No More “Felony Box” on County Job Forms

Board also OKs brownfield plans for Near North, Zingerman's

Washtenaw County board of commissioners (Aug. 4, 2010): A day after the primary election – one that brought victories to all commissioners who were running for office – the board faced a full agenda, but dispatched most of its business with minimal discussion.

Donald Staebler

Donald Staebler, who'll turn 100 later this month, was honored at Wednesday's county board meeting. He has lived on Staebler Farm, which is now owned by the county, for 98 years.

One item, however, yielded lengthy debate: A resolution that would remove the “felony box” from county job applications, and eliminate background checks for all jobs except those deemed sensitive. Several commissioners were uneasy with even partial elimination of background checks. The resolution was ultimately amended to deal with only the felony box, which asks applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Commissioners ended up unanimously approving the removal of that question from job applications.

The board also agreed to put a 10-year millage renewal on the November ballot for the county’s natural areas preservation program, and approved brownfield plans for the Near North housing project and an expansion of Zingerman’s Deli. Both of the brownfield projects are located in Ann Arbor – brownfield status enables them to seek Michigan business tax credits and, in the case of Zingerman’s, to use tax increment financing (TIF) to get reimbursed for project-related expenses.

Commissioners got a second-quarter budget update, which revealed few surprises. However, projections indicate that the budget surplus they need to carry over into 2011 will fall short of their goal by about $987,000. Next year will be a challenging one.

The board had been expected to act on re-establishing a land bank for the county, but ended up tabling resolutions related to that effort until next month, citing the need to gather additional information.

The meeting also included time to honor two people from the community: Joseph N. Cousin Sr., pastor of Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, and Donald Staebler, a local farmer whose land is being turned into a county park – and who’ll turn 100 later this month. Both men received standing ovations for their work.

Felony Box, Background Checks

A resolution that proposed altering some aspects of county job applications received the most discussion of any other item on Wednesday’s agenda.

Currently, applicants for jobs with the county government must indicate on their job applications whether they’ve been convicted of a felony. Commissioners considered a resolution to remove the so-called “felony box” from county job applications. The resolution also proposed that the county eliminate background checks for certain jobs. Currently a background check is conducted on anyone who receives a conditional offer of employment from the county.

[For background and one person's perspective on the issue, see a column written by Jason Smith and published by The Chronicle in January 2010: "Ban the Box, Hire Fairly."]

Felony Box: Public Commentary

Theresa Finney Dumais, development director for Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, spoke in favor of removing the box. She said that the Habitat has an excellent partnership with the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI), which led to a paid day laborer program that’s been very successful. MPRI workers tend to have above-average skills and are very reliable. She also praised the MPRI staff, saying they were great to work with.

Terril Cotton also spoke in favor of banning the felony box, saying it would give ex-felons a fair chance of competing for jobs. Since June of 2007, Cotton said he submitted 170 applications and got nine interviews, but no one would hire him because of his felony conviction. Now, “I have a job,” he said, “but it was hard – very hard.”

A job is essential to surviving after you get out of prison, he said. You can go to school and get training, but it doesn’t matter because you still get the door shut in your face. Cotton said he understood that there were certain sensitive jobs which would require background checks. He said he knows that ex-felons must accept responsibility – they did something wrong, he said, but they paid their debt to society by serving their prison sentence.

Felony Box: Commissioner Comments and Questions

Jessica Ping clarified that the changes would apply to county government jobs only – not to businesses or organizations in the county. Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he’d support the resolution, and that it could serve as a model for businesses.

Barbara Bergman wanted to take an additional step in the future, at some point requiring businesses that do work for the county also to ban the box – at least for positions that result from their contracts with the county. She reasoned that contractors were being paid with county money, so the same rules should apply, and all citizens should have a chance at those jobs.

Wes Prater then raised some concerns. Saying he had no problem banning the felony box, he said he didn’t think the policy about eliminating background checks had been well thought out. Employees are paid with tax dollars, he said, and the organization needs to know whether there are former felons working there. In some cases, for more serious crimes, Prater said he didn’t think they should be employed by the county at all.

There was then some discussion – and confusion – about whether the new policy would continue to require background checks for all people offered jobs. Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, clarified that her staff was working with department heads to come up with a list of positions that would require background checks after a conditional offer of employment was made. The list would include those jobs that require the handling of money, working in the sheriff’s department or with children, for example. For all other positions, there would be no background checks, if the new policy were to be adopted.

