County Commissioner Expenses Debated

Washtenaw County board also gives initial OK to Act 88 tax

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Oct. 20, 2010): A strong undercurrent of both the upcoming Nov. 2 elections and the looming county budget deficit erupted at times during Wednesday’s board meeting – the last board meeting prior to the elections.

Mark Ouimet, Leah Gunn

County commissioners Mark Ouimet and Leah Gunn talk prior to the start of the Oct. 20 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. During the meeting Gunn, a Democrat, defended Ouimet, who has come under attack by some Democrats for excessive and inappropriate per-diem claims. (Photos by the writer.)

At the center of public commentary and commissioner discussion – which at times grew heated – was the issue of whether commissioners are appropriately claiming reimbursements for mileage and per diem. The controversy first emerged at the board’s last meeting on Oct. 6, when Democrat Tom Wieder spoke during public commentary to call for an investigation into per diem spending by commissioner Mark Ouimet. That same Oct. 6 meeting included discussion of a projected two-year budget deficit for 2012 and 2013 that could exceed $20 million.

Ouimet, a Republican who’s running for state representative in District 52 against Democrat Christine Green, was defended on Wednesday during public commentary by the county’s top two GOP officials, Mark Boonstra and Wyckham Seelig, who accused the Democratic board majority of partisan politics. They said they’ve launched their own investigation into commissioner spending, specifically citing out-of-state travel by Kristin Judge. Judge has been a vocal critic of Ouimet’s spending, during the meeting noting that the board rules are clear and that Ouimet failed to abide by them at times.

Ouimet was also defended at Wednesday’s meeting by several Democrats who serve with him on the board and who said they had nothing to do with the recent criticism of him. Leah Gunn recalled that Ouimet had been her Ward 4 Ann Arbor city councilmember some 20 years ago, and that she’s always found him to be upstanding and gracious. Ken Schwartz criticized the “Lansing politics” that were being brought to the county. He noted that the board has a track record of working together without divisive partisan politics, and that they’d all been surprised by the recent controversy.

County clerk Larry Kestenbaum also weighed in, commenting on a report that his office had released earlier in the day that analyzed per-diem and mileage expenses for all commissioners, dating back to 2005. Ouimet claimed the most expenses by far during that period – $32,804. Of Ouimet’s claims, $10,564 was analyzed as ineligible, and another $6,055 was “uncertain,” indicating a gray area where reimbursement rules aren’t clear. That means that about half of Ouimet’s claims don’t fall into the clearly acceptable category. Kestenbaum spoke during public commentary, saying that he considered all the commissioners to be his friends and great public servants – the report was not intended to be an attack, he said.

Ouimet offered to put the disputed amount in escrow until all of the claims have been reviewed. [The Chronicle converted the county clerk's Excel workbook with multiple tabs, one for each commissioner, to a single .pdf file. Commissioner Ronnie Peterson has not claimed mileage and per-diem expenses, and is not included in the report.]

The issue of commissioner expenses came up earlier in the meeting in another context. Judge introduced a resolution that would have eliminated retirement pensions and health care for commissioners, saying that the change would save the county more than $25,000 annually. She noted that she had circulated the resolution to commissioners prior to the meeting, though it was not on the agenda. No one seconded the motion, and it died without further discussion.

Also related to budget issues, the board gave initial approval to levy an economic development tax of 0.043 mills. Known as the Act 88 millage, it is expected to generate roughly $611,266 annually and would cost homeowners $4.30 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. Three commissioners – Judge, Ouimet and Wes Prater – voted against the measure, and Jessica Ping abstained, citing the fact that a recipient of the funds, Ann Arbor SPARK, is a client of hers.

Another millage – one that, unlike Act 88, will be on the ballot – would support the Ypsilanti District Library. Linda Gurka, a member of the library’s board of trustees, spoke during public commentary to drum up support for the millage increase that will be on the ballot for Ypsilanti District Library voters. Also during public commentary, Todd Clark, co-chair of this year’s United Way of Washtenaw County‘s fundraising campaign, spoke in support of a proposed coordinated funding model for local nonprofits.

