County Board Takes Step in Major Transition

Peterson: "No one has a clue about how bad next year will be”

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Feb. 3, 2010): The evening ended for some at the Heidelberg to celebrate the appointment of Verna McDaniel as county administrator – a hiring that drew a round of applause from commissioners, staff and members of the public who attended Wednesday’s county board meeting.


After Wednesday's county board meeting, several commissioners and staff went across Main Street to the Heidelberg to celebrate the vote to hire Verna McDaniel as the next county administrator. (Photo by the writer.)

But much of the meeting had a more somber undertone, with concerns that the worst of the county’s budget challenges are still to come.

Those concerns were manifested in different ways. Some commissioners cited the need to take action in planning the transition for the next administration, and in setting priorities to guide their decisions. Others cautioned that the county should be wary of making short-term fixes, like selling property or cutting programs that might help avert bigger problems down the road.

And most alluded to the fact that even though they addressed a projected $30 million deficit for the next two years, it’s likely that the economy will continue to plague county finances. Ronnie Peterson put it this way: “No one has a clue about how bad next year will be.”

An Administrative Transition, and Planning for a Difficult Year

As expected, the resolution to hire Verna McDaniel as county administrator, effective May 15, was passed unanimously at both the Ways & Means Committee and the regular board meeting. The resolution directs the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, to negotiate an employment agreement and return it to the board for approval by March 17. Long-time county administrator Bob Guenzel, who announced his retirement last year, plans to step down on May 14.

Commissioner Wes Prater said he’d heard that Guenzel and McDaniel, who now serves as deputy administrator, had appointed a planning and transition committee, and he felt it was crucial that commissioners be involved. There will likely be significant changes in the organization, he said – including the hiring of a new finance director to replace retiring Peter Ballios. The board should be involved in filling that position and the possible replacement for deputy administrator, Prater said. “I don’t think that’s an administrative appointment at all.” Also in transition is the Employment Training and Community Services department (ETCS). Its director, Trenda Rusher, has retired and will be leaving by the end of March.

Guenzel noted that commissioners had discussed this year as being a planning year, and he agreed. He and McDaniel had been putting together a draft of major initiatives – from jail staffing to a possible reorganization of the ETCS, among other things. He said he’d given the document to board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. earlier that evening, and he planned to email it to other commissioners on Thursday. [.pdf file of the draft document] There were no surprises in it, Guenzel said – they were things previously discussed with the board – but he and McDaniel did want to get feedback on the list.

As far as hiring, Guenzel said that the commission confirmed executive-level appointments, like the county administrator. The position of finance director had already been posted, he said, and they’d received several applicants. The deadline for applying is Feb. 24.

Prater expressed concern that the position had been posted before discussing how the job’s responsibilities might be altered, in light of a possible administrative reorganization. Guenzel said the thinking was that whoever was hired would give input into possible structural changes. Prater said he thought that was a backwards approach.

Sizemore agreed with Prater, saying that this transition time was an opportunity to look at all job descriptions. He said he was confident that McDaniel would listen to their input, and that he was glad she was going to be the next county administrator.

Several other commissioners voiced their concerns about the coming years, and the need to be proactive in planning with the administration. Mark Ouimet cautioned that while commissioners needed to provide clear direction and goals, they also needed to give McDaniel the authority to implement those goals. It’s difficult to be successful if you’re given responsibility, he said, but not authority.

Kristin Judge said it’s not fair to the staff to start initiatives without board support. Goal-setting is the board’s role, she said, and they need to get moving. The county’s financial situation is only going to get worse.

Later in the meeting, when the board took its final vote to approve McDaniel’s hiring, several commissioners praised her service and expressed confidence in her ability to lead. Conan Smith cited a more personal connection, noting that early in her career she had worked for his grandfather, Albert Wheeler, at the city of Ann Arbor.

After the vote, an agenda item for the report from the county administrator prompted Sizemore to joke, “Which one do we have here?” Guenzel replied, “I’m still here, but I’ll be fading away – don’t worry about that.”

