County Board Moves Ahead on Land Bank

Effort to expand road commission doesn't gain support

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (July 7, 2010): Commissioners spent most of their July meeting on two contentious issues: re-establishing a land bank, and a possible expansion of the county road commission.

Jeff Irwin, Leah Gunn

Washtenaw County commissioners Jeff Irwin (District 11) and Leah Gunn (District 9) confer before the July 7 board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

After more than an hour of discussion, a majority of commissioners approved a step toward bringing back the land bank, which they’d voted to dissolve in March. Several commissioners raised concerns over funding for the land bank and the expense of property maintenance and rehab, though most said they supported the entity in concept.

A land bank allows the government – through a separate land bank authority – to take temporary ownership of tax- or mortgage-foreclosed land while the county works to put it back into productive use. Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, whose district in Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township has been hit hard by foreclosures, has been an advocate for the land bank for several months, and expressed his impatience and frustration during the meeting. A motion to rescind the dissolution of the land bank was not considered at the July 7 meeting, but might be brought forward next month.

The board also held a public hearing on expanding the road commission from three members to five – three residents spoke at the hearing, all opposing the expansion. An animated discussion with a somewhat unclear outcome followed the hearing – with Wes Prater moving to stop the process of expansion, and getting support from the majority of the board. Calling that move “symbolic,” Jeff Irwin said he plans to bring a resolution to the Aug. 4 board meeting that will officially propose the expansion.

Several other items related to financial matters. The board approved an initiative to put more government information online, especially regarding budget and finance. They discussed and authorized re-funding bonds requested by Dexter Township, and noted with some concern that Dexter Township isn’t alone in its struggle to meet bond payments. And county administrator Verna McDaniel signaled her intent to hire Kelly Belknap as the county’s new finance director, replacing Peter Ballios, a 38-year veteran of the county who retired at the end of 2009.

The board also approved a brownfield plan for a project in downtown Ypsilanti, and set public hearings for Aug. 4 regarding two additional brownfield plans – the Near North housing project and Zingerman’s Deli expansion, both in Ann Arbor. The board is also expected to vote on those plans at the Aug. 4 meeting.

Washtenaw Land Bank Inches Forward

Discussion of the land bank was an agenda item at the Ways & Means Committee meeting, which immediately precedes the regular board meeting. Before they began, commissioner Jeff Irwin asked whether the public hearings that were scheduled to be held during the board meeting could be moved ahead to Ways & Means, prior to the land bank discussion. That discussion was expected to be lengthy, and several people were in the audience waiting to speak at the public hearing on possible expansion of the Washtenaw County Road Commission.

Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger indicated that public hearings must be held at the regular board meeting. Conan Smith, who chairs Ways & Means, apologized to the public for the wait. [The discussion ultimately lasted more than an hour.]

Ronnie Peterson, who has been pushing to re-establish the land bank, began by saying he hadn’t known that the discussion would be on the agenda. Smith clarified that at the June 29 administrative briefing – which Peterson didn’t attend – the consensus among other commissioners was that it wasn’t the right time for a vote on the issue, but that a discussion was warranted.

Peterson also apologized to those who were in the audience waiting for the public hearings, but said he’d promised to bring a resolution to this meeting, and he kept his promises. He said he’d been asked to be a “good boy” and wait until the July meeting, and he’d done that. Though he’d had concerns about the land bank when it was initially proposed last year, those issues had been hashed out, he said. He’d since come to believe that it was an important tool for the county, and especially for the eastern side, which he represents.

He said that in politics, your word ought to mean something: “If you shake a hand, it closes the deal.” He said he’d been promised that there’d be a vote on the land bank at their July 7 meeting. He’d more recently been asked to delay the resolution he was bringing forward, but he wasn’t going to do that.

Peterson then asked the county treasurer, Catherine McClary, to come forward and speak about the scope of the land bank, its funding, and the general status of tax and mortgage forclosures in the county.

County Treasurer: Uses and Funding of a Land Bank

McClary began by thanking commissioners for the support they’ve provided over the years in dealing with tax and mortgage foreclosures. In 1999, knowing that changes in state law would force the county to foreclose on more properties, the board stepped in to fund a social worker for her office. Since then, over 16,000 properties have been forfeited to the treasurer’s office, and about 500 have actually been foreclosed. Those numbers have been skewed higher over the past couple of years. Previously, the county averaged only 11 tax foreclosures a year. This year, that number is nearly 400. “It’s simply a matter of the economy,” she said. In the past, people still had the resources to work out payment plans – that’s no longer the case.

She also thanked the board for funding her office’s mortgage foreclosure prevention program. Her office fielded over 1,500 calls last year, and the program was able to save about 50% of those home, she said. The nature of those homeowners is changing – previously, people got into trouble because of predatory lending, McClary said, and you could change the terms of the loan to address the problem. Now, they’re seeing more middle class homeowners who’ve lost their jobs and just can’t make payments. There are few alternatives, and because of that, she said she doesn’t think they’ll have as much success keeping people in their homes.

