County Board Gets Update on State Budget

Also, per diem issue resurfaces during public commentary

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 2, 2011): This year’s update from Lansing – delivered by lobbyist Kirk Profit and his colleagues at Governmental Consultant Services Inc. – brought little positive news to county commissioners.

Kirk Profit, Leah Gunn

Kirk Profit of GCSI – a Lansing governmental consulting firm – talks with commissioner Leah Gunn during a break at the March 2, 2011 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

At his presentation to the board a year ago, Profit foreshadowed that a change in leadership at all levels in Lansing would affect the county. On Wednesday, he outlined more details of that impact, specifically related to the state budget recently proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, the Ann Arbor Republican who was elected to office last November.

Responding to GCSI’s presentation, commissioners expressed concerns on a range of topics, including legislation giving broader emergency financial management powers to the state, potential changes to collective bargaining, and K-12 education funding. Leah Gunn made the most direct plea, asking Profit to convey a message to legislators: “Just send us money!”

Aside from the state budget update, commissioners dispatched the rest of their agenda with little discussion. Included in their actions was approval of a resolution allowing the United Way of Washtenaw County to secure a necessary state gambling permit for the nonprofit’s March 9 Power of the Purse fundraising event. The permit is needed so that United Way can auction off gift baskets.

The board also approved changes to its annual calendar that eliminated all future administrative briefings from the board’s meeting schedule. The decision to eliminate the administrative briefings – informal meetings that have been held the week prior to the board’s regular meetings, to review the upcoming agenda – was made at their final briefing on Feb. 26. There was no discussion of the issue on Wednesday.

During public commentary, Tom Wieder returned to address the board about per diem payments for commissioners, an issue he originally raised five months ago. He said he couldn’t quite believe that some commissioners still hadn’t repaid the amounts that an independent audit had determined they owed.

The audit showed that nearly all commissioners needed to reimburse the county for some per diems or mileage that they had inappropriately claimed. The amounts ranged from $25 to $14,385 – an amount repaid by former commissioner Mark Ouimet, who was elected to the state House last fall. All but board chair Conan Smith and Barbara Bergman, and former commissioners Jessica Ping and Ken Schwartz have repaid the amounts they owed as determined by the audit.

Lansing Update

For about 90 minutes during Wednesday’s meeting, lobbyist Kirk Profit of Governmental Consultant Services Inc. – along with his colleagues Ken Cole and Adrian Hemond – briefed commissioners about current budget talks and proposed legislation in Lansing, and answered questions about how state actions might affect the county. Profit had served as a state representative for 10 years, from 1988 through 1998, representing District 54 on the county’s east side.

Profit began with the state budget proposal, which Gov. Rick Snyder had recently unveiled. [.pdf file of Snyder's budget for 2012 and 2013] It’s balanced with no new revenues, he noted, and several major areas – including corrections, Medicare reimbursement rates and community colleges – are protected from cuts. However, there are some big losers under this proposal, he noted, including K-12 education, higher education and local governments.

Another major area of attention is the tax code, Profit said, which doesn’t work by any measure. Snyder’s proposal calls for a 6% flat business tax, to be levied only on C corporations. Other businesses – including LLCs, sole proprietorships and partnerships – would pay only personal income tax. The change would eliminate $1.8 billion in business tax revenue, to be offset by several different measures. Income from pensions, which are currently exempt from the state’s income tax, would be taxed at the proposed 4.25% rate, raising about $900 million. The earned income tax credit would be eliminated, bringing in another $350 million. There could also be significant adjustments to the homestead property tax credit.

Moving on to the topic of collective bargaining, Profit said that’s on the mind of every legislator in the Republican majority, and probably on the minds of the minority as well. Legislation might be introduced to eliminate collective bargaining completely, he said. Act 312 – which calls for binding arbitration of labor contract disputes between public safety employees of police and fire departments – is unlikely to be repealed, Profit said, but will likely go through a major overhaul.

Public employee compensation – including healthcare and pension benefits – is obviously a huge issue for state policymakers, Profit said. State officials will also be watching closely to see how local governments are handling the same issue.

Structural reforms are also being debated in Lansing, primarily as it relates to emergency financial management, Profit said. Snyder is expected to lay out details of the structural reforms he’ll seek in a speech slated for March 21. In general, the governor is encouraging officials at all levels to find ways to collaborate and consolidate – approaches that are considered best management practices, Profit said.