Ken Schwartz suggested tabling the resolution, adding that he was generally in favor of it. In Michigan, he noted, some crimes are felonies that in other states would only be misdemeanors.

Leah Gunn noted that they’d worked very closely with Mary King, community coordinator for the MPRI in Washtenaw County, to craft this resolution. It helped level the playing field for people who were having an especially tough time finding work in this economy.

Kristin Judge said her concern was not only for positions dealing with children and handling money, but also for the employees of Washtenaw County. She didn’t know why the county would do away with all background checks. What if they hired someone who had a history of violent criminal sexual assault – would other employees be safe?

Jeff Irwin asked whether the list of jobs that would require background checks was available. Heidt told him it was still being compiled, but she hoped to have it finished by September. He then suggested moving the resolution through their Ways & Means Committee that night, but not taking the final vote until their next regular board meeting on Sept. 1.

Irwin also asked how much it cost to do a background check. Heidt said it varied, depending on how extensive it was. Overall, the county spent about $28,000 in total last year on background checks, she said. That doesn’t include the sheriff’s department, which has its own procedures. Irwin noted that since the county wasn’t doing a lot of hiring, that’s probably on the low end of what it would cost, in any given year. So there’s a financial savings, albeit a small one, to eliminating some background checks, he said.

Barbara Bergman asked for examples of positions that might not require a background check. Heidt said that an administrative position for the water resources commissioner’s office wouldn’t likely require one. Bergman then asked if there was anyone who could speak to the legal distinctions among various types of criminal sexual conduct. There are nuances that are important to consider, she said.

Conan Smith noted that there was a judge in the room – 14th District Court judge Cedrid Simpson – as well as someone from the public defender’s office, Delphia Simpson. Judge Simpson, who with his sister Delphia Simpson was attending the meeting to honor the pastor of their church, agreed to come to the podium and respond to Bergman’s query. He said there was a distinction between different types of criminal sexual conduct, but he said he didn’t want to give any indication that those distinctions make some less serious than others. CSC 4 – criminal sexual conduct, 4th degree – is the lowest in terms of penalties, for example, but the trauma on the victim might be just as great as with other CSC levels, he said.

Bergman said that obviously she’s not in favor of sexual misconduct, but that it’s important to consider the circumstances – like when kids go on a date and act stupidly, and the parents get mad. It’s important not to paint felonies with a broad brush, she said.

Prater restated that he didn’t object to eliminating the felony box. But eliminating background checks is a problem. The county has 17 different bargaining units, he noted. What if someone is hired into a job that doesn’t require a background check, then joins a bargaining unit and becomes eligible for a transfer – how is that situation handled? In addition, he again stated that there are certain people that the county just shouldn’t hire, like people who’ve committed violent crimes or sexual assault on children.

Heidt said that the county’s policy is to conduct background checks as part of a transfer or promotion – that’s standard practice, she said. Prater asked whether it was written into the labor contracts. When told by Heidt that it isn’t, Prater said the county then had no way to compel a background check. The way the resolution is written, it’s bad policy, he said.

Schwartz pointed out that they disagreed on how to implement the policy, and that they needed more time to analyze it. He asked Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, whether there had been any legal analysis done on the county’s liability, in the event that something happened and the county knew – or should have known – about an employee’s criminal history. Hedger said that no analysis had been done on that issue.

Saying he was happy with the end, Schwartz said they needed to clean up the means. He moved to table the resolution until the board’s Sept. 1 meeting.

Outcome: The motion to table the felony box resolution failed on a 5-5 vote, with dissent from Bergman, Irwin, Gunn, Sizemore and Smith. Ronnie Peterson was out of the room when the vote was taken.

As a point of order, Judge noted that board rules require that if a commissioner is present when attendance is taken, they are required to vote. [This is a rule that's not vigorously enforced, based on The Chronicle's observation during the past two years of board meetings.]

Peterson then returned to his seat – when told it was a 5-5 vote and he was needed to break the tie, he smiled ruefully and put his head in his hands. He then voted no, and the motion to table failed.

