County Budget: “Not Out of the Woods”

Also: Packard Square postponed; concerns over nonprofit funding

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (May 4, 2011): Budget challenges touched most agenda items, either directly or tangentially, during a four-hour board meeting.

Ronnie Peterson

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, center, expressed dismay over the way the county is allocating its funding for human services. Other commissioners, from left: Yousef Rabhi, Barbara Bergman, Leah Gunn, Rob Turner. (Photos by the writer.)

The board got a quarterly update for the current year’s budget, as well as a progress report on development of the 2012-2013 budget. County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that thanks to a less-than-expected drop in property tax revenues, a two-year projected deficit has fallen from nearly $21 million to $17.5 million.

To address the deficit, the county is preparing to begin negotiations with its 17 labor unions, hoping to get $8 million in cuts to employee compensation and benefits over the next two years. They also hope to make $8 million in savings from organizational restructuring.

An item not on the agenda drew attention, particularly from commissioner Ronnie Peterson. A coordinated funding effort for local nonprofits – allocating funds from the county, the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Urban County and Washtenaw United Way – is nearing its final stages. The county board will be asked to vote on funding recommendations at its May 18 meeting. However, nonprofits leaders have already been notified of those recommendations, and some attended the May 4 meeting to lobby for support. Peterson sharply criticized the process – which the board had approved last year – saying they seem to have ceded decision-making authority for the funding. He didn’t like it.

A development-related issue also raised financial concerns for some commissioners –  the proposed Packard Square development in Ann Arbor. The board was asked to give initial approval of a $1 million grant application and $1 million loan from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment, for brownfield cleanup at the site. Commissioners were also asked to authorize designation of the county’s full faith and credit as a guarantee to any loan that might be awarded, up to $1 million.

Commissioner Wes Prater argued that items related to significant financial issues must first be addressed at a working session, according to board rules. After some debate, Prater’s motion to postpone action on Packard Square was approved by a majority of commissioners, moving it to a working session the following day. A Chronicle report on that session will be forthcoming.

The meeting also included approval of expanded IT collaboration with the county, the city of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and the appointment of Michael Smith as the new director for the county’s veteran services office. And during the time for communications from the board, commissioner Dan Smith indicated that he and Yousef Rabhi are working on changes to compensation for commissioners – they’ll likely be bringing a proposal to the board later this year.

Human Services Funding

The office of community development (OCD), a joint department of the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County governments, has been coordinating the funding of local nonprofits in the human services sector for several years. Funding recommendations for the city, county and the Washtenaw Urban County  are have been handled in concert. The Urban County is a consortium of 11 local governments, including Ann Arbor and the county, that receive federal grants for low-income neighborhoods and residents.

Last year, that effort was expanded in a two-year pilot project to include the Washtenaw United Way and Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. (The community foundation is not providing funds for the current cycle – they’ll be supporting “capacity-building” efforts for selected nonprofits later in the year.) The county board of commissioners approved this coordinated funding approach at its Nov. 3, 2010 meeting. Commissiners had been briefed on the effort at an Oct. 7 working session.

OCD staff and a review committee, with representatives from each funding entity, have vetted applications and made final funding recommendations based on six priorities that were identified for the entire county: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food. [.pdf file of funding recommendations] Allocations from the city, county, Urban County and United Way would total $4,027,933 for 63 programs – a 4.5% drop from current funding levels of the combined four entities.

Governing bodies for each entity retain final authority over their funding decisions. Though nonprofits have been notified of the county’s recommendations, final votes of approval have not been made. At its May 2, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council decided to postpone action, hoping to find additional funding for human services.

Approval of human services funding is expected to be on the May 18 agenda for the county board of commissioners. However, public commentary from the leader of one nonprofit at the May 4 meeting prompted commissioner Ronnie Peterson to raise concerns about the process.

Human Services Funding: Public Commentary

During the meeting’s first opportunity for public commentary, Doug Anderson – director of Northfield Human Services and People’s Express, which provides transportation services for residents in local townships that aren’t served by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority – said he was concerned about information he’d received last week that no federal funding was being given this year to support local transportation services. Previously, his agency received about $50,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, which is allocated via local governments based on recommendations of the office of community development (OCD).

Anderson said the nonprofit was able to leverage those funds to get an additional $50,000 in matching funds from the Federal Transportation Authority. The decision not to fund transportation will affect 213 people who live in rural townships, and would eliminate the agency’s ability to get federal matching funds. He urged commissioners to address this situation.

Human Services Funding: Response to Public Commentary

Several commissioners responded to Anderson’s comments. Kristin Judge said she hadn’t been aware that funding was being cut for this service, and she wanted Mary Jo Callan – director of the office of community development – to follow up. She also noted that since CDBG funding is in jeopardy in general from cuts by Congress, it’s important for people to call their federal legislators and let them know how crucial the funding is for local services like this.

Conan Smith told Anderson that this issue is near and dear to the board’s heart – commissioners have prioritized funding for human services. Perhaps they should consider bringing a resolution stating to Congress their opposition to the CDBG cuts, he said.

Yousef Rabhi said the situation underscored the importance of public transportation – it’s a vital service all around the county. And in the face of state and federal cutbacks, he said, it highlights the need to work together and find community-based solutions.

Dan Smith thanked Anderson for coming, and noted that Northfield Human Services has been located in Whitmore Lake – part of District 2, which Smith represents – for many years. It’s an agency that provides needed transportation and other services to the northeast part of the county, he said.