Profit pointed out that there are three members of the legislature’s Republican majority whose districts include parts of Washtenaw County: Rep. Mark Ouimet in District 52, Rep. Rick Olson in District 55, and Sen. Randy Richardville of District 17. They’ll be in positions to respond to Washtenaw County’s interests, Profit said.

In addition, Democrat Sen. Rebekah Warren of District 18, which covers Ann Arbor and a large portion of the rest of the county, is well-positioned on senate committees, he said. [Her committee assignments include health policy; natural resources, environment and Great Lakes; finance; regulatory reform; and the reforms, restructuring, and reinventing committee.] Profit noted that other local Democrats – Rep. Jeff Irwin of District 53, a former county commissioner, and Rep. David Rutledge of District 54 – are also quickly immersing themselves in their work.

Yet obviously, it’s the majority party – currently the Republicans – who are in a position to call more of the shots, Profit said. Olson, he noted, was appointed to lead a work group of the House transportation committee, which will address how to deal with declining Dept. of Transportation funding levels. The state’s gasoline tax is the primary source of revenues for transportation, and as demand for gasoline declines, so do those revenues.

Ouimet chairs the House committee on local, intergovernmental, and regional affairs, which Profit said had already dealt with the emergency financial management legislation. That committee will also likely see much of the legislation dealing with structural reforms, he said.

One thing noticeably absent from all the dialogue in Lansing is what to do about revenue streams for local governments, Profit said. When the legislature eliminates statutory state revenue sharing, he said, the issue of local tax revenue needs to be addressed. GCSI will encourage Ouimet and other legislators to take up this issue, he said.

Ken Cole then briefed commissioners on budget issues related to public health. Starting at the macro level, he said the current proposal calls for allocating $2.7 billion in general fund dollars for the state’s Dept. of Community Health in fiscal 2012 – an increase from its current $2.4 billion budget. That $2.7 billion would account for 40% of the state’s $7 billion general fund budget, he said. Increased costs from that department stem in part from growth in the number of Medicaid cases, to about 1.8 million, with 3.2% growth expected next year. It’s a sign that the “Great Recession” is wreaking havoc in the state, he said. Between 2001 to 2010, Washtenaw County had the seventh-highest growth rate in Medicaid caseloads statewide – nearly doubling during that period to almost 40,000 cases.

Proposed cuts to the state’s community mental health budget would translate to a loss of $200,000 for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), Cole said. Snyder has also proposed a 5% cut to public health spending, though it’s unclear if those will be across-the-board cuts to all local public health departments, he said. And proposed cuts to graduate medical education could reach $67 million – locally, that would affect the University of Michigan, Cole said. UM would face a 40% funding cut for physician training programs next year, if the proposed budget stands.

Adrian Hemond spoke next, focusing on the budget for human services. Snyder’s proposal – calling for a 48-month lifetime limit in benefits from the Family Independence Program, which gives financial aid to low-income families with children or pregnant women – would result in 12,500 people coming off that aid as of Oct. 1, 2011. Some of those people will likely turn to their local governments for help, Hemond said.

The budget proposal would reduce the child care subsidy rate paid to unlicensed aides and relatives caring for low-income children from $1.60 an hour to $1.35 an hour, Hemond said. And a proposed closure of one of the state’s juvenile justice facilities – the Shawono Center in Grayling – would leave only two such operations in the state – including the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake. In addition, there’s a proposed reduction of 20 beds at the Maxey facility.

Snyder’s proposal calls for keeping funding essentially flat for state reimbursements to county jails and community corrections programs, Hemond said.

Profit wrapped up the presentation, saying that in fairness to state policymakers, “the challenge before them is incredible.” In part, that’s because the state is bringing in dramatically less revenue than when he served in the legislature during the 1980s and ’90s. Profit encouraged commissioners to let state legislators know what the county is already doing to curtail employee costs – both in terms of the number of employees, as well as changes to their compensation packages. “You need to tell that story,” he said, so policymakers will understand what local governments are already doing to deal with the economic crisis.

Profit concluded with some positive news, pointing out that legislation allowing the Detroit Region Aerotropolis to move forward had passed at the end of 2010 – Washtenaw County is a partner in that economic development project. He also noted that the area had successfully brought in state funding for special projects, including money to repair the East Stadium bridges – a project of the city of Ann Arbor – and funds for bike paths in the county, secured by the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission. He congratulated Bob Tetens, the county’s parks and recreation director, for making that happen.

