No Consensus on Expense Cuts

County board debates cuts to their own travel, per diem
Wes Prater and Kristin Judge

County commissioners Wes Prater and Kristin Judge during the May 20 board meeting. Judge introduced one of two resolutions regarding cuts to commissioners' expenses. Neither Judge's resolution nor one proposed by commissioner Leah Gunn got enough votes for approval.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (May 20, 2009): Commissioners failed to reach consensus on two different attempts to cut their own line-item expenses in the 2010-11 budget, and though action was tabled until July, it’s likely commissioners will have another go at cuts at their June 3 meeting.

At the board’s Wednesday meeting, Conan Smith – who chairs the Ways & Means Committee,  which discussed the resolutions – noted that this was the first of what will be numerous attempts to deal with the 2010-11 budget, and would set the stage for future discussions. The county faces a projected $26 million deficit over the next two years, and plans to make cuts in light of a decline in tax revenues. The administration is expected to bring a general fund budget proposal to the table at the board’s June 3, 2009 meeting.

Commissioner Leah Gunn has long called for the board to dramatically cut its own $600,000 in budgeted expenses [.pdf file of line-item expenses in commissioners' budget]. She sent her proposal to commissioners three months ago, and said that she received little feedback. The largest savings in her proposal comes from slashing the $33,000 travel budget entirely for two years and eliminating all per diem, for another $25,500 in savings. (Though not all commissioners apply for per diem, they 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.) Gunn also recommended cutting the budget by 5% for the lobbying firm Governmental Consultant Services, Inc., led by Kirk Profit. There is some confusion in that line item – the GCSI contract is for $57,000, but the line-item allocates an additional $12,800 that Gunn says is unaccounted for. She recommended cutting that amount, too.

In presenting her resolution at Wednesday’s meeting, Gunn said it’s time for commissioners to display leadership for both residents and employees of the county, who are being asked to make sacrifices. The items she selected – travel and per diem – are direct payments to commissioners, Gunn said, and cuts to those areas show they’re willing to reduce their compensation during these uncertain economic times. She described the cuts as modest, and urged her fellow commissioners to support the resolution.

Commissioners Barbara Levin Bergman and Jeff Irwin both expressed support for the resolution. Bergman said she’d heard the dispute over cuts characterized as an urban vs. suburban conflict, which she said was not the case. (Gunn, Bergman, Irwin and Smith represent districts in Ann Arbor.) Irwin said it’s the least they can do, given that they were asking employees in some cases to make cuts that affect their core livelihood. As discussed at their May 13 administrative briefing, commissioners can’t cut their own salaries until the beginning of the next term, which would be in early 2011.

Commissioner Wes Prater said he supported cutting the commissioners’ budget by 10%, saying that’s what the administration is asking its departments to do. He said they should vote down Gunn’s resolution and let commissioners individually decide where to make the 10% cuts in their budget.

Commissioner Kristin Judge agreed that leadership was important, and said she was with Gunn in the beginning. Cuts should be made soon and should be substantial, she said. However, they should be done in a way that allows each commissioner to effectively serve their constituency, according to their own styles.

Leah Gunn and Ronnie Peterson

Commissioners Leah Gunn and Ronnie Peterson during a discussion of resolutions to cut the commissioners' budget.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson said Gunn was sending the right signal, but he defended the board as being already fiscally conservative. He asked administration to provide information by the next board meeting to indicate when the board had previously raised its salary or per diem. It’s been years, he contended.

Commissioner Jessica Ping said she couldn’t support the resolution. Noting that she represents nine municipalities and requires a lot of travel within her district, Ping said she appreciated that Gunn had removed cuts to mileage from her original proposal. But Ping wondered why other line items – like health insurance, which some commissioners use – weren’t being considered.

Commissioner Mark Ouimet apologized to Gunn for the fact that most commissioners, including himself, had not responded to her proposal when she first floated it three months ago. He said they need to make cuts, but thought they needed more time to discuss it.

Peterson made a motion to table the resolution until July. That motion was defeated. The vote on the resolution itself also failed, with only five commissioners – Gunn, Bergman, Irwin, Smith and Peterson – voting for it.

At that point, Judge announced that she had a budget resolution of her own to submit, and she passed out copies. Her resolution called for 10% cuts to the commissioners’ budget in 2010 and 2011, “in a manner that is agreed upon by a majority of the Board.”

The resolution appeared to catch several commissioners by surprise. Irwin asked if there was any other information about where the 10% would come from – there wasn’t. Smith said he was very disturbed that they hadn’t seen the resolution before the meeting, especially since some commissioners had said there hadn’t been enough time to digest Gunn’s proposal, which everyone had seen. He also said that 10% across-the-board cuts ran counter to the direction they’d been giving administration, which was to make cuts strategically. He called this kind of approach ineffective and inappropriate, and said they needed to discuss how to make the right cuts to the right line items for the right amount.

Gunn said she’d like to see the specific suggestions that Judge had about where to cut 10% from the budget, and moved to table the resolution until July. That motion carried, with Judge, Ping, Prater, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Ken Schwartz voting against it.

Prater blasted commissioners for tabling the resolution, saying that it was intended to open the door for dialogue about where to make cuts. “Now we’re just going to sit here on hold, with no direction whatsoever.”

Smith responded by saying that they haven’t adopted the budget yet and there was still time for discussion. He said anyone could bring a resolution to their June 3 meeting.

