Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Dec. 1, 2010): Farewells and recognitions took up much of the board’s last meeting of 2010 – four commissioners are wrapping up their service at the end of the year.
Also during the meeting, the issue of appropriate compensation emerged again. Local attorney Tom Wieder, who had initially raised the issue in October, spoke during public commentary about the need for commissioner Mark Ouimet and others who were inappropriately reimbursed for per diem and mileage to repay the county. An independent accountant’s report on the matter, one that was commissioned by county administrator Verna McDaniel, has been completed but not yet publicly released. Commissioners will be meeting individually with accountants regarding the report next week, and it will then be released to the public.
A resolution that would have cut spending accounts for commissioners from $3,550 annually to $1,500 wasn’t brought forward for a vote – Conan Smith had circulated a draft of the resolution via email earlier in the day. But he said he decided not to introduce it, because after talking to individual commissioners before the meeting, it was clear that he couldn’t marshal enough votes to get it passed.
The board did take action on several budget-related items, with little discussion. Commissioners gave final approval to revisions in the 2011 budget, which among other things directs county administrator Verna McDaniel to make proposals for cutting $1,034,988 out of the original budget of $98,493,155. The board also voted to accept the county’s apportionment report, which gives details of the 2010 taxable valuations for property in the county, by municipality. The report also includes the amount of millages levied and the dollar amounts collected in taxes. December tax bills have already been mailed out to property owners, based on these calculations.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved two appointments, nominated by board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. Commissioner Conan Smith was appointed to the board of the land bank authority, and outgoing commissioner Ken Schwartz was appointed to the board of the Washtenaw County Road Commission.
The issue of how commissioners are paid per diem, mileage and other expenses has been discussed in several ways over the past few months, and the topic emerged again during the Dec. 1 meeting.
Commissioner Compensation: Public Commentary
Tom Wieder, a local attorney and Democratic Party supporter, spoke during two opportunities for public commentary. He reminded commissioners that he’d previously spoken to them about two months ago, prior to the Nov. 2 election.
At the board’s Oct. 6 meeting, Wieder produced documents obtained from the county under the Freedom of Information Act and accused commissioner Mark Ouimet of claiming per diem payments to which he wasn’t entitled. Wieder said that Ouimet’s spending far exceeded other commissioners, and that Ouimet should repay more than $30,000 in inappropriate per diem and mileage reimbursements.
Wieder’s accusations led to a review by the county clerk’s office of all commissioner reimbursements, and to a separate external accounting report on the issue commissioned by county administrator Verna McDaniel.
At the board’s Dec. 1 meeting, Wieder said his understanding is that roughly 80% of the reimbursements deemed to be inappropriate were made by Ouimet and Jessica Ping. [Ouimet and Ping are the only Republicans on the 11-member board.] Wieder said he hoped that nothing like this would happen again, and he urged commissioners to support a call by Leah Gunn to abolish all per diem, mileage and travel payments. [Gunn had floated that resolution at the board's Nov. 17 meeting, but it failed to secure enough votes to pass.]
Wieder pointed out that Ouimet had previously offered to repay anything that was inappropriately reimbursed, and that Ouimet had offered to put the disputed money in escrow until the issue was resolved. Wieder questioned whether that had happened. He said he’d emailed McDaniel raising other issues, but “the main thing is: What are you going to do now?” What are they going to do to recoup taxpayer money? he asked, stating that in excess of $25,000 needed to be repaid.
Wieder noted that time is running out in seeking reimbursement – he said it’s likely that a six-year statute of limitations applies, if it becomes necessary to litigate. They need to act soon, he said.
Commissioner Compensation: Commissioner Response
In response to a comment by Wieder, Leah Gunn said that the independent accountant’s report on per diem spending had been commissioned by McDaniel – not at the urging of Ouimet.
Jeff Irwin said that Wieder was right in returning to the board and asking them what the county’s response will be. He said they’d be looking at some hard numbers from the report that McDaniel had commissioned, which would allow them to settle the issue. [Commissioners will be meeting individually with accountants regarding the report next week – it will then be released to the public.]
Irwin noted that at the Nov. 17 meeting, they’d had another debate on the question of per diems – referring to the discussion on Gunn’s resolution to eliminate per diem, mileage and travel spending. They’ve learned that some people, in good faith, had misinterpreted the board rules, Irwin said, and that resulted in a situation that has cost the county in staff time looking into the recordkeeping. He said he hoped they could put the issue behind them as soon as possible.
