Group Explores Road Commission’s Future

Subcommittee formed by Washtenaw County board discusses range of options to secure more funding for roads – including possible countywide tax – and to improve coordination of transportation planning

At its second meeting since being formed in early October, a subcommittee that’s exploring the future of the Washtenaw County road commission met on Dec. 4 and discussed a variety of issues surrounding one central challenge: How to improve the condition of local roads.

John Stanowski, Conan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, York Township, Washtenaw County road commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

York Township supervisor John Stanowski, center, talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith, who represents District 9 in Ann Arbor. They are members of a subcommittee appointed by the county board to explore the future of the road commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The subcommittee was created by the county board of commissioners, which has the authority to appoint the three road commissioners but does not oversee the road commission’s budget or allocation of funds. State legislation enacted last year opened the possibility of absorbing the road commission into county operations, which would give county commissioners direct control over funding and operations now administered by the road commission.

According to the County Road Association of Michigan, five of the state’s 83 counties have merged their road commissions into the county government. Of those, the closest parallel to Washtenaw County in size and demographics is Ingham County, home to Lansing and East Lansing – where Michigan State University is located.

At the Dec. 4 meeting, there appeared to be universal agreement that more road funding is needed, but no clear consensus about the best way to achieve that goal. Conan Smith, a county commissioner representing District 9 in Ann Arbor, noted that there are more options to explore than just leaving the road commission unchanged, or absorbing it as a county department. He said he could almost guarantee that it wouldn’t be the best option to have the county board become the road commission.

However, he argued that there are likely structural and procedural changes that can improve the coordination of countywide transportation planning and land use planning, and to ease the burden on rural townships for funding the maintenance of roads that are used by people throughout the county.

A variety of funding mechanisms were discussed on Dec. 4, including the possibility of the county board levying a countywide road millage under Act 283 of 1909 – which at this point seems unlikely – or putting a millage question on the ballot for voters to decide.

The Dec. 4 meeting drew more than two dozen observers, including two of the three current road commissioners, several township elected officials, and many road commission employees. The subcommittee plans to schedule another meeting for early January 2014, and is expected to complete its recommendations by the end of March.

Subcommittee Background

At their Oct. 2, 2013 meeting, Washtenaw County commissioners created a new seven-member subcommittee to “explore partnerships and organizational interactions with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.” Members appointed at that time included four county commissioners: Alicia Ping of Saline (R-District 3), Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9), Dan Smith of Northfield Township (R-District 2) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. of Ypsilanti Township (D-District 5). Also appointed were three township supervisors: Mandy Grewal of Pittsfield Township, Ken Schwartz of Superior Township and Pat Kelly of Dexter Township. The Oct. 2 resolution stated that the subcommittee would be chaired by the county board’s vice chair. That position is currently held by Ping.

Also on Oct. 2, the county board had approved an amendment to that resolution – proposed by Conan Smith – to give the subcommittee a $10,000 budget for possible research or travel costs to bring in experts on the issue. The action came late in the evening, over objections from Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who said the budget wasn’t needed and didn’t look good being amended into the resolution so late.

The resolution was also amended to put a timeframe on the work, directing the subcommittee to report back to the board no later than March 31, 2014. The final vote on the overall resolution, as amended, passed over dissent from LaBarre and Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).

Grewal resigned from the subcommittee in mid-November, and on Nov. 20, 2013 the county board appointed York Township supervisor John Stanowski to the subcommittee.

Doug Fuller, who chairs the road commission, had been asked to join the subcommittee, but declined. He agreed to act as a liaison from the road commission to the subcommittee, however, and has attended both subcommittee meetings to date.

In the past, county commissioners have discussed the possibility of expanding the three-member road commission, in part because of how its small size causes potential for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. And some commissioners have floated the possibility of consolidating the road commission with overall county operations.

Currently, the road commission is a semi-autonomous entity that oversees the maintenance of about 1,650 miles of roads in the county that are outside of cities and villages, including about 770 miles of gravel roads. The organization employs 115 full-time staff, down from 156 in 2004.

The three road commissioners are appointed by the county board of commissioners, but decisions made by the road commission board do not require authorization by the elected county board of commissioners.

Current road commissioners are Doug Fuller, Barb Fuller – who was appointed on Oct. 16, 2013, to fill the remainder of a term following the resignation of Ken Schwartz – and Fred Veigel, who also is a member of the county’s parks & recreation commission. Barb Fuller and Doug Fuller are not related. The salary for road commissioners, which is set by the county board, is $10,500 annually.