Human Services Funding: Commissioner Discussion

In response to a question from Barbara Bergman, county administrator Verna McDaniel asked Andrea Plevek of the office of community development (OCD) to come to the podium and explain to commissioners the rationale for making funding allocations.

Plevek said the board would be receiving the formal recommendations at their May 18 meeting, when they’d be asked to take an initial vote on funding. All applicants provide great services, she said, but the review committee had a narrow scope, and focused on outcomes. The nonprofits that are recommended for funding are those that demonstrated the most capacity to deliver services in the community, she said.

Ronnie Peterson said he’d heard that notification went out to nonprofits about the funding recommendations. The county will be allocating more than $1 million to human services, and they shouldn’t be handling this via email, he said – it should be discussed at the board table, in public. People from these nonprofits have shown up at the meeting to appeal a decision, he said, adding that they were apparently responding to correspondence that he hadn’t known about.

Plevek replied that the notification made clear that these were recommendations, and that the the governing boards for the four funding entities – the county, city of Ann Arbor, Urban County and Washtenaw United Way – would be making the final decisions.

Peterson said he always questioned it when the board gave away their authority to a committee. Commissioners were elected to make these decisions, he said, not to delegate them.

Plevek reviewed for the board their decision to participate in the coordinated funding approach. She noted that at the board’s Feb. 16, 2011 meeting, they had appointed three representatives to the coordinated funding review committee: Hazelette Robinson, community relations director for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization; Susan Sweet Scott of the county’s Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS); and Michael Smith of the county’s veteran services office. These three had participated in the funding recommendations, she said, on behalf of the county. Each funding entity had representatives on the committee.

Peterson indicated that it was odd that the governing boards who were making these decisions had never met or discussed them. It was an unusual relationship, he said. He then clarified that the board can reject the review committee’s decision about funding allocations, or can increase allocations.

Plevek again stated that final authority for these decisions clearly rests with each funding entity.

It’s puzzling to him, Peterson said, that Northfield Human Services didn’t get a funding recommendation, given that Northfield Township isn’t overserved in terms of human services. He said he appreciates the work of the review committee and understands the constraints on their budget. But it’s the role of the county commissioners to make these decisions, he said.

Barbara Bergman said she’d been pleased to get the email about the funding recommendations. She’d had some questions, but she’d gotten answers. She said she might choose to ask those questions at the May 18 meeting, or she might not – that was her business. The document is available under the Freedom of Information Act, she said, and there’s no reason why members of the public couldn’t get it if they want.

Conan Smith said he hadn’t understood that Anderson was referring to the CDBG dollars allocated locally. It was important that the funding recommendations were released early, he said, so that agencies could attend these public meetings – that’s part of the process. One thing that Anderson pointed out was that there were two transportation agencies that applied but didn’t get funded this cycle – Smith said he was looking forward to hearing why, especially since those dollars are leveraged to get federal funding. But the key is to find ways to get services to the people who need them, he said.

Plevek noted that the review committee is recommending that transportation-related services should get capacity-building funds through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, which is part of the coordinated funding partnership. Those grants would be awarded later this year, and are intended to strengthen a nonprofit’s infrastructure or leadership.

Peterson said he wasn’t concerned about the nonprofits being notified in advance. He was concerned that the board hadn’t discussed these recommendations, and would be asked to vote on them at the same meeting when they’re presented. There should have been a public hearing scheduled, he said: “The clock has started ticking and that’s not fair – that’s just not fair.”

When McDaniel reported that several nonprofits plan to attend the May 18 meeting, Peterson said he hoped they’d be given adequate time to speak – more than just the three minutes available to each speaker during public commentary. He said he hoped his fellow commissioners planned on a long meeting, and that there was not much else on the agenda.

Later in the meeting, Peterson noted that the correspondence sent out to nonprofits indicated that the funding recommendations would be “reviewed and approved” at the May 18 meeting. He said he was concerned about that phrasing – it indicated that the board had delegated its authority. The board is not there to review, he said, and he’d never encountered a document that had tied the board’s hands in this way.

Leah Gunn told Peterson that the county has been using this approach for about five years – the only change this year is that the Washtenaw United Way is part of the coordinated funding, and has added $2 million to the pot. The criteria for funding are very strict – Peterson as well as all the other commissioners knew about the process, she said, and voted to approve it. To say that it’s a different process “just simply is not true,” Gunn said. Staff has made recommendations in previous years, she noted, adding that she can’t recall that the board ever changed those recommendations. The funding choices were always made thoughtfully, and they only chose agencies that were accountable. “This is taxpayers’ money,” she said. “We have to be accountable.”

Peterson responded by saying the board had never approved a dollar to any agency that wasn’t accountable. But in this case, they have delegated their authority, he said, and it’s only appropriate that agencies have access to the board about these decisions. He again stated his hope that there would be sufficient time for agencies to address the board before a vote is taken. Peterson vowed that he wouldn’t rubber stamp any recommendations.

Human Services Funding: Additional Public Commentary

During another opportunity for public commentary later in the meeting, four people spoke specifically about funding for Barrier Busters, a collaboration between public and private agencies that aims to provide aid more quickly to residents in crisis. Barrier Busters is not included in the funding recommendations.

Mary Beth Lampe, a Chelsea resident and community resource specialist with the county, thanked the board for their past support of Barrier Busters, and for allowing county staff to participate. The service exists to improve the lives of residents, she said, and they take pride in collaborating and in preventing homelessness and in helping those who are homeless find shelter. The service has a high success rate, she said, and is able to leverage its funding effectively. For every $1 that Barrier Busters pays toward an emergency need, it leverages about $3 from other organizations that also goes directly to the service – not to pay for staff or overhead.

