The Nov. 19 meeting for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners covered a lot of ground, including a proposed tax hike for local hotel/motel rooms, the appointment of a road commissioner, three public hearings on brownfield plans for local developments and a proposed one-year extension for the controversial police services contract. It was also the final meeting for two commissioners who were recently elected to offices in Ypsilanti and Pittsfield townships.
The meeting started, as it often does, with public comment by Tom Partridge, a Scio Township resident. He said the commission should pass a resolution urging the state legislature, governor and congressional representatives to do everything in their power to protect jobs in the auto industry. He also called for universal health care, lifelong education, housing for all and expanded public transportation.
Kristin Judge, who was elected to commission on Nov. 4 in District 7 and will replace Mandy Grewal, thanked Grewal for her service on the board and said Pittsfield Township is “very proud to have her as our new supervisor.” Grewal was elected to that position in the November election. Judge will be sworn in later this year.
Board chair Jeff Irwin presented several resolutions of appreciation, including those recognizing commissioners Grewal and Karen Lovejoy Roe, who said she would be resigning her position as commissioner at noon on Thursday. She was recently elected clerk in Ypsilanti Township, and will be replaced on the county board by former commissioner Wes Prater, who won the election for District 4. Later in the meeting, Irwin said he planned to ask the board to suspend its rules and appoint Prater and Judge to their seats, following the resignations of Lovejoy Roe and Grewal. Normally, new commissioners are sworn in at a January meeting.
Accommodations tax increase
Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, gave a presentation in support of a proposed increase in the accommodations tax from 2% to 5%. She noted that Washtenaw County currently has the lowest such tax in the state, and that even with the increase, it will remain among the lowest. She said the funds will be used to support the goals of both the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti CVBs: attracting more conventions and sporting events, increasing film industry activity and cultural tourism.
One of the marketing initiatives is a radio campaign featuring comedian Tim Allen, though there were no jokes in the 1-minute spot that was played for commissioners during the meeting. (Unless the astute listener could detect some mirth when Allen said, describing Ann Arbor, “where we always seem to leave with a little more than we came with.” Listen to the audio from the whole spot on the Pure Michigan website – scroll down to the radio ads category, and “Original – Ann Arbor.”)
Commissioner Rolland Sizemore said he wanted to see a greater percentage of funds go to the Ypsilanti CVB – in the current split, 75% goes to Ann Arbor and 25% to Ypsilanti. Sizemore recommended a 72/28 allocation. Conan Smith requested that the CVBs include information about the number of hotel/motel room sales in their future quarterly reports, to help track the impact of the tax increase.
Later in the meeting, commissioner Jessica Ping said that while she opposed taxes, she would support this increase because it did not affect residents and it would bring additional revenues into the county.
Jennifer Watson, Washtenaw County’s budget manager, briefed the board on the 2008 budget. Cost savings approved by the board in February – including a hiring freeze and the use of non-General Fund balances – are expected to result in a projected $250,000 surplus in the county’s General Fund for the year. However, excluding the non-General Fund dollars, the General Fund had a $932,000 shortfall as of Sept. 30, the end of the third quarter.
Watson told the board that the No. 1 issue for the 2009 budget will be the housing market and its impact on revenues, as declining property values continue to affect the amount of taxes collected.
Police services contract
During the Ways & Means portion of the meeting, Jessica Ping proposed a resolution seeking a one-year extension of the controversial police services contract, increasing the cost to municipalities by 2% in 2010. The current contract expires at the end of 2009. Many townships and villages in Washtenaw County pay the county to provide sheriff deputy patrols, and disputes about how much they should pay for those services resulted in multiple lawsuits against the county – lawsuits that were eventually decided in the county’s favor.
Commissioner Ronnie Peterson said he wanted to take the extra time to explore more regional policing options and find a solution that doesn’t involve disputes each time the contract is renewed.
Commissioners Leah Gunn and Barbara Levin Bergman both opposed the proposal because they’d only received it at 5 p.m. that day and hadn’t had a chance to review it thoroughly. Gunn also wanted to see a budget impact statement for the increase.