Public Commentary

The Dec. 4 subcommittee meeting was attended by more than two dozen observers, including a few township officials and many employees of the road commission. The meeting began with public commentary.

An employee of the road commission asked whether there would be hard facts about the money that would be saved by making the road commission a county department. Alicia Ping responded, saying that’s the purpose of the subcommittee – to evaluate the pros and cons, and make a recommendation to the county board of commissioners. She felt there was good representation on the subcommittee, with four commissioners representing different parts of the county, plus three township supervisors. The subcommittee is gathering information and will be analyzing that information to make its recommendation, she said.

Another employee urged the subcommittee to look at the issue from both sides. From the county’s perspective, the pros and cons might be different than from the perspective of the townships, for example.

Ron Smith, Bridgewater Township supervisor, said he was there because Doug Fuller – chair of the road commission board – had sent him an email asking him to attend. [Fuller, as chair of the road commission, had emailed all township supervisors to inform them of the meeting.] Smith said he’s interested in this exploration process, as a relatively new supervisor. He gets a lot of comments from people about roads and the road commission, and the township has a problem getting support for road millages, he said.

Part of the problem is the interface between citizens and “the orange trucks,” he said. “They see [road commission workers] doing things they don’t understand and don’t think is correct.” Smith said Doug Fuller had been kind enough to drive around the township with him for a couple of hours, explaining some of the work that residents had asked about. “So I’d like to see this exploration,” Smith said. “I think good things can come out of it.”

Smith noted that when he had worked in private industry, “I was the guy that went into broken companies and turned them around, or didn’t” – because not each project was a success, he said. He came to this area to work for Guardian Industries, to help fix issues at the Carleton plant. Some of the issues are the same at the road commission, he added. “I watch the orange trucks drive by and I say, ‘What are they doing? Why are they doing that?’” For example, in Bridgewater Township, which is primarily rural, a worker with a shovel would be more effective than a grater in many cases, he said. So he’d like to explore the road commission’s management, and how it manages work in some of the county’s rural townships.

Subcommittee Discussion

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township’s supervisor, pointed out that the pros and cons of potentially absorbing the road commission into the county operations involve much more than money. Obviously, money is always a part of it, she said, but it’s not the only factor.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Washtenaw County commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Dan Smith, who represents District 2 on the county board, agreed that money is a consideration. “But it’s certainly for me not a motivating factor.” The road commission is already a very efficient organization, he said, and they run a very tight ship. At any large organization, there is always money that can be saved and efficiencies to be gained, he added. But he didn’t think there was a lot of money to be saved in this case.

Conan Smith, a county commissioner representing District 9 in Ann Arbor, said there are more than two options to explore. There are more options than just leaving the road commission unchanged, or absorbing it into the county operations. He said he could almost guarantee that it wouldn’t be the best option to have the county board become the road commission.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. – who represents District 5, which includes Ypsilanti Township – said his only problem with the road commission is “I think your PR is terrible.” But now that Roy Townsend is managing director, Sizemore added, “It’s changed 100%.” The road commission hasn’t done a very good job letting people know what they do, he said. Certain employees don’t answer their emails, Sizemore complained – perhaps because “they’ve got the Ann Arbor attitude, that they don’t have to,” he added.

Sizemore said he’s not willing to take over the road commission. He agreed with Dan Smith, that he didn’t think it would save a lot of money to do that. “I think we need to work closer together on some items,” he said, and the PR needs to be improved. He reported that he’s talked with other road commissions in Michigan. “They all tell me the same thing,” he said. “If it’s political, the county will take them over. If it’s economical, the county leaves them alone.” The road commission and county board both need to do a better job of PR, because now residents look at government as the enemy, Sizemore said. He thinks it’s getting better under Townsend’s leadership.

Sizemore added that he might be willing to increase the size of the road commission’s board from three members to five, but he hadn’t yet decided about that.

Subcommittee Discussion – Membership Change

Alicia Ping, who chairs the subcommittee, noted that Mandy Grewal, Pittsfield Township supervisor, had submitted a letter of resignation from the subcommittee. Grewal’s letter, dated Nov. 12, was included in the meeting packet of materials, and stated:

I am writing to recuse myself from the Committee established by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to review the operations of the Washtenaw County Road Commission.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve and hope to be able to volunteer my services for the continued improvement of our community another time in the future.