After GCSI’s formal presentation, commissioners had several comments and questions. For this report, their remarks are organized by topic.

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Pensions

Leah Gunn began by observing that she and her husband wouldn’t mind having their pension taxed. “It’s only fair,” she said. However, it would be good to indicate some kind of “circuit breaker” that would exempt lower-income seniors, she said.

Wes Prater said he disagreed about taxing pensions. According to county health department estimates, about 35,000 residents in Washtenaw County lack health insurance, he said. Prater was especially concerned about long-time retirees on a fixed income – taxing their pensions would be a hardship, he said, and it’s unfortunate that the state government would give tax breaks to others while balancing the budget on the backs of the poorest people.

“Personally, I can handle it,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there that can’t.”

Profit said that a lot of legislators seem to agree with that view. Especially in the state senate, the plan to tax pensions doesn’t appear to have support.

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Revenues

Noting that most of the focus is on tax cuts, Gunn wondered if there’s any discussion about raising revenues. Not really, Profit replied – the talk now is about making the budget revenue-neutral. Perhaps they should be making the case that a revenue-neutral approach shouldn’t be sacrosanct, he said.

Gunn also noted that the governor has proposed rewarding municipalities that collaborate with others. The county has been doing that for a decade, she observed, and she’d hate to see them penalized for having done that work previously.

Profit pointed out that former county commissioner Mark Ouimet – now a Republican state representative who chairs the House committee on local, intergovernmental, and regional affairs – is very aware and sensitive to that issue. There should be some accounting and recognition of previous collaborative efforts, Profit said, adding that he believes Ouimet will be front and center in making sure that happens.

Gunn concluded her remarks to Profit by giving him a message for legislators: “Just send us money!”

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Collective Bargaining

Yousef Rabhi noted that instead of kicking the can down the road, the state now seems to be picking up the can and throwing it at the poor and elderly, and at local communities. It seems like they all should be picking up the can together and recycling it, he said.

Rabhi praised Snyder for saying that the labor dispute in Wisconsin shouldn’t be repeated in Michigan, but noted that there’s rumblings in the legislature about getting rid of collective bargaining. How do those two conflicting views between the administration and the legislature mesh? he asked.

Profit indicated that he doesn’t think the views do mesh. There are certainly some legislators who want to eliminate collective bargaining, he said. That’s probably not the majority view, he added, but they’ll be vocal.

Given the current national climate, Rabhi said he appreciated a Republican governor taking a more moderate stance and showing that kind of leadership. It was very respectful, he said, and supportive of the view that workers aren’t the enemies.

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Emergency Financial Management

Kristin Judge expressed concern over legislation regarding emergency financial management (EFM). “I am scared by this, to put it bluntly,” she said. Some versions of the proposed legislation had called for appointing a consulting firm to take charge of a municipality in financial duress, taking away the powers of elected local officials, and giving the consultant authority to sell property and change the terms of contracts, among other things. Judge said this doesn’t reflect the democratic process or the country we live in. She noted that many cities under financial distress have large minority populations – and she couldn’t imagine these measures being acceptable in places like Oakland County, for example. She wondered whether anyone in Lansing was standing up and saying that this legislation is ridiculous.

Ken Cole responded, saying that many local officials from across the state have been trekking to Lansing to challenge the legislation, and changes are being made. The provision that would allow a consulting firm to take over had been stricken, for example.

Cole explained that the legislation is a package of five bills: HB 4214 through HB 4218. The bills started out in the House committee on local, intergovernmental, and regional affairs, which is chaired by former county commissioner Mark Ouimet. After moving out of the House, the legislation is now being considered by the Senate: SB 157 and SB 158. In the process, changes are being made, Cole said. An original provision, for example, would have nullified elections and prevented officials from running for office for 10 years. That time period was later changed to six years, and ultimately the entire provision was taken out – meaning that legislation currently being considered would allow elected officials to remain in office and run for re-election.

The provision giving the emergency financial manager the power to sell local assets has been modified, and now calls for final approval by the state treasurer, Cole said. But the provision allowing the manager to nullify existing collective bargaining agreements so far remains in place, he said.