Commissioner Spending

At the board’s Oct. 6 meeting, Democrat Tom Wieder spoke during public commentary to call for an investigation into per diem spending by commissioner Mark Ouimet. The issue emerged again on Wednesday, when the county’s top Republican leaders and others defended Ouimet during public commentary – a defense echoed by some, but not all, of Ouimet’s Democratic colleagues on the board.

Commissioner Spending: Public Commentary

Kathleen Timberlake of Scio Township said that in light of the recent reports regarding per-diem spending, she’d like to see full public disclosure of the county clerk’s investigation of this matter.

Commissioner Jessica Ping, a Republican, read a statement from Jolea Mull, supervisor of Bridgewater Township, which is in Ping’s district. Mull was disappointed that Ouimet’s service has been maligned, stating that he should be commended, not condemned. Ouimet had been especially helpful to the township in dealing with the police services issue – the township benefited from his advocacy, according to her statement.

Wyckham Seelig, vice chair of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee, said he wanted to put the charges that have been levied against Ouimet into a broader context. He quoted from James Madison, who wrote in The Federalist No. 10 “… that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” He quoted John Stewart Mill and, finally, Henry Reid – the Democratic senator from Nevada, who, when his party had been in the minority in the U.S. Senate, was concerned about the dangers of one-party rule. That’s exactly what’s taking place in Washtenaw County, Seelig said. [Nine of the 11 county commissioners are Democrats.]

He said he wasn’t talking about Wieder or Stu Dowty [chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Committee] or Mark Brewer [chair of the Michigan Democratic Party]. “We kind of expect that from them,” Seelig said. “That’s what they do.” It was different when the attacks come from elected officials, he said. Seelig specifically charged that Kristin Judge was behind the attacks, and alleged that she bullied county clerk and fellow Democrat Larry Kestenbaum into investigating the per-diem issue – but only for expenses within the county, not for travel outside of Washtenaw, which would have showed that Democrats claimed more than Ouimet. Silence from other commissioners gives tacit consent to these actions, he said, adding that this is ordinary, normal behavior when one party dominates.

Mark Boonstra, a local attorney and chair of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee, also blasted Democrats on the board, and said he was rising to Ouimet’s defense in the face of scurrilous attacks on the eve of an election. [Ouimet is running against Democrat Christine Green for the 52nd District state House seat.] There’s no harder-working commissioner than Ouimet, Boonstra said – that’s why the board elected him vice chair. There’s also no more honest commissioner than Ouimet, he said, yet he’s been pilloried by Democrats and the press. Boonstra cited examples of Democrats on the board – Barbara Bergman, Jeff Irwin and Wes Prater – who have claimed per diem for attending multiple meetings in one day, but only Ouimet was singled out for this, Boonstra noted. He also cited higher out-of-county travel for Democrats.

All of this is all the more astonishing, he said, because it comes from someone who has presented herself as a champion of transparency and open government – referring to Kristen Judge. He charged that Judge had tried to divert travel funds from other commissioners into her own account in secrecy. [Transferring funds requires a vote by the board. A transfer request by Judge was discussed at the board's Sept. 1, 2010 meeting.] Boonstra called on commissioners to denounce these attacks and set aside partisan politics. He said the attacks had emanated from Mark Brewer, head of the Michigan Democratic Party, who had asked his communications manager to obtain records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and that Brewer’s minions locally had done the rest. Boonstra brandished a bundle of documents, saying they had obtained materials of their own through the FOIA, but that Democrats should remember who started the mudslinging – it hadn’t been the Republicans. He called on them to do an independent audit, and to make sure the rules are clear and apply to everyone equally.

Paul Schissler, a Lima Township resident, said he’s lived in Washtenaw County for 40 years, staying here after coming to attend the University of Michigan. He described his community involvement, which includes being a board member of the Western Washtenaw Area Value Express and a member of the Chelsea Rotary Club. Schissler said he’s never been so riled up in his life about anything political, and that Ouimet didn’t want him to be there speaking on his behalf. But when Schissler saw Ouimet’s character being attacked, he said he had to do something. Schissler said he’d read in that Ouimet got reimbursed for attending a lot of meetings and believed he was following the rules. But Schissler, who called a “blog of opinions,” said he didn’t see in the article the fact that Ouimet gives his salary and reimbursements to charity, and he didn’t read whether other commissioners did the same. Schissler called Ouimet “one of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life.” To assassinate his character is reprehensible, Schissler said, and it’s shameful to suggest that Ouimet is anything but hard-working and fair.