Based on minutes from the subcommittee’s first meeting on Oct. 29, Grewal did not attend.

By way of background, Pittsfield Township is currently embarking on a major project to upgrade South State Street. The township has created a corridor improvement authority (CIA) that will use tax increment financing (TIF) to help pay for it, as a local match to secure federal funds. On Nov. 6, 2013, the county board approved a tax-sharing agreement that outlines the county’s participation in that project. Township officials have indicated that one reason they pursued a CIA approach was that the road commission had decided not to provide funding for the project.

At the Dec. 4 subcommittee meeting, Ping also noted that the county board had made an appointment on Nov. 20, 2013 to replace Grewal with York Township supervisor John Stanowski. Ping offered the opportunity for Stanowski and other subcommittee members to introduce themselves.

Alicia Ping, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

County commissioner Alicia Ping, who chairs the county board’s exploratory subcommittee on the road commission.

Stanowski said that most of his career had been spent as a prosecutor. It’s his first term as supervisor of York Township, which is located in the southern part of the county, southeast of Saline. [He was elected in November 2012.] He described York Township as a conservative community. “I tend to be a curmudgeon when it comes to spending money. I have basically conservative views on most things, and I tend to be outspoken when I feel that something’s not right.”

Regarding the road commission, Stanowski said he had no preconceived notions, but he did have some ideas. “I’ve got a tabula rasa – a clean mind.”

Other subcommittee members introduced themselves. County commissioner Dan Smith – whose district covers a portion of northern Ann Arbor, as well as the townships of Ann Arbor, Northfield, Salem, Superior and Webster – noted that he previously served on the Northfield Township board of trustees, “so I’m familiar with the townships and their view on roads as well.”

Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly noted that the subcommittee has only met once before, and that first meeting had been a short one – so Stanowski hadn’t missed a lot, she said. The subcommittee doesn’t have a clear direction yet, she said. “That’s one of the first things we need to do.”

Referring to Ron Smith’s public commentary, Kelly said she didn’t view the subcommittee’s role as trying to figure out what the road commission’s orange trucks are doing or not doing. The subcommittee needs to identify the best process to get those answers. “I don’t think we’re here to run the road commission or even to figure out why people don’t answer their emails,” she quipped, referring to Rolland Sizemore Jr.’s complaint.

Ping said she felt the subcommittee had a good balance of perspectives, and she thought that members would bring history, expertise, and representation on the question of what’s best for the county residents. Nothing is preconceived, Ping said.

Ping, whose district covers most of southern and southwestern Washtenaw County, also noted that the county is not currently running the road commission. That’s still the job of managing director Roy Townsend, overseen by the three-member road commission board, she said. [Two of those three members – the chair, Doug Fuller, and the newest member, Barb Fuller, attended the Dec. 4 subcommittee meeting. The third road commissioner is Fred Veigel.] A previous road commissioner, Ken Schwartz, was recently was appointed as Superior Township supervisor and serves on the subcommittee.

Other elected officials at the meeting to observe included Ron Smith, Bridgewater Township supervisor; Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clark; and Webster Township supervisor John Kingsley.

Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran did not attend the Dec. 4 meeting, but had sent an email to Ping outlining the township’s position. From the email, dated Nov. 13:

Ann Arbor Charter Township has discussed the proposal that the Washtenaw County Road Commission be dissolved and its functions be folded into the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners in some fashion. No member of the Board of Trustees supports that proposal and the Board has asked me to convey that opinion to you and the County Board of Commissioners. Thank you for all of your work on behalf of Washtenaw County.

Subcommittee Discussion – Information Gathering

Alicia Ping reported that she has asked Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, to look at whether there are duplications in employee positions at the road commission and the county. That might be one area that could provide cost savings, Ping said. She asked subcommittee members whether there is other information that they’d like to collect.

John Stanowski asked whether it’s the opinion of the county board that there’s a problem with the road commission. Is the problem with the structure or administration? he asked. Or are cost savings the main concern? He wanted to know what the problem was, so that the subcommittee could work toward a solution.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township supervisor.

Ping replied that this process was undertaken as a result of state legislation that aims to eliminate duplication and encourage consolidation of government units. The legislation – Public Act 15 of 2012 – gave county boards the authority to absorb independent road commissions. Previously, that wasn’t allowed. The law sunsets at the end of 2014, however, so the subcommittee was created to evaluate whether that’s a good move for Washtenaw County.

