Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (May 19, 2010): After some debate and dissent, a resolution to set a public hearing on possibly expanding the Washtenaw County Road Commission won approval last week from a majority of county commissioners. The hearing will take place during the board’s July 7 meeting.
Several other measures were approved with little discussion, including setting the county’s millage rate and making changes to the Natural Areas Preservation Program ordinance. A vote on minor changes to the county’s retiree health care trust agreement led one commissioner to express concern that the program is underfunded – the topic is likely to come up at a working session later in the year.
And though the board dissolved the county land bank earlier this year, commissioner Ronnie Peterson vowed on Wednesday to reestablish the entity, saying it was a critical tool to help stabilize home ownership in eastern Washtenaw, which he represents. “I’m going to get this passed at all costs to me.”
The board met in executive session to be briefed on the status of a years-long lawsuit that the townships of Ypsilanti, Salem and August brought against the county regarding the cost of police services contracts. There was no discussion of the case during the public portion of the meeting.
There was another notable issue that was not discussed during Wednesday’s meeting, though it was addressed during public commentary by county clerk Larry Kestenbaum: The possible renaming of a county building in honor of recently retired county administrator Bob Guenzel.
And during her first meeting as the new county administrator, Verna McDaniel received praise from board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr., who said that though she had big shoes to fill, he knew she’d do an excellent job.
Naming County Buildings
The first speaker during public commentary on Wednesday was Larry Kestenbaum, who is the Washtenaw County clerk, though he did not address the board in that official capacity.
Kestenbaum told the board that he’d heard there might be a resolution brought forward related to naming a county building. He was referring to a proposal to rename the building at 200 N. Main the Robert E. Guenzel Government Center. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Building to Be Named for Guenzel?"]
Kestenbaum said he’d given the issue of naming a lot of thought – suggesting, for example, that the names of Fourth and Fifth avenues be changed, since they were easily confused with Fourth and Fifth streets. He also acknowledged that the names of county buildings – 200 N. Main, the Annex, the county administration building – were generic.
At the same time, he said, there’s an uneasiness for naming a building after a person. There are also other buildings that could be named as well. Kestenbaum suggested a public process that would involve others in evaluating what buildings to name, and who to recognize. He urged commissioners to not make a hasty decision.
During the time for commissioners to respond to public commentary, Kristin Judge said it took a lot of courage for Kestenbaum to come forward with his opinion. She agreed that the board should take more time and develop a policy about naming county buildings, and said that helping the public become involved was a good idea.
Though a resolution to rename the 200 N. Main building after Guenzel had been on the draft agenda and was discussed at the May 12 administrative briefing, it was not on the final agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. No resolution was brought forward from the floor, and there was no further discussion on the issue.
Road Commission Expansion: Public Hearing Set
A resolution to set a public hearing on the possible expansion of the Washtenaw County Road Commission received some discussion at Wednesday’s meeting. At the board’s April 21 meeting, Conan Smith had proposed setting a hearing for May 19, but his motion had been tabled.
On Wednesday, the resolution brought up again, this time to set the hearing for July 7. There are currently three road commissioners, who are appointed by the county board. An expansion would increase that number to five.
Wes Prater began the discussion by saying that the timing wasn’t right. Jeff Irwin responded that the timing was perfect – the board could hear from the public during the summer, but wouldn’t have to vote on the expansion until after the upcoming elections. If they didn’t conduct the hearing now, they wouldn’t be set up to make a decision in the fall, he said.
Kristin Judge weighed in, saying the board needed to do more due diligence on the issue. They need to be able to tell the public details about a proposed expansion, so that the public can then say what they like or don’t like about the proposal. Among those details would be the cost of expanding the commission, she said.
Smith countered that it’s best when public input is given up front, not at the end of a process when decisions have already been made. And there’s nothing stopping the board from holding an additional public hearing later as well, he said. But the process of expansion requires certain mandated steps, with mandated time periods between each step. If they wanted to do it this year, they needed to get started.