Tara Truax, an Ypsilanti resident who also works for the county, described Barrier Busters as an “awesome collaborative.” It serves as an access point for people who need help during an emergency. Though Barrier Busters is funded with a relatively small amount of money, she said, it acts as a glue to hold the local human services agencies together.

Kristen Klevering of the nonprofit SOS Community Services said she has handled over 100 requests through Barrier Busters. She gave some examples of people they have helped, including a woman who lost her job and faced losing her mobile home because she couldn’t make payments on the lot where it was located. With help from SOS and Barrier Busters, she was able to keep her home and eventually found another job. Another example Klevering cited was a woman whose heat had been shut off – Barrier Busters was able to work with DTE and get service restored that same day.

Doug Anderson of Northfield Human Service said his agency is also a member of Barrier Busters. It’s a last-ditch stop for a lot of residents in both rural and urban communities, he said. Even though he’s fighting for funding from the same pool of money that would support Barrier Busters, Anderson said, he knows that organization has a big impact on the county.

Human Services Funding: Commissioner Response

Rob Turner told the speakers that he stood behind them, calling Barrier Busters a wonderful program.

Public Hearing on Annual Plan for HUD

Each year, the county is required to submit an action plan to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The current plan outlines specific projects and programs that the Washtenaw Urban County will undertake with HUD funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, HOME grants and Emergency Shelter Grants (ESG) from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012. The Urban County is a consortium of 11 local governments that receive federal funding for programs that serve low-income residents and neighborhoods. [.pdf file of 2011-2012 annual action plan draft]

The board held a public hearing about the plan at its May 4 meeting. One person spoke.

Thomas Partridge called for the expansion of funding for affordable housing. He contended that funding is often relegated to wealthy out-of-state investors seeking tax credits, who have little regard for local residents. He urged the county to form a department of affordable housing, and hire a grant writer to seek state and federal funding for quality affordable housing.

County Budget Updates

The board got two budget-related updates at their May 4 meeting. Tina Gavalier, the county’s finance analyst, began with a quarterly report on the 2011 budget. [The county's budget is aligned with the calendar year.]

Projections for the $98.735 million general fund budget assume that the county will tap $5.3 million of its fund balance, as planned. The county was also helped by better-than-expected property tax revenue in 2011 – about $3.5 million more than anticipated, based on the recent equalization report. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw County's Taxable Value Falls"] Because of that, the county finance staff is projecting a $1.67 million surplus this year. Without the use of the $5.3 million fund balance, however, the county would be facing a $3.6 million deficit in 2011.

Highlights of the 2011 budget include: a projected revenue surplus of $240,000 from the register of deeds office, due to fees and real estate transfer taxes starting to trend higher; a projected shortfall of $326,000 from the sheriff’s office, due to higher part-time and overtime costs, and the fact that jail medical/food expenses weren’t reduced to the amount budgeted; and a projected $250,000 shortfall in expense cuts from the 14A District Court.

County administrator Verna McDaniel said that although they’re now projecting a $1.67 million surplus for the year, she urged commissioners to be conservative in their outlook. “We are not out of the woods – we still have a deficit,” she said.

The board will receive another 2011 quarterly budget update in August.

Quarterly Budget Update: Commissioner Comments, Questions

Conan Smith said he appreciated the quarterly updates. He asked about revenues from the Act 88 and and veterans relief millages – those are projected to see a shortfall, compared to the budgeted amount. He clarified that the shortfall is due to lower-than-anticipated property tax revenues.

Smith also asked about a $58,000 projected shortfall in 14A District Court revenues, compared to what were expected from court fees and fines. That seems like a lower shortfall than he recalled, Smith said – does that mean there’s an improvement in the court’s ability to generate revenue? No, Gavalier replied. When commissioners revised the 2011 budget last year, they lowered the expected amount of revenues by $400,000, she said. McDaniel added that it had been clear the court wouldn’t be able to meet that higher target, so they revised it.

Smith asked if there was a strategy for the court’s revenue generation. McDaniel said she’s met with chief judge Kirk Tabbey, and they had a very robust conversation about how to increase revenues. The court is engaged and working on it, she said.

It’s important to aggressively and collaboratively come to an understanding about what the budget reality is, Smith replied. Both revenue generation and cost containment are important, he said – the conversation should be broadened beyond just fees. Smith added that he knew they needed to tread lightly, since the court is a separate branch of government, though it’s funded by the county.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he disagreed – they shouldn’t tread lightly. He said he’s also met with Tabbey and Gene DeRossett, the court administrator, and they are working hard on the issue. Trying is all that the county can ask at the point, he said – everyone’s in the same fix.

Barbara Bergman cautioned against imposing excessive fees on people in the jail and court system. The financial demands should be reasonable and statutory, she said, but the county shouldn’t see defendants as money trees. They walk a fine line when it comes to the criminal justice system, Bergman said. People should pay when they can, but that population shouldn’t be milked.

2012-2013 Budget Update

County administrator Verna McDaniel then gave an update on the 2012-2013 budget planning process, saying it was mostly a reminder of things they’d already seen. The presentation was an update of a State of the County report she delivered at the board’s Jan. 19, 2011 meeting. The staff and board are developing a budget for the coming two years, which the board will need to approve before the end of 2011.

A two-year budget deficit for Washtenaw County in 2012 and 2013 – originally projected to reach nearly $21 million – is now closer to $17.5 million, she said. They used to get freaked out by a $1 million deficit, McDaniel recalled, until 2008 came and really gave them a “Maalox moment.” Since then the county has faced significantly larger deficits, due to sharply declining property tax revenues.

Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County administrator Verna McDaniel talks with commissioner Yousef Rabhi before the start of the May 4 county board of commissioners meeting. During the meeting she gave an update on budget planning for 2012 and 2013.

However, McDaniel said, the county remains on solid financial ground. She, county treasurer Catherine McClary and other finance staff met last month with a representative from Standard & Poor’s about the county’s delinquent tax bonding, which ended up receiving the agency’s highest bond rating of AA+. In addition, the county’s general fund reserves are above the 8% level set by the board, and they are maintaining a low debt ratio of 0.88%, she said.

Over the past several years, most departments have been reduced by 20%, McDaniel noted, though there are some areas that haven’t seen such reductions because of the nature of their work. There have been some increases to certain mandated services, for example.

McDaniel reminded the board of union concessions and non-union reductions, noting that 62% of general fund expenditures – about $61 million – relate to personnel costs. Because the county is a service agency, employees are their biggest asset, she said.

Other issues include about $4 million in liabilities related to tax appeals that are working their way through the system – and that number is growing, she said.

McDaniel noted that $8.6 million in cuts that were made during the 2010-2011 budget cycle were non-structural – meaning that they aren’t recurring. If those savings had been structural, she said, they’d only be facing about a $1 million deficit in 2012, instead of the $9.5 million they are now projecting for that year. For the two-year period of 2012 and 2013, the total deficit is expected to reach $17.5 million.

Previously, the county had planned to overcome its originally projected $20+ million deficit in four ways: (1) $2 million from new revenue generation; (2) $8.5 million in organizational changes and departmental reductions; (3) $8.5 million in cuts to employee compensation and benefits; and (4) $1 million in cuts to funding for outside agencies.

Now, facing a lower-than-expected deficit, the county won’t be seeking $2 million in additional revenues.  In addition, organizational cuts have been lowered to $8 million, and cuts to employee comp and benefits have been lowered to $8 million.

May through August is when the rubber hits the road, McDaniel said. “The screaming and the shouting shall begin,” she said, as labor negotiations begin in earnest. Letters recently went out to representatives of the 17 unions that represent unionized county employees, asking to begin talks. The county hopes to schedule an expedited process, she said, so they’ll know as early as possible what kinds of concessions will be accepted.

2012-2013 Budget Update: Commissioner Comments, Questions

Alicia Ping asked about revenue from real estate transfer taxes – how much does that bring in? It used to be about $5 million, McDaniel said, but now it’s closer to $2 million. However, it’s starting to trend up again, she added. The county transfer tax is $1.10 for every $1,000 – Ping suggested that they consider raising that slightly, noting that it hasn’t been increased in many years.

Yousef Rabhi approved of lowering the cuts requested from employee compensation and benefits. If the deficit is lower, he said, they should expect fewer concessions from employees.

Wes Prater asked why the 2012 budget still assumed that they’d see a 5% drop in property tax revenues. He noted that the recent report from the county’s equalization director had shown that revenues fell in 2011, but not as much as expected. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw County's Taxable Value Falls"] Prater felt the 2012 budget was overstating the decline.

McDaniel said they’ve been advised to be conservative in their outlook. It’s difficult to forecast, she said, and while she hoped that Prater was correct, it would be “harrowing” if he were wrong.

Prater said he wanted the staff to revisit the revenue forecast – it would be bad if they cut jobs because of a dire forecast that didn’t turn out to be true.

Leah Gunn noted that it’s been the county’s philosophy to be very conservative about revenue projections. She felt they should stick with the current numbers. Rob Turner echoed Gunn’s sentiments, saying that a double-dip recession is possible. While he appreciated Prater’s view, it’s sound policy to be fiscally conservative, he said.

McDaniel pointed to another variable – possible changes at the state level regarding personal property taxes could cause a $5 million revenue hit to the county.

Conan Smith said he could see Prater’s point, but noted that it’s hard to predict what will happen to the economy. Still, he thought it was worth revisiting. He asked McDaniel whether she was hoping to make up 100% of the $17.5 million deficit through structural changes.

That’s the goal, she replied. While revenue generation isn’t totally out of the picture, she added, it’s much harder to control. Whatever they can do structurally will benefit not only the financial outlook for the county, but it would also be better for employees, because it would create a more stable environment.

Smith said they needed to think about their credibility with labor – if the administration is being too conservative in its outlook and asking for cuts that turn out to be unnecessary, that will cause problems in future labor negotiations, he said. Smith suggested creating different scenarios that linked revenue declines in different ranges to different levels of concessions.

Dan Smith noted that McDaniel had indicated public safety expenditures in 2011 accounted for 45% of total expenditures. Did that include the cost of sheriff’s deputies who are under contract with other local municipalities? It does, McDaniel said. Smith noted that the pie chart would look much different if those expenses – which aren’t all paid for by the county – were removed.

Smith said he shared concerns expressed by Prater and Conan Smith. He wondered whether they should be more aggressive in seeking cuts to employee compensation and benefits, rather than organizational changes. That way, if Prater’s view is correct, they could respond more quickly to positive news – it’s easier to increase compensation than to hire back employees who’ve been laid off. But they can’t be overly aggressive, he noted – if they make too many cuts in compensation, employees will look for other jobs. It’s a balancing act.

Rabhi asked McDaniel to explain the rationale of no longer seeking $2 million in revenue generation. She said it was intended to take pressure off the departments – during prior budget periods, they’d had a tough time hitting new revenue targets. Rabhi said his gut instinct is to not completely remove the goal of increasing revenues. He liked Ping’s suggestion of looking for ways to increase fees slightly, for example.