Conan Smith framed the question not as what problem needs to be resolved, but rather what opportunities are possible, and how can the structure be improved. When he was county board chair, he said, there was discussion about expanding the number of road commissioners so that there was more representation there. It evolved into a discussion of whether that representation should be geographic, he recalled – guaranteeing that there are spots for rural or urban townships on the road commission, for example.

[By way of background, over three years ago – at its July 7, 2010 meeting – the county board held a public hearing on the issue of expanding the road commission board. Conan Smith was chair of the board's ways & means committee that year. Jeff Irwin, who was a county commissioner at the time, had indicated an intent to make a formal resolution on the issue, but the expansion effort did not move forward. About a year later, when Smith was board chair, the issue arose again, this time related to a possible countywide millage under Act 283. The county board did not ultimately act on that, either. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Commissioners Discuss County Road Tax,"  "County Postpones Action on Road Millage," and "County Road Proposal Gets More Scrutiny."]

At the Dec. 4 meeting, Conan Smith posed this question: If the road commission were designed for 2010 instead of 1910, “how would we do it differently today?” The state legislature has offered the opportunity to think about that, and maybe the answer is that it’s perfect the way it is, he said. “I for one would argue that there are things that we can be doing better.” Some of that is related to structure and processes, he said.

Stanowski said it’s his opinion that if some things aren’t broken, don’t try to fix them – “because you’ll only make it worse.” If the subcommittee can come up with economic efficiencies, he said, perhaps that can be achieved under that existing governance structure.

Ping agreed, noting that there are options other than the two extremes of leaving things unchanged or absorbing the road commission into the county. “It’s not black or white – there’s a whole gray spectrum.” She described the subcommittee’s work as a “three-month SWOT analysis.” [SWOT refers to a planning method used to evaluate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.] Based on that, the subcommittee will write its recommendation, she said.

Stanowski said he’s looking at the issue from the township’s point of view. York Township has about 36 miles of roads. His concern is whether big government should take over and relinquish townships to a minor position. “We may not have the population, but we have the roads,” he said. It wouldn’t be fair to have three road commissioners from the city and just two from the townships, he added. Stanowski said he wouldn’t be comfortable expanding the road commission membership unless the townships could have the majority of positions.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township supervisor, said the subcommittee also needs to explore whether they need the new state law in order to expand the membership of the road commission. Her personal view, she said, was that expansion could be done without the new state legislation. Conan Smith agreed that if the road commission board were expanded to five members, the county board wouldn’t need the new state law to do that. But if they wanted to expand membership to seven members, it would require that new legislation.

Dan Smith pointed out that the subcommittee had been charged at recommending one of three things. One possibility is to recommend no changes, he said. It might be that after the subcommittee analyzes the information it gathers, it decides that any changes would make things worse, on balance. Another possibility is to expand the number of road commissioners from three to five, under the law that’s existed for many years. The third option, which is only available through 2014, is for the county government to absorb the duties and responsibilities of the road commission, he noted.

If the subcommittee recommends absorbing the road commission, then the next question is: “What does a road department look like as part of county government?” Dan Smith said. In that context, there are many scenarios that could take place. But he said the feedback he’s getting from township officials and residents is that the road commission is generally working pretty well, and he’s not interested in fixing something if it’s not broken.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said his goal is to figure out how the road commission and the county can work together better. There are things that the county can do to improve, too. He again encouraged more PR and education about the road commission’s work.

Subcommittee Discussion – Funding Sources

Alicia Ping told subcommittee members that at some point, she wanted to talk about the road commission’s capital improvement plan (CIP), and what the commission would do if it had adequate funding. She noted that the county board is the only entity that could levy a countywide millage for roads, or put a countywide millage on the ballot. Or it might be the county board’s role to help townships understand how they could levy their own local road millage, she said. There are some communities that currently provide their own funding for roads, she added. Ypsilanti Township decided to use bonds for road repair. Scio Township is funding road improvements through a special assessment district. Pat Kelly said that Dexter Township is looking into that possibility as well.

Roy Townsend, Washtenaw County road commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Roy Townsend, managing director of the Washtenaw County road commission.

Ping wanted to see how the county could be a resource to help communities get additional road funding, or to help them generate funding for themselves.