Jessica Ping agreed that it was important to get feedback, but also said the board should get its ducks in a row. She asked if corporation counsel had looked at whether the salaries of the three current road commissioners could be redistributed among five commissioners, and whether road commissioners could be appointed by geographic region – currently, there are no such requirements. Those are some of the issues that need to be resolved before a public hearing, she said.
Barbara Bergman and Mark Ouimet both expressed support for a July 7 public hearing, saying it was simply a way to gather more information.
Judge stated that she’s against backroom politics – she wasn’t arguing in favor of making decisions without public input. However, she noted that at most public hearings, attendance is zero. And by holding a hearing on the Wednesday after the July 4 weekend, attendance will be less than zero, she said, because it’s likely that not all commissioners were be there either. Further, the average person doesn’t know what the road commission does, she said – they need to be given sufficient information before being asked for input. For example, what’s the rationale for increasing the number of road commissioners from three to five?
Leah Gunn observed that the process has to start somewhere – and there’s always a reason not to start. She also said that everyone she knows has an opinion about the road commission, even if they live in a district that doesn’t require road commission services, like Ann Arbor. Bergman agreed, saying she got calls about the road commission frequently.
Gunn also recalled that the first time she’d met Judge was before Judge had been elected – when she’d come to speak to Gunn and the board about the road commission.
Ronnie Peterson said he’d support the public hearing, adding that his vote doesn’t mean he’ll support expanding the road commission. He indicated that he hasn’t decided at this time whether expansion is necessary.
Prater made a case against holding the hearing, saying the board needs to gather more information. He expressed grave concern about the road commission’s revenues. If something isn’t done about declining revenues, he said, “we’re going to watch our roads disintegrate in front of our eyes.” As the road commission finishes up work in Scio Township along the Jackson corridor, paid for primarily by the township’s downtown development authority, then it will focus simply on maintenance and preservation, he said. There won’t be money for capital improvements.
Gunn said that constituents are well aware of the conditions of local roads. Perhaps a public hearing would call attention to the lack of funding, she said, and raise awareness in Lansing. [The road commission is funded in large part by the Michigan Transportation Fund.]
Ken Schwartz asked the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, whether there were mandated timelines to follow as they go through the process of possible expansion. Hedger said he’d research that question in further detail, but that they did need at least 28 days from the date that they set the hearing until the date it is held.
Schwartz said his concern was that the process seemed to be top down – that is, he wasn’t hearing his constituents clamoring for an expansion, though he has heard a lot of concerns about road conditions. Smith replied that he hadn’t heard direct requests for expansion, but people did raise issues about the road commission’s transparency and diversity. Those were issues that an expansion could potentially address, he said.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he wouldn’t support the motion. He felt as though there were already, in effect, five commissioners – the three appointed by the board, plus the two board commissioners – Prater and Ouimet – who served as liaisons to the road commission.
The motion to set a public hearing on July 7 passed, with dissent from Judge, Ping, Prater and Sizemore.
Millage Rate Set
On Wednesday’s agenda was a resolution to set the county operating millage. From The Chronicle’s report of the May 12 administrative briefing:
At the May 19 meeting of the Ways & Means Committee, on which all commissioners serve, they’ll vote on a resolution to set the 2010 Washtenaw County operating millage. It will be levied in property owners’ July tax bills and is unchanged from last year, at 4.5493 mills. Commissioners will take a final vote on the millage at their June 2 board meeting.
When other millages are factored in, the total county millage is 5.6768 mills. In addition to the operating millage, these other taxes are levied in July:County Parks (expires 2016): 0.2353 County Parks (expires 2019): 0.2367 Natural Areas (expires 2011): 0.2409 Enhanced Emergency Communications System 800 MHZ (expires 2015): 0.2000 Huron-Clinton Metro Authority: 0.2146
Later this year, the board will also be asked to approve a veterans relief millage and Act 88 millage (for economic development purposes), which will both be levied in December.
On Wednesday, commissioner Ken Schwartz reminded residents that commissioners weren’t adding a new millage – it was simply a formality required by law to officially set the rate. [The board doesn't have the authority to increase the millage rate above what's set by state law, but it does have the authority to lower it – an action that locally only the Ann Arbor District Library board has done.] The rate was unanimously passed without further discussion.
