Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (June 5, 2013): In a move that appeared to surprise many commissioners and staff, Washtenaw County commissioner Alicia Ping formally proposed giving notice to eliminate a lump-sum budgeting approach for the county’s court system.
After a lengthy and often heated debate, the board voted 5-4 to give initial approval to the notice, but postponed final action until July 10. Voting in favor of initial approval were Ping, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Andy LaBarre and Kent Martinez-Kratz. Voting against the proposal were Yousef Rabhi, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Felicia Brabec.
Ping noted that her goal isn’t necessarily to cut funding for the courts, but rather to be more transparent about where the money goes. The board could ultimately decide to leave the lump-sum approach in place. Giving a notice to terminate the agreement simply gives the board the option to end it.
Conan Smith, who has wrangled with court officials in the past on this issue, argued that the legislative branch is responsible for budgeting, and the board has abrogated that responsibility by agreeing to lump-sum funding. The board gives up far too much authority over line-item expenditures in exchange for “peace in the valley,” he said. “I want to see something different.” With a line-item approach, the county board could indicate priorities for the courts by allocating more funds to specific areas. Dan Smith also argued in favor of the action, noting that the courts are funded with essentially no oversight.
No court officials attended the June 5 meeting. The proposal had not been on the published agenda.
Ronnie Peterson argued most strongly against Ping’s proposal, fearing it would damage the board’s relationship with the courts. Peterson also felt the board itself hadn’t been very accountable regarding a $345 million bond proposal it’s considering. “So as we blast others, let’s prepare to take a few pellets ourselves,” he said. Rolland Sizemore Jr. warned that the board might be starting a fire that they couldn’t put out. He noted that if court officials decide to sue, the county would be required to pay the attorney fees.
Commissioners initially were set to take a final vote at the board meeting that same night – held immediately after the ways & means committee meeting. However, after a break between the two meetings, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger reported that the memorandum of understanding with the courts actually requires a 12-month notice, not the six months that had been discussed. This turned the opinion of some commissioners, who wanted to take more time to study the issue. Andy LaBarre, who chairs the board’s working session, offered to schedule the topic for a working session as soon as possible.
The motion to postpone final action passed on a 6-3 vote, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Dan Smith and Kent Martinez-Kratz. So the proposal will appear on the board’s July 10 agenda.
That July 10 meeting will also include action related to the county’s major bonding initiative to cover unfunded pension and retiree healthcare obligations, including a public hearing. The first public hearing for the potential $345 million bond proposal was held on June 5. It drew four people who all expressed caution about the possible action, with some suggesting a millage or additional budget cuts to cover the retiree obligations instead of bonding.
On June 5, commissioners also set other public hearings for July 10: (1) for two brownfield redevelopment projects in Ann Arbor – at Packard Square (the former Georgetown Mall), and 544 Detroit St.; and (2) for the annexation of industrial property from Scio Township into the village of Dexter. And the July 10 meeting will include final consideration of a strategic space plan for Washtenaw County government facilities totaling about $5 million. The proposals, which got initial approval on June 5, include creating a plan to redevelop the Platt Road site where the old juvenile center was located. The redevelopment might entail a mix of uses, including affordable housing.
A range of other items addressed on June 5 included: (1) creating an historic district for the Jarvis Stone School in Salem Township; (2) an update on the county’s Head Start program, which will be falling under control of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District; and (3) resolutions of opposition – one against gun violence and one against the long-range transportation plan of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). The SEMCOG plan calls for expansion of I-94 in Detroit and I-75 in Oakland County. Some commissioners think that funding should be used to repair existing roads and bridges instead.
Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 4, 2012): Much of the county board’s recent meeting was devoted to an item not on their agenda – concerns about proposed oil and gas drilling in the Saline area using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Several residents spoke on the topic during public commentary, citing concerns over health, well contamination, property devaluation, and damaged roads caused by company tanker trucks, among other effects. They noted that state regulators aren’t providing adequate oversight or protection, and urged the board to take action.