Discussion continued. Judge asked Heidt to explain the rationale behind the county’s current practice of doing background checks on all hires. Heidt said that it began in 2002, after a study of best practices within the state and at other organizations. Judge wondered whether the county would be liable if someone who didn’t get a background check committed workplace violence. Heidt pointed out that the county has a separate workplace violence policy, but she deferred to Hedger on the question of liability. Hedger said it was impossible to say, given that each case is fact-sensitive. There’s the potential for liability, he said, but it would depend on the situation.

Smith said that Prater’s point – making a distinction between the felony box and background checks – is valid. In the hopes of reaching consensus that evening, he suggested striking the portions of the resolution that would eliminate background checks. The resolution would simply remove the felony box from county job applications. He told Heidt that in this case, it would be incumbent on the HR staff to ensure that the process is fair, and to make clear that getting a background check – and uncovering a criminal history – would not necessarily exclude the applicant from consideration.

Heidt said that currently, results from a background check are considered, but they’re just one factor.

Peterson agreed with Smith, then noted that over the years, the county has hired ex-felons a number of times – he said he could think of 10, off the top of his head. They’ve been active and contributing members of the organization, he said. The board wasn’t planning to torpedo this initiative, he said – they needed to be a model for the community. Peterson also noted that the county has had issues with workplace violence by people who haven’t had a previous criminal history.

Gunn then proposed amending the resolution by deleting references that called for eliminating background checks. She said the resolution would just remove the felony box, but keep the rest of their employment practices the same.

At this point, Irwin observed that the board had done “a complete 180.” They’d taken a resolution that made meaningful change in the way the county operated, and turned it into something that “is more symbolic than substantive.” He was disappointed in that, and moved to reinstate the original resolution. The motion was not seconded, and died for lack of support.

Schwartz thanked Peterson for not voting to table the resolution, saying he thought they’d made progress. The board still needed to give the county’s HR staff some guidance about the policy, he said, at a later date.

Smith concluded the discussion, saying that the presence of the felony box makes the hiring process highly prejudicial. By removing it, people will be judged by the merits of their abilities. If a background check later uncovers something that gives the HR staff pause, he said, they have a process to see if that history warrants not hiring the applicant. By taking away the box, the board is putting a weight on HR to ensure that if they don’t hire an ex-felon, there’s a reason for it.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the revised resolution, eliminating the felony box from county job applications. Background checks will continue to be made for all job applicants who receive a conditional job offer.

Brownfield Plans Approved: Near North, Zingerman’s

At Wednesday’s meeting, there were public hearings for two brownfield plans: The Near North housing project on North Main in Ann Arbor, and an expansion of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown district. No one spoke during the public hearing on Near North. The only speaker for the Zingerman’s public hearing was Grace Singleton, a managing partner at the deli, who said she and others working on the project were there to answer questions, if commissioners had any. She thanked them for considering the plan.

Commissioners did not discuss either of the plans before voting. At the June 28 administrative briefing – an informal meeting to review the upcoming agenda – commissioner Barbara Bergman had raised concerns about the plans in the context of an article written by Judy McGovern and published in the August Ann Arbor Observer. The article reported that Broadway Village, a proposed development in Ann Arbor’s Lower Town area, had received a large incentive package from the state, and that the state’s pension fund had made a $20 million equity investment in the project. Much of that investment will be lost, according to the report.

At the briefing, Bergman wondered whether Zingerman’s or Near North would be receiving any money in advance, as part of its brownfield plan. She was assured that they would not.

The brownfield plans enable the Near North project and Zingerman’s to seek Michigan business tax credits – $720,000 and $1.003 million, respectively. In addition, Zingerman’s will use tax increment financing (TIF) to be reimbursed for up to $817,265 in expenses related to its expansion.

Outcome: Brownfield plans for both Near North and Zingerman’s Deli were approved unanimously, without discussion.

Natural Areas Preservation Program

Ten years ago, voters approved a countywide 0.25-mill tax to form the natural areas preservation program, known as NAPP. Since then, the county has acquired over 1,800 acres of land and established 17 new nature preserves. The millage will have generated about $27.5 million by the time it expires.

The millage is administered by the county’s parks & recreation commission, which is seeking a 10-year renewal of the millage, beginning in December 2011. Because of Headlee rollbacks, the renewal rate will be slightly lower – 0.2409 mill – and is expected to raise roughly $3 million in annual revenues if it passes. The county board is required to authorize adding the millage renewal to the ballot.