The board also set a public hearing on the millage rate for its June 2 meeting. Commissioners will take a final vote on the millage at that meeting.
Land Bank Redux
During the time set aside for items for current or future discussion, Ronnie Peterson told the board that he planned to bring back a resolution to reestablish the county’s land bank, which the board had voted to dissolve in March. From Chronicle coverage of the March 17, 2010 meeting:
Despite an appeal from Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber to keep the county’s land bank, commissioners on Wednesday voted to dissolve the entity, which the board created less than a year ago. That decision led commissioner Ronnie Peterson to make a long, impassioned plea for help to aid communities with high foreclosure rates, especially on the county’s east side. Peterson represents District 6, which covers the city of Ypsilanti and part of Ypsilanti Township.
The land bank was championed by county treasurer Catherine McClary, who chaired the authority’s board. It was designed as a way for the county to take possession of tax-foreclosed properties, rather than auction them off to the highest bidder – often an out-of-state company. The intent was to rehab the properties and resell them to qualified buyers, or demolish the houses and use the land for other purposes.
Citing internal disputes and a lack of sufficient funding, some commissioners said they didn’t believe the land bank was an appropriate mechanism for the county at this time. They had discussed their intent to eliminate the land bank last week at a March 10 administrative briefing. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Board to Vote on Folding Land Bank"]
Peterson plans to bring a resolution on the land bank to the board’s June 2 meeting. He said it was an important tool to stabilize the tax base and home ownership, especially for the eastern part of the county. He hoped that the board could hold some work group meetings on the issue somewhere on that side of the county, and he planned to lobby commissioners hard to support it.
Ken Schwartz told Peterson that before bringing it back to the board, it was important to address some of the issues that had caused the board to dissolve the land bank earlier this year. He did not specify what those issues might be. He pointed out that other districts, including his, could also benefit from a land bank. [Schwartz represents District 2, which covers northeast Washtenaw, including the townships of Superior, Salem and Northfield.
Peterson noted that four commissioners represent the east part of the county, and that he hoped they would help him take responsibility for reestablishing the land bank. [In addition to Peterson and Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Wes Prater have districts covering parts of eastern Washtenaw.] “I’m going to get this passed,” Peterson said. “I’m going to get this passed at all costs to me.”
Other Resolutions Approved
The board passed several other resolutions during Wednesday’s meeting.
Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association (VEBA)
A resolution to make changes in the board structure of the county’s VEBA trust agreement was approved. The resolution prompted a more general discussion about VEBA, which funds retiree health care. Wes Prater said he had no problem with the changes addressed in the resolution, but he was concerned because VEBA benefits are only 25% funded. It’s an unfunded liability, he said, and if it’s not addressed, some day the county will have a huge payment to make. He described the pension system as “not bad,” but said he was very concerned about VEBA, and called for a future working session on the issue.
County administrator Verna McDaniel said she planned to focus on shoring up VEBA. In response to a question from Barbara Bergman about the impact of recent federal health care reform on retiree medical benefits, McDaniel said she and other staff had recently been briefed on that topic by the county’s benefits consultant. They plan to get additional information to gauge its impact better, she said.
Mark Ouimet said it was important to get the lay of the land on both VEBA and the Washtenaw Employees Retirement System (WERS). The board needed to have a full understanding of where they stood and where they needed to be, as well as how to reach their goals in a safe, fiduciary responsible way.
Natural Areas Preservation Program Ordinance
Without discussion, the board unanimously approved changes to the ordinance governing the county’s Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP), which had been discussed in detail at the board’s April 22, 2010 working session. The changes, which would help the county protect more land that’s being used for farming, are being made in preparation for possibly placing a renewal of the NAPP millage on the November 2010 ballot.
