Meeting Watch: County Board (1 Oct 2008)

New tax for veteran services, transfer of Library for the Blind

With barely a vacant seat in the audience at their Wednesday evening meeting, Washtenaw County Commissioners debated how to fund veterans services, while most of the public comment focused on concerns over the transfer of the county’s Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled to the Ann Arbor District Library.

Funding for Veteran Services

On the table was a proposal to levy a small tax, using a decades-old law that would allow this move without voter approval. Money raised from the tax could only be used to provide services to indigent veterans. The county currently pays for those services out of its general fund, but is seeking ways to close a projected budget deficit.

The original proposal called for 1/50th of a mill, or about $2 for a home valued at $100,000. It would raise about $315,000. Karen Lovejoy Roe got the discussion started by noting that funding for vets wouldn’t increase – it would just shift, being paid for by the new tax rather than the general fund. She supported an increase in funding.

But it was Ronnie Peterson who drew a line in the sand: “I’ll only support this if every penny goes to veteran services.” Peterson was upset that more than $100,000 would be spent on administrative costs. He proposed an amendment mandating that the tax would only pay for direct services, such as covering utility bills, rent or other expenses that a struggling veteran might face.

But Leah Gunn argued that administrative costs – salary and benefits for the five staffers in the Veteran Services department – were directly related to providing those services. She noted that it’s the staff who meet with veterans, identify their needs and help them address those problems.

When it became clear that Peterson was unmoved, Gunn proposed an amendment to the amendment, to increase the tax from 1/50th mill to 1/40th mill. That would hike the amount raised annually to about $393,000 – the amount above the original 1/50th mill would be used for administrative costs, leaving the other dollars available for direct services. For a home valued at $100,000, the tax would be about $2.50.

“She wrote me enough notes, I should be persuaded by now, Commissioner Gunn,” Peterson quipped.

No one spoke at the public hearing on this tax, and the vote to approve it was unanimous. It will likely appear on your December tax bill and be reevaluated – and possibly adjusted – by the board annually.

Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled

Several people spoke passionately on this issue during multiple public comment sessions at Thursday’s meeting. Additional supporters of the Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled attended the meeting but didn’t speak publicly. Those who did speak all supported retaining the existing county-run library and its five-person staff, rather than transferring services to the Ann Arbor District Library.

Clare Nathan, whose father uses the library, spoke several times. She said the library functioned as a kind of community center for its patrons, who relied on its specially-trained staff as much as than the services offered – or more so. Closing the library and moving it (the staff are not being hired by the AADL) would be a “gross disservice” to those residents, she said.

Marie Lane, who uses the library, also spoke of a sense of community there. “It’s sort of a family unit we’ve become,” she said, where people have even met and married. “It seems the people down at the (Ann Arbor) library think we can be ‘mainstreamed’ … This is not going to work.”

After hearing the first round of public comment, several commissioners expressed their thanks to the speakers, trying to assure them that the transition would be smooth. Leah Gunn noted that she has been a professional librarian and served on the Library for the Blind board for 23 years. She said she has great confidence in AADL director Josie Parker and the staff’s ability to serve patrons with “professionalism and caring.” (At which point an audience member, clearly unswayed, loudly whispered, “Boy, does she (Parker) have them snowed.”)

When it came time to vote, Karen Lovejoy Roe made an unsuccessful attempt to table the proposal until November. The transfer was approved, with only Lovejoy Roe and Peterson voting against it.

2009 Budget Adjustment

The board unanimously approved a revised budget for 2009, but not without some discussion. At their Sept. 17 meeting, county administrator Bob Guenzel had talked in detail about his recommendations to balance the budget. Rolland Sizemore feels too many positions are being cut at the lower levels of the organization, while upper-level managers are being spared. “I’ll support this budget, but this is the last time,” he said.

Guenzel said that serious discussions for the 2010-11 budget will begin early next year, starting with a strategic focus on priorities for the county.

Tom Partridge, Scio Township resident, was the only speaker at the public hearing for these budget recommendations, which he opposed.

Items Approved with No Discussion

  • Approval to hire Patrick Barrie as Washtenaw Community Health Organization Deputy Administrator for an annual salary of $120,000. Only Sizemore voted against this item.
  • Approval of an improvement project for Joslin Lake in Lyndon Township, aimed at controlling invasive and nuisance aquatic species. The five-year project is estimated to cost $302,980, paid for by establishing a special assessment district.
  • Creating a Washtenaw County Department of Veterans’ Affairs and a Washtenaw County Veterans’ Affairs Committee, comprised of five veterans appointed by the commission.

Police Services Steering Committee

Jessica Ping queried Jeff Irwin about a special meeting of the Police Services Steering Committee that she’d heard was in the works to discuss pricing for sheriff deputy contracts. These are the controversial contracts that resulted in township lawsuits against the county when they raised the amount that townships must pay to hire deputy patrols. Some townships are planning to put a millage on an upcoming ballot to cover this expense – some already have. Ypsilanti Township would like to have voters weigh a millage proposal in February. They need to lock in 2010 rates before they can determine how much tax revenue they’ll need to cover those costs. An additional complicating factor is that there will be a new sheriff soon – incumbent Dan Minzey was defeated in the August primary. Irwin agreed that the group needs to start hammering out a new contract as soon as possible.