At the end of the day, Dan Smith said, it’s about fixing the roads, and finding mechanisms to do that. For the vast majority of people in the county, what happens to the road commission’s organization and structure is “insider baseball,” he said. Everyone in the room and on the subcommittee cares about the organization and structure, he added, but most people would say they just want the roads fixed.

So that raises the question about financing, Dan Smith said. The county board has the authority to levy an Act 283 tax, he noted, and townships have the authority to seek a levy under Act 51 or a special assessment district. The townships could get upset and decide not to turn over their Act 51 money to the county, if the county absorbs the road commission, he said. The underlying issue for anything that the subcommittee recommends should address how it helps fix the roads, Smith concluded.

Kelly responded, saying that so far, she didn’t see any way that the county could help the townships regarding the roads. The road commission helps the townships get things done, she said, noting that she has many of the phone numbers for road commission employees on her speed dial.

Kelly reported that the township gets Act 51 funding that in turn the road commission uses on roads. But it’s not sufficient to cover everything, she said, so Dexter Township has made a decision to spend its Act 51 funding only on its main roads. And that’s why the township is considering a special assessment district to pay for other roads.

Conan Smith asked whether a township is the unit of government that should bear the responsibility for the maintenance of all roads in its jurisdiction. Should taxpayers in Dexter Township, for example, be the only ones to pay to maintain those roads? People across the county all should share in the burden of making sure the whole county’s transportation network is robust and well-maintained, he said.

But there’s a structural problem that exists between the road commission and the county board of commissioners, and how transportation decision-making is made, Conan Smith noted. The city of Ann Arbor, which he represents, gets Act 51 money and also has a street millage, so the city takes care of its own roads. “Where’s the argument for a citizen of Ann Arbor to vote for a countywide road millage?” he asked. Kelly replied: “There isn’t one.”

That’s right, C. Smith said. But if people start rethinking that structure, “we can start to deconstruct that mentality and find ways that we can collectively invest.” He noted that he’s in Dexter Township a lot – he drives on those roads, and wants them to be well-maintained. As another example, Smith said his Ann Arbor constituents who are recreational bicyclists and cycle out to the county’s rural areas complain about the chip seal that’s used on roads. “But they’re not motivated right now to put additional money into making that a better system, because they don’t see a way to influence it effectively,” he said. Those are the kinds of opportunities to explore, he added, that might deliver more money into the system overall.

Roy Townsend, the road commission’s managing director, reported that the commission had recently passed its final 2013 budget as well as the 2014 budget, which he said he could provide to subcommittee members for their next meeting. [.pdf of Dec. 3, 2013 road commission board packet, which includes 2013 budget analysis and 2014 draft budget.]

There’s also a list of projects planned for the next five years, Townsend said, as well as a list of projects that aren’t being done because funding isn’t available. That unfunded list is a lot larger, he added. [.xls file of 2014-2018 CIP with funded projects] [.pdf of unfunded projects 2014-2018]

Townsend and Doug Fuller had presented some of this information to the county board, as part of the road commission’s annual plan, at a Nov. 21, 2013 working session. Subcommittee members had also been provided with additional financial material, to help in their analysis. [.pdf of 2013 road and bridge projects] [.pdf of 2014 projects] [.pdf of 2013 2Q budget update] [.pdf of 2012 WCRC audit] [.pdf of WCRC property appraisal] [.pdf of township contributions to roads 2011-2013] [.pdf of 2012 retiree health care valuation report] [.pdf of 2012 actuarial valuation report Municipal Employees' Retirement System (MERS)]

Barb Fuller, Washtenaw County road commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Barb Fuller, one of three Washtenaw County road commissioners.

Townsend noted that two year ago, he and Ken Schwartz – who served as a road commissioner at the time – came to the county board with a plan for road projects that needed funding. The county board had the option, under Act 283 of 1909, of levying a millage without voter approval to pay for specific projects. Although the board didn’t act at the time, it’s another potential funding tool, he noted.

Dan Smith pointed to North Territorial Road as an example of a road that runs the entire length of the county, crossing many jurisdictions. Salem Township put considerable resources into North Territorial, he said, and Northfield Township had invested in it too. Webster Township has put some money into the road, although there are still some bad spots there, he said.

His point, Smith said, is that North Territorial Road is a major county thoroughfare. Is it really right that these individual townships are investing in that road, given that the townships have no responsibility to spend a single penny of township tax dollars on roads? But in fact, township officials do choose to spend money on roads like this because they hear from citizens about the bad roads, he said. There are other examples beyond North Territorial, he noted, like Jackson Road, Zeeb Road, Dexter-Ann Arbor Road and Dexter-Pinckney Road.