Larry Kestenbaum, Curtis Hedger

Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum, left, talks with Curtis Hedger, the county's attorney, prior to the start of the Oct. 20 board of commissioners meeting.

Larry Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County clerk/register of deeds, said he hadn’t planned to speak – he didn’t have prepared remarks. He said he’d been characterized as a Democrat, and “I plead guilty to that,” he said. But he said he considered all commissioners to be friends and great public servants. The report that came from his office was never intended as any kind of attack on anyone, he said. Kestenbaum said he believed that everyone submitted expense requests in good faith, and that the standards that applied this year weren’t in place previously. He noted that Kristin Judge had pointed out the board rules have been in place for years, and that’s true – but not everyone reads the board rules, he said. Deputy clerk Jason Brooks applied the standards he’s been using this year to approve per diem expenses, Kestenbaum said. [Prior to 2010, no such approval was required.] Whether those standards are appropriate is something for commissioners to decide, he added.

Kestenbaum said he regretted that he didn’t include a cover letter with the report, to better explain what’s in it. He said he didn’t seek to do the report – it had been requested of his office – and while there may be some mistakes in it, everyone’s human. He noted that if someone makes a deduction on their taxes and it’s accepted every year by the IRS, it’s understandable that they believe the deduction is acceptable to make year after year. Finally, Kestenbaum  said that the commissioners knew he didn’t believe in per diems, and that this is an example of the kind of trouble it can cause.

In response to a follow-up email from The Chronicle, Kestenbaum clarified who had requested the report evaluating commissioners’ per diems:

Commissioner Ouimet made the original request. Then Commissioner Judge, through County Administrator Verna McDaniel, asked that the report be provided to the entire board. Then, after he was given the original report to review, Commissioner Ouimet asked for another report, covering ALL the board members. This was communicated to the county administrator as well, and she asked that Commissioner Ouimet’s report be merged in with the others rather than given separately.

Commissioner Spending: Commissioner Response

Wes Prater said Kestenbaum had explained what his office had done very well. Then directing his comments to Mark Boonstra, Prater said Boonstra was making statements without the facts. “You must not know how to read,” he said. Kristin Judge had nothing to do with the request for a report, Prater said, “and neither did I.” Prater said he might have made some mistakes in requesting reimbursements, but it wasn’t done intentionally. He said he had never accused Ouimet of anything, and that Boonstra should tell them who’d been making the accusations.

Kristin Judge spoke at length, and began by passing out a document she’d prepared that showed an itemized listing of commissioners’ spending, as a group, from 2005 through what’s been budgeted in 2010. Total spending in 2005, 2007 and 2008 topped $70,000. For 2010, under a new flex account structure, spending is capped at $39,050.

Judge said it’s the responsibility of each commissioner to read the board rules and abide by them. She then read the board rules regarding reimbursement – she’d read them during a statement at the start of the meeting as well. Here’s the section in its entirety:


In addition to the salary received by the Board of Commissioners, each member of the Board may receive a per diem payment of $25.00 and County mileage reimbursement from their residence or from their actual place of departure whichever is less from their CFA allotment for the following activities:

1. Attendance for a committee, subcommittee meeting or Working Session of the Board, when the member has been properly appointed to that committee or subcommittee, the meeting has been called in accordance with the Open Meeting Act, Public Act 267 of 1976, and the meeting has not been canceled twenty-four (24) hours prior to the scheduled time of the meeting and the Commissioner has not been notified of said cancellation within twenty-four (24) hours of the scheduled meeting.

2. Attendance at a meeting of a non-Board committee, subcommittee, commission, board, or attendance at a conference or convention as a representative of Washtenaw County when the member of the Board serves by appointment of the Board of Commissioners or the Chair of the Board.

3. For the purpose of receiving per diems, the Commissioner must be present for at least 1 hour or half of the meeting, whichever is less. Commissioners shall note their arrival and departure times on the meeting attendance per diem slip submitted to receive payments.