Conan Smith said he didn’t think anyone was giving up on the idea of finding ways to generate revenues. It’s just a matter of allowing the staff to focus energy on other aspects of the budget, he said.

Smith also agreed that Dan Smith had accurately characterized the tension between organizational changes and employee compensation. The administration needs to have a strong partnership with labor, he said, and work with the unions to understand what they’re willing to give up in compensation in order to keep jobs, and vice versa.

Smith also noted that even if they take a less conservative view toward forecasting tax revenues, the difference is only about $1.5 million or so, out of a $17.5 million deficit. Either way, there’s still a large hole to fill, he said.

Kristin Judge also weighed in against taking new revenue generation off the table.  She reported that Macomb County has hired a grant writer who’ll be paid only based on the grants that person is able to bring in to the county. [Judge later learned that the grant writer hadn't been hired for Macomb County.] There’s revenue to be had from aggressively seeking grants, she said. If they take revenue generation off the table because there’s some good news in the short term, they’re missing the long-term view.

Barbara Bergman cautioned that any grants they seek should fit the mission of the county – they shouldn’t chase grant dollars just for the sake of additional revenue. She did not think they should create a new position for grant writing.

Conan Smith said he respectfully disagreed. The county has missed out on several funding opportunities for grants that fit their mission, because they didn’t have the staff infrastructure to seek those grants. Grant-seeking is decentralized in the county government, he said – perhaps they can address this as part of a restructuring of the office of community development, ETCS (the employment training and community services department) and the economic development & energy department.

Rob Turner praised McDaniel, saying he knew that she understood the board’s priorities and that he thought the conservative approach was the best one to take. He applauded her work, and said he had a lot of confidence in her ability to handle the budget situation.

Packard Square Brownfield

At its May 4 meeting, the board was asked to give initial approval of a $1 million grant application and $1 million loan from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment, for brownfield cleanup at the proposed Packard Square development in Ann Arbor. The board was also asked to authorize designation of the county’s full faith and credit as a guarantee to any loan that might be awarded, up to $1 million.

According to a staff memo, the proposed plan includes $5.8 million of eligible tax increment financing (TIF) activities, captured over a 14-year period. This total includes an estimated $4.3 million of reimbursable brownfield activities, $358,222 of Washtenaw County brownfield program administrative support, and an estimated $1.1 million deposit into the county Local Site Remediation Revolving Fund. The project is expected to increase the taxable value of the property by an estimated $7.3 million – that’s an increase of about $500,000 in additional tax revenue to several taxing jurisdictions after the TIF repayment period.

The site plan and brownfield plan for Packard Square was approved by the Ann Arbor city council on Monday, May 2. The development, located at the site of the former Georgetown Mall, would include 230 apartment units, 23,790 square feet of retail space, 454 parking spaces and stormwater detention facilities.

Packard Square Brownfield: Motion to Postpone

Wes Prater moved to pull the item from the agenda and take it up at a future working session of the board.

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that according to Robert’s Rules of Order, if the effect of a motion to move an item to another body – in this case, to the working session – results in the de facto defeat of that item, then it’s out of order. Hedger said he wasn’t sure of the timing issues, so it was unclear whether the delay caused by moving the Packard Square item to a working session would be tantamount to defeating it.

Prater argued that by not bringing the item to a working session first, they were already in violation of their own board rules. Hedger countered that the language in the board rules is unclear.

The relevant section from the board rules comes under the section describing the working sessions (emphasis added):

The  purpose  of  the  Working  Session  shall  be  to  permit  in‐depth,  informal  discussion  of Commissioner  concerns,  Board  goals,  significant  programmatic  and  financial  issues,  and conceptual  and  informational  presentations  by  the  County  Administrator.  All  matters  involving major  change  in  service  delivery,  staffing  or  funding or  any  modification  in  Board  of Commissioner  policy  shall  originate  at  the  Working  Session. [.pdf file of board rules & regulations]

Hedger described the language as fairly broad, with leeway for interpretation. Strictly speaking, he said, any resolution with financial implications for the county could originate in a working session. He noted that they haven’t done that in years, and said he believed it was properly before the board at their Ways & Means Committee meeting – though they certainly had the right to move it, he added.

[Procedurally, the Ways & Means Committee – on which all commissioners serve – meets immediately prior to the regular board meeting. Items require approval first at Ways & Means, where discussion of those items – if any – typically occurs. Items are then taken up for final approval at the regular board meeting two weeks later.]

Kristin Judge supported Prater’s view that anything with financial implications needed to be discussed initially at a working session, before coming to Ways & Means. Just because they haven’t followed board rules in the past isn’t an argument for not doing it now, she said.

Wes Prater, Kristin Judge

County commissioners Wes Prater and Kristin Judge.

Brett Lenart from the county’s economic development and energy department told commissioners that there’s some flexibility on the timing, but that if they change their policy about seeking this kind of grant and loan, it would have an impact on the proposed brownfield plan. If the board decides not to approve this request, he said, the plan would need to be redrafted and resubmitted for Ann Arbor city council approval. The council had approved the Packard Square brownfield plan earlier in the week, at their May 2 meeting.

Lenart said the authorization seeking a grant and loan from the state needs to be passed by the county board before their approval of the brownfield plan itself.

Conan Smith, who represents District 10 in Ann Arbor, argued that the interpretation of board rules by Prater and Judge is cumbersome. If they have to bring every single financial item to a working session, that’s a burden, he said. The working sessions should be reserved for substantive issues of service delivery, staffing or funding, he said. Further, this proposal would bring in funds to the county – it’s not an expenditure of taxpayer dollars. He said he didn’t support Prater’s motion.