Regarding the land bank, McClary said she was not there to promote it – that was the board’s decision. Land banks typically deal with tax-foreclosed properties, though they can handle any type. A land bank would serve all areas of the county, not just specific neighborhoods. She contrasted this with federal funding available through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which can also be used to help deal with foreclosed properties but is limited to low-income census tracts.

How the county would use the land bank would depend on the policies and procedures they put in place, McClary said. Would it be for economic development? To help people move into homes? It can take a lot of different forms.

But no matter what they decide to do, the bottom line is that they need funding, McClary said. The first land bank in Michigan, in Genessee County, was generously supported by the Mott Foundation, she said – that’s not an option for Washtenaw. Sometimes there’s money available through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) or the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). Alternatively, some land banks seek traditional bank loans.

McClary was recommending that the land bank be funded by transferring a half percent of the interest that’s paid to the county on properties forfeited to the treasurer’s office.

She said there were two resolutions that the board was being asked to consider. One would rescind their March 2010 decision to dissolve the land bank. The other made modifications to the intergovernmental agreement that governs the land bank authority. [.pdf file of proposed IGA resolution] For that, McClary identified four main changes:

  • Changing the composition of the land bank authority board. The resolution would remove a slot designated for the sheriff, and add two positions for commissioners, rather than one. There would be seven members: the county treasurer, two county commissioners, the mayor or councilmember from Ann Arbor, the mayor or councilmember from Ypsilanti, the supervisor from Ypsilanti Township, and a supervisor from one of the townships in the western part of the county.
  • Eliminating the requirement that the county treasurer serve as chair of the land bank authority.
  • Requiring that the authority can act only after a majority vote of the entire authority board, rather than a majority of the quorum present at a meeting. For a seven-member board, any action would require at least four votes.
  • Strengthening the language of the agreement so that the board of commissioners could terminate the land bank by board resolution. Previously, that authority rested with the county treasurer. [Although the board had voted to dissolve the land bank, it was actually McClary who executed that request.]

Hedger clarified that the resolution to rescind the board’s vote on dissolving the land bank must take place at a regular board meeting. Changes to the intergovernmental agreement would go through both the Ways & Means Committee and a regular board meeting.

Land Bank: Commissioner Discussion

Mark Ouimet began the discussion by saying that he wondered if the county could create a pool of funding sources. They didn’t have access to a foundation like Mott, but they could look into other alternatives. He was also concerned about the issue of property maintenance. He said he’s seen lots of empty homes as he’s been out campaigning – Ouimet is running for the state representative seat in District 52 – and the second or third time he goes by those houses, it’s clear that their condition has deteriorated.

Kristin Judge said that McClary had been very patient with them. The reason the board had dissolved the land bank was purely political, she said. They hadn’t been able to reach consensus about who to appoint to the land bank authority board. She reminded her fellow commissioners that they’d all voted to establish it originally. [See Chronicle coverage: "Banking on a Land Bank"] Then “politics got in the way,” she said.

She clarified with McCleary that after the land bank authority is established, the board can then seek other sources of funding. She noted that Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber was an advocate of the land bank. But it’s not just the eastern part of the county that’s being hit, she noted – her district of Pittsfield Township was also feeling the effects of the economy. It is time to put emotions aside, she said, and do what’s right for the people of Washtenaw County.

Board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. spoke next, noting that he was the one that Peterson had alluded to – he had asked Peterson to hold off on proposing this resolution. A land bank is a good idea, Sizemore said, but they still need more information about how it would work, and especially on how it would be funded. It appears that both Ypsilanti and Superior townships would be willing to contribute funding, he said – he’d spoken to supervisors Karen Lovejoy Roe and Bill McFarlane about that. Maintenance is another concern, and it would cost money to mow the lawns and have the buildings boarded up. He vowed to continue working toward the goal of establishing a land bank, but he wasn’t prepared to support it that night.

Jessica Ping echoed Sizemore’s comments, saying she was concerned about funding sources and maintenance costs. With so many unanswered questions in this budget climate, she didn’t see how they could do it.

Barbara Bergman also said she couldn’t support it. She pointed out that the intergovernmental agreement established a source of funding – taking money away from the county that it used to service its debt.

Ken Schwartz asked McClary to clarify how the proposed funding would work. McClary explained that when a property enters forfeiture, the county collects a 4% administrative fee. There’s also 1% interest charged on each parcel when the property is turned over to the treasurer. That money goes into the county’s delinquent tax revolving fund. Money leftover from the revolving fund goes into the county’s capital improvements fund and is used to pay the debt service of other bonds committed by the board of commissioners. McClary is proposing that one half of that 1% be transferred from the revolving fund to the land bank.

Asked by Schwartz for a dollar amount, McClary said that in the highest year, a half percent would have brought in about $620,000. More realistically, she estimated it would be closer to $500,000 or lower annually.