Commissioner Compensation: A No-Show Resolution
Earlier in the day on Dec. 1, prior to the board meeting, commissioner Conan Smith had emailed current commissioners, the four incoming commissioners and other elected county officials about a resolution he said he was planning to bring forward at their meeting that evening.
The resolution would have cut the amount of commissioners’ individual “flex” accounts from $3,550 to $1,500 per commissioner, annually. It also would have exempted mileage reimbursements for approved county business from the flex accounts, and excluded Ways & Means Committee meetings, working sessions and administrative briefings from being eligible for per diems. [.pdf file of Smith's resolution]
In his email, Smith wrote that although it accounted for “a small part of the overall budget, the determination of our compensation sends important signals to the organization and the public both in regards to our commitment to ensure that any citizen can afford to serve in this role as well as our sensitivity to the county budget situation.”
In addition, Smith wrote:
I want to acknowledge that in the last cycle, the BOC [board of commissioners] enacted significant cuts to commissioner compensation. In the proposal that created the Flex Accounts, commissioner remuneration was reduced by more than 16%, and the overall BOC budget dropped by 11%. Considering that commissioner salaries have remained flat for well over a decade, these cuts to personnel far exceeded anything we implemented for the staff – union and non-union alike. The departmental reduction set the stage for a very productive and sincere budget process that allowed us to achieve nearly miraculous outcomes thanks to the goodwill that move generated. There should be no question in anyone’s mind that the BOC has led by example in these hard budget times.
I also want to express my appreciation for the insight you have provided on what it takes to do this job effectively and how our higher minds need to be set on ensure that no citizen is dissuaded from running for this office because of their employment situation. We function better as a board with the broad representation that our compensation package supports. This has never been a question of personal gain at our board; rather looking to the future of the institution we have consistently kept a fair – not lucrative, but fair – compensation in mind. That should remain a moral priority for us.
All this said, the organization is again facing a revenue situation that will call for nearly draconian cuts to general fund services and, with proposed reductions in state and federal aid, puts human services for our most vulnerable residents in jeopardy. If we are going to meet this challenge in the same way we did a year ago, it is incumbent on the board to act on commissioner compensation again. This is not necessarily a question of fairness or equity but one of leadership.
I agree with many of you who want to ensure that the base compensation package ensures access: this is a just outcome against which to judge our remuneration. To that end, I recommend 1) leaving the salary and benefits package alone 2) exempting mileage reimbursements for approved county business from the Flex Accounts and 3) reducing the Flex Account allocation to $1,500. I am also proposing that Ways & Means Committee Meetings, Working Sessions and Administrative Briefings be excluded from per diems.
This is the equivalent to a 9% reduction in direct compensation. The $1,500 Flex Account should be sufficient to allow for per diems for other meetings throughout a year or could be used to offset travel costs for educational opportunities. Again, the Flex Account approach allows each commissioner to determine the most appropriate use of funds necessary to do the job well.
I hope you will give this proposal judicious consideration this evening.
However, Smith did not introduce the resolution during the Dec. 1 meeting. After the meeting, he told The Chronicle that he hadn’t been able to garner sufficient votes for it to pass.
As he has at previous meetings, Smith – who chairs the board’s Ways & Means Committee, and who is expected to be elected board chair in January – gave an update on preparations to address the 2012-2013 budget. He serves as a board liaison to the budget team, led by county administrator Verna McDaniel, which is developing the process that will be used to set the budget.
Smith noted that they’ll likely be facing at least a $20 million deficit over that two-year period, and said they’ll need to be creative and strong to fill the hole. “While last year was difficult, next year we’ll be cutting to the bone,” he said.
Public outreach and community engagement will be critical, Smith said, both to the general public as well as to county employees and to other elected officials, including the sheriff, prosecutor, clerk, water resources commissioner and the judiciary. The budget team is trying to come up with a range of different ways to engage these constituencies, he said, such as brown bag lunches, online surveys, YouTube videos and town hall meetings. He said they’ve also discussed adding a “rumor buster” section to the county’s budget website, which would explain the data and rationale behind their decision-making.
Smith said that in January, McDaniel will give a “state of the county” report, which will outline the county’s current status as well as goals and expectations for the coming year. He said that during budget team meetings, she had highlighted the need to discuss not just ways to cut the budget, but also to set a vision for the county’s future.