Any member of the Board of Commissioners may waive his/her per diem and/or mileage reimbursement by giving written notice to the County Clerk.

These are not difficult sentences to read, Judge noted, adding that she was sure that Ouimet had read them. When she was elected and started her term in 2009, Judge said she had looked at commissioner spending and questioned it. There was a line item for miscellaneous spending, for example – it totaled $12,278 in 2007, $7,075 in 2008 and $7,516 in 2009. Why hadn’t Ouimet cut that? she wondered. In 2009, when she first talked to deputy clerk Jason Brooks about what spending qualified for reimbursement, he referred her to the board rules, she said, but then told her that he’d have to approve whatever they submitted. That was like the fox guarding the henhouse, she said. There was a problem, she said, to the tune of thousands of dollars each year.

Judge said Boonstra gave her too much credit for bullying Kestenbaum – he’s not someone who could be bullied, but she appreciated the fact that Brewer thought she could. She said she’s not a minion of Mark Brewer, and has spoken to him only about four times. She said she’s never taken direction from Brewer, and never will. As for her own travel expenses, Judge said her $8,000 of travel to conferences has resulted in roughly $100,000 of tangible benefits to the county.

Finally, Judge noted that commissioners have to fill out forms to get reimbursed for mileage and to get their per diem. You have to take the time to do that, she said – it’s a choice. She asked whether it was OK to rob a bank, if you then gave the money to charity. It’s the commissioners’ responsibility to guard taxpayer money, she said, and if you follow the rules, you have nothing to hide. She concluded by saying that she’d brought commissioner spending under control.

[By way of background, starting in 2010, each commissioner has an annual flex account for expenses, capped at $3,550. A commissioner can only receive additional funds if another commissioner agrees to transfer unused funds from his/her account. [.pdf file of flex account rules] Flex accounts were voted into place in 2009, taking effect with the 2010 budget. From The Chronicle’s report of the June 3, 2009 board meeting:

The commissioners first considered a resolution to cut their own piece of the budget by 11.3%, and to create “flex accounts” that would pool previous line items for per diem, travel, and convention/conference expenses. The budget calls for $3,550 per commissioner for these flex accounts. The total budget for commissioners after the reduction is $532,885, an amount that includes salaries ($177,387), consultant fees ($55,150 for a lobbyist in Lansing), fringe benefits ($41,979) and an amount to cover administrative expenses (called the Cost Allocation Plan, at $143,462), among other things. The resolution also includes new guidelines for administering the flex accounts.

This resolution is the third iteration of an attempt to cut the commissioners’ budget, following two resolutions presented at the board’s May 20 meeting that did not receive sufficient support to pass. There was little discussion on the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.

Outcome: The motion carried, with Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn and Jeff Irwin voting against it.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several other commissioners weighed in on the issue of commissioner spending. Leah Gunn said she is a Democrat but didn’t agree with everything that the Democratic Party did. She has no control over what people say, Gunn added, and to accuse the Democratic commissioners of some nefarious plot against Ouimet was unfair. She recalled that Ouimet had served as her Ward 4 representative on the Ann Arbor city council some 20 years ago, and that she’d always found him to be upstanding and gracious. She noted that as a group, the entire board had addressed the $30 million budget deficit for 2010 and 2011. They had voted unanimously on the budget, and they had all worked to reduce commissioner spending.

Ken Schwartz characterized the situation as “Lansing politics” being brought to the county. He noted that the board has a track record of working together without divisive partisan politics, and that they’d all been surprised by the recent controversy. Though the Democrats are in the majority, they had elected Ouimet as vice chair of the board, and elected Republican Jessica Ping as chair of the board’s working session. He said it’s been great working with them both.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he didn’t like the kind of accusations he’d heard during public commentary, and that he agreed with Schwartz. They sometimes have little catfights and argue on the board, he said, but they work together and get things done. He said he’d been advised by the county’s legal counsel that he couldn’t stop people from speaking during public commentary. Sizemore said that if he could stop them, he guaranteed that he would.

Barbara Bergman said it had been a privilege to work with all the commissioners, and Ouimet in particular. Divisions on the board didn’t tend to go along party lines, she observed. They were more likely to be divided on issues like police services, where there were differences between commissioners who represented cities versus townships. She said the board worked together as a team.