Another Ann Arbor commissioner, Yousef Rabhi of District 11, also weighed in against the motion to postpone. However, he said he’d be willing to add the item to the agenda for a future working session if the motion passed – Rabhi chairs the board’s working sessions. He didn’t see the difference between the staff presentation they’d be receiving that night, compared to what they’d hear at a working session. He said he planned to have a working session on the general issue of TIFs, and he would prefer that approach rather than focusing a session on one specific project.

Rabhi argued that they wouldn’t be losing tax dollars – the current base of taxes would remain constant, and it would just be the TIF that would be used to reimburse the developer for 14 years. After that, the county and other taxing entities would get that increase, too. The root issue is whether they support TIF funding, he said, noting that they’ve approved similar projects recently. The Packard Square request isn’t a dramatic shift, and he encouraged commissioners to support it.

Barbara Bergman of District 8 in Ann Arbor said she was against the postponement. When she saw this item on the agenda, she said she had phoned county administrator Verna McDaniel to ask whether this was similar to the situation in Sylvan Township. McDaniel had told her it was not. [Several years ago, the county gave its full faith & credit to Sylvan Township for $12.5 million in bonds issued to build a water and wastewater treatment plant intended to serve future development. The plan was to use revenue related to that development – from connection fees to the system – to cover the bond payments. However, the economy soured and development hasn’t materialized. Last year, the county board approved a bond refunding in order to restructure the debt and lower the township’s bond payments.]

Rob Turner clarified with Lenart that the brownfield and TIF for a BST Investments redevelopment project – which was approved later in the meeting – did not involve the county’s full faith & credit.

Turner said that as someone who works in the construction industry, he needed assurances that the money would be repaid to the county. He’d been involved in a development similar to this one that had gone bankrupt, and he didn’t want the county to be left holding the bag. Although Sylvan Township is a concern, they have the option to repay the bond through a special assessment on residents, he noted. The county wouldn’t have that recourse with a private developer. Turner said he wanted more time to fully understand this deal, and he supported Prater’s motion to postpone.

Ronnie Peterson asked whether the county had a policy regarding this kind of loan guarantee. He observed, somewhat ruefully, that last year when he’d advocated for a county land bank, he’d been told they didn’t have enough money for it. A million dollars would have purchased a lot of foreclosed properties and saved a lot of homes, he noted. The land bank didn’t get support from the board, but now a developer is getting access to $1 million. His concern is if they do it for one developer, they’ll need to do it for others.

Peterson commended the city of Ann Arbor for being aggressive and coming to the county with this request – but he wished the city had put up the money itself.

Dan Smith weighed in next, saying that the amount of money they were considering should be put in the context of the county’s overall financial condition. Given the timeframe, the amount of money involved and the deficit that the county is facing, this project seems to rise in importance. Smith said he still didn’t have a clear understanding of the implications of postponing action.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he had concerns about the project’s financing, as well as legal aspects to the proposal. He said this situation demonstrates why he was against canceling the administrative briefings that the board used to hold – some of these questions could have been raised then. [For background on the board's decision to eliminate its administrative briefings, see Chronicle coverage: "County Board to Eliminate Admin Briefings"]

Bergman called the question – a procedural move requiring that a vote be taken on the item under discussion.

Outcome: The motion to postpone the Packard Square item and discuss it at the May 5 working session was approved, with support from Wes Prater, Alicia Ping, Ronnie Peterson, Rob Turner, Kristin Judge and Rolland Sizemore Jr. A Chronicle report on the working session will be forthcoming.

Dexter Brownfield Plan Gets Final Approval

Without discussion, the board gave final approval to a brownfield plan amendment for the BST Investments redevelopment project, located at 2810 Baker Road in Dexter. The project involves demolishing three buildings on the site and constructing a new commercial complex of three buildings. The $14 million project is estimated to retain 40 jobs and add 80 new jobs.

The revised plan was previously approved by the Washtenaw County brownfield redevelopment authority at its March 10, 2011 meeting, when the authority also approved an interlocal agreement to transfer tax increment financing (TIF) revenues from the Dexter Downtown Development Authority. The amended plan was approved on Feb. 28, 2011 by the Dexter Village Council.

An estimated total of $312,000 in local and state taxes will be captured for eligible activities, administrative costs, and the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority Local Site Remediation Revolving Fund over a projected four-year period. Of this total, $24,000 will be used for the county brownfield program’s administrative fees, and $48,000 will go into the Local Site Remediation Revolving Fund. After the project is completed and all TIF activities are fulfilled, an estimated increase of $162,103 annually would be distributed among the Dexter DDA and other taxing jurisdictions. According to a memo accompanying the resolution, the Washtenaw County annual millage revenue from the property would increase from roughly $5,397 to $14,222.

Information Technology Collaboration

The board was asked to give initial approval to an interagency agreement with the city of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA), allowing the three entities to collaborate on technology services. [.pdf file of draft interagency agreement]

James McFarlane, information technology manager, briefed commissioners on details of the request. He began by introducing Andy Brush, the county’s webmaster, and Jan Hallberg, AATA’s manager of information technology.

The city and county have collaborated in this area since 2008, McFarlane said, and it’s been a great partnership – in total, the two entities have saved about $150,000 annually. The goal of the expanded partnership is to reduce costs, enhance services and increase technology sustainability for the county, city and AATA, with structural savings expected to begin in 2012. The Ann Arbor city council approved its part of the deal at its May 2 meeting.

