Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 6, 2011): An initiative that’s providing refurbished computers to low-income residents won praise from county commissioners at their most recent meeting.
The board heard a report on the Digital Inclusion project, which was launched in 2008 to help address the county’s “digital divide” – the gap between people with computers and Internet access, and residents who lack those resources. Run by B.Side: The Business Side of Youth at Eastern Michigan University, the program uses old computers donated by the county government, and trains youth to refurbish them for re-use. To date, the program has distributed over 200 computers to low-income residents.
Also at their April 6 meeting, commissioners gave initial approval to a new fee structure for the county’s soil erosion control program. Proposed by the office of the water resources commissioner, the new fees – part of a broader ordinance overhaul – aim to recoup staff expenses associated with administering the program.
Commissioners also honored the county’s dispatch operators during Wednesday’s meeting. And as one of two appointments to county committees and boards, former county commissioner Ken Schwartz was re-appointed to a four-year term on the veterans affairs committee, which advises the county’s department of veteran services.
Several people spoke during public commentary – topics included criticism of the cost of public health inspections for small businesses, concerns over the results of an autopsy for a man who died after being Tasered last year, and denunciation of the University of Michigan’s relationship with China.
Soil Erosion & Sedimentation Control Ordinance
Commissioners gave initial approval to changes in the county’s grading/soil erosion and sedimentation control ordinance.
The state requires that all counties operate a soil erosion and sedimentation control program, covering all local municipalities that don’t have their own programs. [The law outlining this requirement is in the state of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act , Act 451 of 1994 as Amended, Part 91.]
In Washtenaw County, the office of the water resources commissioner handles the program for local governments in Augusta Township, Lodi Township, Webster Township, Northfield Township, York Township, Salem Township, Superior Township, Scio Township, Saline Township, the cities of Saline and Ypsilanti, and the village of Dexter.
One of the major changes of the proposed ordinance revision relates to the fee schedule. In the past, fees were charged on a per-acre basis. New fees are set at a flat rate, with additional charges for staff time spent on projects, at a rate of $95 an hour. Fees would increase for many applications, depending on the size of the project. A new transfer fee – ranging from $100 to $200 for developments less than 10 acres, and more for larger developments – is also imposed for inspections when property changes ownership.
The new fees are designed to recoup more of the cost of staff time spent on these projects, according to the office of the water resources commissioner.
The changes, if given final approval, will take effect on July 1, 2011.
Soil Erosion & Sedimentation Control: Commissioner Discussion
Yousef Rabhi said he assumed that many elements of the ordinance are included to conform to state law. For example, logging, mineral mining and oil and gas exploration are exempt from soil erosion permits and waivers. Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner, confirmed that these are part of the state law.
Rabhi also asked for the rationale behind eliminating the section on denying permits. Bobrin said they didn’t want to simply turn someone down – they would identify issues to correct, and would expect a resubmittal. It might take multiple times, she said, but it didn’t seem appropriate to simply deny the permit.
Rabhi then expressed concern about the new fee structure. By charging a flat rate to move soil on acreage over a certain size, the county wasn’t discouraging large-scale soil disturbances, he said. It seemed there’s no disincentive for disturbing as much soil as developers want.
Bobrin said she and her staff spent a lot of time trying to ascertain how much staff time was spent on different types of projects. The new fee structure reflects that time investment. For large-scale development, they do charge on a per-hour basis, she noted. Smaller developments are usually residential, she added, and the amount of soil disturbance usually is limited to the actual construction site.
Given the economy, huge developments aren’t as much of an issue now, Rabhi said, but they might be in the future, and those types of developments aren’t a sustainable land-use practice. It seemed the county was moving in the wrong direction in terms of its fees for large-scale developments, he said.
Bobrin noted that most of the decisions related to developments were under the control of the local governments. She also noted that the county didn’t have the staff to police all of the projects – there’s only one erosion control employee for the entire county.
Dennis Wojcik, chief deputy water resources commissioner, told Rabhi that the previous cost charged per acre wasn’t a deterrent for developers. The new fees are meant to recoup the cost incurred by county staff to provide the erosion control service. For larger sites, which require more inspections and reports, developers will pay more because they’ll be charged for staff time on an hourly basis.
The thought behind the fee structure is to reward people who are doing the right things, Bobrin said. The people who don’t meet the requirements and have to submit multiple plans will face higher charges, because their applications will require more staff time. They’ll pay for every inspection that county staff does in the field, she said.