In his response, Ouimet said it’s been a “very interesting process” to watch how people have reacted to this issue over the past two weeks. He restated what he’d said at the Oct. 6 board meeting – that he’d be happy to go over the expenses with the clerk’s office and repay anything if there was a discrepancy. He offered to put the disputed amount into an escrow account until the issue was resolved. Ouimet said that other commissioners knew him, and knew that any meetings he attended had been on behalf of his constituent base.

Judge spoke again, saying she agreed that the board had worked as a team. But she observed that she’d taken criticism in the past for her support of the flex spending account. She noted that when she had originally questioned the line-item budget for commissioners – which prior to 2010 had included line items for magazine subscriptions, books and a miscellaneous category, among other things – she’d been told she was micromanaging.

Act 88: Economic Development Tax

Earlier in the meeting, the board gave initial approval to levy an economic development tax of 0.043 mills. Known as the Act 88 millage, it is expected to generate roughly $611,266 annually and would cost homeowners $4.30 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. The millage would be levied in December 2010 to be used in 2011.

The millage rate is slightly higher than what was passed a year ago, which raised $603,000 for use in 2010. The increased funding has been directed to the county’s department of economic development and energy, which will get $144,696 from the millage proceeds, compared to $87,000 allocated this year.

If given final approval, the millage funds will be allocated to the following groups [2010 funding is indicated in parentheses]:

Act 88: Commissioner Discussion

Kristin Judge pointed out that she voted against the millage last year, and she’d be voting no again. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t support these programs, she said. She praised Ann Arbor SPARK in particular, saying that the economic development agency is doing an amazing job. It’s short-sighted not to allocate funding for these programs out of the general fund, she said. [Until the budget that was passed in 2009, SPARK and other economic development programs received support out of the county's general fund budget.] It isn’t right to burden taxpayers with an extra tax for these programs, she said.

Jessica Ping said she’d be abstaining, since both Ann Arbor SPARK and SPARK East, a business incubator in Ypsilanti, are clients of hers. [Ping works for Paychex, a payroll processing firm.] If she were to vote, she said she’d vote against the millage, because it’s not the right time to be taxing residents. She cited a small business in Saline, which is in her district, that employs over 100 people – most of those employees live in Jackson, she said. The county needs to create an environment where businesses can grow, but also one in which people want to live, she said. It’s a small tax, but it adds up, Ping said, adding that if they want to increase taxes, they should put it on the ballot and let voters decide.

Mark Ouimet noted that he served on the board of Ann Arbor SPARK, and asked the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, whether he should also abstain. Hedger clarified with Ouimet that it wasn’t a paid position, and said he didn’t see it as a conflict of interest.

Wes Prater also weighed in against the millage, saying the only taxes that should be levied are those approved by voters. He echoed Judge in saying that economic development programs should be supported with general fund dollars, and that he couldn’t support a tax that wasn’t voter-approved. “I just don’t think it’s right.”

Ken Schwartz asked the county clerk, Larry Kestenbaum, how much it would cost to hold an election on the millage. Kestenbaum said it cost about $1,200 per precinct, and there are 156 precincts in the county. If a measure were simply added to the ballot of an existing election, the incremental cost would be negligible, he said. [Kestenbaum later clarified in an email to The Chronicle that if a low-turnout standalone proposal were on the ballot, at least a dozen precincts likely would be combined, reducing the total number of polling locations to around 140.]

Schwartz also clarified that the amount of the tax works out to be 4.3 cents for every $1,000 of a home’s taxable value, or $4.30 for every $100,000.

Outcome: The board gave initial approval to the Act 88 millage, with dissent from Judge, Ouimet and Prater. Ping abstained, saying that Ann Arbor SPARK is a client of hers. The board is expected to take a final vote at its Nov. 3 meeting.

Resolution to Eliminate Commissioner Pension, Health Benefits

During the agenda time allotted for items for current or future discussion, Kristin Judge introduced a resolution to eliminate retirement pensions and health care for commissioners, effective Jan. 1, 2011. She noted that she had circulated the resolution via email prior to the meeting, though it was not on the agenda.