Revised Regulations for Wastewater Treatment

A public hearing on new regulations for dealing with septic systems and other wastewater treatment drew several people who spoke out against the changes, which will likely be voted on in November. Kathy Jackson, Augusta Township supervisor, was adamant that these regulations, and even some of the existing ones, would cause undue financial hardship for residents who might have to pay thousands of dollars to comply. Carol Kovalak of Kovalak Excavating & Septic Cleaning in Willis said she knows of people who might lose their homes if forced to comply with these revised regs. “Please consider not approving this at this point,” she said. “It needs work.”

Using Local Contractors

In response to an issue raised during public comment, both Jessica Ping and Karen Lovejoy Roe reaffirmed the county’s commitment to local businesses and asked the administration to review its bidding policies. They wanted to explore giving some kind of a priority to bids by local companies. Curt Hedger, the county’s corporate counsel, said he would report back at the Oct. 15 meeting.

Honoring Denise Dalrymple

Denise Dalrymple, director of the county Children’s Services Department, is leaving to become CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, a group being formed from four separate councils, including part of the Ann Arbor-based Girl Scouts of the Huron Valley Council. The commission presented her with a resolution of appreciation. Rolland Sizemore said he was especially sad to see her go: “You can handle me better than most people.”

Miscellaneous Commentary

At one point during the meeting, Mark Ouimet, one of two Republicans on the commission, was trying to request a speaking turn and became a bit frustrated that he couldn’t get the attention of Conan Smith, who was chairing the meeting. Finally, Smith noticed Ouimet’s request and apologized that he hadn’t seen it earlier.

“I do appreciate you looking to the right side of the room rather than leaning to the left,” Ouimet quipped.

Smith shot back: “I’ve been this way since birth.”

Present: Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith

Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Mandy Grewal

Next meeting: Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.


  1. By Conan Smith
    October 3, 2008 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    Just a note on the quip . . . Mark and I pride ourselves on bringing a good bit of levity to our board meetings. I had been rather distracted by the left side of the room, so Mark’s jibe was pretty well placed. My only viable excuse was to blame it on my parentage!

  2. By Mary Morgan
    October 3, 2008 at 8:50 pm | permalink

    Conan, our national political leaders could take some tips from the way you two work together. More humor, please!

  3. By Leah Gunn
    October 4, 2008 at 7:08 am | permalink

    Interesting remark about “Boy, does she have them snowed”. The audience member obviously does not have a clue. Josie Parker is a thoroughly professional library director, and her proposal saves a vital service. If the AADL had not made this offer, the service by mail would have reverted to the State of Michigan, and the programs (book club, art classes, etc.) would have been abolished. And, all of this is being paid for by the property taxes of the residents of the AADL District, the bulk of whom live in the City of Ann Arbor, as well as Ann Arbor, Pittsfield & Scio Townships (it is the same as the AA School District). Many thanks to them as well as to the AADL Board for their generosity.

    My last note to Ronnie Peterson concerning the Veterans’ millage was a thank you. And yes, humor does help! Conan and Mark provide a good deal of it.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    October 4, 2008 at 9:06 am | permalink

    Leah, thanks for your comments. It’s clear that the county’s Library for the Blind is a special place – no wonder people feel so passionately about it – and that’s a real credit to the people who work there. I think everyone hopes that the AADL will be able to create a similar space/environment somehow. But it’s also clear (based on several comments I heard in the audience) that there’s a great deal of frustration and skepticism about what will happen next. That will be a challenge to overcome.

    So you and Ronnie weren’t playing tic-tac-toe?

  5. By Jeff Irwin
    October 5, 2008 at 10:29 am | permalink

    Wow, it looks like the Chronicle has certainly attracted readership from us County Commissioners.

    Two small details concerning the Veterans’ Services discussion and resolution. The final resolution of this matter did not differentiate between “direct services” and “administrative costs.” The additional taxing authority may be seen as meant to cover the staff costs (administrative) of the program and ensure that enough funds are available for serving indigent veterans and their families. However, the additional revenue (up from $315,000 to $395,000 in round numbers) will not cover all of the roughly $130,000 in staff costs that are estimated to be directed toward serving eligible vets. In other words, Commissioner Peterson effectively ended any further debate on the issue when he agreed that the efforts of our staff are “direct services.”

    Also, under both proposals (1/40th of a mill and 1/50th of a mill) there would be additional dollars for providing services to veterans and their families in our community. Prior to our action on Wednesday, the citizens of Washtenaw County provided 700K in General Fund revenue (2009 budget) to the Veteran Services Department. Should the Board of Commissioners approve the Administrator’s recommendations concerning the 2009 budget, $241,000 will be pulled back to the General Fund. These funds will be replaced by the new revenue from the Indigent Veterans Relief millage. In other words, the County will be shifting $241,000 of the taxpayers’ money out of Veterans Services and back towards other county services. That appropriation will be replaced by $395,000 from the new millage revenue. In other words, it is a partial shift and a partial increase of resources directed towards services for indigent Veterans and their families.

    Thanks to the Chronicle for covering Washtenaw County Government.