Board Tables Economic Development Tax

Also, public hearing on county budget set for today at 6 p.m.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Oct. 21, 2009): Action on a tax expected to raise around $600,000 a year for economic development and agriculture-related activities was postponed Wednesday after a move to let county board members vote on separate pieces of the plan – rather than a single package – led to confusion and some consternation.

Commissioner Mark Ouimet asked to have the vote broken into two parts. A Republican representing more rural areas of the county, Ouimet wanted:

  • one vote on money to fund 4-H, horticulture/MSU Extension, an agricultural innovation effort and the Food Systems Economic Partnership;
  • a second vote to fund the economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK, SPARK East, the Eastern Leaders Group and a new county office, the Economic Development and Energy Department, to be led by Tony VanDerworp.

But Ouimet’s colleagues on the board were unprepared for the change. A number struggled to follow his plan for unbundling items in the single resolution in front of them and what the potential defeat of any portion of the plan would mean.

Corporation Counsel Curt Hedger fielded commissioners’ questions, saying that if any part of the plan was voted down, the proposed 0.04-mill tax would be reduced, based on the allocations for the respective programs.

But the matter became still more complicated when Commissioner Jeff Irwin suggested that instead of Ouimet’s two votes, the board could vote on funding each of the eight programs individually. That suggestion was followed by a motion to table the vote by commissioners Ronnie Peterson and Ken Schwartz.

Referred to as an Act 88 millage – for the state statute that permits it – the proposed tax would increase property taxes $4 per $100,000 of taxable value. Act 88 allows a tax to fund programs that create jobs and reduce unemployment. No voter approval is needed. [.PDF of Act 88 resolution]

Implementing the tax would provide some relief for county officials who’ve struggled with budget deficits as revenue from property taxes and state government have contracted. The county has proposed cuts in its 2010 and 2011 budget to close a deficit of about $30 million for those two years. The Act 88 millage was originally proposed at a lower rate to raise $250,000 for only Ann Arbor SPARK and SPARK East. [Previous Chronicle coverage from the board's Oct. 7, 2009 board meeting on deliberations and public commentary regarding Act 88.]

In an interview after the board meeting, Ouimet said he had planned to support funding the ag-related programs via the millage, but would have voted against the other four programs. That doesn’t reflect any dissatisfaction with the economic development programs, said Ouimet, who serves on the Ann Arbor SPARK board. However, those appropriations should come from the general fund, he said.

That thinking runs counter to other county officials’ interest in freeing up general fund dollars. The proposed allocations for SPARK and SPARK East are $200,000 and $50,00 respectively; the Eastern Leaders Group, $100,000.

Ouimet added that he expected the entire millage package would ultimately pass, regardless of his position.

But that didn’t salve the sting for Commissioner Barbara Bergman, a Democrat who, after the meeting, suggested Ouimet was “trying to have his cake and eat it, too.”

The inference is that Ouimet was trying to avoid conflicts with any constituents in northwest Washtenaw County who might be unhappy with a tax to support economic development in the urban and eastern parts of the county, without running afoul of their interests in the ag-related funding.

Ouimet laughed off Bergman’s comment. But the jostling is apt to continue with several commissioners running – or considering runs – for state office next year. Ouimet is among those ready to run for the state Legislature. Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, is a candidate in another district and Schwartz is a potential Democratic candidate for the same seat as Ouimet, in the 52nd House District. [Previous Chronicle coverage of upcoming state elections: "State Legislative Candidates Lining Up" and "State Races in Districts 54, 55 Take Shape"]

Tax to Support Indigent Veterans

Another millage passed with neither debate nor comment. A tax of 1/40th of a mill will generate about $390,000 to support services for indigent veterans.

In addition, the county board approved changes to labor contracts that include concessions negotiated to help the county deal with its budget woes in 2010 and 2011. AFSCME Local 2733, the largest union at about 650 workers, will forgo pay raises, saving the county $5.79 million. The deal was announced earlier this month. [.PDF of resolution approving AFSCME agreement.]

Similar concessions negotiated with the Michigan Nurses Association and Assistant Prosecutors Association/Public Defenders Association were also approved. Union members had previously OK’d the changes.