Commissioners, who are considered part-time county employees, are enrolled in the county’s Money Purchase Pension Plan (MPPP). They contribute 7.5% of their pre-tax wages to the plan, and get a matching 7.5% county contribution. In addition, they are eligible for lifetime health care benefits when they retire if they are at least age 60 and have served for eight years on the board, or if they are at least 50 years old and their age plus their years of service total 75.

The MPPP is a defined contribution plan, in which employers pay a set amount into the retirement plan while a person is employed. In 2008, the county shifted most employees out of the MPPP and into the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System, known as WCERS, a defined benefit plan. In defined benefit plans, retirees receive a set amount per month during their retirement.

In addition to benefits, commissioners earn $15,500 annually. Officers receive higher pay: $18,500 for the board chair (Rolland Sizemore Jr.), $16,000 for the board vice chair (Mark Ouimet), $16,500 for the Ways & Means Committee chair (Conan Smith) and the working session chair (Jessica Ping).

By way of background, the issue of pension benefits was mentioned at the Jan. 6, 2010 board meeting:

Leah Gunn asked that they revisit the issue of getting the board out of the Money Purchase Pension Plan (MPPP). [Commissioners are the only county employees still participating in this defined contribution plan. Other county employees have been moved to the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System, known as WCERS, a defined benefit plan.] A resolution to eliminate the county’s contribution for commissioners to the MPPP was pulled from the board’s Nov. 18, 2009 agenda, at Wes Prater’s request. Prater had asked that the item be moved to the board’s Jan. 20, 2010 meeting.

The issue was raised again at the board’s April 10, 2010 meeting, during a report to the board from Mark Kettner of the accounting firm Rehmann Robson, which conducts the annual audit of the county’s financial report:

Mark Ouimet asked about the county’s Money Purchase Pension Plan. He said that he and Gunn feel it’s time to close the plan and move the remaining $1.9 million in assets somewhere else. There are only a dozen people in the retirement plan – all of the county commissioners, and a judge. He asked Kettner to explain how it might be terminated.

Kettner said it was his understanding that commissioners couldn’t make changes to their salaries or benefits until the beginning of their next term.

Wes Prater objected, saying there needs to be some discussion about what to do with the pension plan. Nobody has convinced him that eliminating the plan is the best option. “I, for one, am not ready to go that route,” he said.

[Retirement benefits for most county employees have been shifted out of the MPPP, a defined contribution plan, to the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System, known as WCERS, which is a defined benefit plan. Commissioners contribute 7.5% of their salary on a pre-tax basis to the MPPP and receive a 100% employer match. The county also contributes to a voluntary employee beneficiary association (VEBA) on behalf of each commissioner.]

Most recently, Gunn referred to her support of eliminating the MPPP in a comment thread on The Chronicle’s report of the board’s Oct. 6 meeting:

Once again, I will say that I proposed ending the MPPP (the Money Purchase Pension Plan, a defined contribution program that the Commissioners benefit from) last year, and I got violent pushback from Commissioners (whom I will not name out of courtesy). When I became a Commissioner, I asked to be excluded from this benefit, and was told that I had to take it. All Commissioners put in 7.5% and the county matches that. This year, with the county employees all in a different plan, this plan has only eleven members, the Commissioners. It is my understanding that a memo will be sent out soon to dismantle the plan and put Commissioners in a 457 deferred compensation plan, which will have no county match. Then, individual Commissioners can decide what they want to do – stay in the plan, roll it over to another tax deferred instrument such as an IRA, or pay taxes and cash out. I am hoping that all Commissioners will support the ending of this pension benefit. It costs about $10,000 a year to administer, and that is an expense we do not need to bear. I realize that $10,000 is a small amount, but we have already cut to the bone in our budget, and are in the position of looking at digits and perhaps limbs in the future. I am also willing to take a salary cut, and actually earn nothing, if my fellow Commissioners will agree to that. It is about public service, not about us.

A cover memo accompanying Judge’s resolution also mentioned the $10,000 annual fee that Prudential charges for administering the MPPP. In addition, during Wednesday’s meeting Judge noted that eliminating the pension would result in a $13,200 annual savings because the county wouldn’t be making a matching contribution. Eliminating health care benefits – medical and dental – would result in an additional $12,522 annual savings.