Schwartz said it would help him to see a budget, laying out where the revenue would come from and what the operational expenses would be. Would they hire staff? How much would it cost to demolish a building or to rehab it?

McClary responded that the land bank did have a budget after it had been formed last year. They were looking to staff it with a part-time employee through the office of community development – a joint county/city of Ann Arbor department – as well as contracting for staff time from the county’s office of energy and economic development, which handles brownfield issues. The primary expenses would be for personnel, legal services and maintenance, she said.

In ballpark figures, McClary estimated that it costs about $10,000 to demolish a building, and $70,000 to rehab it. In one complex, there are 63 foreclosed townhouses – maintenance costs for that complex have exceeded $10,000 since April 1, she said.

Schwartz said a land bank would be really important to some communities, and that the county as a whole benefits whenever one of its communities is improved. But they need to see a budget and to determine how many properties they can reasonably help through a land bank. For him, the question is where the greatest benefit lies.

Leah Gunn weighed in next, saying she had provided commissioners with a list of all the projects that the Washtenaw Urban County has done, many of which are similar to what a land bank would do. She said the estimates that McClary provided are too low and don’t reflect the true cost of buying, rehabbing and finding a qualified buyer for these properties. Rather than creating a new bureaucracy, she said, communities that want to fund this type of project should work through the Urban County. [Gunn is chair of the Urban County executive committee.]

Gunn said she found some things peculiar. For example, the cover memo about the land bank states that there would be no impact on human resources, yet now they’re hearing that there’d be a part-time employee. At first they were told there’d be no impact on the budget, but there clearly would be, she said. The county doesn’t have $600,000 to put into a land bank, Gunn said. What would they cut instead? Would they defer maintenance on their own buildings? Default on bonds? They face a potential $1 million deficit next year, she said, so they need to look very closely at their funding decisions.

She also said she didn’t want to end up like Flint. The Genesee County land bank owns more than 1,000 abandoned properties which they don’t have the funding to maintain. “It’s a disaster,” Gunn said. “I don’t want that for my county.”

Wes Prater noted that they were only considering this resolution on the intergovernmental agreement at Ways & Means – they’d have to bring it back for final approval at a future board meeting. By then, he said they can clean up whatever issues remain, but they need to get it moving. He didn’t disagree with Gunn, but said a land bank offers different opportunities – there are things that it can do that the Urban County can’t. To him, it’s not so much about rehabbing properties as it is about stabilizing neighborhoods and getting rid of blight.

Since funding was a problem, Prater suggested removing mention of funding from the resolution.

Jeff Irwin spoke next, saying it was fair to characterize the original decision to form a land bank as a “bit of a rush job.” At the time, he said, he and others had concerns about the proposal. What was the strategy? What kinds of properties would they target – commercial, industrial or residential? So they went ahead and approved the land bank, and asked the people who were working on it to develop a plan. For whatever reason, he said, that strategy was never forthcoming. They didn’t get answers to fundamental questions, like how much it would cost, and who’d do the maintenance.

Irwin said that a land bank is a reasonable tool, and he commended Peterson for directing the board to look at the needs that a land bank is intended to address. But there are still unanswered questions, and now there’s the additional question of the funding stream that’s been added to the intergovernmental agreement. He asked for an analysis of the impact on transferring $600,000 to the land bank – what would that mean for the capital improvements fund, and the county’s debt repayment schedule? County administrator Verna McDaniel said she’d asked the finance department to provide that analysis.

Irwin turned back to the question of a strategy, and asked McClary whether there’d been any progress toward developing one.

McClary pointed out that the board had received a four-page memo last year broadly outlining land bank policies and procedures. Beyond that, they were hampered because the board never appointed its representative to the land bank authority board, she said. Irwin’s questions and concerns are valid, she said, as are Gunn’s. Before the land bank took action, the land bank authority board would need to develop the strategy – it’s not her role as treasurer to do that, she said.

Irwin then commented on Judge’s earlier request to put emotions aside – he said he didn’t know what that referred to. He said he respected Peterson’s efforts to push hard for the land bank, but there are serious issues to consider. Irwin said he wants to be proud of approving a land bank, one that actually has a chance of success.

Conan Smith thanked Peterson and McClary for their work. He noted that the funding source was only a recommendation. Last year they had started out with governance and political barriers, Smith said, which impeded the development of a strategic plan. If they rescind their resolution dissolving the land bank, they can then empower the land bank authority to move ahead with developing a strategy.

It’s not necessary that the land bank be funded, he noted. There are other benefits that a land bank brings – the property it holds, for example, gains brownfield status, making it eligible for state tax credits. His own preference is to move forward with governance issues, and determine a funding source later. The funding source that they’d been discussing was “highly volatile,” he said, and the fact that it’s dedicated to the capital improvements fund was “arbitrary.” He also reminded his colleagues that they’d “raided” the capital improvements fund twice during the last budget cycle, using those funds to help deal with the projected $30 million, two-year general fund deficit.