Kristin Judge, Conan Smith

Washtenaw County commissioners Kristin Judge and Conan Smith at the March 2, 2011 board of commissioners meeting.

Judge replied that with all due respect to the governor, saying that he doesn’t want to eliminate collective bargaining while at the same time supporting this legislation seemed disingenuous. Cole assured Judge that she was not alone in her view.

Rabhi asked how the current emergency financial management powers compare to those that are proposed.

The intent of the bills, Cole said, is to neuter the powers of local elected officials. The idea is to impress upon local governments the importance of making tough decisions, he said. The state is sending a message that if local governments don’t get tough with labor, the state will pass legislation giving that authority to the emergency financial manager. But there are also provisions to take these steps in increments, Cole said. Currently, there is a set of triggers that puts in motion a preliminary review, then an official review, then the potential for negotiating a consent agreement with the financially stressed entity. Similar steps are outlined in the proposed legislation, too. It provides the chance for the local unit to devise a plan that explains how they’ll resolve the fiscal emergency.

Cole said he hadn’t yet done a side-by-side comparison between the existing EFM and the proposed legislation. It’s expected that the House and Senate will try to hammer out differences between their respective versions of the legislation sometime next week.

Conan Smith described the EFM legislation as complex and necessary – hundreds of governments are on the brink of insolvency now. There are definitely bones to pick with it, he said, but many provisions are similar to what exists under current law, like the ability to renegotiate labor agreements. Smith pointed out that the person who’ll be overseeing the EFM is “our own Roger Fraser,” the Ann Arbor city administrator who’ll be leaving that job in April to become deputy state treasurer for local government services. He has extensive experience at the local level, Smith said. Above him is state treasurer Andy Dillon – Smith noted that Dillon is a Democrat and former House speaker.

The legislation that’s ultimately enacted will probably contain some things that he’ll abhor, Smith said, but he believes it will be implemented fairly. It’s a time of economic crisis for all local governments, he said, and some are closer to the precipice than Washtenaw County is. [The county is grappling with a projected two-year, $20.9 million deficit for 2012 and 2013.] The previous state administration didn’t deal with it, he noted, and in fact made things worse in some cases – by passing unfunded mandates, for example.

Adrian Hemond noted that one of the provisions would allow the emergency financial manager to shift retirement packages from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, which is now considered best practice. [In defined benefit plans, retirees receive a set amount per month during their retirement. In defined contribution plans, employers pay a set amount into the retirement plan while a person is employed. The most common of these defined contribution plans is the 401(k).]

Wes Prater commented that as baby boomers grow older and retire, they’re beginning to realize that there aren’t sufficient funds in their 401(k) plans to sustain them through retirement – in a short time, those funds are depleted. People don’t seem to be getting adequate advice to allow them to self-manage their defined contribution plans, he said. As time goes on, he predicted there will be more issues related to this type of plan, and that this type of plan won’t be able to meet the basic needs of retirees. He said he didn’t believe shifting retirement plans was a good move.

County administrator Verna McDaniel indicated that the board will receive more information about the county’s retirement plans at an upcoming working session. [The county's largest retirement plan is the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System (WERS) – a defined benefit plan with 1,001 members, 24 deferred members, and 727 retirees or beneficiaries.]

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Schools

Conan Smith noted that the state has used federal stimulus money to cover budget gaps in recent years. Local school systems have done the same, he said. Part of the reason that schools have needed stimulus dollars relates to the budget timeline in Lansing – the state budget, which includes K-12 funding, isn’t passed until October, after the school year has started. [The state's fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Many school districts, including Ann Arbor's, have fiscal years that begin July 1.] Smith wondered if there was any talk about changing that timeline at the state level.

Profit replied that he thinks the governor and legislators are working hard to finish the budget in May – he said people are less optimistic that they can finish tax code reform by then.

Smith said he’s interested in keeping pressure on Lansing to change the funding timeline, especially for schools – that would go a long way toward stabilizing things at all levels. It’s important to push people to think strategically, he said.

Later in the discussion, Rob Turner – a former trustee for the Chelsea School District – thanked Smith for mentioning K-12 funding, which Turner said is near to his heart. Promises that were made when Proposal A was passed in 1994 didn’t occur, he said. [Proposal A shifted K-12 school funding away from local districts and created a system whereby local tax dollars are funneled to the state, which in turn redistributes the funding statewide. Among other things, it puts a cap on how fast a property's taxable value can increase. That cap is 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. For a detailed view of how Michigan's public schools are financed, see Chronicle coverage: "Does It Take a Millage?"]