The agreement includes an extension, through 2015, of the contract for a network manager job that’s shared between the county and city. That contract, first signed in 2008, expires in June of 2011. The two entities save about $81,577 annually because of the shared position, which McFarlane Dale Vanderford holds.

Also included in the agreement is a lease extension through 2015 for shared data center space at an annual cost of $32,500 – that lease is set to expire in 2013.

In addition, the board gave initial approval to share costs with the city for a deal with the firm EMC, paying for storage area network and backup services. The county now pays $387,924 annually for these services, and would expect to save $212,000 annually by sharing costs with the city. The deal would also allow the county to increase storage capacity, giving it the ability for future potential technology collaborations with other local units of government and community partners.

McFarlane told the board that this agreement would provide a framework for continued partnerships with other local governments, including Ypsilanti, Dexter Township and the Chelsea police department, and for entering into additional partnerships with others.

IT Collaboration: Commissioner Discussion

Several commissioners praised the collaboration, saying it was a great example of local governments working together to cut costs and improve services. Yousef Rabhi said it was important to have the city as an ally, and that $212,000 was serious money. Collaborations like these are one of the best ways to address the county’s budget challenges, he said.

Wes Prater had several questions for McFarlane. He wondered what role AATA would play in this partnership. McFarlane said the AATA is interested in using the data center, specifically in buying excess capacity from the county.

Prater wondered how it’s possible that the county’s current contract with EMC for $387,924 will be reduced to $352,477 while at the same time getting additional storage space. McFarlane explained that by restructuring the contract and extending its term, they were able to achieve significant savings. They’ll be getting additional data storage space, which will allow them to expand their partnerships with other communities, he said.

Prater asked when AATA would come on board, and how McFarlane would determine how much to charge them. McFarlane replied that negotiations are taking place now. Cost will be determined by doing an analysis of AATA’s data needs, and factoring in what it costs the county to provide services to AATA. The final agreement would go through the county’s normal procurement process, he said. McFarlane also noted that the agreement will reduce the county IT budget significantly.

Kristin Judge commended McFarlane and his team for taking a leadership role in collaboration. She wondered what the impact would be if AATA is dissolved and another entity takes its place. [The AATA has been developing a countywide transportation master plan, which could entail creating a new transportation authority. At its April 21 meeting, the AATA board voted to disseminate a draft of the master plan. The county board got an update on the plan and possible governance of a new countywide transit authority at their April 7 working session: "Concerns Aired over Transit Governance"]

McFarlane said the agreement would have a termination clause, so that if AATA left the partnership, they would need to make the county whole. Judge said she hoped any new transit entity would also be interested in partnering with the county and Ann Arbor – McFarlane agreed. She concluded by urging the IT staff to continue expanding its partnerships.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. thanked AATA staff for attending, and said he was a little irritated that no one from the city of Ann Arbor had come to the meeting. If they didn’t have the courtesy to show up, he said, why should the county do them the courtesy of voting on this partnership? County administrator Verna McDaniel apologized, saying she had invited AATA to attend but didn’t request that anyone from the city come. There’s a high level of trust between the city and the county, she said, and they’ve been working together for quite some time. She felt it was important for an AATA representative to attend, because they’ll be a new partner.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to give initial approval to an interagency agreement with the city of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA), allowing the three entities to collaborate on technology services. The board is expected to take a final vote at its May 18 meeting.

New Director of Veteran Services

Michael G. Smith, Jr. has worked with the veteran services office for 12 years, and has served as interim director since the July 2010 retirement of Mark Lindke, who had been with the county nearly 38 years.

Michael Smith, Conan Smith

Michael Smith, left, talks with board chair Conan Smith before the start of the May 4 meeting. During the meeting, the board gave initial approval to appoint Michael Smith as the county's veteran services director. They are not related.

On Wednesday, the board of commissioners gave initial approval to the appointment of Smith as the county’s veteran services director, effective May 23, 2011. The board is expected to give final approval at its May 18 meeting.

Board chair Conan Smith – who is not related to Michael Smith – praised him for serving as interim and making the transition smooth, and said that being named director is a well-earned honor.

Ronnie Peterson congratulated Smith for working hard to come up through the ranks of county government, proving that hard work pays off.  Rob Turner, one of the newest commissioners, thanked him for giving a tour of the department earlier this year, as well as for his military service to this country – Smith served in the U.S. Army for 21 years. Veterans have a compassionate advocate in Smith, Turner said: “It’s an honor to call you my friend.”

Michael Smith introduced his family who attended the meeting – his sister Tammara Smith Shelton, mother Phyllis J. Carnegie and stepfather Ralph G. Carnegie II. He noted that they all were public servants. He described the generations of his family who had fought for this country, dating back to the Revolutionary War. Public service is his passion, Smith said, and he thanked the board for giving him this opportunity. He said it was important to remember those who’ve served, and to support them as they return to the community.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to give initial approval to Michael Smith’s appointment as director of veteran services, and Smith received a round of applause. The board will take a final vote on the appointment at its May 18 meeting.

Public Safety Workers Honored

The board passed a resolution declaring the week of May 15-21, 2011 as Police and Correction Officers Week, to honor all officers who have served in Washtenaw County. The same resolution declared May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day, honoring the memory of all officers who died while serving the community. The U.S. Congress has designated the same week and day to honor officers at the national level.

Three officers from the county sheriff’s office – Deputy Mark Gibbs, Deputy Scott Campbell and Sgt. Keith Flores – were on hand to accept the resolution, and they received a standing ovation from commissioners and others attending the May 4 meeting. Sheriff Jerry Clayton spoke briefly, saying they accepted it on behalf of all law enforcement in the county.