He summed up by saying there may be a community need that should be prioritized over the county’s institutional need – that’s the question they need to weigh.

Ronnie Peterson, Conan Smith

Ronnie Peterson (District 6), left, talks with fellow commissioner Conan Smith (District 10) before the start of the July 7 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. Peterson brought forward a resolution to bring back the county land bank, which the board had dissolved earlier this year.

Peterson responded to some of the criticisms of his fellow commissioners, saying that the board itself is to blame for not setting a budget or strategy for the land bank. He said he’d be willing to compromise and remove references to the funding source from the resolution. He reminded the board that they had asked McClary to recommend a funding source, and she had – it was a source that wasn’t a bond or a tax, but it’s not set in stone.

The board can make modifications as they move forward, but the process has to start at some point, he said – and it needs to start now.

Sizemore reiterated that he would support working on a land bank, no matter what happened with the vote.

Gunn again stated her concern that the funding source identified in the resolution would impact the county’s general fund. It violates the county’s first guiding principle, she said: Ensure long-term fiscal stability for the county.

Schwartz moved to strike the fifth resolved clause:

… that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hereby establishes dedicated funding for the Land Bank by authorizing the transfer of the additional one half of one percent interest applied to properties that forfeit to the County Treasurer to the Land Bank Authority, such transfers to begin for those properties that were due to foreclose in 2010 (2007 and prior years taxes) …

Other references to the funding source were later also included in the motion to strike language from the resolution.

Judge pointed out that 76% of the county’s revenues are tied to property values, and that helping to preserve property values in struggling neighborhoods is fiscally responsible government. She said they set up the land bank to fail – they should take responsibility for that. They’ve had months to address these questions and concerns, she said, noting that Peterson had first raised this issue in May. [See Chronicle coverage: "Commissioner Vows to Re-establish Land Bank"]

They can set up the land bank without dedicated funding, she said, and appoint members to the land bank authority board. There are smart people who have already committed a lot of time on this project, she said, mentioning Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and Ann Arbor city councilmember Sabra Briere. Give them a chance, she said: “We stopped it before it could be successful.” Referencing Gunn’s remarks about the situation in Flint/Genesee County, Judge said she assumed the land bank authority board here wouldn’t allow Washtenaw County to become slum lords.

Ouimet came back to the point he’d made earlier about seeking alternative fund sources and creating a pool of funds for the land bank. He said it didn’t seem like that suggestion had resonated with anyone. He suggested pulling in the United Way, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, local banks and other groups to work together on building funds for the land bank. He also restated his concerns about maintenance costs and property management, saying he didn’t want to add another burden to the county’s employees.

McClary said she’d heard his concerns, and made a commitment to seek other funding sources.

Bergman and Gunn both restated their objections. Bergman called it a “shell organization,” and said it was dangerous to authorize a land bank without knowing how it would be funded. She responded to Judge’s criticisms by saying that “political is what we do here – this is a political body.” As politicians, they were there to represent the best interests of their constituents. Gunn repeated her concerns as they related to fiscal stability and capacity to manage the properties – properties that just sit there won’t help stabilize neighborhoods, she said.

Schwartz said he agreed with Ouimet about the need for additional funding sources, but before pursuing them, there needs to be a baseline government funding level first. He said that now the burden of addressing all these issues is on those commissioners who support reestablishing the land bank, and noted that the resolution they’d be voting on that night was just a step toward that.

Outcome: The board, at its Ways & Means Committee meeting, voted to approve the revised intergovernmental agreement, with dissent from Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn. The expectation is that commissioners will vote on both that agreement and a resolution to rescind its dissolution of the land bank at an upcoming board meeting, possibly on Aug. 4.

Land Bank: Public Commentary

Karen Lovejoy Roe, supervisor for Ypsilanti Township and a former county commissioner, spoke during the final opportunity for public commentary at the Ways & Means Committee meeting. She thanked the board for their vote, and said the land bank was important to her community. She said she thought that the township could come to the table with funding.

Lovejoy Roe said the thing that hadn’t been discussed was the role of landlords. There are streets in the township with 20-30 homes, and now a third of them are rentals – landlords are able to buy up foreclosed properties quickly. She said that with a land bank, she was confident they could turn those back to home buyers. Some landlords have no interest in improving properties they buy – there are two landlords in particular that the township is going after in circuit court, because of the condition of their properties, she said.

The Urban County, she noted, was very bureaucratic, and takes a long time to move projects forward. [Lovejoy Roe serves on the Urban County's executive committee.]