Coda: More Discussion at Working Session

The topic of planning and priorities emerged again on Thursday evening, at the board’s working session. The meeting was primarily devoted to a presentation by Mike Finney of Ann Arbor SPARK, who also brought along several local entrepreneurs to speak to commissioners about how they’ve been helped by the economic development agency. In addition, Tony VanderWorp  gave an update on 1) the Eastern Leaders Group, 2) the status of the new county department he leads for economic development and energy, and 3) the Ann Arbor Success initiative. [downloadable .pdf files of the annual reports for SPARK, the Eastern Leaders Group and Ann Arbor Success are available from the Feb. 4 working session agenda]

But toward the end of Thursday’s working session, Wes Prater restarted the discussion from the previous night. He thanked Guenzel for sending commissioners the list of major initiatives that staff had drafted. [.pdf file of the document] In reviewing the list, Prater said, there were several items that he felt the board should be involved in from an early stage. Specifically, he cited a planning initiative to look at the long-term role of county government, its priorities and organizational structure. He pointed to another project on the list – “review of internal controls” – and said he hoped that a review of financial controls would be part of that.

Ronnie Peterson said the board needed to have a meeting to discuss these initiatives – he wondered if the chair of the board planned to schedule one. The board chair “doesn’t talk to me much,” Peterson said, adding that the discussion should be in public, and televised. [None of the board's top leadership – board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr.; Conan Smith, chair of the Ways & Means Committee; and Jessica Ping, chair of the working session – attended Thursday's meeting.]

Both Prater and Kristin Judge said they’d talked with Sizemore, and reported that he planned to schedule this kind of priority-setting discussion.

Judge also mentioned that Kerry Laycock – a management consultant who has worked for several local governments, including the county and the city of Ann Arbor – is helping with the administrative transition. Jeff Irwin said this was news to him, and asked how much Laycock was being paid.

Guenzel said he’d authorized a contract not to exceed $20,000. Laycock was originally going to help with just the internal administrative transition, he said, but on Thursday morning Smith had suggested that Laycock might also help with the board’s planning for the coming year. Guenzel said he was relying on Smith to check with other commissioners to make sure this was acceptable.

Peterson said commissioners – especially the leadership – need to communicate more clearly with each other, and not use the administrator as an intermediary.

Prater again talked about the need for urgency, saying that the budget was likely to be even tighter in the next two years and “it’s not going to be a pretty picture.” Difficult decisions will need to be made, he said, and as the year progresses, elections are on the horizon. [Commissioners serve two-year terms, with the current term ending at the end of 2010. At least two commissioners – Jeff Irwin and Mark Ouimet – are running for state office this year and will not seek re-election to the board.]

Judge said she’d ask Ping if they could schedule a discussion of board priorities and initiatives at the next working session, on Feb. 18.

Census, SEMCOG, Selling Property

Back to Wednesday’s board meeting: During liaison reports, commissioners raised several topics for informational purposes or discussion.

2010 Census

Kristin Judge reported that about 200 people attended an event last month in Ypsilanti to kick off the 2010 Census, which featured an appearance by Lt. Gov. John Cherry. It’s estimated that less than 50% of Ypsilanti residents were counted in the last census, she said, and since population numbers are directly linked to the amount of money available for federal grants, it’s important that an accurate count is taken. Congressional seats are also determined by census results.

Barbara Bergman asked Trenda Rusher, the head of ETCS, what kind of outreach is being done. Rusher said there’s a major campaign throughout the state, and that Ypsilanti is one of the hard-to-count areas that’s getting extra attention. Some residents are afraid of the FBI, INS, CIA or IRS, so one component of the outreach is an assurance that their information will be kept confidential, she said.