Scio Township has taken an approach of doing a special assessment district, Dan Smith noted, and strategies like that make sense. The question is whether to fund these major roads in a different way, so that the burden isn’t put on the local community to come up with funding. If so, how do the townships fit in with that? Would changing the structure of the road commission help with that, or simply make it even worse? “I haven’t yet seen anything that makes it better,” D. Smith added, “but I’m willing to explore the alternatives and make a decision on this, one way or another, and not just let the clock run out [on the state legislation].”

Conan Smith added that right now, there’s a disconnected land use and transportation system in the county. Over the last decade, he said, the road commission has done a good job at starting to integrate its planning processes with land use planning. But as an example of the disconnect, Smith pointed to Webster Township, which he said has done a good job at maintaining the township’s rural character. That means the land values there will be predominantly based on agricultural values, which are lower than land that can be developed, he explained.

In turn, C. Smith added, that means the township’s ability to raise money through taxes is more difficult than in the city of Ann Arbor, for example. And although it benefits the entire county that the township remains rural, the township is being asked to take care of the roads in its jurisdiction, without asking anyone else to contribute, Smith said. “That’s part of the system that’s broken, in my mind, that we have the opportunity to try and fix.”

Kelly disagreed that the system is broken. Two years ago, the county board was presented with a “perfect” proposal that was well-researched. [She was referring to the possibility of levying a countywide millage under Act 283.] Conan Smith noted that the proposal had been presented without the involvement of any city representatives, “so how can I support a proposal like that and go back to my constituents?” he asked.

Ken Schwartz, Superior Township, Washtenaw County road commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Superior Township supervisor Ken Schwartz, who previously served as a Washtenaw County road commissioner. He also is a former elected county commissioner.

Kelly told Smith that he would need to educate city residents about why it’s important. It’s like a drain project, she noted – only a few people might be affected, but it’s seen as a necessary project and is funded by a much broader tax base. “You’re never going to make that political case,” she said. “You’re going to have to sit up … and be counted, and say this is the right thing to do – and just do it! Why didn’t you pass that millage? I don’t understand it.”

Alicia Ping agreed with Kelly that the Act 283 proposal had been a good one. But the way that the current governance structure is set up, county commissioners were concerned that they’d be making constituents in their districts pay a tax but the county board had no control over how the money would be spent – it would be allocated by the road commission, Ping said. “There’s a disconnect between the people who collect the money and the people spend the money,” Ping said, adding that there’s no accountability between those two entities. “That’s where the problem is.”

By way of background, Act 283 of 1909 does appear to outline a process by which the county board could exert some control over how the tax dollars are spent. It directs the road commission to present an annual plan to the county board for road projects, with an estimate of how much it would cost to fund those projects. From Act 283 (Note: the county board of commissioners was previously called the county board of supervisors, and was composed of supervisors from each township):

If the determination of the board of county road commissioners shall not meet with the approval of a majority of the board of supervisors, then the said board of supervisors shall proceed to decide upon the amount of tax to be raised for such year in such county for the purposes aforesaid, and may allow or reject in whole or in part any or all of the items for the sections of roads thus submitted for its consideration; and it shall not be lawful for such county road commissioners without the consent of such board of supervisors to spend any such moneys upon any other roads than as thus specified. [.pdf of Act 283 excerpt, with an analysis prepared for the county board in 2011 by Lew Kidder of Scio Township]

Ken Schwartz – the new Superior Township supervisor who previously served as a county road commissioner – also spoke about the fact that the road commission had approached the county board in 2011 about a proposal under Act 283. He noted that Act 283 was written in 1909, and described the law as “really flawed.”

Funding should really come from the state, Schwartz said. There really are only two viable funding options for roads, he added – the state, and the local units of government. He thought the road commission had done a good job of advising the local units of government about their options.

Schwartz thought it would be very difficult for the county to figure out a different mechanism that really works. Just like Conan Smith wouldn’t feel comfortable voting for a millage that would be spent outside Ann Arbor, Schwartz said, a lot of township officials might not feel comfortable about the county board allocating Act 51 money that’s now administered by the road commission. The issue relates to taxation without representation, he said.

Schwartz felt that the local units of government will need to step up until state officials provide more funding.