Alicia Ping asked whether Bobrin or her staff had talked with local communities about these changes, to get feedback before implementing the new fees. They had not, Bobrin said. If local governments don’t have their own program for soil erosion and sedimentation control, then the county must do it. Her staff did discuss the changes with the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Ann Arbor, and that group had been supportive, she said. Bobrin said they’d be happy to meet with local communities to talk about the changes.
Noting that the appeals board has never been convened and is now being eliminated, Dan Smith asked what the recourse would be for someone who wasn’t satisfied with the process. Bobrin said the initial appeal would be to her – that’s the process with subdivision or condo development reviews, and at times she has asked the staff to revisit their decisions and work with the developer to address certain issues. If a property owner still isn’t satisfied, they could appeal to the county administrator or the board of commissioners.
Outcome: Commissioners gave initial approval to the ordinance changes. They are expected to take a final vote on this item at their April 20, 2011 meeting.
Digital Inclusion: Computers for Low-Income Residents
Wednesday’s meeting included a presentation about a program that provides refurbished computers to low-income residents. Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the sheriff’s office, began by telling commissioners that he had chaired a digital divide task force that was formed in 2007, when he was working as a deputy county clerk. The task force was an outgrowth of the Wireless Washtenaw initiative, which aimed to provide wireless Internet service to all residents in the county. [That project is no longer active.]
Organizers of Wireless Washtenaw realized that they needed to address the county’s digital divide – to help the people who didn’t have access to computers. In his own life, Jackson said, he’s “connected to the matrix” through his personal cell phone, his work cell phone, his laptop computer. He can access things like the county’s online employment information, and receive email alerts with job listings. There are others who have more limited access, through their jobs, school or library. But there’s another group that has no access at all, he said.
Of the roughly 138,000 homes in Washtenaw County, a survey found that 20-25% have no computer. Of those, residents of about 9,000 homes indicated that the key factor was cost, Jackson said: “They simply could not afford it.” So the task force focused on those 9,000 homes, and looked at how they could provide computers to those residents. They used the Food Gatherers model, he said – collecting computers that would otherwise be headed to the landfill, refurbishing them, and getting them into the hands of people who need them.
They got a $16,200 grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation to get started, with the goal of becoming a self-sustaining program – and that’s what has happened, Jackson said. The task force is a great example of what government can do, he said – for a small amount of resources, their work was having a large impact, thanks to the efforts of the B.Side: The Business Side of Youth at Eastern Michigan University. Launched in 2007, B.Side is a program to develop entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency in young people ages 13-20.
Jackson handed off the presentation to the B.Side’s director, Jack Bidlack. In October 2008, the B.Side started its digital inclusion program, Bidlack said, working out of space provided by EMU’s College of Business. They initially trained five youth to clean and refurbish 86 computers that they received from Washtenaw County government. By December of 2008, 80 computers were ready for use, and turned over to the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) department for redistribution to low-income residents.
It became apparent that ETCS wasn’t equipped to handle the technical questions that arose from people who received these computers, so B.Side took that on as well, Bidlack said, seeing it as additional opportunity for training youth. They created a system that allowed ETCS to distribute vouchers, and residents would bring those vouchers to B.Side in exchange for computers.
In 2010, they attended an ETCS open house to promote the program, Bidlack said. While they didn’t get much response that day, word soon spread and within two weeks they’d been contacted by about 50 people. Over the next four months they distributed 125 computers – more than they’d given out in the previous 18 months.
The program has employed 14 local youth, Bidlack said, including over 1,200 hours of paid training. One young man who worked with the program for a year made over $2,000, he said, in addition to learning technical and leadership skills. Last fall they did a pilot program, working with special needs students at Ypsilanti High School. They’ve also hired four EMU student site coordinators for the program, and one community coordinator to oversee the Ypsilanti High School project.
In total, the program has refurbished 212 computers, helping bridge the digital divide for over 200 residents and nonprofits in the county, he said. They’ve also been able to raise funds equivalent to the grant they received from the community foundation – about $16,000 – to sustain the program.
In the future, they hope to continue their partnership with Washtenaw County, Bidlack said. B.Side picks up the computers, so no county labor is involved. The county saves money by not having to pay to have its old computers hauled away, he said. They’re also partnering with EMU, which will give them another source of computers to refurbish. And by the end of April, they expect to become an official job-training program with Michigan Works, the state employment agency.
Bidlack said possible expansion might include opening a retail store, or becoming a recycling program for other electronics as well.
He concluded by thanking EMU, the university’s College of Business, the county and Derrick Jackson in particular for helping with the program. He noted that they’ve created a sustainable model – he wasn’t there asking for funding.
Digital Inclusion: Commissioner Comments, Questions
Kristen Judge said it was great to hear about good projects like this. She wondered if they’ve looked for private funders or partners to help support the project. It would be a good fit for the Washtenaw County Cyber Citizenship Coalition (WC4), she noted. Bidlack said they hadn’t reached that point yet.