In addition to literature that’s being distributed, the word is being spread through faith-based groups and community centers. Bergman said it was important to have the information communicated by people who were highly trusted by the community. Rusher replied that the brochures being sent out stressed the confidential nature of the census. Was it written in big letters? Bergman asked. Yes, Rusher replied, in big, bold, pretty colors. She added that the Census Bureau was hiring people in the community “who look like the people they’re counting.”

WERS Board

Mark Ouimet gave an update from the Washtenaw Employees Retirement System (WERS) board. He said the system finished the year in the 84th percentile of returns nationally among its peer groups – meaning that WERS performed better than 84% of similar systems. Even so, “I do think we can do better,” he said, adding that the WERS board will be working with an adviser to reposition some of the investments. This year, he said, no matter how the market moves, WERS was positioned to do the same as or better than 2009.

Leah Gunn, who also serves on the WERS board, said she credited Ouimet with getting the board to drill down into their asset allocation and to reduce the cost of operations. Conan Smith joked that it was important to have the Republican (Ouimet) there to make the money and the Democrat (Gunn) to make sure he didn’t take it home.

SEMCOG appointments

Conan Smith reported that the board’s appointments to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) had been settled. He and Kristin Judge will be delegates, with Jeff Irwin and Ken Schwartz serving as alternates. [.pdf file of all board appointments]

Planning Advisory Board

Jeff Irwin noted that commissioners were making a final vote that night to eliminate the planning advisory board. One of the things that the advisory board did, he said, was to advise the board of commissioners about the sale of county property. Irwin said that in the current economy, he was worried that the county would look for quick fixes by selling property. Now, one of the checks and balances on that kind of action – the planning advisory board – was being removed. As there will be increasing financial pressure on the county, commissioners would do well to find another entity that can serve the same role, Irwin said.

Report on Daybreak Program

Lisa Greco, director of the county children’s services programs, gave an update to commissioners about the closing of the Daybreak program, which was eliminated as part of efforts to overcome a projected $30 million budget deficit in 2010 and 2011. Several commissioners seemed surprised by the closure, which had been part of the budget they approved, and expressed concern that the program had been eliminated.

Daybreak was one of the county’s court-ordered drug treatment programs for juveniles. [.pdf file summarizing the program's history] Youth in the program were provided with schooling as well as therapy for substance abuse. Greco said the program’s last day was Friday, Jan. 29, to coincide with the end of the public school semester. On Monday, the dozen youth who were still a part of Daybreak began attending the schools in their communities, she said, and will be receiving outpatient therapy from Dawn Farm, a local nonprofit.

The five county employees who worked for the program transitioned to other jobs within the county, Greco said. The county continues to provide high-level and low-level treatment programs for youth, she clarified. The high-level program is a residential drug-treatment program; the low-level treatment consists of outpatient services. Daybreak was considered a mid-level treatment program. Since it began in 2005, the program has served 114 youth.

Barbara Bergman said she worried about providing an adequate level of service for kids. Ronnie Peterson asked where the youth would be going to school. Greco again stated that they’d be returning to the schools in their communities, and getting outpatient treatment.

Kristin Judge clarified with Greco that the program had been cut to save about $600,000 from the budget. Judge said that prevention was important because it saves money in the long run, when it would otherwise be spent on the jail. She said when the board had voted to cut the program, she’d been under the impression that Dawn Farm would no longer be able to support it, which wasn’t the case, she now realized. She said she didn’t want to put people on a roller coaster, but that as the board revisited their priorities – including saving money through this and other forms of prevention – the Daybreak program was one she’d like to see come back.

Bergman said there was a distinction between prevention and treatment, but she agreed that the board should reconsider reinstating the program. “I’m concerned that this could have been a mistake.”

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

Absent: Jessica Ping

Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 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.

One Comment

  1. By Leah Gunn
    February 6, 2010 at 7:24 am | permalink

    The next Working session of the Board of Commissioners, Feb. 18, will be devoted to begininng discussion of the report sent to the Commissioners about the various planning topics. There will no doubt be other sessions addrssing these issues as well.