Washtenaw Commissioners Discuss Cuts

Plans unclear for cuts to commissioners' salaries, expenses

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners administrative briefing (May 13, 2009): Commissioners attending Wednesday’s meeting were briefed on several items coming up on their May 20 agenda, including some related to Head Start funding, community development and approval of the county’s operating millage, which will remain unchanged from the current year. But for much of the hour-long briefing, they discussed a resolution proposing cuts to the $600,000 allotted annually for commissioners  – a resolution that stands a good chance of being amended, tabled or withdrawn from the agenda completely.

Cutting the Commissioners’ Budget

A resolution on the May 20 Ways & Means Committee agenda – which precedes the regular board meeting – calls for $77,750 worth of cuts to the $600,000 set aside annually in the budget for commissioners’ salaries, travel and other expenses. Among other cuts, the resolution submitted by commissioner Leah Gunn would eliminate the budget for all attendance at conferences and conventions and all per diem expenses. Gunn also proposes a 5% cut to the $57,000 paid to Governmental Consultant Services, Inc., a lobbying firm run by Kirk Profit that does work for several local municipalities, including the city of Ann Arbor.

Commissioner Kristin Judge began the discussion by saying she planned to make a friendly amendment to cut the travel budget by half, rather than eliminating it entirely. She said that there’s some travel she wanted to do for the job, such as attending the annual National Association of Counties conference. “I can’t do this job at a loss financially,” she said. Commissioner Mark Ouimet noted that cutting the travel budget would affect some commissioners more than others – he and commissioner Jessica Ping represent districts that cover a lot of territory, for example. (Ouimet represents District 1, which includes Chelsea, Dexter and all or part of the townships of Lyndon, Sylvan, Dexter, Lima, Webster and Scio. Ping represents District 3, which covers Saline, Manchester and the townships of Sharon, Manchester, Freedom, Bridgewater, Lodi and Saline, as well as the southern part of Scio Township.) [Gunn's proposal keeps the mileage allowance for commissioners, budgeted at $5,845.]

Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the board, asked how the resolution ended up on the agenda – he hadn’t known it was coming, and said he wanted to take it off the agenda until they had a chance to discuss it. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that only commissioner Conan Smith could remove it, since he’s chair of the Ways & Means Committee and sets that agenda. Neither Smith nor Gunn attended Wednesday’s briefing.

Commissioner Ken Schwartz said that each commissioners’ circumstances are different, and that cuts would fall on people in different ways. Ouimet had suggested looking at cutting health insurance, but some commissioners use the health insurance that’s provided, Schwartz said. Schwartz said he hasn’t yet used his travel budget, but he might want to at some point.

Commissioner Wes Prater said that if people don’t get training – whether they be commissioners or county staff – then “you’re going to have an ignorant bunch of people running the operation.” Prater suggested they make some cuts, then figure out ways to get that money back via the cost allocation part of the budget. Cost allocation is a charge levied on each county unit and designed to cover general costs like administration, technology, building use, insurance, etc. He said it was a subjective assessment, so there was some flexibility there. [The commissioners' budget includes a line item of $143,462 for cost allocation.]

Sizemore said he had no problem making cuts, but he felt like the resolution was being pushed on them and he wanted time to digest it.

Deputy county administrator Verna McDaniel, who was the staff representative leading the briefing, told commissioners that on June 3  the boardroom would be packed with employees. At that meeting, the administration plans to present recommendations for the two-year 2010-2011 budget, including cuts to address a projected $26 million deficit over the next two years. McDaniel said employees would be looking for commissioners to take a pay cut – she suggested that they follow the pattern of the rest of the organization, and make an across the board cut, rather than nickel and diming each line item. [Commissioners are paid $15,500 a year. Officers of the board are paid more: the board chair (Sizemore) gets $18,500, while chairs of Ways & Means (Smith) and the working session (Ping) get $16,500.]