Judge pointed out that if they are re-elected on Nov. 2, two commissioners would be eligible to retain their pension and lifetime health care benefits if they retired by the end of the year. She did not name the two commissioners. [Responding to a follow-up email from The Chronicle, Judge clarified that only Barbara Bergman would be eligible.]

Judge said that residents in her district feel strongly that part-time commissioners shouldn’t get these benefits. They shouldn’t be expected to do the job for free, she said, but it’s time to let go of the benefits.

Outcome: No one seconded the motion, and it died without further discussion.

Ypsilanti District Library Millage

Linda Gurka, a member of the Ypsilanti District Library board of trustees, spoke during public commentary and urged commissioners and residents to support a millage increase that will be presented Ypsilanti District Library voters on the Nov. 2 ballot. Gurka was there to enlist general support for the measure – the county board of commissioners does not have purview over the question.

Because of declining property values and millage rollbacks triggered by the Headlee Amendment, the library has seen a 13% loss in revenue since 2008. They anticipate another 30% loss over the next three years, she said. Gurka described the library as a “jewel of the community,” and said that even as revenues declined, the demand for services has increased. They’re simply trying to bring revenues back up to 2007 levels, she said. A homeowner whose house is valued at $100,000 would pay $19 a year, or $1.60 per month.

More information about the millage is available on the library’s website.

Ypsilanti District Library Millage: Commissioner Response

Several commissioners praised the library, and said they supported the millage increase.

Ronnie Peterson, whose district includes Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township, said he appreciated the leadership of the library board, which he characterized as aggressive. Its management is the best they’ve ever had. Many communities have closed their libraries or reduced services, he noted, and they needed to spread the word about the importance of libraries, not just in Ypsilanti, but throughout the county.

Leah Gunn, a former librarian, praised the library for its support of the nonprofit Washtenaw Literacy. “I may be from Ann Arbor, but boy, I love the Ypsilanti District Library too,” she said.

Ken Schwartz, whose district includes Superior Township, told Gurka that the library needs to provide a map of the district on its website and in its literature. He said the township had voted several years ago to join the library system, but that many residents still didn’t know they are a part of it.

Saying he supported the library, Rolland Sizemore Jr. also reported that the library’s geo-caching isn’t quite right – that information came from his grandson, he said,”so please check that.”

Coordinated Funding Model for Human Services

At its Oct. 7, 2010 working session, the board was briefed on a proposed coordinated funding model involving the Washtenaw United Way, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor and the Urban County. Those five entities provide about $5 million annually for local human services nonprofits. Already, the county and city of Ann Arbor coordinate their funding via the office of community development, a joint county/city department led by Mary Jo Callan.

The proposed public/private model would focus funding on six priorities that have been identified for the entire county: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food.

The board of commissioners is expected to vote on the proposal later this year, likely at their Nov. 3 meeting.

Coordinated Funding: Public Commentary

Todd Clark, president of United Bank & Trust’s Washtenaw operation, said he was there to strongly support the proposed coordinated funding strategy. He noted that he is co-chair of the United Way of Washtenaw County‘s fundraising campaign and serves on the board of SOS Community Services, so he sees the perspectives of both the funders and the nonprofits seeking funding. The bank is also a large funder, he said, contributing about $100,000 annually to local nonprofits, and about 5,000 hours of employee time.

Clark said the four guiding principals of the coordinated funding strategy really resonated with him: 1) focusing on the consumer of services, not on the organization that provides the services, 2) creating savings and improving the process for funders and service providers, 3) leveraging the assets and strengths of each funding organization, and 4) providing a model of cooperation and collaboration. If funders can do this, he said, it will carry through to other organizations. He noted that one example of current collaboration that’s already providing a benefit to consumers is a waiting list for the homeless that’s being managed by SOS, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County and the Salvation Army. Clark urged commissioners to support the funding model.

Coordinated Funding: Commissioner Response

Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge and Mark Ouimet all commented that they support the coordinated funding approach. Ouimet noted that he sits on the board of United Way, and that they spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to allocate funding. The coordinated model is a better way to do that.

Conan Smith said he’s close to one of the board members at SOS, and he commended Clark for dealing with that “unruly bunch.” [Smith is married to Rebekah Warren, who serves on the SOS board.]