NAPP: Public Commentary

Spaulding Clark, Scio Township supervisor, urged the board to put the NAPP millage renewal on the November ballot. He noted that Bruce Manny, chair of the board for the Scio Township Land Preservation Commission, was also in the audience, and supported the millage. The county has been a great partner in Scio’s own preservation efforts, Clark said, adding that township voters approved their own 10-year land preservation millage in 2004.

Clark cited several properties that have been protected in the township, including the Burns-Stokes Preserve, the Fox Science Preserve and the Scio Woods Preserve. Many efforts are done in partnership with the county and Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program. [.pdf map of protected property in Scio Township] The township continues to receive applications from landowners who are interested in protecting high-quality natural areas, Clark said. He hoped the commissioners would let voters decide in November to continue the program.

Suzanne Goodrich introduced herself by saying that in 2006 she sold about 10 acres to the county. It’s located in Ann Arbor Township, along Dixboro Road – other property has been added to it over the years, and it’s now called the Goodrich Preserve. She and her husband wanted to preserve the land in its natural state. You can go there and find wildflowers, deer, lots of birds and a nature walk, she said, and it’s all been supported by NAPP. Land preservation is important for the health of the environment and the education of our children, she said. Goodrich asked commissioners to put the NAPP millage renewal on the November ballot, to continue funding of this important program.

Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, attended Wednesday’s meeting but did not speak during public commentary. She had previously addressed the board at an April 2010 working session on issues related to moving ahead with the millage renewal. Barry Lonik, a conservation consultant who has advocated for NAPP, also attended the meeting, but did not formally address the board.

NAPP: Commissioner Comments

Ken Schwartz said that every day he drives past the Burns-Stokes Preserve, which stretches along the Huron River, off of Huron River Drive. There are often hundreds of tubists and canoers there, he said – people “with better bodies than me” having fun. He encouraged residents to visit the preserve.

Kristin Judge also praised NAPP, saying that she was proud of the program and that residents appreciated it. It was just a renewal, she noted, not a new tax. Preserving land helps keep everyone’s property values higher, Judge said, and she felt like the program had a lot of support in the community.

Conan Smith, one of the board’s representatives to the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, noted that the NAPP program has been nationally recognized and provides an extraordinary service to the community. It’s one of the few science-based programs in the country, he said, adding that he was excited about the opportunity to extend its funding for another 10 years.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing that the 10-year, 0.2409-mill NAPP millage renewal be added to the November ballot.

Land Bank Tabled Again

The board had formed a county land bank authority last year, but dissolved the entity in March 2010 after several commissioners questioned how it would be funded and governed. The county didn’t receive federal funding it had originally intended to use for the land bank.

Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Sabra Briere, Barbara Bergman

Yousef Rabhi, left, is congratulated by commissioners Conan Smith and Barbara Bergman on his victory – by one vote – over Democratic rivals in the Aug. 3 primary election to represent District 11 on the county board. Ann Arbor city councilmember Sabra Briere, with her back to the camera, attended Wednesday's meeting because of the land bank agenda item. Before the land bank was dissolved, Briere had been Ann Arbor's representative on the land bank authority.

A land bank allows the county to acquire tax- or mortgage-foreclosed property and work to put it back into productive use. For several months, commissioner Ronnie Peterson has been urging his colleagues to re-establish the land bank, with increasing frustration. At last month’s meeting, commissioners took an initial vote to approve a revised intergovernmental agreement, which lays out how the land bank will be governed – Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn cast dissenting votes.

On Wednesday, the board was expected to take a final vote on both that agreement as well as a resolution to rescind their previous dissolution of the land bank.

The proposed intergovernmental agreement called for the board to consist of seven members: the county treasurer, two county commissioners, the mayor or councilmember from the city of Ann Arbor, the mayor or councilmember from the city of Ypsilanti, the supervisor of Ypsilanti Township, and a supervisor representing townships in the western part of the county. However, Bergman began the discussion by proposing an amendment to the intergovernmental agreement, to alter the composition of the land bank authority board. Her amendment would eliminate the requirement to have the Ypsilanti Township supervisor and a supervisor from western Washtenaw serve on the authority’s board.

In their place, Bergman proposed adding five other spots: 1) a representative from the banking industry, 2) a representative the local real estate industry, 3) a representative from local townships, recommended by the Michigan Townships Association, 4) an attorney recommended by the Washtenaw County Bar Association, and 5) a representative recommended by the Washtenaw County Home Builders Association. Her amendment required that all positions get final approval by the county board before being appointed.