Given the way schools are funded, Turner said, it’s difficult for districts to be good fiduciaries. Is there any discussion in Lansing about finding a better way to handle K-12 funding, to give districts better ways to forecast the budget one or two years ahead? Turner also said districts are dealing with rising teacher pension costs – is there any talk at the state level about helping districts with that?

The short answer is no, Profit said. The problem is that there are simply insufficient dollars for K-12. Profit – who was a state representative when Proposal A was enacted – said the law was initially meant as a first step to school finance reform, not the final answer. But over time, and as term limits resulted in the exodus of veteran legislators, that initial intent was lost, and Proposal A became viewed as the final answer.

The measure did narrow the funding equity gap between districts in high- and low-income areas, Profit said, but adjustments in the school funding process still need to be made. Between Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment – which limits property tax revenues that a taxing jurisdiction can collect by rolling back the millage rate so that property tax revenues don’t outpace inflation – revenues at the local level have diminished dramatically, Profit said. However, he added, addressing this issue doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda.

In response to a question from Wes Prater, Profit said that the question has been raised as to whether it’s constitutional to take money previously set aside for K-12 schools – in the state’s School Aid Fund – and use it for higher education, as has been proposed. “Yes, the envelope’s going to be pushed,” Profit said.

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Personal Property Tax

In response to a question from Rob Turner, Profit said that the state’s personal property tax system is a huge concern, but the governor doesn’t want to overhaul it while dealing with the budget and business tax reform – though some legislators would like the issues to be handled at the same time. Profit said that county administrator Verna McDaniel and deputy administrator Bill Reynolds had been in Lansing the previous day meeting with legislators, and had done a good job in describing the impact that the current system has on local governments.

The challenge will be in figuring out how to replace the current personal property tax system, Profit said. Legislation has been introduced to eliminate it, and separate legislation was introduced that would simply reduce it. If a flat-rate business tax is adopted, the pressure will increase to change the personal property tax. The current business tax includes a 35% industrial personal property tax credit.

It’s not yet clear how all this will shake out, Profit said.

Lansing Update: Commissioner Comments – Urban vs. Rural

Dan Smith asked about the impact of the proposed state budget on rural areas, noting that many commissioners represent rural parts of Washtenaw County.

Profit said for communities that don’t receive statutory revenue sharing, their constitutional portion of revenue sharing will be increasing about 4%. It’s also possible that those rural communities would be allowed to compete for the proposed $200 million that will be available to replace the statutory revenue sharing portion. In that respect, rural areas are treated better than the urban cores in this budget, he said. The rural communities still need to look for opportunities to consolidate services and cooperate with other local governments, he said – that’s a priority for Snyder’s administration.

Hemond pointed out that the upcoming census data will have an impact on the amount of constitutional revenue sharing funds that a community receives. Though the overall “pot” for the constitutional share will increase about 4%, if a township’s population decreases, for example, then their revenue-sharing funds could also drop. [The state formula for calculating revenue-sharing funds also includes factors beyond population, depending in part on the services it provides.]

Earlier in the meeting, Conan Smith had asked about how restructuring at state agencies like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) might affect state investments that are already in place for urban areas like Ann Arbor.

Profit said he assumed Smith was talking about things like the proposed elimination of brownfield tax credits. [Several local projects have been granted brownfield status by the state, which makes them eligible for tax credits related to environmental cleanup, or allows them to apply for Michigan Business Tax credits or use tax increment financing to recoup some of a project's cost.]

The flip side of the proposed 6% flat business tax is that many of the state’s other economic incentives, such as tax credits, would be eliminated. Profit said state treasurer Andy Dillon has assured him that projects with incentives already approved would keep those incentives, even if the tax code changes.

Profit added that Washtenaw County is well-positioned – he said he can’t recall any other time in his life when this area had so many people in state leadership positions, including the governor, MEDC chief Mike Finney, and now Roger Fraser as deputy treasurer. Profit expects Finney will want to give more authority and responsibility to local economic groups like Ann Arbor SPARK, which Finney previously led.

Public Commentary: Per Diems

During public commentary, Tom Wieder returned to address the board about per diem payments – he had first raised the issue five months ago, at the board’s Oct. 6, 2010 meeting, when he called for an investigation into per diem spending by then-commissioner Mark Ouimet.