Hedger said that commissioners aren’t allowed to alter their salaries until the beginning of their next term, in 2011. “Who would sue them if they did?” McDaniel asked. Ouimet asked if they could just turn the money back in after they’d been paid. That would be possible, Hedger said, but they’d still have to declare the full amount on their income tax.

Hedger said that one option would be to approve a salary decrease that wouldn’t take effect until 2011. Sizemore then suggested cutting their salaries by 5% in 2011, and taking another 5% cut to the budget in 2010, with details to be worked out by the end of 2009 regarding exactly where that 5% cut would be made.

Ouimet said they needed to widen the circle and get more commissioners at the table before making any decisions. Six of the 11 commissioners – Smith, Gunn, Ping, Jeff Irwin, Barbara Levin Bergman and Ronnie Peterson – didn’t attend Wednesday’s briefing.

The discussion ended with Sizemore saying he’d call Smith and talk to him about these issues, then make a plan for what to do next.

Update: On Friday, Kristin Judge told The Chronicle that she plans to submit a friendly amendment to Gunn’s resolution that would propose cutting the $33,000 travel budget in half and capping the per diem at $100 per month for each commissioner. Currently, commissioners are entitled to $25 for each meeting they attend of a board or commission that they’ve been appointed to by the board of commissioners’ chairman. Not all commissioners request that per diem, however.

Other Agenda Items

2009 budget adjustment: McDaniel asked to take the presentation of the 2009 budget off the May 20 agenda because staff wasn’t yet prepared to present it. The administration will be recommending adjustments to this year’s budget, in the wake of last month’s equalization report which determined that revenues for 2009 will be about $370,000 less than projected.

2009 operating millage rate: The board will be asked to approve the operating millage rate at 4.5493 – the same amount that was levied in 2008. The state requires that the operating millage be levied on July 1 each year. Other taxes – including drain assessment, natural areas and park – will be levied on Dec. 1. The operating millage accounts for the bulk of the county’s millage rate, which totals 5.6768 in 2009. Commissioners will be asked to approve the operating millage during the May 20 Ways & Means Committee meeting, then vote for final approval at their June 3 board meeting.

The board will also need to set a “Truth in Taxation” hearing, which Hedger said they hope to hold on June 3. However, they need to post a notice of the hearing that lists revenue the county will get from cigarette and alcohol taxes – they get that information from the state, but the state hasn’t yet provided it, Hedger said. He hopes to have it in hand early next week.

Head Start funding: The county’s Head Start program is receiving some federal stimulus funding in addition to regular funds it gets annually. Pat Horne McGee, the program’s director, has asked that the board approve the funds at both its Ways & Means Committee and regular board meeting on May 20. Why the rush? McDaniel told commissioners, “You know, when you get stimulus money, you’ve got five minutes to implement it.” The program will get about $275,000 in stimulus funds – half will be used for personnel costs, half for facility and playground improvements, including a new roof on the Ann Arbor Head Start building.

In addition, Head Start’s oral health program will receive $42,500 in federal revenue and grants to provide training and services to parents of Head Start children, and another $15,000 from the state to provide fluoride varnish to Head Start children twice a year. It was at this point that commissioner Ken Schwartz revealed he was trained to be a dentist in the Air Force. “Do you believe that?” Ouimet asked Prater. “Yeah, I believe it,” Prater retorted, “and I’ll bet he could do a good job today, too.”

Weatherization funding: The county has already received $4.1 million in stimulus funding for its weatherization program – now, they’re getting more from a different federal source. A $350,836 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will allow the county to make 43 homes and apartments more energy efficient. Eligible residents must have an income level at or below $22,648 for an individual or $44,100 for a family of four. The grant is administered by the county’s Employment Training and Community Services (ETCS) department.

Community development: The board will be asked to approve an action plan for the Washtenaw Urban County, a group of 11 municipalities in the county that participate in the federal Community Development Block Grant program. This is the first year that Ann Arbor has participated, which boosts the amount of federal grants that the urban county receives. This year, the urban county will receive $1.685 million from the HOME Investment Partnership program and $2.22 million from the Community Development Block Grant program. The funds are administered by the office of community development, jointly operated by the county and the city of Ann Arbor.