Kristin Judge expressed concern about Bergman’s amendment, saying it seemed a little off balance to give spots on the board to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, but not to individual townships or the city of Saline. [The townships of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield both have larger populations than Ypsilanti.]

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he had talked with Pat Lockwood, a Genesee County commissioner. She would be willing to come to a future board meeting, he said, to discuss the land bank issue. [Genesee County, where Flint is located, was the first county in Michigan to establish a land bank. Dan Kildee, a former Genesee County treasurer who helped write the enabling legislation for these land bank entities, had attended the Washtenaw County board of commissioners July 2009 meeting to answer questions about setting up a land bank authority. The Genesee land bank has recently come under fire for not maintaining the properties it owns – a concern voiced by some Washtenaw County commissioners.]

Sizemore proposed tabling the land bank resolutions until Lockwood could speak to the board. Peterson asked that Sizemore confirm as early as possible that Lockwood could attend next month’s meeting. He noted that they’d talked about the land bank at several meetings, but hadn’t moved forward. Sizemore acknowledged that the process was moving slowly, but said they were getting the answers they needed.

Outcome: The land bank resolutions were tabled until the Sept. 1, 2010 board meeting.

Second Quarter Budget Update

Jennifer Watson, the county’s budget manager, gave an update on the 2010-11 budget. [She gave a first-quarter update at the board's May 5 meeting, looking at the first three months of the year.] Now that two quarters of the year have passed, they have more solid data with which to make projections for the rest of the year, she said.

The great news, she said, is that property tax revenues are projected to show a $1.77 million surplus compared to what was originally budgeted. But there are other areas that are seeing lower-than-projected revenues. The district court is now projecting a $465,000 revenue decline, due to reductions in local law enforcement and collections, she said. Court officials are trying to identify potential new revenue, but it’s unlikely that will occur in 2010. In addition, the decision by Ypsilanti Township to cut the number of sheriff’s deputies that it pays for to patrol the township resulted in a revenue loss to the county of $1.07 million this year. That’s been partially offset by about $700,000 in expense reductions, but there’s still a $370,000 shortfall, Watson said.

Washtenaw County second-quarter budget chart

Washtenaw County second-quarter budget chart. (Links to larger image)

Interest income is also down, she said – there’s a roughly $540,000 shortfall from projections in 2010.

Overall, Watson is projecting a $392,000 general fund revenue surplus for the year.

On the expenditure side, there will be a delay in some of the hiring of the new jail staff, which could result in savings for 2010, Watson said. In general, the administration is working hard with all department heads and other elected officials to ensure that projected savings actually materialize, she added. In some areas, it won’t happen. The district court, for example, had agreed to a 10% lump sum reduction, but that now looks unlikely to occur this year. District court security costs are about $220,000 higher than budgeted, primarily because of increased use of part-time staff at the Saline court.

One fairly significant uncertainty is the impact of tax appeals that are being made, Watson said. Appeals continue to increase – the county has just over $4 million in potential liability from those appeals, but it’s unclear how much of that amount will actually be awarded, or when.

With expense cuts and a revenue surplus, they’re projecting a total net surplus of $4.3 million for the year. However, the budget called for carrying over a surplus of $5.289 million into 2011 – they’re still $986,664 short of that. That’s a higher shortfall than the $918,000 they’d projected earlier this year, Watson noted.

Watson also mentioned that from March through May, the number of youth cases handled by the county’s department of human services has increased dramatically. They’re trying to determine if this is just a spike, or whether it’s a longer trend that they’ll have to budget for accordingly. In the worst case scenario, it will result in about a $400,000 net cost to the county, she said.

Budget Update: Commissioner Comments and Questions

Jeff Irwin began by pointing to the implications of Ypsilanti Township’s decision to cut the number of contracted sheriff deputy patrols. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Board OKs Ypsi Twp. Deputy Cuts"] In addition to the direct revenue loss to the county, it also means that overhead costs associated with sheriff deputy patrols must now be spread among a smaller number of deputies – those overhead costs per deputy will now be higher.