Lovejoy Roe then criticized commissioner Barbara Bergman, saying that Bergman had told Lovejoy Roe that she wasn’t going to do anything to help Ypsilanti Township. Lovejoy Roe said she was very disappointed that Bergman was holding the police services lawsuit over their heads – Bergman, she said, had told Lovejoy Roe to bring a $500,000 check to the meeting. [Ypsilanti Township is one of three townships that sued the county over the amount that townships are charged for sheriff deputy patrols. The townships have lost all appeals on the case, and Salem Township has reached a settlement. For the most recent Chronicle coverage: "County Settles Lawsuit with Salem Township"]

Gunn responded to Lovejoy Roe’s comments, saying she was very disappointed in the ad hominem attacks on Bergman. “There is no place for that in this body,” she said. Gunn also said that the purpose of a land bank is not to be a landlord.

Road Commission Expansion Lacks Support

The county board of commissioners appoints the three members of the Washtenaw County Road Commission board. Over the years there have been concerns voiced about the road commission, ranging from a lack of responsiveness to a lack of representation for the western side of the county. At their May 19, 2010 meeting, the county board voted to set a hearing for July 7 that would be the first of many mandated steps in order to expand the number of road commissioners. On the May vote to set a hearing, four commissioners – Kristin Judge, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater and Rolland Sizemore Jr. – dissented, arguing against the need for expansion. [See Chronicle coverage: "Hearing Set on Road Commission Expansion"]

Road Commission: Public Commentary and Public Hearing

Ron Motsinger of Dexter spoke twice – during time allotted for general public commentary, and again at the public hearing. He said he’d been trying to find out why there was a need to expand from three to five road commissioners. If the idea is to get better representation, he said he’s had several experiences with the road commission and has found them to be responsive. He gave an anecdote of a family member in Milan who’d had flooding issues, and said they’d been helped by the commission. He said he always has his calls returned, even on evenings and weekends. Motsinger also wondered whether going from three to five commissioners would increase costs, which he didn’t think was a good idea. If the current compensation is spread among five members, he didn’t think that would be fair to the current road commissioners. He said if the commission isn’t broke, he doesn’t see the need to change things.

Ken Siler of Freedom Township identified himself as president of the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau, which he said had voted against expansion of the road commission when the issue had been raised several years ago. They’d primarily been concerned about the costs, he said. Speaking on a personal level, he said a one-man committee was the most efficient, and a three-person committee was close to that. Most organization he dealt with didn’t have more than that, he said, and he didn’t think they needed more on the road commission. Siler spoke during both the general public commentary and at the public hearing, making the same points.

Bill Stein spoke during the public hearing, saying he was a citizen now, although he’d previously addressed the board as a representative of the road commission’s retiree association. Adding more commissioners to the board won’t fill more potholes or build more roads, he said. He praised the county commissioners who’d recently served as liaisons to the road commission – Wes Prater, Mark Ouimet, Leah Gunn and Ken Schwartz – saying they’d asked the right questions. He also praised one of the current road commissioners in particular, Doug Fuller, saying that Fuller frequently attended government meetings in Saline and Manchester. If anything, Stein said, perhaps the county board should consider shortening the terms of road commissioners, from six to three years.

Commissioner Response to Public Commentary

Several commissioners responded to Motsinger and Siler after the general public commentary.

Jeff Irwin said that over the past several years, many complaints have come to the board about the road commission. Some have been addressed, and some haven’t, he said. Another issue is getting a diversity of opinions and experiences on the road commission, he said. With only three road commissioners, it’s difficult to represent all geographic areas of the county, he said – urban, suburban and rural. Western Washtenaw also has lacked representation, he said. [Of the three current road commissioners, Doug Fuller is from Scio Township, and the other two – David Rutledge and Fred Veigel – are from the Ypsilanti area, on the county's east side.]

Irwin said he felt they could expand the road commission without increasing costs.

Kristin Judge said that before she was elected as county commissioner, she had supported expanding the road commission, because she felt it lacked a diversity of thought and wasn’t responsive to community concerns. Since then – and since Wes Prater had become a liaison to the road commission – things have improved, she said, and responsiveness is no longer a concern. When she talks with constituents, the overwhelming response is to not spend more on paying commissioners, when that  money could go toward filling potholes or building roads – even if it’s only $10,000 or $15,000, she said.

Judge later suggested that electing road commissioners, rather than having them appointed by the county board, would be another option they should explore. That would help address any remaining accountability issues, she said.

Jessica Ping said she’d also previously been a supporter of expanding the road commission. One issue was that it’s difficult to meet the requirements of the Open Meetings Act when there are only three commissioners – any time that two commissioners get together, that’s a quorum. She was interested in taking politics out of the equation, and had suggested appointing road commissioners based on five geographic districts – just as the the county commissioners represent different areas of the county. But she was concerned about the cost of adding more road commissioners, and didn’t know if the current salaries could be split five ways. The county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, was looking into both of those issues, she said.

Leah Gunn noted that she’d spent a year being an alternate liaison to the road commission. At that time, Wes Prater had been one of the road commissioners, and he’d made a big difference in the organization, she said. He had helped transfer the road commission’s human resources department to the county’s HR department, and had instituted a program of preventative maintenance. The road commission, Gunn said, had received the message about customer service, and was doing better.