Judge wondered whether they were looking for more computers to refurbish, or whether they were at capacity. Bidlack replied that they weren’t yet a recycler, so if they got too many computers, it would be a drain on their resources.
Noting potential privacy issues, Judge also asked whether the program involved removing data that might be left on the old computers. Bidlack reported that they use a software program that clears the hard drives of data; they then install clean operating systems.
Yousef Rabhi observed that the program addresses several important things. First, it embraces the concept of reuse, which is better for the environment than recycling, and it’s keeping toxic equipment out of the landfills. The program provides computers for people who need them, and trains youth so that they can actually make something. Rabhi said he’s proud to live in a community where an organization like B.Side is so well-supported.
Barbara Bergman said she was thrilled with the program. Noting that the focus is on the eastern side of the county, which she acknowledged had needs, Bergman said there are also residents of Ann Arbor who lack access to computers. Are there plans to expand the program to the west?
Bidlack said they don’t have plans to expand beyond Ypsilanti at this point – the program grew so fast that they’re just trying to keep up with demand. But they could always look for partners to help bring the program to other parts of the county, he said.
Dan Smith asked about the computer specs. Bidlack said all the computers are running on Windows XP, and are installed with freeware – software available at no cost. The cost of licensing commercial software programs would be too high, he said. The computers have 40-gigabyte hard drives and most have a Pentium 4 processor. Since most people use the computers for Internet access, not for storing data, the capacity needs aren’t as great, Bidlack said.
Smith also asked how they raised the $16,000 in revenues. Bidlack said most of the money is through ETCS grants, via its voucher program.
Honoring Washtenaw Emergency Dispatchers
During the April 6 meeting, commissioners passed a resolution honoring Washtenaw Metro Dispatch workers, and declared the week of April 10-16 as National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week in Washtenaw County. The dispatchers handle all emergency calls and dispatch law enforcement for the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Northfield Township, the Michigan State Police and the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office. In 2010, they received over 162,000 calls for emergency assistance in the county.
Sarah Taylor, the county’s dispatch operations coordinator, and dispatchers Eric Waddell and Steve Wilson were on hand to receive the commendation. They were introduced by Marc Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management. Taylor thanked the dispatch employees for keeping the community safe, calling dispatchers the least-known heroes in an emergency. Their ability to get information from callers and to transmit it accurately and quickly to emergency personnel is critical, she said. The board gave them a round of applause.
Waddell told commissioners that recognition like this is part of what makes the job worthwhile.
Without comment, the board approved two appointments during Wednesday’s meeting:
- Former county commissioner Ken Schwartz was re-appointed to the county’s veterans affairs committee, filling the category of a Vietnam-era veteran. His four-year term expires Dec. 31, 2014. [Previously, the board had also appointed Schwartz to the Washtenaw County Road Commission – they took that action at their Dec. 1, 2010 meeting.]
- Jenny Bivens of Belleville was appointed to the joint county/city of Ann Arbor community corrections advisory board for a three-year term that expires Dec. 31, 2013. She is a workforce development program manager and deputy director of the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) department.
A resolution that would have made an appointment to the county’s human services board was pulled from the agenda during the meeting, without comment.
Several people spoke during the four opportunities for public commentary, touching on a range of topics.
Public Commentary: Small Business
Michael Koutsogiannis, owner of Mr. Mike’s Lounge on Ecorse Road in Ypsilanti Township, told commissioners he’d been in business for 43 years. He said he was speaking on behalf of small business owners, who were being treated unfairly by government regulations. His business pays as much to county health inspectors as the McDonald’s down the street, even though the fast food restaurant makes over $1 million a year – much more than his business, which doesn’t sell much food. He was appealing to the board for relief, and urged them to consider basing the public health department’s inspection fees on gross sales, not square footage. “You’re killing the small businesses,” he said, “not only in Washtenaw, but across the country.”
Some commissioners responded to his comments. Barbara Bergman said that the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) encountered a similar situation. A small agency was having difficulty meeting WCHO requirements, she said, so they asked how the WCHO could change its requirements to fit the agency’s abilities. This won’t work for everything, she noted, but it’s worth asking staff to explore possible modifications for small businesses, rather than taking a pre-packaged approach.
Wes Prater said he was familiar with the business, though he hadn’t been there in years. It’s large in terms of square footage, he said, but does little food preparation. He recalled that Koutsogiannis had spoken to commissioners a few years ago as well. [Minutes from the board's March 17, 2004 meeting state that Koutsogiannis expressed concern during public commentary about the cost of getting a food license.] Prater hoped the county could look into the situation.