Mark Ouimet, Jeff Irwin

Washtenaw County commissioners Mark Ouimet, left, and Jeff Irwin. Both won their primary races on Aug. 3 for state representative – Oumet as a Republican in District 52, and Irwin as a Democrat in District 53.

The financial issue comes in addition to the public safety threat of having fewer deputies on patrol, Irwin said. He hoped to see the county’s larger communities, like Ypsilanti Township, increase their investment in police services.

Mark Ouimet urged the administration to prepare for the fourth quarter, when the variance between actual and budgeted amounts are typically greatest, he said. County administrator Verna McDaniel said that in general, they are being very conservative in their projections.

Kristin Judge had several questions for Watson. Among them, she asked for clarification about the increase in youth services at the department of human services. Watson said there’s been an increase in the number of neglect and abuse cases handled by DHS.

House By the Side of the Road

On Wednesday’s agenda was a resolution to rescind all prior board resolutions that allowed the nonprofit called House By the Side of the Road to operate on county property at no cost. Since 1970, the nonprofit has been distributing clothes to the needy from the premises of the county service center, off of Washtenaw just east of US-23. It built a shed there, and in 1996 struck an agreement with the county, stating that if the county ever asked the nonprofit to leave, the county would reimburse the House for the cost of the shed.

As part of the jail expansion, located in the same area, the county is widening its Washtenaw Avenue entrance to the corrections campus, and has asked the House to leave. The resolution considered by commissioners on Wednesday authorized the county to reimburse the nonprofit.

Jeff Irwin asked what the cost would be. Verna McDaniel, the county administrator, said it wouldn’t be substantial – she estimated less than $7,000. She said the county was storing all the items from the shed until they learned where the nonprofit would be located next.

Finance Director Approved

The board unanimously approved the appointment of Kelly Belknap as finance director for the county, with a starting salary of $110,000. Belknap has worked for the county for nearly 23 years in several departments, most recently serving as health service finance administrator with Washtenaw County Health Services. She was one of six candidates interviewed for the job to replace Pete Ballios, who retired last year after roughly 38 years with the county.

Belknap thanked commissioners for their support, saying “I look forward to some challenging budget years, that’s for sure.” She clarified that the challenge stemmed from the economy, not from working with commissioners.

Recognitions and Honors

Two men were honored by the board at the start of Wednesday’s meeting.

Joseph Cousin Sr.

Joseph Cousin Sr., pastor of Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, with his wife Carisalyn and daughter Miriam. Cousin was honored by the board of commissioners for his six years of service at Bethel AME.

Joseph N. Cousin Sr., pastor of Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, was recognized for his six years of service leading the oldest, largely African American congregation in this area. Many members of the church attended the meeting, and gave Cousin a standing ovation when he received a framed copy of the resolution from county administrator Verna McDaniel.

Standing at the podium with his wife Carisalyn and his young children, Miriam and Joe, Cousin said that he felt blessed to be part of this community and that he prays to be here for many years to come.

McDaniel then presented a resolution honoring Donald Staebler, a Superior Township farmer whose property was known as “Crick-in-th’-Back Farm.” Washtenaw County parks & recreation acquired the farm in 2001, and is investing more than $2 million to turn it into a park. Staebler still lives in the farmhouse there, under a life lease with the county. He has lived there since he was two – he turns 100 later this month.

Staebler received a standing ovation from people attending the meeting. He spoke briefly, saying his family has worked hard to keep the farm going, “and now the county is doing that. Thank you very much.”

Coda: Road Commission Expansion

At the board’s July 7 meeting, commissioners held a public hearing on the possibility of expanding the Washtenaw County Road Commission board from three members to five – the county board appoints those positions. After the hearing and some discussion, commissioner Wes Prater made a motion to terminate the process of expanding the road commission. The motion passed, with dissent from Conan Smith and Jeff Irwin, who argued that it wasn’t something the board could stop in that way.

At the July meeting, Irwin said he planned to bring a resolution on the expansion to the board’s Aug. 4 meeting. However, no such resolution was on the agenda, and the issue wasn’t discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

In a follow-up phone interview this week with The Chronicle, Irwin said he still might bring a resolution about the expansion to a board meeting later this year. Prater’s resolution had been symbolic, he said. There’s a specific legal process for the expansion, which includes a vote on the issue. Politically, he said, based on the board’s discussion in July and the outcome of Prater’s resolution, it seems unlikely that a vote on the expansion would be successful. However, Irwin said plans to talk with his board colleagues about it in the coming weeks, to see if he can gain support.