Saying he was surprised to be back, Wieder told commissioners that he can’t quite believe the per diem issue hasn’t been taken care of yet. He said he knows all three of the commissioners who haven’t yet paid: Barbara Bergman, Wes Prater and Conan Smith. [Bergman did not attend Wednesday's meeting; Prater later clarified that he had recently paid the amount in question.]

Tom Wieder, Andrew Cluley

Tom Wieder, left, is interviewed by WEMU's Andrew Cluley following the March 2, 2011 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting.

Wieder noted that he was accused of making a partisan attack when he first came to the board with this issue. [His initial focus was on Republican Mark Ouimet, who at the time was a county commissioner running for state representative in District 52 against Democrat Christine Green, whom Wieder supported. Ouimet won that election in November 2010.] While it might have been initially prompted by the campaign, Wieder said, it remains a substantive issue.

An investigation has been paid for by the county, he said, but some commissioners still aren’t meeting their responsibility. Wieder told Prater that he should at least pay the amounts that are clearly owed, and could hold off on the rest until the matter was adjudicated. As for Bergman, Wieder said he’s known her for years and was appalled to read her quote [in an article] indicating that the issue was between her and the county. It’s the taxpayers’ money, he said, which makes it the public’s business.

Directing his remarks to Conan Smith, Wieder said it was amazing to hear Smith’s excuse – that he was too busy to take care of it, and that other things took priority. “Maybe you need a less demanding job if you can’t find a minute to write a check,” Wieder said.

Wieder concluded by urging commissioners to pay what they owe and restore some integrity to the board.

Responding to an a follow-up request from The Chronicle on Thursday, the county’s finance office provided the latest status of repayments. Two current commissioners (Barbara Bergman and Conan Smith) and two former commissioners (Jessica Ping and Ken Schwartz) have not yet paid the amounts that the audit report determined they owe:

Barbara Bergman       1,875.33
Jessica Ping          5,002.68
Ken Schwartz          1,054.60
Conan Smith             591.39

Leah Gunn                25.00
Jeff Irwin              100.00
Kristin Judge            25.00
Mark Ouimet          14,385.88
Wes Prater            1,834.91
Rolland Sizemore Jr.     65.52


Per Diems: Commissioner Response

Prater said he wanted the public to know that he always intended to pay what he owed, but there were questions about some of the findings of the auditor. He submitted a check on Monday, Prater said, but would address the remaining issues at his own pace. He said he wasn’t enjoying the public scrutiny, and found it embarrassing. None of the commissioners intentionally took money that wasn’t theirs, he said.

Later in the meeting, Kristin Judge suggested that the board’s updated monthly budget could be included in its meeting packet as public information. It might be a way to address some feelings of distrust that have arisen over the past year, she said, adding that it was just an idea for people to think about – not a formal proposal.

United Way Request

Commissioners passed a resolution recognizing that the United Way of Washtenaw County is a legitimate local nonprofit, and authorizing the county clerk to complete a form from the state’s charitable gaming division. The resolution is required from a local government entity by the state’s Bingo Act in order for the United Way to hold a charitable fundraiser that includes gambling.

There had been some discussion of the resolution at the board’s Feb. 26 administrative briefing, with some questions about why it was needed. At Wednesday’s meeting, Kristin Judge said that in looking at the application to the state, it didn’t seem as though there were any limit to the amount of money that could be raised from a charitable gambling event. Saying she wasn’t a proponent of using gambling to raise money for human services, she asked for more information about the event.

County administrator Verna McDaniel clarified that United Way needed permission in order to raffle off gift baskets at its March 9 Power of the Purse fundraising event. [Sandy Rupp, executive director of the United Way of Washtenaw County, attended part of Wednesday's meeting, but did not speak during public commentary.]

Outcome: The resolution recognizing the United Way of Washtenaw County as a nonprofit operating in this county passed unanimously.

Board Calendar Changes

The board approved a revised annual calendar that eliminates all future administrative briefings from the board’s meeting schedule. The decision to eliminate the administrative briefings – informal meetings which have been held the week prior to the board’s regular meetings, to review the upcoming agenda – was made at their final briefing on Feb. 26. It followed a lengthy, animated debate at the board’s Feb. 16 meeting. Some commissioners, most notably Ronnie Peterson, have objected to the briefings, saying they are too far out of the public eye – even though they conform to the Open Meetings Act.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board approved a meeting calendar change that eliminates future administrative briefings.