Commissioner Karen Lovejoy Roe said she had hoped for a two-year extension, which had originally been proposed. The one-year deal was a compromise reached during the police services committee, but one she would support.
Commissioner Conan Smith also supported the one-year extension. He said it provided a measure of predictability going into 2009, which will be a year of “massive change” both locally and on the federal level. The newly elected sheriff, Jerry Clayton, will be taking office in January, Smith noted, and the additional time will allow him to identify other cost savings in his department that might affect the patrol contracts. The extension also provides time to look for innovative ways to address the issue, and to explore a more regionalized approach – something that Smith believes might be rewarded under the Obama administration. “It no longer has to be a fight between contracting and non-contracting communities,” he said.
Voting for the extension: Mark Ouimet, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore and Conan Smith. The motion carried. It will come before the board again at its Dec. 3 meeting.
In a later public commentary session, Pat Vailliencourt, president of Manchester’s village council and a member of the police services committee, thanked the commission for supporting the one-year extension. She said the committee had overcome petty politics and turf protection, and she praised Irwin for his role in helping the group reach consensus.
Brownfield public hearings
The board held three public hearings on Wednesday, all related to brownfield tax credits on local development projects. Karen Sidney spoke at all three hearings in opposition to each project: the Maple Shoppes project at the corner of Maple and Dexter-Ann Arbor; the MichiGinns project, at 2800 Jackson (site of the former Michigan Inn); and the 601 S. Forest building. She said that these proposals take away tax revenues from local governments. In the case of Maple Shoppes, she noted that the anchor store will be an Aldi’s grocery, a chain owned by two of Germany’s richest men who have the resources to do such projects without subsidies. She said it’s unfair to local businesses to subsidize their global competitors.
Glenn Thompson spoke at two of these hearings, also opposing the brownfield plans. He said that the original concept behind brownfield tax credits was to help deal with environmental cleanup on properties that would otherwise be undesirable. That’s not the case for these projects, he said.
Other than Sidney, Thompson, the developers’ representatives and Tom Partridge, no one else spoke at these hearings. The commission will be voting on the proposals at a later date.
Appointments and Road Commission
The commission quickly made appointments to 25 county councils, boards and committees on Wednesday. They were presented to be voted on as a group, but commissioner Jessica Ping requested that the Road Commission appointment be voted on separately. The other appointments were approved unanimously.
The Road Commission appointment had been discussed at a Nov. 13 caucus covered by The Chronicle. At that time, commission chair Jeff Irwin said he was not planning to nominate current road commissioner Fred Veigel, citing concerns about the way Veigel treated staff, citizens and other commissioners. However, Veigel got support from some of the other commissioners at the caucus, who said they understood the problems but appreciated how he was able to get things done.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, none of this was discussed. Irwin nominated Lee Gorman for the road commission seat. Ping nominated Veigel, who was sitting in the audience during the meeting. The vote then was taken – each commissioner simply stated who they wanted to serve – and Veigel received more than the minimum six votes needed for appointment. Voting for Veigel were Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore and Conan Smith. Voting for Gorman were Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn and Jeff Irwin. Mandy Grewal was not present for the vote.
Additional public comment
During the board’s general public comment session, Karen Sidney urged the board to post a more realistic start time for its regular meeting. The agenda states that the regular meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes after the start of the Ways & Means Committee, which all board members typically attend. In reality, the Ways & Means meeting lasts much longer – on Wednesday, it ended at 8:50 p.m. – and the regular meeting starts soon after. This is something that insiders know, Sidney said, but not the general public.
Sidney also urged the county to work with the city of Ann Arbor in finding a way to continue sharing court space at the county building. She said such cooperation was important during a tough economy, and that the county would get revenues from the city for leasing its space, while the city could postpone a multimillion-dollar court/police facility it plans to build. Her remarks prompted a response from Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman, who said the council seems determined to build the court/police facility, despite being told by the county that they could work something out.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Mandy Grewal, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Absent: (regular board meeting only): Mandy Grewal
Next meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 3 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.