Public Commentary: Misc.

Thomas Partridge congratulated the winners of the Aug. 3 primary. He called for commissioners to put the expansion of affordable housing front and center on every one of their meeting agendas. The expansion of affordable housing shouldn’t just be for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, he said, but for every quadrant of Washtenaw County. There is no more important item to put on the agenda.

Jim Mogensen spoke twice. A month or two ago, he said, he attended a program at the Ann Arbor District Library about how to navigate around the city if you’re disabled. During the program, construction workers closed off the sidewalk in front of the library, making access to the building difficult – they were preparing to install a new ADA ramp. Noting the temporary ADA ramp that the county had recently installed in the front of its building at 220 N. Main, he suggested that they have a plan for safe egress.

In a follow-up to his commentary, commissioner Barbara Bergman said that when she was walking up the wooden ramp that night to come to the meeting, she wondered what would happen if it caught fire – it was a little too high for her to jump off of it. “That ramp got me just a little on the queasy side,” she said.

Taking another turn during a time for public commentary later in the meeting, Mogensen raised concerns about accepting nearly $44,000 in federal funds under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, administered through the U.S. Dept. of Justice. The funds will be used by the sheriff’s staff for community outreach. Mogensen said he worried that there could be strings attached. He could imagine scenarios in which the federal government might require any entity that had accepted grants like this to help enforce federal immigration laws. This could also result in the need for additional jail space. It was something to think about and prepare a response for, he said.

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, Sept. 1, 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. [confirm date]


  1. By John Floyd
    August 10, 2010 at 12:31 am | permalink

    Tax Increment Financing is a seductive financing tool that will eventually wreck the City of Ann Arbor. It allows investment in property with no property tax increase. Besides being unfair to other property tax payers (try getting away with this on an addition to your home), it has the effect of increasing the effective taxes on other properties. That is, investment results in more intensive use of a property: more employees or residents, more traffic, etc. but NO increased revenues to pay for the related cost of government. Either everyone else’s taxes go up slightly to pay for this increased activity, or everyone else’s services go DOWN slightly to pay for increased activity.

    Tax Increment Financing may sound painless at first glance, but it is not.

    Everyone should pay the same property tax rate – no one should get special breaks that others pay for.

    John Floyd
    Republican for Council
    5th Ward

  2. August 10, 2010 at 8:23 am | permalink

    I assume Mr. Floyd’s comments are in response to the item about brownfield projects. I agree with the general point of his comment that TIF subsidies are not “free” though they may have seemed that way in an inflationary environment.

    A couple of points about the county brownfield program, through which these credits are to be awarded:

    1. Local TIF is not awarded until a project is actually built. They are applied to actual construction costs. For this reason, there has been only one project (Aldi, on N. Maple) that has drawn on them so far, since most local brownfield projects have never -um, gotten off the ground.

    2. The TIF for a DDA project in Ann Arbor does not consume the increased TV due to inflation, so the city does eventually reap some slight tax revenue (assuming that the property value does in fact increase with inflation). In contrast, most of these brownfield projects direct any increase due to inflation into a fund for other purposes.

    3. I don’t understand the article’s reference to “Michigan business tax credits” since to my knowledge the Michigan Business Tax is not part of this program. Could the reference be to MEGA tax credits? Those are actually the school tax that would normally be paid to the state school fund but are diverted to the construction project. MEGA credits are awarded only by action of the MEGA board and again only if the project is realized. It has been explained to me that MEGA actually makes the school fund whole though the amount of the local school tax that would have been generated for the state fund is instead awarded to the developer. (I’ve never really understood this.)

    4. A question: is the Zingerman’s project outside the SmartZone? Most projects in downtown Ann Arbor are in this zone that allocates the state school tax instead to the LDFA which partly funds SPARK.

  3. August 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm | permalink

    So the upshot of this well-intentioned debate about the felony box is that extremely violent felons could be hired for county jobs so long as the position is not deemed “background checkable”? Whoops.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    August 10, 2010 at 4:07 pm | permalink

    Which could be true anyway.

  5. August 10, 2010 at 5:57 pm | permalink

    As it stands, the county is telling citizens that any county employee you meet might have any number or severity of felony convictions. Regardless of the attorney’s hemming and hawing above, it takes little imagination to realize that in the event of a serious crime by a county employee who is a felon, the county would be facing a political and financial disaster.