Budget Issues: 2011 Budget Affirmation
Later in the meeting, Wes Prater noted that the 2011 budget affirmation they were voting on – and which later received final approval – was simply an expenditure plan. It was likely to change, he noted, either for better or worse. He said he hoped the board would receive a quarterly update from administration. McDaniel indicated that updates would be provided as requested.
The board had held a public hearing on the 2011 budget changes at its Nov. 17 meeting, which drew three speakers. Commissioners had given initial approval of the changes on Nov. 3. [.pdf of 2011 revised county general fund budget]
Outcome: The resolution that authorized changes to the 2011 budget was approved unanimously.
Budget Issues: Apportionment Report
Every April, the county’s equalization department produces an annual report describing Washtenaw County’s total equalized (assessed) value of property. The report – part of the state-mandated equalization process – gives an indication of how much revenue the county will receive from property taxes in the coming year. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Assessed Property Values Drop"]
In November, the equalization and property description department presents an apportionment report, which gives details of the taxable valuations for property in the county, by municipality. The report also includes the amount of millages levied and the dollar amounts collected in taxes. [.pdf file of 2010 apportionment report]
Raman Patel, the county’s equalization director, told the board on Wednesday that this year, all the taxing entities in Washtenaw County will be levying in total about $639 million in property taxes. The county alone will levy about $83 million this year. The largest amount – about $190 million – is levied by the county’s K-12 public schools.
Like the equalization report, the board is required by state law to vote on adopting the apportionment report. Commissioner Conan Smith joked that “just for kicks,” one year they should reject it – this was not the year.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to adopt the 2010 apportionment report.
Budget Issues: Sheriff Deputy Patrols
The board took a final vote on a resolution setting the cost of a police services unit (PSU) at $176,108. The amount had been recommended by the police services steering committee (PSSC), a group appointed by the county board that has been working for more than a year to determine the true cost of putting a sheriff’s deputy on patrol. Commissioners had received a presentation on that issue at their Nov. 4 working session, when sheriff Jerry Clayton reviewed the PSSC proposal – most of the board’s public discussion occurred at that session.
A PSU is the term used for a sheriff’s deputy who is hired on a contract basis to serve local townships and other municipalities. The amount includes direct costs like salary and fringe benefits, as well as indirect costs and overhead. [.pdf of cost details for police services unit] For additional background, see also Chronicle coverage of the board’s Nov. 17 meeting.
A meeting of the PSSC had originally been scheduled for Dec. 1, prior to the county board meeting. It was rescheduled for Dec. 15, with the intent of waiting until the board had acted on the cost proposal, so that the PSSC could then consider its next steps. The Dec. 15 committee meeting will begin at 4 p.m. at the county’s western service center, 705 N. Zeeb Road.
Outcome: The board gave final approval to a resolution that sets the cost of a police services unit (PSU) at $176,108. The board still needs to decide how much the county will charge contracting municipalities per PSU – an amount that will likely be lower, offset by a county general fund contribution.
Budget Issues: Internal Audit
With no discussion, commissioners unanimously gave final approval for the county administration to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit bids from firms to perform an internal audit on the county’s finances. The audit would begin by reviewing existing internal controls, followed by a risk assessment to identify which departments to examine first.
According to the county’s bid website, the deadline for responding to the RFP is 2 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2011. [.pdf file of internal audit RFP]
The board approved two appointments at Wednesday’s meeting, both nominated by board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Conan Smith was nominated to serve on the board of the county land bank authority. The land bank – a mechanism used to help the county deal with foreclosed and blighted properties – has a somewhat convoluted history. The board first authorized it in 2009, but decided to dissolve the land bank earlier this year after they failed to reach consensus on issues of governance and funding.
After further debate spanning several months, the board revived the land bank in September, when they also passed a resolution calling for two commissioners to serve on the land bank’s board. That change requires state approval, which has not yet been authorized. When state approval is given, Sizemore plans to nominate Wes Prater to serve on the land bank authority board, filling the second set allotted to commissioners.
Outcome: Conan Smith’s appointment to the land bank authority board was unanimously approved.
Sizemore also nominated Ken Schwartz to serve as a Washtenaw County road commissioner, replacing David Rutledge, who was recently elected state representative for District 54. [Schwartz lost his re-election bid to continue serving on the county board for District 2 – Republican Dan Smith won that race, and will join the board in January.]