Yousef Rabhi also voiced support for small businesses, saying the county should be encouraging them, not treating them unfairly.
County administrator Verna McDaniel said she’d talk with Dick Fleece, head of the public health department, then report back to the board.
Public Commentary: Social Safety Net
Patricia Schock of Ann Arbor thanked the board for supporting the county’s social safety net. She said she worked for several organizations that provide food to those in need, and mentioned in particular Brown Chapel, which she urged the county to continue supporting.
Thomas Partridge spoke during three of the four opportunities for public commentary. During this month in particular, in which Easter falls, it’s paramount to ask what Christ would do if he were among us, Partridge said. He asked the board to adopt an agenda for every meeting that addressed the basic needs of the most vulnerable, providing help to find affordable housing, jobs, health care, transportation, and education.
Partridge also said that too many people have become callous about civil rights, and he criticized the county for disbanding a law enforcement citizens review board. [For background on that decision, see Chronicle coverage of the board's Jan. 20, 2010 meeting.] The only way to reverse this is for the public to protest, he said, and harken back to the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.
In responding to Partridge’s remarks, Barbara Bergman took issue with his reference to Christ, saying that she served by the laws of men and women. This county includes people of all faiths, races and economic status, she said – residents aren’t just looking to one religious figure. She said asking what Christ would do is not a charge she’s willing to accept.
Public Commentary: Medical Examiner
Douglas Smith told the board that he’s a retired University of Michigan pathologist, and that his comments related to the county medical examiner‘s autopsy report on Stanley Jackson Jr., who died hours after being Tasered during an August 2010 drug raid in Superior Township. [Smith previously had spoken to commissioners about Jackson's case at their Jan. 5, 2011 meeting.] Smith said it was a “really poor” autopsy, and that the five minutes allotted for public commentary was too brief to describe all of its problems – he hoped commissioners would allow him to go into greater depth at another time.
The autopsy stated that Jackson died of sudden stoppage of the heart. However, Smith said the lungs contained a quart of excess fluid, which he said was almost certainly caused by congestive heart failure. A memo from the county prosecutor’s office stated that Jackson was given a sedative, then developed breathing difficulties about two minutes later, Smith said. But the autopsy found no sedative in the blood, he said – so what did they give him? The autopsy also indicated that there were two Taser marks, in the lower back and on the abdomen. But the prosecutor’s memo doesn’t indicate that Jackson was Tasered twice, Smith said.
Smith said the case raised some red flags. He urged commissioners to Google Jeff Jentzen, the county’s deputy medical examiner, saying that there were a number of controversial cases in Milwaukee when Jentzen was medical examiner there.
Public Commentary: University of Michigan and China
Bill Kauffman, a Webster Township resident and retired University of Michigan engineering professor, told commissioners that when he came to the university in 1965, it was a truly great institution. It’s not now, he said.
Among many concerns he cited, Kauffman said the university is threatening national security by giving away this country’s technology to China. He recounted how he’d been asked by his UM department chair, a Chinese man, to meet with a Chinese delegation from Harbin and share his research with them. He refused and started writing memos about it, and eventually got into trouble with the administration, he said.
Kauffman provided handouts to the board, including a copy of an email describing a presentation he and others gave recently to the attorney general’s staff, as well as links to a four-part video on the allegations. “I literally have file cabinets full of information,” Kauffman told the board. Even though they’re not the UM board of regents, he said, it’s in their interest to pay attention. [Kauffman has previously addressed the regents on this same issue.]
Several commissioners made comments during the time set aside for liaison reports.
Kristin Judge reported that the Community Action Board met recently – there are some great new members, she said, and that board will be making changes and be more active in the future. The CAB is one of two advisory groups for the county’s Employment Training and Community Services (ETCS) department. Wes Prater mentioned the other advisory group – the Workforce Development Board – by noting that the minutes from their meetings were habitually late. Commissioners were just now receiving minutes from the WDB’s Nov. 4, 2010 meeting, he noted. “I think those are a bit tardy in coming before the board,” he said.
Yousef Rabhi said he had attended the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) general assembly meeting, along with Judge. Some of the discussion there related to regional cooperation and collaboration, which he noted had been the subject of the board’s March 17 working session.
Barbara Bergman reported from a recent meeting of the Area Agency on Aging 1-B – she serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors. She said they’re working hard to preserve programs for seniors, but it does not look promising. She hoped she was just being prematurely pessimistic.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Kristin Judge, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Dan Smith.
Absent: Leah Gunn, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Rob Turner.
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, April 20, 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.