Meeting Watch: County Board (26 Nov 08)

Administrative briefing: Police services contract on the table again

At an administrative briefing attended by five of the 11 Washtenaw County commissioners on Wednesday, the contentious police services contract came up again, as did the issue of protocol for swearing in two new commissioners earlier than usual.

County leases

At its Dec. 3 board meeting, commissioners will be asked to approve a 3-year lease at 2051 S. State St. for the county’s Community Support and Treatment Services (CSTS), at a cost of about $34,000 for the first year and increasing to nearly $38,000 by year three. The space would be used by the Community Crisis Response Team of the county’s Community Mental Health staff. This agenda item prompted commissioner Rolland Sizemore to ask, “Why are we leasing?”

What followed was a discussion about possible county-owned alternatives to leasing, including one on Towner Street in Ypsilanti. Sizemore is looking to identify space that the county already owns so that it can avoid the additional cost of leasing. He wants the county to better explore such options before signing another lease.

Swearing in

Commissioners Mandy Grewal and Karen Lovejoy Roe both ran for offices in Pittsfield and Ypsilanti townships, respectively. They were elected to those township posts and have resigned from the county commission. Normally, the people who won the seat to replace them – Kristin Judge and Wes Prater – wouldn’t be sworn in until January. Jeff Irwin, the commission board chair, had previously suggested voting to suspend board rules, which would allow Judge and Prater to be sworn in sooner. His rationale was to make sure those districts were represented on the board without the month-long gap that would otherwise occur in this situation.

One possible way to do this would be to hold a brief board meeting first, with the swearing in as the only item of business, then hold the Ways & Means Committee meeting, followed by the remainder of the regular board meeting. Normally, the board starts its Wednesday meetings with the Ways & Means Committee, which is immediately followed by the regular board meeting – all commissioners attend both.

Commissioner Ken Schwartz said he wasn’t willing to fight over it if there were any objections, but that he hadn’t heard any. Commissioner Conan Smith said the only thing he had heard was that it was important that Prater and Judge both be sworn in – commissioner Jessica Ping had made this point at the previous board meeting.

Police services contract

Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman indicated she would be asking for the item regarding a proposed extension to the police services contract to be separated out for discussion at the board meeting and she wanted to discuss it at Wednesday’s administrative briefing as well.

The proposal originally had been floated at the Nov. 19 board meeting by commissioner Jessica Ping. The current contract between the county and municipalities – in which many townships and villages pay the county to provide sheriff’s deputy patrols – expires at the end of 2009. The proposal would extend the contract through 2010, with a 2% cost increase.

However, the 2010-2011 budget has not been set. Bergman, based on calculations provided by county staff, said that a $227,000 shortfall to the general fund would accrue if the 2% increase (as opposed to a 4% increase, which some commissioners support) were to pass. This is the equivalent of three full-time employees, she said. Her goal was to not tap into the general fund.

There was agreement and optimism expressed around the table that the quarter-million dollars could be saved within the sheriff’s budget. The expectation among the commissioners present was that newly elected sheriff Jerry Clayton would be easier to work with on budget and cost issues than outgoing sheriff Dan Minzey had been. Disagreement arose on whether the general fund should act as a “fail safe” – that is, if the sheriff can’t find the cost-savings in his budget, then the shortfall gets taken out of the general fund.

Smith said he believes there are cost savings to be had in various contracts that are coming up, including some for kitchen staff and janitorial services. He also said there are opportunities for increased revenue through restructuring of insurance recovery contracts.

But Bergman countered that until those savings are realized, it’s money out of pocket – Smith conceded that this was true.

Bergman argued that the board has five urban commissioners – herself, Smith, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin and Ronnie Peterson – and five non-urban commissioners, and that the urban commissioners have to represent their constituents who are being double and triple taxed. (The argument there hinges on the fact that taxpayers in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti pay for their own cities’ police forces, as well as for the county sheriff’s department.)

When Ken Schwartz questioned Bergman’s urban/non-urban description, noting as an example that Mark Ouimet represented Chelsea as well as township residents, Bergman said, “Well, I guess they’re just selling those voters down the tubes, then.”

Rolland Sizemore, who represents Ypsilanti and Superior townships, said he’s not selling anybody down the tubes. He said he thinks the county can find the savings – the first place he’d start is by cutting the $35,000 allocated for leasing space for CSTS (discussed earlier in the briefing), and instead using space the county already owns.

The proposed contract extension will accomplish two things, Sizemore said: 1) it shows the sheriff that the commission isn’t trying to control his department, and 2) it shows the townships that the commission is willing to work with them.

At one point the discussion wound around to what seemed like a consensus: the sheriff should make up the shortfall out of his own budget. But when Bergman pressed for a resolution or some piece of writing that would outline these goals, Schwartz noted that at the end of the day, if the money’s not there, the general fund would just have to cover it. That prompted Bergman to say that she felt like she was getting nothing out of the discussion. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, pointed out that the difficulty in crafting such a resolution is that it’s not possible to bind a future board of commissioners on a future budget.

And that’s the problem: the timing of the contract renewal and where it sits in the budget cycle.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Mark Ouimet, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore, Conan Smith