Other Actions: Job Training Grants, New Job for Vets Office

The board passed several resolutions as part of its agenda, with little discussion.

Other Actions: Veterans Relief Job

The board gave final approval to create a new full-time position – a veterans relief program specialist – as part of a minor restructuring in the county’s veterans affairs department that includes downgrading an administrative assistant position to office coordinator. The moves are expected to result in about $20,000 in structural savings for the department. The board gave initial approval to the change at their Feb. 16 meeting.

The new position is estimated to cost $75,000 and will be funded from the Veterans Relief Fund, which gets proceeds from a dedicated millage and has a fund balance of $250,000. The job will entail coordinating the county’s veterans relief efforts and doing public outreach activities.

Other Actions: Job Training Funds

The board gave initial approval to accept federal funding for job-related programs that are administered by the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) department:

  • $141,409 from the federal Food Assistance Employment and Training Program, to provide employment services to adults who receive federal food assistance.
  • $1,161,692 in federal funding from the Jobs, Education, and Training (JET) Plan, to provide job training services.
  • $148,532 in federal funding from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Statewide Activity Program, to provide job training services.

Other Actions: Appointments

The board approved several appointments during the March 2 meeting.

  • William Wagner, Northfield Township director of public safety, was appointed to the county’s 800 MHz project oversight committee, for a term expiring Dec. 31, 2012.
  • The following people were appointed to the county’s community action board (CAB), for terms expiring Dec. 31, 2011: Faye Askew-King, Deloisteen Brown, Howard Edelson, Myles J. Romero, Adam Zemke, Eric Copeland, Derrick Jackson, Cynthia Maritato, Brenda McKinney, Joseph Dulin, and Annie Robinson.
  • Howard Edelson, Conan Smith and Charles Penner were appointed to the county’s workforce development board (WDB) for terms expiring Dec. 31, 2011. In addition, Elliot Forsyth, Diane Keller, Mary Kerr, Jon Newpol, Don Wolf, Steve Girardin and Cynthia Maritato were appointed for terms expiring Dec. 31, 2013.

The CAB and WDB both oversee programs administered by the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) department. The boards are currently revising their bylaws – the terms of most appointments are set for the end of this year, to give the boards some flexibility for future appointments as they make their bylaws revisions.

The mention of changes to the bylaws prompted some questions from commissioner Ronnie Peterson. He wanted to know how it was being handled – this was the first time he’d heard about the changes, he said. Patricia Denig, ETCS interim director, explained that both boards have committees that are working with staff on the changes. She expects they’ll be finished in six to eight weeks.

Peterson said he wanted to hold a working session on the changes. Further, he wanted to make sure it was clear the board of commissioners would need to authorize any changes to the bylaws.

Other Actions: Bylaws

Without discussion, the board approved revisions to bylaws for two county groups: The Washtenaw Community Health Organization [.pdf of revisions to WCHO bylaws] and the Criminal Justice Collaborative Council [.pdf file of CJCC bylaws]

The WCHO is a collaboration between the county and the University of Michigan that focuses on providing services to children and adults with mental or emotional health disorders, substance abuse problems or developmental disabilities. The CJCC is a group of 17 county officials – both elected and staff – who work in the criminal justice system, plus two appointed members of the public. Its mission is to develop strategies to alleviate jail overcrowding, and to make recommendations to the county board of commissioners about how to implement and fund those strategies.

Misc. Communications

Several commissioners had reports and communications at various times throughout Wednesday’s meeting.

Kristin Judge, who arrived a few minutes late to Wednesday’s meeting, explained that she’d been at a ceremony honoring Lloyd Powell, Washtenaw County’s public defender. Powell was given the annual Bernard J. O’Connor Award for his significant contributions to social justice through peaceful conflict resolution. The award is given by the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center.

Later in the meeting, Judge reported that she and Yousef Rabhi were among the 300 or so people who attended the March 1 Local Food Summit. She commended county staff who participated, including Jenna Bacolor of the county’s public health department, and Jennifer Fike, executive director of the Food System Economic Partnership. A lot of great ideas were floated during the event, she said, including plans to develop a local food policy council. Judge encouraged anyone who’s interested in getting involved to contact the county’s public health department.

