and not to be afraid of their own failings. Things can get better, she concluded, and commissioners can play a major role in that.
Yousef Rabhi – the commissioner who had introduced the “lighthearted talk about haircuts” – thanked those who had spoken and said it wasn’t his intent to make light of that situation. He had hoped to raise awareness and money for the issue that the speakers had addressed. Washtenaw County is great, but they can always do more, he said. Rabhi appreciated that the group was challenging the board on that. He noted that even though the county was under financial constraints because of the economy, they did not cut funding for nonprofits that provide human services. He said the county needs more citizen advocates, like those who had spoken to the board, to help understand the needs of the community.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. promised to try to find space that might be available in commercial buildings that aren’t currently occupied.
Communications & Commentary: Thomas Partridge
In addition to the remarks reported previously in this article, Thomas Partridge spoke during one of the two general public commentary slots of the evening. He advocated for the county’s most vulnerable residents, urging the board to take action on addressing homelessness, affordable housing, public transit and other issues.
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, Dec. 5, 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.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!