Mark Ouimet said he’d spoken with several township supervisors and other community leaders on the western side of Washtenaw County, which his district covers. There was a strong feeling among them that the road commission has improved and there’s no need for expansion. They’re doing a better job of communicating, he said, and of partnering with local communities. The road commission is on the right track, he concluded.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he wouldn’t be supporting expansion. He praised Prater as the liaison and Ouimet as the alternate liaison. Ken Schwartz then noted wryly that Ouimet does cast a long shadow, but that Schwartz had been appointed by Sizemore as alternate liaison, replacing Ouimet. Sizemore quipped that Schwartz should wear a T-shirt indicating he was the alternative liaison.

Road Commission: Resolution to End the Expansion Process

After the public hearing, Schwartz asked Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, whether the board needed to act. They did not, Hedger said – there was no need for them to take any other steps, if they decided against expansion. No resolution had been proposed.

Prater then moved to terminate the process of expanding the road commission. As a point of order, Conan Smith noted that there was no process to terminate. Hedger said you could argue that by holding a public hearing, a process had been started.

[In previously lobbying to set a public hearing on the expansion, Smith had talked explicitly about a process. From The Chronicle's coverage of the board's May 19, 2010 meeting: "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."]

Schwartz asked whether anything would happen automatically, if the board took no action. It would not, Hedger replied. State law requires that a public hearing be held before a vote on expansion can occur, and Schwartz asked whether this public hearing would “hold.” Hedger said he wasn’t sure, but that he didn’t think there was a time limit. In that case, Schwartz said he’d second Prater’s motion, so that the issue doesn’t linger.

Irwin stated that he intended to bring a resolution to the board proposing an expansion, regardless of whatever “symbolic” action was taken at the meeting. Everyone will have the opportunity to vote on it, he said. Smith said that Irwin’s action was the appropriate one.

Prater then moved to amend his motion, to state that the board would not expand the road commission. Smith pointed out that a motion to not take an action wasn’t a viable motion. Barbara Bergman then suggested a motion that they would retain the same number of road commissioners. Prater called a point of order, saying there was already a motion on the table.

Gunn said if Hedger ruled that there was a viable motion on the table – which he did – then she’d call the question, a parliamentary move that forces a vote.

Outcome: The board approved Prater’s motion to terminate the process of expanding the road commission, with dissent from Irwin and Smith.

Irwin then restated his intent to bring a resolution to the Aug. 4 meeting, so “we can have this fun all over again.”

Prater argued that the board had better things to do. It was Irwin’s right, he said, but he didn’t understand it.

Smith said that they didn’t have a very fulsome conversation about the issue. The road commission doesn’t have a strategy for addressing the fact that it is seriously underfunded, for example. To allow the board to maintain the status quo when there’s a crisis of enormous proportions is irresponsible, he said.

Prater said he respectfully disagreed. “There certainly is a strategy,” he said. The road commission is pursuing ISO 9000 certification, which aims at enhancing customer service. And a capital improvement plan has been laid out, he said – they just don’t have the funding to implement it.

At this point Ping made a motion to adjourn. When told that they hadn’t finished the agenda yet, she replied: “Can I make a motion to stop this conversation?”

It was a successful gambit.

Transparency Initiative Passes

Earlier in the meeting, Kristin Judge introduced a resolution creating “Open Book,” which aims to provide online access to a greater range of county data, including more detailed budget and expenditure information.

Wes Prater, Kristin Judge

Wes Prater (District 4) talks with Kristin Judge (District 7).

Judge thanked fellow commissioner Wes Prater and the county staff who have worked on this project over the past several months – she read out a list of their names. She said she expects the program to be well-received by the public, and told the board “I hope this will pass with flying colors.”

Prater said he believed it will serve the tax-paying public well, and that the county will likely see a decrease in the number of Freedom of Information Act requests that they receive, because the information will already by online.

Check registers will be first to go online, followed by credit card and P-card (purchasing card) information, as well as salaries.

Outcome: The resolution passed at both the Ways & Means Committee and the regular board meeting, without further discussion.

Bond Re-funding for Dexter Township

Dan Myers, the county’s director of public works, was on hand to answer questions about a bond re-funding that commissioners were being asked to approve on behalf of Dexter Township. The debt was originally incurred in 1994 to build the Multi-Lakes wastewater system, in partnership with Lyndon Township, and with Putnam Township in Livingston County. The system initially served portions of North Lake, Silver Lake, Half Moon Lake and Blind Lake. A later phase added service to Island Lake, Ellsworth Lake, and portions of Bruin Lake and Joslin Lake in Lyndon Township and Patterson Lake in Putnam and Unadilla townships, as well as the village of Gregory.