John Stanowski asked Schwartz whether he thought that the populace “just didn’t trust government.” Schwartz replied that he didn’t encounter that attitude at all. “It just seemed like Act 283 was unworkable in modern times,” Schwartz added. In order to make levying a millage fair, it would require that the taxes collected in Ann Arbor and other cities would have to be handed back to the city government. “I don’t think we could dictate how [the city] would spend that money,” he said.

Dan Smith said he agreed with some of Schwartz’s comments – Act 283 is awkward and difficult to administer. One option would be to put a millage on the ballot that would clearly indicate how funds would be distributed. In Ann Arbor, for example, if voters approved a countywide road millage, perhaps the city council would agree to reduce the city’s charter tax levy by the same amount as that road millage – so that overall, there would be no tax increase on Ann Arbor taxpayers, he ventured.

D. Smith agreed that there’s a big disconnect in the current system, because the road commission is a separate legal entity from the county government. After road commissioners are appointed by the county board, “it’s their game,” he noted. “They’re the ones that run things, and yet we’re the ones who take the [political] hit for the tax. And that’s a struggle.” D. Smith then returned to his point that residents don’t really care about this kind of insider baseball – they just want the roads fixed.

Next Steps

As she wrapped up the Dec. 4 meeting, Alicia Ping reminded subcommittee members that Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, will be preparing an analysis of any duplications in employee positions at the road commission and the county. Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director, will be doing a similar analysis on overlapping facilities and assets. Roy Townsend, the road commission’s managing director, will be providing budget information and a list of funded and unfunded projects.

Ping asked subcommittee members to think about any other information that they’d like to collect, and to do their own SWOT analysis from the perspective of their jurisdictions. At the next meeting, they could review this material and see where there might be tangible or non-tangible benefits to taking any particular action.

Subcommittee members discussed the possibility of inviting representatives from other counties that had merged their road commissions with the county government, as well as from counties that had considered but rejected that approach. The consensus appeared to be that it would be a benefit to find a county with a similar demographic – like Ingham County, where Lansing and East Lansing are located. Ingham County did decide to absorb the road commission. Pat Kelly, Dexter Township supervisor, joked it would be good to look at a similar county that has a “900-pound gorilla in the middle” – a reference to Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan, and East Lansing, home to Michigan State University.

Ken Swartz, Superior Township supervisor, cautioned that it’s important to understand the context for decisions made in other counties. In some cases, decisions are “overtly political, because people didn’t like each other.” And Macomb County, which is significantly bigger than Washtenaw County, went through a process to become a charter county, and absorbed the road commission through that charter process, he said. “I’m leery of comparing others that did it for purposes that weren’t strictly speaking what we’re trying to look at,” Schwartz said.

Ping estimated that their next meeting would be scheduled sometime in early January.

Despite some strong political pressure from supporters of the road commission to abandon this process, Ping told The Chronicle in a follow-up phone conversation that she intends to continue the subcommittee’s work and deliver a set of recommendations by March.

County board chair Yousef Rabhi, who attended a meeting of township supervisors held on Dec. 5, told The Chronicle in a follow-up phone conversation that he discussed the subcommittee’s mission and process at that meeting. A majority of supervisors who attended the Dec. 5 meeting were against absorbing the road commission into the county government, he reported, but he estimated that only about half of the township supervisors were there. Rabhi indicated that he expects the subcommittee to continue its work and provide recommendations to the county board by the end of March.

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  1. December 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm | permalink

    Thank you for your coverage of this subcommittee meeting. The topic is of intense interest to many people, and is a difficult one to resolve.

    The problem is not really organization. It is funding. The committee has a lot on their plate. One factor I didn’t see discussed at length is that many different municipalities have addressed the funding shortfall in different ways (using local funds). One such is Pittsfield Township’s recent CIA for State Road.

    The lack of adequate transportation funding is traceable to the lack of efficacy of the gas tax, which is historically the major source. I have done an overview of Michigan funding [link] but this is also a national problem.

    I was curious about Supervisor Grewal’s language in which she “recused” herself from the subcommittee. She is not a person who uses language casually. Does this indicate that she sees a conflict of interest in serving? Yet many other township supervisors appear to be involved.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm | permalink

    I’m glad Conan Smith wants to take my Ann Arbor tax dollars and fix roads in Dexter. I suggest he forget this nonsense of anyone in our City voting to do that by voting for a tax increase. Again, he pushes his own agenda for his own future political careet and isn’t representing the voters in his district. Surprise.