In another food-related communication, Judge highlighted a program called Double Up Food Bucks, which provides coupons for fresh food to people who get food assistance benefits. She hoped that in the spring, people from the program – which is administered by the Fair Food Network, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit – can come to the board and provide more details.

Wes Prater told commissioners that the financial subcommittee of the Police Services Steering Committee (PSSC) has been meeting, with some new members on board, including Leah Gunn. The group is working on a recommendation for setting the price to be charged by the county for a police services unit – the sheriff deputies that some local municipalities pay for to patrol their jurisdictions. Several issues need to be worked through, he said, but eventually there will be a good report to bring back to the board for a vote. [For additional background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: "What's Next for Washtenaw Police Services?"]

Gunn said she’d like to see a report from the county administrator about the cost and scope of work on an internal audit that the county is planning to conduct. In addition to the monetary cost, Gunn wanted to see how much staff time is spent, noting that she believes it would be considerable. She suggested perhaps doing only one department initially, rather than the entire county operations.

Eunice Burns, Verna McDaniel

Eunice Burns, left, talks with county administrator Verna McDaniel during a break at the March 2 board of commissioners meeting. Burns, a longtime Democratic Party activist, was attending the meeting with her grandson as part of an assignment for his Skyline High class.

Ronnie Peterson asked one of the students in the audience to introduce himself. Jamie McGowan came forward and told commissioners he was a student at Skyline High School, attending the meeting for a class assignment.

Peterson then asked who was attending the meeting with him. His grandmother, McGowan replied. And what’s her name? Peterson prompted. “Eunice Burns,” McGowan said. Peterson allowed that several of the commissioners might know her – Burns has been active in the Democratic Party for decades. Among other roles, she previously served on the Ann Arbor city council and as a board member for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

Misc. Communications: Public Commentary

Other than Tom Wieder, whose remarks are reported earlier in this article, the only speaker during the four opportunities for public commentary was Thomas Partridge, who spoke three times. His remarks all contained similar themes, calling on the commissioners and residents of Washtenaw County to stand up against discriminatory and unnecessary budget cuts at the state and federal levels. Michigan needs to reverse its attitude, he said, and start taxing the state’s wealthy businesses and individuals, which would wipe out the deficit and create funds for social programs.

There’s been a resurgence of progressive Democratic movements in other states and throughout the world, Partridge said, from Wisconsin to Libya. People are putting their lives on the line, he said, and Michigan residents should do the same in protesting the destructive right-wing thinking of Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican administrations in other states. Partridge criticized Conan Smith for accepting some of the proposals of Republicans in the state, including some supported by state Rep. Mark Ouimet, a former county commissioner. These people live in a “country club fantasy land,” he said.

Present: Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge , Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Alicia Ping, Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Next meeting: The board’s next regular meeting is on Wednesday, March 16, 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.


  1. By Mark Koroi
    March 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm | permalink

    It is good to see Jessica Ping paid over the audited result even though she is no longer a commissioner and had the least incentive to repay a sizeable sum absent legal action.

    Kudos to Ken Schwartz for paying.

    Has Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman given any reason why she has made no effort to repay the audit amounts?

    I remain flaggergasted that Conan Smith is continuing to have his name reported in the media as someone who has not tendered back overpayments. He sits oin leadership roles not only on the County Commission but his own party. Is he awaiting a legal showdown with the County Administration?

    I do not this issue will go away for Conan absent him cutting a check and forking it over to the County Clerk.

    Do the right thing Conan. Pay up.

  2. By Mary Morgan
    March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm | permalink

    Just to clarify: Neither Jessica Ping nor Ken Schwartz have repaid. Ping owes $5002.68, and Schwartz owes $1054.60.

  3. By Mark Koroi
    March 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Mary.

    I hope that Tom Wieder keeps up the heat at Public Commentary period until these overpayments have been recouped in full by the county.

    Simply no excuse for these four current and former elected officials not cutting checks to the county forthwith.

    And thanks to Tom Wieder for his persistence in keeping this public interest issue alive.

  4. By Bob Martel
    March 8, 2011 at 3:34 pm | permalink

    All joking aside, I hope our local politicians (Townships, County & City) get the message: There ain’t no more money coming from Lansing. We’ve got to rely on our own local resources to get out of this mess, and we need to do it now.