In 1999, Washtenaw County had issued refunding bonds of $6.53 million for Dexter Township’s portion of the debt. Of that, $3.05 million in debt remains. Restructuring it would entail reducing the township’s payments by extending the debt for another five years – the township expects to save $38,000 as a result.

Myers clarified that the township is concerned they won’t be able to make payments in a couple of years, at the current rate. They also want to take advantage of low interest rates, he said. The situation in Sylvan Township is more difficult, he said. [In March 2010, the board approved the sale of $10.4 million in refunding bonds to restructure debt from construction of that township’s water and wastewater systems.] Sylvan had expected to meet its bond payments from connection fees, but development has slowed and there are far fewer connections than anticipated. Rolland Sizermore Jr. said they’re in “bad trouble” in Sylvan.

Kristin Judge asked Myers whether there was any financial loss to the county because of the situations in Dexter and Sylvan townships. No, Myers said, the townships are responsible for payments of the bonds, though the bonds are backed by the county’s full faith and credit. What if the townships can’t meet the terms? Judge asked. If the county had to make payments, Myers replied, they would ensure that the townships did “whatever they needed to do” to repay the county. What happens if they default? Judge asked. Myers said the county wouldn’t let that happen.

Mark Ouimet – who represents District 1, which includes both Sylvan and Dexter townships – noted that if hookups don’t increase in Sylvan, the situation will be “much more challenging.” He said he felt better about Dexter Township. The re-bonding does at least give the townships some breathing room, he said.

As he’d discussed at the June 29 administrative briefing, Sizemore said he’d like to see a review of debt incurred by these and other townships, which have used the county’s full faith and credit.

Conan Smith noted that since the board had dissolved the planning commission, there was no review body to look at situations like this. He suggested that they might want to consider putting something else in place to serve that purpose. [The county's planning commission was dissolved in 2002. It was replaced by an advisory group – the Washtenaw County planning advisory board. That group was dissolved by the board of commissioners at their Feb. 3, 2010 meeting, as part of the restructuring of the planning and environment department, which is now the energy and economic development department.]

Head Start ESL Job Approved

Before the board was a resolution authorizing the hiring of a part-time worker for the county’s Head Start program, to work with families that don’t speak English as a native language. Enrollment of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) families – primarily Hispanic – has increased about 15% over the past three years, according to Head Start administrators.

The salary range for the position is in the $14,912 to $20,408 range. The request did not ask for funding from the county’s general fund.

At the board’s June 29 administrative briefing, when the staff and commissioners review the upcoming agenda, Conan Smith had questioned how Head Start could afford the position. He noted during last year’s budget process, the board was told that the Head Start budget couldn’t be cut because they didn’t have a dime to spare. “Now, they seem to have a lot of dimes,” he said.

At the July 7 meeting, Barbara Bergman asked where the money was coming from to pay for the position. County administrator Verna McDaniel told the board that the county had been overcharging Head Start for the retirement of debt related to construction of its facility. Those extra funds will cover the salary, which McDaniel characterized as low.

Kristin Judge praised Head Start, saying she supported the hire because it was important for the county to be a welcoming community, especially with what’s happening on the national scene – an apparent allusion to recent controversial legislation in Arizona directed at possible illegal immigrants.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved creating the part-time position, as part of its consent agenda.

Water Resources Commissioner Staff

The board was asked for approval to hire a senior environmental planner for the office of the water resources commissioner. Approval was required because the proposed salary – $77,400 – was above the midpoint level of $66,634 for a non-union position of that pay grade. A memo provided to commissioners noted that the proposed salary fell between the authorized range ($53,732 to $79,537) for that pay grade, and was $2,730 lower than the salary of the employee that this hire would replace.

Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked the water resources commissioner, Janis Bobrin, whether the person she intended to hire – Meghan Bonfiglio – lived in Washtenaw County. Bobrin replied that she did not. Sizemore said he had a problem hiring someone who wasn’t a resident of the county, and that he’d be voting against the approval.

Outcome: The board approved the hire at the proposed salary level as part of its consent agenda, with dissent from Sizemore.

Mellencamp Brownfield Plan Approved

The board’s agenda included a public hearing and vote on approval of the Mellencamp Building brownfield plan. [.pdf file of Mellencamp brownfield plan] The developer is buying and rehabbing three vacant buildings in downtown Ypsilanti at 120, 122 and 124 W. Michigan Ave., between Huron and Washington, and converting them to residential and commercial space. The $2.2 million project is seeking brownfield status as a “functionally obsolete” property, which will make it eligible for Michigan Business Tax credits. The project is expected to bring 30 new residents and 25 new jobs to Ypsilanti.

No one spoke at the public hearing. Commissioner Kristin Judge clarified that the county wouldn’t be losing any tax revenue as a result of approving the brownfield plan.

Before the vote, commissioner Ronnie Peterson – who represents District 6, which includes the city of Ypsilanti – thanked his colleagues for their support of the project, calling it a good example of the government and a private entity working together. He described it as a major effort and an example of what’s needed to revitalize the downtown area.