    Job app disclosures in general have multiple purposes; one is to deter unsuitable applications, another is to make it possible to swiftly discharge people who turn out to have problematic pasts. Since it sounds as if the inclination is to minimize the number (and cost) of background checks, maybe a wiser and more narrowly tailored approach would be to require applicants to disclose certain classes of serious violent, sexual, or financial felonies.

  6. By Sabra Briere
    August 10, 2010 at 9:09 pm | permalink

    I attended this meeting for another purpose, but paid close attention to the issue of ‘the box’. I interpreted this discussion differently from Mr. Zimmerman (comment#5).

    Applicants for jobs – all jobs – would not have a box to check that indicates whether they have been convicted of a felony (or misdemenor? I don’t know what the box currently asks). Right now, that box *discourages* applications from people who have been convicted but might still be eligible for jobs.

    Before a job is offered, however, background checks are standard. The important change is that some jobs require different levels of security. All candidates being considered for a position will be screened equally; but some positions could be filled by candidates who have been convicted of felonies and have served their time. It would depend on the job, the applicant, and the crime for which they were convicted (I imagine we are talking about drugs or perhaps some crime of youth, but don’t want to speculate).

    The idea that a person (who had been a violent criminal with anger issues) would be hired by the County or any other governmental unit *in ignorance, because they didn’t run a background check* is just not what I was hearing at the meeting. All applicants would undergo background checks. No one would be offered a job without a background check. If a background check disclosed a criminal record, the HR department would discuss the situation with the hiring unit and decide whether to go forward; they would then meet with the candidate and discuss the criminal history and its implications for the job. All of this would occur before a decision to hire.

    As I understand it, people with felony convictions are often now kept from any consideration for any jobs. If they cannot work, they cannot pay rent, buy food, buy a car, buy a house . . . or do much of anything but commit another crime and go to prison. Not a pretty picture for our society.


  7. By Sabra Briere
    August 10, 2010 at 9:11 pm | permalink


    sorry. I miss spell check.

  8. By Jack F
    August 11, 2010 at 7:13 am | permalink

    “So the upshot of this well-intentioned debate about the felony box is that extremely violent felons could be hired for county jobs so long as the position is not deemed “background checkable”? Whoops.”

    I’m less worried about this and a bit more worried about the silence from County elected officials about one of their own and his violation of civil laws relating to harassing poor single parent women in the house rental market. Is there a box on county forms for that?

  9. August 11, 2010 at 10:58 am | permalink

    #7 — Sabra, if indeed background checks continue to be made prior to *all* offers of employment, my concern is lessened. However, it is not confidence-inspiring that there was so much discussion of removing some or all of them.

    I certainly support and encourage giving previously convicted persons the right to resume earning a livelihood. Anything else is counterproductive and wrong. But I think removing the felony box is the wrong way to go about it; it simply encourages making decisions on a “let’s close our eyes and pretend” basis. Felony convictions are just as relevant as lying about work experience or education or having a bad driving record. We’d like to have the right to fire an employee who lies about those things on a job application, why not the same for felonies? It really doesn’t make much sense except as an exercise in political correctness.

  10. August 11, 2010 at 10:59 am | permalink

    @9 @ JackF — I agree, the housing scandal (SingleMomGate?) is appalling. It’s just a different issue.

  11. August 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm | permalink

    Re #2: I apologize for not having researched more carefully before commenting on the Michigan Business Tax (MBT) credit. A memory floated up that there used to be a Single Business Tax credit that could be awarded to brownfield projects by application to MEGA (Michigan Economic Growth Authority). Of course the SBT was abolished and a hellishly complicated MBT was instituted via P.A. 36 of 2007. I believe that the relevant section is 208.1437 [link] and as before, a project wishing to obtain credits against this tax would have to apply to MEGA.

  12. By Mary Morgan
    August 16, 2010 at 4:08 pm | permalink

    Re. #8: The comment refers to a recent trial involving Washtenaw County commissioner Ronnie Peterson, who represents District 6 in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. A federal jury ruled that Peterson let an employee sexually harass seven women in rental properties he owns in Ypsilanti. Our Media Watch item on the trial links to a Detroit News article that reported the women were awarded $115,000 in damages.