That office is also requesting the board approve a full-time position to help administer funds from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The county is receiving about $3 million to deal with abandoned, blighted and foreclosed properties. The position will be paid for out of grant funding, and will be eliminated when the program ends.

Finally, the board will be asked to approve registering the county as a payee/buyer of HUD homes, which will allow the county to buy HUD foreclosed properties and resell them for $1 to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. Habitat would then rehab the properties and sell them to qualified buyers. The properties would be in Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township – areas with high foreclosure rates. Mary Jo Callan, community development director, will be on hand at the May 20 meeting to answer questions about these programs, McDaniel said.


  1. By Leah Gunn
    May 16, 2009 at 7:05 am | permalink

    I did not attend the Administrative briefing because I was on a plane returning from a hastily planned family visit. This proposal has been around for at least three months, both in electronic form and in paper form passed out to all the Commissioners. I would never put forth a proposal that I had not informed my fellow Commissioners about. I had also proposed cuts in the previous term (2007-08), but was turned down.

    I strongly believe that we Commissioners should show our employees that we are willing to make substantial cuts in our budget to “share the pain”. The cuts are mainly in per diems and conference travel, and do not affect mileage. In these hard times, I do not think it is asking too much to expect that Commissioners stay home and tend to business. If they want to travel to a conference, they can pay for it themselves.

    Also, I asked our government relations representative, Kirk Profit, to take a five percent cut, in addition to the 5% cut he had already taken, and he agreed without hesitation.

    The resolution will be on the Ways and Means Agenda as proposed, and any amendments would be proposed at the Board meeting.

    Being a County Commissioner is not a job. It is public service.

  2. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    May 16, 2009 at 9:01 am | permalink

    Commissioners must set an example and right now, the most obvious way to do so, is to end per diems. This can be done immediately. A year from now, we can vote ourselves some reduction in base pay and at that time revisit the per diem issue. But at this moment we need to make cuts in our personal revenues . The county budget and our roles as leaders demand this.

    There is no reason for commissioner travel to be included in the budget. Commissioners at present make at least $15,500 annually and unless they are traveling extensively, travel for educational purposes should not be considered a money loosing proposition for any commissioner. You have to travel a lot for educational purposes to use up your salary . In my opinion, we are elected as public servants and receive a great deal of gratification and community recognition as our most compensation.

  3. May 16, 2009 at 9:25 am | permalink

    Commissioner Gunn’s proposal to cut out per diems is right on. As I have noted before, this system of paying commissioners (and all other people appointed to county committees) a $25 per diem allowance warps the system in that assignments become colored by their per diem status. Ann Arbor city committee members have never received a per diem, and members seem to be able to attend meetings despite this. The story doesn’t indicate whether per diems for other committee members would be cut out, but I think it would be a good consideration. It would save considerable bookkeeping expenses along with the actual payments.

    I would advise against reducing the salary amounts, however. It is true that this is not a job, but people who serve fully in this or other local government positions give up a great deal of opportunity for other pursuits (including income generation), and they should be adequately compensated. Further, if compensation is limited, it becomes an objective only for the independently affluent. County commissioners in other counties are paid much more. I think I heard on the radio that Detroit city councilmembers are paid over $100,000. I think our own local elected officials are well within the mark.

    I also think that a modest travel allowance should be retained. As a commissioner, I learned a great deal from attending workshops and newer commissioners in particular need to have this training. It should have a cap, though.

  4. By David Lewis
    May 16, 2009 at 10:18 am | permalink

    Right now the county budget problem is the sleeping elephant in the room. It looks like the necessary cuts will be sweeping, they will impact employment at the county and the human service providers that the county has been so good about sustaining. The cuts will have to impact the Sheriff’s budget and that could restart the whole debate about the law enforcement free ride in some townships versus the townships and cities that support their own police force.