At the board’s Nov. 17 meeting, Sizemore had expressed frustration with the management of the road commission, which is responsible for the upkeep and construction of more than 1,600 miles of roads and 111 bridges throughout Washtenaw County. Three road commissioners are appointed by the county board to six-year terms with a base salary of $10,500, and are supposed to provide oversight to the road commission management – Steve Puuri is the current managing director there. The other two road commissioners are Doug Fuller, who was appointed for his first term in 2008, and Fred Veigel, who was first appointed in 1991 and was most recently re-appointed in 2008, after some debate by the county board.
Seven people applied for the seat being vacated by Rutledge – Schwartz did not officially apply. At the Nov. 17 board meeting, commissioner Kristin Judge, who was lobbying to add a special meeting on Dec. 8 to discuss budget priorities, suggested that interviews for candidates be held then too. That idea didn’t get traction from the rest of the board – no additional meeting was scheduled.
There was never any previous public discussion about the possibility of Schwartz being named, though Sizemore confirmed his intention last month in a phone interview with The Chronicle. From Chronicle coverage:
Sizemore said that Schwartz – whose district covers northeast Washtenaw, including the townships of Superior, Salem and Northfield – is familiar with the county, having previously served on the board of Superior Township and as an attorney for Augusta Township, in addition to his work as a county commissioner. Schwartz also understands what the board of commissioners wants from the road commission, Sizemore said, adding that the tough economy requires a different kind of management in the road commission. … “I know I’ll take heat for it,” Sizemore said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
Beyond Sizemore’s remarks in making the nomination, there was no discussion of Schwartz’s appointment at the Dec. 1 meeting.
Outcome: Ken Schwartz was appointed to the Washtenaw County road commission board by a unanimous vote. Schwartz abstained from the vote. His term begins Jan. 1, 2011.
Ann Arbor Skatepark
During public commentary time, Trevor Staples and Scott Rosencrans – both with the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark – came to the podium.
Staples thanked the board for their support over the past couple of years, and gave special thanks to the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, on which two commissioners – Conan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. – serve. [In March, the commission approved $400,000 in matching funds for construction of the skatepark, which will be located at Veterans Memorial Park in Ann Arbor.]
Staples also noted that the skatepark is participating in the Pepsi Refresh Project, competing for a $250,000 prize – winners are the projects that receive the most votes online or via text message in December. They’ve launched a vigorous campaign to encourage supporters to vote each day during the month.
In the time set aside for commissioner response to public commentary, several commissioners praised the efforts of Staples and other skatepark organizers – some indicated that they’d already voted in the Pepsi Refresh competition.
Barbara Bergman said she’d received an email from a local doctor who objected to supporting the skatepark and who felt there are other more worthy causes to endorse. Bergman said she disagreed – recreation is important, and she supported the skatepark. She noted that the doctor had said skateboarding is dangerous, and she indicated that she assumed the skatepark would be handled responsibly regarding safety issues.
Sizemore recalled that when he was younger, they had to build their own places to skateboard. He said he’s talked to youth from around the county, and they tell him two things: 1) they don’t like wearing protective gear, though he said he recommends it, and 2) they’re excited about the skatepark, and that the county is supporting a project of this magnitude.
Recognition: HARC, Ping, Outgoing Commissioners
Much of the Dec. 1 meeting was devoted to honors and recognitions, for members of the community as well as outgoing commissioners.
Recognition: Da-I Ping
Da-I Ping attended Wednesday’s meeting under the impression that he was there for the final meeting of his daughter, commissioner Jessica Ping. When commissioner Ken Schwartz presented a resolution honoring Da-I Ping’s military service, Schwartz quipped: “This might be the first time you were successfully ambushed.”
Ping served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1965-69, during the Vietnam war. He has been awarded several military honors for his service, including the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with 2 Bronze Battle Stars, the Combat Action Ribbon, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm.
Bill Reynolds, the county’s deputy administrator, and Michael Smith of the county’s veterans affairs department also have served in the military and wore their dress uniforms during Wednesday’s meeting, in honor of Ping’s service.
Ping, who received a standing ovation from commissioners and others at the meeting, told the crowd that although the war in Vietnam was controversial, he never questioned his service. “I was very proud to serve my country and I would gladly do it again, any time.”