Speakers included Mitch Rohde, CEO of Saline-based Quantum Signal and founder of “NoPaxton.com,” which has mobilized against drilling in this area by Paxton Resources, a company based in Gaylord, Mich. The company recently notified the county that it has filed an application with the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality for permission to drill an exploratory oil and natural gas well in Saline Township. [.pdf of notification letter]
Several commissioners thanked the speakers for coming and expressed their own intent to look into the issue, though it’s not clear what action can be taken at the county level. An April 19 working session will focus on the topic. That meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.
In other items at the April 4 meeting, commissioners honored county dispatchers and got an update on cleanup from the March 15 tornado that touched down in the Dexter area. Marc Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management and homeland security, gave an estimate of $5 million in damages to private homes and property, and another $2 million in response costs – expenses incurred from the road commission, county workers, the sheriff’s office and others. The county intends to apply to the state for help in covering some of these costs.
Funding controlled by the state was key to another item on the April 4 agenda: A resolution urging state legislators not to eliminate the personal property tax, unless 100% replacement revenues are guaranteed. More than $40 million in PPT revenues are received by local units of government within Washtenaw County. Leah Gunn, who wrote the resolution, expressed skepticism that legislators would pay attention to the county’s concerns, but said it would at least send the message: ”Don’t mess with us.”
Two action items were related to the county’s criminal justice system. The board approved the appointment of Elisha V. Fink as magistrate of the 14A District Court. She’s filling a vacant part-time position previously held by Camille Horne, who left the job at the end of 2011. Commissioners also gave initial approval to hire Nimish Ganatra as an assistant prosecuting attorney at a salary of $81,690. The vacancy opened in December, following an employee retirement. The hire requires board approval because the salary is above the $69,038 midpoint of an authorized range. While several commissioners praised the hire and the office of county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie, Wes Prater cast a dissenting vote. Citing ongoing budget challenges, he objected to hiring someone at an above-midpoint level.
Several other items were handled during the meeting, including: (1) final approval for the county to become a charter member of the Washtenaw Health Initiative, at an annual cost of $10,000; (2) initial approval to accept federal grants for the county’s weatherization program for low-income residents; and (3) acceptance of federal grants for local workforce development programs.
During public commentary, Douglas Smith talked about a lawsuit he’s filed against the county over a denial of his Freedom of Information Act request. The FOIA related to a surveillance video of an incident in Ypsilanti Township involving the theft of $20 from a court employee’s car – Smith alleges the money was taken by a high-level staffer with the sheriff’s office. Smith has spoken about this issue at previous board meetings, asking the board to intervene.
Elisha V. Fink was unanimously appointed as magistrate of the 14A District Court by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners at its April 4, 2012 meeting. Fink is filling a vacant part-time position previously held by Camille Horne, who left the job at the end of 2011.
The 14A District Court serves all of Washtenaw County, with the exception of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township. (Ann Arbor is served by the 15th District Court. Ypsilanti Township cases are heard in the 14B District Court.)
Fink has served as managing attorney with Fink Law in Dexter. Her practice has focused on family law, but she also has experience in the areas of business law, criminal law, real estate law, and civil …
An additional $1.35 million is needed to finish up the Washtenaw County jail expansion and new 14A-1 District Court facility – beyond its original budget of $34.6 million and $1.75 million contingency. The news was delivered by county administrator Verna McDaniel at a May 20 working session of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.
Unexpected costs, construction delays and lower-than-expected interest earnings contributed to the shortfall, she said. An official request for additional funding will be made at the board’s June 2 meeting.
McDaniel divided the request into two categories: 1) $495,958 for additional costs related to the original project proposal, and 2) $861,000 in costs that are considered to be outside the scope of the originally approved project.
These expenses are in addition to the staffing request made earlier this year by sheriff Jerry Clayton, and approved by the board. The expanded jail eventually will require 39 more full-time workers, bringing the total corrections division staff to 103 employees. The additional staff will increase the corrections budget by $1.478 million this year and $3.248 million in 2011, and create a projected budget shortfall in 2012 and 2013.
Commissioners were informed that additional items not covered in these requests will be addressed during the planning process for the 2012 and 2013 budget cycle. No dollar amounts were provided for those anticipated expenses.