There’s a public hearing on the proposed budget today at 6 p.m. in the board room, 220 N. Main St.

Reports on Radios, Roads

Wednesday’s short board session also included a report by County Administrator Bob Guenzel on the emergency-services communication program.

Funded by a countywide, voter-approved tax, the so-called 800 Mhz program will let police, firefighters and other emergency responders communicate easily and eliminate almost all geographic gaps in emergency radio coverage. Guenzel told the county board that the installation was progressing with five of seven towers completed, and network and microwave equipment installed. The work should be completed this coming summer.

In remarks by board members, Commissioner Wes Prater advised colleagues that the county Road Commission will cut back on plowing local road this winter.

To save money, the road commission will wait until a 4-inch snowfall before plowing local roads, said Prater, the county board’s liaison to the road commission. And trucks will be going easy on salt: The cost is up around 75 percent, Prater said.

A statement on the county website is more specific: In it, Steven Puuri managing director of the commission, identifies the affected roads as gravel roads and subdivision streets, which experience the lowest traffic volumes and lowest speeds.

In addition to a 4-inch snow, severe blowing and drifting or an ice storm could trigger plowing, he wrote. [.PDF of memo outlining service adjustments]

The Oct. 6 statement attributes the service reduction to successive years of declining revenue from the state fuel tax, which at 19 cents is well below neighboring Ohio and Wisconsin.

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 board meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 4 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. [confirm date] (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.

Public hearing: The board will hold a public hearing focused on the 2010-2011 budget tonight at 6 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St.

About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, and in Ohio, New York and several other states.


  1. By Judith Foy
    October 22, 2009 at 3:46 pm | permalink

    Great coverage, Judy McGovern!
    Just to make clear – without possible frustration. The Road Commission, though accessible through the County’s web site ( has it’s own, separate web site – reflecting it as a separate entity from the County.(…just in case readers need road/street info in coming wintry months!

  2. By Kim Richardson
    October 22, 2009 at 5:14 pm | permalink

    Kudos to the Chronicle for great local coverage.
    Mark Ouimet has politicized a vote that could help a lot of needy (and worthy) local groups. Act 88 is a find; it is a little nugget of gold that can provide funding for many in the area. Let’s pass the resolution and hold off on the jockeying for 2010 races until after the new year.

  3. By John Floyd
    October 23, 2009 at 12:23 am | permalink

    That the legislature has seen fit to create a loophole of non-accountability on local taxation does not mean that using it is a good idea. Even if one buys into the legislature’s odd reasoning (“it’s OK to require voter approval on some taxes, but not on others”), and buys into the premise that this particular tax might “create jobs” (?), there is no apparent requirement that the creation of jobs, resulting from this tax, be documented. It seems that as long as the commissioners declare that a tax will “create jobs”, anything goes.

    ANY tax that the county (or city, or township) proposes to raise should be subject to voter approval; any organization receiving tax dollars for “creating jobs” (don’t they really mean “attracting? “) should be required to document jobs attracted, and demonstrate (not merely assert) that the jobs came to Washtenaw only because of the use of tax dollars.

    There is no connection between attracting agricultural jobs with tax dollars, and attracting industrial jobs with tax dollars. Each activity should stand on its own, they should not be bundled.

  4. By Richard
    October 23, 2009 at 11:44 am | permalink


    I respectfully disagree that “any” tax should be subject to voter approval. We have a representative democracy, not a plebiscite democracy.

    We elect people to make decisions and we hold them accountable to those decisions in future elections. The idea that every little tax and decision needs to be put to the voters is becoming silly.

    I am as critical as anyone of the Board and some of their actions, but I’m not so knee jerk as to believe that they are entirely incapable of making reasonable decisions about fiscal matters in the county.

    I am growing resentful of the anti-tax crowd that seeks to choke of government from doing much if anything at all. Public investments are critcal, the national highway system, schools, the University of Michigan, heck the internet started as a public investment even the military.

    I wish that folks like you would take a step back and make an effort to understand the value of public investments. I think you might be surprised.

    And…for the record, I am not an employee of the County and do not stand to gain one nickel from the millage.