Resolutions Related to Finance, Treasurer’s Office
Three items on Wednesday’s agenda were related to financial issues and the treasurer’s office. The board unanimously approved a resolution to create a bond counsel and financial advisor pool. The vendor pools allow county officials to pick from among three firms in each category. For bond counsel, the firms in the vendor pool are Dickinson, Wright; Axe & Ecklund; and Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone. The financial advisor pool consists of Public Financial Management; Municipal Financial Consultants, Inc.; and Leonard Capital Markets. Kristin Judge remarked that creating the pools was a good move, but otherwise there was no discussion on the issue.
The board also unanimously approved a resolution creating a part-time position in the treasurer’s office, to be paid for out of the county’s accommodations tax that’s levied on hotel and motel rooms. The position will be focused on collection of that tax.
Also related to the treasurer’s office, Kristin Judge commended county treasurer Catherine McClary for recently receiving the Liberty Bell Award, given each year by the Washtenaw County Bar Association. From a press release announcing the award:
The award recognizes outstanding service performed by a non-lawyer citizen who has given of his or her time and energy to strengthen the effectiveness of the American system of freedom under law.
This year, the award is being presented to Catherine McClary, Washtenaw County Treasurer, in recognition of her history of community service and her passion for making government more open and accessible to the public. McClary was first elected Treasurer in 1996. A County Treasurer is a constitutional officer with the duty to safeguard public funds and manage the County’s investments. By State law, she is mandated to collect delinquent property taxes, including foreclosing on property with unpaid taxes.
McClary provided early leadership to preserve homeownership in Washtenaw County by preventing tax and mortgage foreclosure; her programs are modeled throughout Michigan. McClary credits the success of Washtenaw County’s foreclosure prevention efforts to the “strong partnerships among County, City, University, and private non-profits such as Legal Services of South Central Michigan.”
Jean King, local attorney who supported McClary’s nomination for the Liberty Bell award, said, “Catherine works as hard as she can to reduce foreclosures in this County and to educate other Treasurers throughout our state.”
McClary, who attended Wednesday’s board meeting, received a round of applause from commissioners and staff.
Commissioners who attended the May 12 appointments caucus had discussed candidates and arrived at a tentative list. Officially, the board chair makes nominations, which are then confirmed by a vote of the board. At the May 19 board meeting, the nominations had changed slightly from those discussed at caucus. They were approved without further discussion. The names indicated in bold are additions made since the May 12 caucus.
- Accommodations Ordinance Commission: Shary Brown, Shari Faulhaber
- Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee: Charlie Koenn
- Brownfield Development Authority: Teresa Gillotti, Mark Heusel
- Emergency Medical Services Commission: Ashley Cieslinski, Eric Copeland, William Wagner
- Historic District Commission: Chuck Gray, Jean King, Elmer White, Ron Woods
- Local Emergency Planning Committee: Samantha Brandfon, Ashley Cieslinski, Bryan Schultz
- Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee: Rane Curl, David Lutton
- Public Works Board: Ruth Ann Jamnick George Schutte
- Workforce Development Board: Sean Duval
Other Public Commentary
Thomas Partridge spoke three out of the four times available for public commentary on Wednesday. He introduced himself as a Democratic candidate for the 18th state senate seat, which covers much of Washtenaw County. [The seat is held by Liz Brater, who is term-limited. Other candidates include current state Reps. Pam Byrnes and Rebekah Warren, who is married to county commissioner Conan Smith.] Partridge called on the board to pursue more collaboration between the county, the city of Ann Arbor and other jurisdictions in the 18th district. He urged the county to support job growth and economic development by building a permanent, prestigious entertainment center, convention center, senior center and center for disabled persons, strategically located within the 18th district. He asked the board to pass a resolution calling on the governor to form a task force with other states that would work toward improving the economy and the advancement of seniors, the disabled and the jobless.
Executive Session: Pending Litigation
At the end of their meeting, commissioners spent roughly an hour in closed executive session to discuss pending litigation. They received an update on the years-long lawsuit between the county and the townships of Augusta, Salem and Ypsilanti related to the cost of police services. The county is awaiting a judgment on its request for the townships to cover the cost of patrols provided by the county for most of 2006 – potentially around $2 million. Commissioners emerged from the executive session and immediately adjourned the meeting without discussing the lawsuit.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, June 2, 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.