Judge said her hope was to make a decision before the June 3 meeting, making cuts to their own budget before asking employees to do the same. It was not proposed as an across-the-board cut, she said: “There is no board – except for the county board.” She said if everyone had attended last Wednesday’s administrative briefing, they could have talked about it then. She said she approached Gunn trying to compromise on the resolution, but was rebuffed. She said she wanted the board to be leaders and work as a team, “and that didn’t happen.”

Update: On Thursday, Judge emailed all commissioners elaborating on her rationale for submitting the resolution. She wrote that she had approached Gunn last week with a compromise –  cut the travel budget by half, and cap per diem at $100 per month – which she said Gunn rejected. The email stated that some commissioners wouldn’t be affected by the cuts recommended by Gunn – if, for example, they don’t currently request per diem or tap their travel budgets.

In her email, Judge told  commissioners she wants to pass a resolution cutting their budget at the June 3 meeting, and said she’d work with anyone to develop a resolution that respects their different styles of serving the public. Ideally, she said, they could come up with a joint resolution by several commissioners, to show that they were willing to work as a team.

Other Actions

The board approved several items during the evening, which are described in detail in The Chronicle’s report of the May 13 administrative briefing. They included 1) setting the operating millage rate at 4.5493, a rate unchanged from 2008, 2) authorizing the receipt of federal grants for the local Head Start program, 3) authorizing receipt of U.S. Department of Energy funding for a weatherization program, 4) approving an action plan for the Washtenaw Urban County, a group of 11 local municipalities that participate in the federal Community Development Block Grant program. Mary Jo Callan, director of the city/county office of community development, and Jennifer L. Hall, the office’s housing manager, fielded several questions from commissioners about programs related to the Urban County plan, which the board ultimately approved.

Saying Goodbye

As board chair, Sizemore read a resolution of appreciation for David Behen, the deputy county administrator who is stepping down from that job at the end of the month. Several commissioners praised Behen for his 10 years of service with the county and his leadership role. Sizemore, noting that family was more important than anything, said he appreciated how Behen lit up every time he talked about his kids. County officials and staff headed over to Argiero’s after the meeting adjourned for an informal send-off.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, June 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. (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting. [confirm date]


  1. By Bob Martel
    May 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm | permalink

    They have $21,000,000 to cut from the two year budget and they spent all this time quibbling over what appears to be about $60k in cuts to their own budgets? I hope that they can get more time efficient when discussing the other $20,940,000 in cuts that are needed to balance the County budget!

  2. By Jeff Irwin
    May 22, 2009 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    Bob Martel is right.

    Our county government is grappling with a monstrous budget problem created by a unprecedented drop in property values accompanied by a sharp rise in need. Unfortunately, our meeting on Wednesday was further evidence that the quantity of debate is often inversely proportional to the importance of the decision.

    Having said that, I believe that the Board will come together around some significant cuts in our budget because we all know the need and the seriousness of our situation. As far as I can tell, the differences over what should be trimmed back are quite small.

    I thought Commissioner Gunn’s proposal was right on target and I was happy to support it and move on to weightier items (such as our Thursday meeting covering the Sheriff’s vision for his organization and a presentation on our reserve funds).

  3. May 22, 2009 at 7:25 pm | permalink

    I was pleased to see that all four of our Ann Arbor commissioners supported Commissioner Gunn’s proposal. It is the responsible stance.

    I’d like to point out that the alternative of a 10% budget cut in each commissioner’s allocation would not necessarily mean a cut in spending. Those are not amounts allocated to commissioners to spend any way they want, but a budget estimate. When I was there, there was a ceiling on travel expenses (to conferences etc.) for each commissioner and I assume that the same is true now. But the use of travel and per diems varies widely. If the highest spending commissioners continue to use the fullest amount possible while others remain far below that, the total savings will be very little.

    The 10% cut idea makes it sound as though each commissioner is entitled to spend that entire amount budgeted for him/her. That would be a very bad idea to put across. I don’t see how halting the payment of per diems would impede anyone’s representation of their district, unless they are unable to attend meetings without receiving $25.

  4. May 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm | permalink

    Maybe given that the non-Ann Arbor reps have further to travel, a mileage allowance would be more appropriate than a per diem. More paperwork, to be sure, but more in line with actual expenses. In any case, the difference might help explain the difference in the votes.

  5. May 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm | permalink

    Commissioner Gunn and I are in complete agreement that the board will take a substantial cut in our budget. I feel confident that a resolution will be passed on June 3rd.

    I have publicly asked the board and the administration to take the lead on cutting our own budgets before asking any staff or consumers to go without.

    It is an honor to work with the dedicated public servants we have on our current board. We will cut our budget and do what is right for the citizens of Washtenaw County. Government meetings serve the people best when there is a chance for more than one viewpoint. Disagreement is part of the process of getting to the best solution.

    This board takes its responsibilities to the people seriously and many of us feel the pressure of the $26 million deficit weighing on us heavily. Please be patient with those of us you have elected to serve you and your neighbors. Communicate with us often and consider coming to our meetings.

  6. May 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm | permalink

    They already get a mileage allowance and as stated in the story that was not proposed to be cut. To reiterate: currently commissioners get both the Federal mileage rate per mile (currently 55 cents per mile) PLUS a $25 per diem for attending each meeting (including the official BOC meetings as well).