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, Nov. 3, 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 Leah Gunn
    October 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    I appreciate the Chronicle’s history of my efforts to eliminate per diems and the MPPP. However, it takes six votes to do anything. I thought then and still think now that the “flex” accounts are a sham. I have not spent one cent of mine. The entire amount will go back to the General Fund at the end of the year. In addition, I have today mailed a check to the County Clerk for $175.00 to reimburse the county for my “questionable” per diems. (I did not have any that were deemed “ineligible”.)Although I stopped taking per diems in 2008 and have never applied for mileage, I sincerely believed that the three committees mentioned (Washtenaw Metro Alliance, Literacy Coalition and the organizing meeting for the Food System Econommic Partnership) were legitimate county initiatives. The Metro Alliance has stopped meeting because the county does not have the money to staff it, and the FSEP and Liteacy Coalition are now successful and independentt organizations, thanks to the beginning support from us in Washtenaw County government.

    I might add that I have not spent one nickel on travel for quite some time. I went to a few meetings years ago, and found that we are either way ahead of other counties in how we do things, or that we don’t have the jurisdiction for many of the topics that were discussed. When you add travel expenses to the report from the Clerk, you will see Commissioners’ expenses take quite a jump.

    I plan to reintroduce my resolution to eliminate all per diems, travel and mileage at the first meeting in December. At this time, I don’t think I have six votes, but that will not stop me from trying.

  2. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    October 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm | permalink

    Lee Gunn, you have my vote. I fully support your mileage, travel, per diem and pension elimination resolution.

    A check is in the mail for all my unconfirmed per diems.

    Barbara Levin Bergman

  3. By Mark Koroi
    October 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm | permalink

    Thank you for your actions, Commissioners Gunn and Bergman.

    Kristin Judge has recently announced that she is going to be repaying questionable per diems and mileage cited by Larry Kestenbaum’s report.

    The County Commission members need to reimburse the county and abolish per diems and mileage reimbursements in the future.

    The adoption of Commissioner Gunn’s proposed resolution is sorely needed and would bring a measure of respect and gratitude from the electorate.

  4. October 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm | permalink

    As commendable as it is, I’d like to see the measure expanded to include per diems paid to all board and commission members. Per diem payment should not be necessary to volunteer activity and is not a custom in the city of Ann Arbor, where plenty of people volunteer happily to be on these bodies.

    I suspect that there would be considerable savings, not just in the payments themselves, but in the accounting and mailing costs (each per diem recipient is due a 1099 at tax time, for example).

    If the per diem payments to commissioners are the only ones eliminated, there needs to be a policy decision as to whether those payments would be made to commissioners who serve on a board or commission as part of their BOC assignments.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    October 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm | permalink

    I don’t think per diems are necessarily a bad idea in principle, for legitimate county business… but it’s hard to draw a bright line delineating what is and what isn’t legitimate, and as Ouimet’s example shows (in my opinion) that makes them too easy to abuse.

    I am a little boggled at the “donated to charity” thing. Why not just not take them?

  6. By Leah Gunn
    October 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm | permalink

    To Vivienne – the entire structure of boards and commissions appointed by the BOC is being looked at in depth and a comprehensive package will be prsented at the first meeting in December. Some of these need to be restructured and some eliminated – but some are required by law. I have also advocated for the elimination of per diems for these volunteers as well. If you want to see who takes them and who does not, go to the ocunty checkbook register on line.

    And of course my resolution refers to ALL per diems for Commissioners – there is no difference among meetings, whether they are Ways & Means, Working Sessions or committees that Commissioners attend.

  7. October 25, 2010 at 8:50 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Leah, good to know there is a comprehensive review.

    My point was that if per diem payments were continued for members of a particular board and a commissioner was a full-fledged member of that board, then he/she could theoretically claim a per diem not as a commissioner, but as a board member.

    I’m sure that you will all sort this out and I have no need to dig into checkbook registers (though I celebrate this new utility).

  8. By Rod Johnson
    October 26, 2010 at 10:19 am | permalink

    Oh, and… geocaching? What does the Ypsilanti District Library have to do with geocaching?