Outcome: The plan passed unanimously at both the Ways & Means Committee and the regular board meeting, as part of the consent agenda.

Public Hearings Set for August Meeting

The board set three public hearings for its Aug. 4 meeting – two of them related to brownfield plans:

  • A public hearing to get input on the brownfield plan proposed by Zingerman’s Deli, which is expanding its business and seeking to recoup some of its costs through tax increment financing, which brownfield status allows. [See Chronicle coverage: "Zingerman's Project Seeks Brownfield Status"]
  • A public hearing for input on the Near North apartment project’s brownfield plan.

The board also set a public hearing for the use of $43,954 from the U.S. Justice Department’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant. The county sheriff’s department has applied for the grant – the justice department requires a public hearing as part of the application process. Last year, the grant was used to provide community outreach services.

Report from the Administrator

County administrator Verna McDaniel told commissioners that she plans to bring a request to the Aug. 4 meeting for approval of hiring Kelly Belknap as the county’s new finance director. Belknap currently serves as finance manager for the county’s public health department. In her new role, she’ll oversee budget and finance operations, which had previously been in separate departments.

McDaniel thanked interim finance director Pete Collinson for “holding down the fort.” Former finance director Pete Ballios retired at the end of 2009 after 38 years with the county.

Thomas Partridge

Thomas Partridge reviews his notes before speaking during public commentary at the July 7 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Public Commentary

In addition to the public commentary reported above, Thomas Partridge also spoke during the first opportunity for public commentary. He called for the board to develop an agenda that’s worthy of the 21st century and this prominent county. The county should work toward providing food, housing, healthcare, transportation, education and jobs for its residents, he said, especially its most vulnerable citizens.

He urged commissioners to eliminate funding for the county’s lobbyist, saying it was a job that should be performed by state legislators who represent Washtenaw County. [The county currently has a two-year, $108,288 contract with Government Consultation Services Inc. (GCSI), a lobbying firm run by former state representative Kirk Profit.]

Though Partridge typically takes advantage of multiple opportunities to speak during the board meetings, he left immediately after his first commentary to attend a candidate forum held later that evening at the studios of Community Television Network. Partridge is a candidate in the Democratic primary for state senate, District 18. The other two candidates are current state representatives: District 52 Rep. Pam Byrnes, and District 53 Rep. Rebekah Warren, who is married to county commissioner Conan Smith. The Chronicle covered a July 10 candidate forum for that race: “Michigan Dems Primary: Senate 18th District

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, Aug. 4, 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. (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.


  1. July 12, 2010 at 1:31 am | permalink

    “Gunn again stated her concern that the funding source identified in the resolution would impact the county’s general fund.”

    I encourage those commissioners who see the interest payments on tax foreclosed properties in the county as a revenue source, to reconsider. Your constituents may be the parents, children, employers, employees, customers, etc. of those who are losing their homes. The fee can’t come close to recouping the long-term costs to the county as a whole. Please don’t be short sighted on this matter.

  2. By Leah Gunn
    July 12, 2010 at 7:15 am | permalink

    I am not the least short-sighted on this matter. I take the long view. A land bank is not the answer to stabilizing neighborhoods. I refer you to the web address below concerning the much vaunted Genesee County Land Bank. It is having its funding cut by the Board of Commissioners, and the county is laying off 17 mowers because they can’t afford the maintenance on the properties they own. There are over 5000 properties in the land bank, and very few have been sold, hence no taxes are being paid on them. The Land Bank has been referred to as a “slumlord”. This is not I want for Washtenaw County. And, you will note that the funding comes from the same source suggested by our land bank resolution, the tax delinquent notes. I appreciated Cmsr. Schwartz’ motion to remove this source of funding, because the county has just passed a budget cutting $30 million, and cannot afford to fund a land bank, and still deliver essential services. [link]

  3. July 12, 2010 at 10:22 am | permalink

    Conan Smith is confused when he says that there is no body within the County to review such issues as the Sylvan Township and Dexter Township projects. The Board of Public Works is still in place and it is that board that reviewed and approved these projects in the past. As a member of that board, I vigorously opposed the Sylvan Township project but it was supported by most BPW and BOC members. I considered it speculative and based on an unrealistic growth scenario. (Bond payments were to be made by developers of a large area west of Chelsea; the development, I believe, never materialized.) At the time we were told by the County Administrator that it would not be a problem because if the initial bond guarantors didn’t come through, “we can go after the township”.

    The Dexter Township project was an early disaster. After the project was approved, the Dexter Township board of the time (this was prior to 1997, when I joined the BPW), under local political pressure, changed the assessment area so that there were not a sufficiently large number of assessments to pay for the work as scheduled. The County and Township have been playing catch-up ever since.

    I hope that the BOC will not heed Mr. Smith’s suggestion of another board or body, but instead assure that the Board of Public Works serves as an effective oversight body.