Recognition: HIV/AIDS Resource Center
As part of World AIDS Week, the staff and board of the HIV/AIDS Resource Center (HARC) were honored during Wednesday’s meeting.
A resolution read by commissioner Kristin Judge thanked the staff and board for their work, noting that in 2009, HARC assisted over 201 residents living with HIV/AIDS, tested 512 residents for HIV and contacted 4,583 residents with outreach programming. Judge noted that more than 600 people in Washtenaw County have HIV/AIDS.
Four people from HARC attended the meeting. Patrica Love, the nonprofit’s director of client services, thanked commissioners, saying that HARC couldn’t do the great work it does without the support of its dedicated board, employees and volunteers. She said she was sorry they had to be there after all these years, but unfortunately HIV/AIDS is still “alive and kicking.” HARC board member David Martel also thanked commissioners for their support.
Recognition: Outgoing Commissioners
With clear affection and some tears, commissioners who will remain in office for another two-year term said a formal farewell to the four outgoing commissioners: Republicans Mark Ouimet and Jessica Ping, and Democrats Jeff Irwin and Ken Schwartz. All four were presented with framed resolutions of appreciation, as well as commemorative plaques given by county administrator Verna McDaniel.
Ouimet (District 1) and Irwin (District 11) were elected to the state House of Representatives in Districts 52 and 53, respectively, and will be replaced on the board by the winners of the Nov. 2 election – Republican Rob Turner and Democrat Yousef Rabhi. Ping (District 3) did not seek re-election – that seat was won by her sister, Republican Alicia Ping, in an uncontested race. Schwartz, a Democrat, was defeated in the District 2 race by Republican Dan Smith.
The four outgoing commissioners thanked their families and their colleagues on the board. Ouimet noted that the amount of time spent going to meetings is time not spent with family, and he thanked his wife Donna Ouimet, who was in the audience, for her support.
Some commissioners spoke about how well the group worked together, despite their differences. In her remarks, Ping said it meant a lot that Leah Gunn was the one who presented her with the resolution of appreciation, because when Ping was elected in 2006, Gunn “did not like me at first!” The remark elicited laughter from commissioners.
Schwartz reported that he just finished reading a book by physicist Stephen Hawking, who explores the notion of the existence of multiple universes. “I’m sure in one of those universes, I won the election,” Schwartz said.
Gunn also presented the resolution of appreciation to Irwin, and recalled that when he first joined the board in 1999, “he was the kid.” Gunn said for his first meeting, she embarrassed him by decorating his seat in the boardroom with maize and blue ribbons – Irwin was still a University of Michigan student at the time. And now here he is, she said, “leaving us for Lansing.”
Recognition: Outgoing Chair
Rolland Sizemore Jr., who’ll be ending his two years as board chair, told his colleagues he enjoyed the experience, even though he noted that some people say it’s like trying to herd cats into a bag. He said he was proud to be a part of the board, and to work with the county’s administration.
Conan Smith praised Sizemore’s leadership and collaborative style, noting that there’d been a contentious beginning, but that Sizemore had pulled the board together in ways that Smith hadn’t anticipated. Sizemore had seen the board through some major transitions, Smith said, including a major budget crisis and the hiring of a new county administrator.
Board officers are elected at the beginning of each year, though by custom they typically serve two years in each position.
Misc. Public Commentary
Thomas Partridge spoke during three of the evening’s four opportunities for public commentary. He said he wanted to raise issues that weren’t on the meeting’s “very brief” agenda – issues like a significant and timely expansion of affordable housing, comprehensive public transit that links the entire county and southeast Michigan, and accessible health care, especially for seniors and the disabled. He said it was gratifying to see commissioners in such a good mood, making presentations of recognition. It would have been more gratifying, he said, if homeless people had been invited to attend, and given recognition and respect for their daily struggles.
Misc. Public Commentary: Commissioner Response
Kristin Judge thanked Partridge for continuing to bring up issues that many commissioners also felt strongly about. She noted that they were involved with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s current efforts to develop a countywide transit master plan, and that the county’s public outreach team (PORT) works with the homeless population every day. They are collecting blankets, gloves, tents and other supplies to distribute to the homeless, she said.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. also thanked Partridge, saying that he gave Partridge credit for showing up and doing his part. He said he missed Partridge when he didn’t attend their meetings. “I hope you continue to come,” Sizemore said.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Next board meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.