A 2011 Peace Officers Memorial Day ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. on May 18 in the Washtenaw 100 Club Memorial Park, located at Michigan Avenue and Ballard in Ypsilanti. Clayton also extended an invitation to attend the sheriff’s office awards and recognition ceremony that same day at 1 p.m. at Eastern Michigan University’s Pease Auditorium.

Weatherization Program

The board was asked to give initial approval to accept funding from a U.S. Dept. of Energy weatherization assistance program that would provide $241,863 in federal dollars to the county. Administered by the county’s Employment Training and Community Services (ETCS) department, the funding would help weatherize 31 properties to eligible residents – homeowners or renters with a family income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level ($45,088 for a family of four). Work would include testing for air leaks, furnace assessments, and consumer education, among other things.

In 2010, ETCS received $426,833 from this program, and served 54 properties.

Weatherization Program: Commissioner Discussion

Barbara Bergman said she had discovered that the county’s weatherization program had been delayed last year because of one commissioner. Instead of raising the issue publicly, she said, that commissioner went directly to Patricia Denig, ETCS interim director. No commissioner should be dealing directly with a department head in that way, she said.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said his recollection was that the program had been delayed because the county had difficulty in certifying contractors to provide the services. [Issues with the weatherization program were discussed at several public meetings last year, including a May 2010 administrative briefing, when former commissioner Ken Schwartz called for an audit of the program.]

Wes Prater asked which commissioner Bergman was referring to, but she replied that she wasn’t going to point fingers or name names. Prater said he thought the delays had to do with compliance with the Davis Bacon Act, which requires that public works projects pay prevailing wages.

Sizemore said that was his recollection, too. He added that he would talk to any department head in the county, if he needed to. Bergman said there’s a difference between talking to a department head, and giving them direction or interfering with their work.

Sizemore said this is the first time he’s heard that there was a problem with a commissioner in this way, but he noted that several programs funded by federal stimulus dollars had glitches, including last year’s summer jobs program for youth.

Outcome: The board unanimously gave initial approval to accept the 2011 weatherization grant.

Misc. Communications and Commentary

During each meeting, there are several opportunities for commissioners and the public to provide communications and commentary. Here are some highlights from May 4.

Misc. Comm/Comm: Commissioner Reports

Kristin Judge introduced Ariel Graber, a senior at Milan High School who’s interested in learning more about local government. During May, Graber will be working with Judge for 25 hours a week as a school assignment, and will be developing a project related to county government. Judge said that hopefully they can convince Graber that government is a good thing.

Judge also praised Pittsfield Township officials and staff for their work developing a new master plan. She noted that the township is seeking feedback on the draft before giving it final approval. And contrary to what some people are saying, she noted, the master plan process has not held up progress on the Costco store that’s planned near Ellsworth and South State streets.

Rob Turner thanked the residents of Washtenaw County for voting to approval a special education millage renewal, that was on the May 3 ballot. He said his two daughters – one with attention deficit disorder, another with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – are helped by services that the millage funds.

Dan Smith told his colleagues that he and Yousef Rabhi have been talking about changes to the commissioners’ compensation – they don’t have a proposal to bring forward yet, but he wanted them to know it would be forthcoming. He said it stems from their observations of the board before they were elected in November 2010, and from more recent public comments given by residents at some of the apportionment commission meetings. They’ll wait to see how the redistricting process will affect the size of the board, he said. They hope to have something for the board to vote on before the May 2012 candidate filing deadline, so that people interested in running for office will know what to expect in terms of compensation.

Smith noted that he and Rabhi are at opposite ends of the spectrum, so their proposal will be balanced. [Smith is a Republican; Rabhi is a Democrat. Currently commissioners earn $15,500 annually – officers of the board earn more. In addition, they are reimbursed for certain travel, mileage, and other expenses. The total budget for commissioners in 2011 is $512,473.]

Misc. Comm/Comm: Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge spoke during the four opportunities available for public commentary. He noted that it was an historic week in American history, marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Ride, when civil rights activists rode buses through the South. It was a courageous act, he said, and similar courage is needed today to confront actions by Republican-led governments in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio that are threatening the rights of residents and employees in those states.

Partridge called the board’s agenda stagnant, saying it lacks progress for the county. Democrats are talking like conservatives, he said. The board needs to be totally reformed.

He urged commissioners to support the recall effort against Gov. Rick Snyder, and said he was disappointed that no commissioners had attended the April 29 clarity hearing on the recall language, which was held in the county boardroom.

Partridge also applauded Turner for his remarks in support of the special education millage, but said the county and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District aren’t doing enough on a countywide or regional basis. He noted that Senior Living Week was taking place that week, and decried the lack of public support for assisted living facilities. The board needs to address this issue, he said, along with the lack of affordable housing, affordable public transportation and other services for the vulnerable.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Kristin Judge, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, May 18, 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. May 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm | permalink

    Would it be possible for the Chronicle to obtain a copy of the email referenced early in the article? It is very facile to say that a document is available to the public via FOIA, but that is an effective barrier for most ordinary citizens to obtain such information (assuming that they know it exists).

  2. By Mary Morgan
    May 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm | permalink

    Re. coordinated funding emails:

    1) this .pdf file includes two emails – one that was sent to nonprofits that applied for funding, and another that was sent to the staff and/or governing boards of the funders.

    2) this second .pdf file was sent as an attachment to the emails, giving details about the selection process. It also included the list of recommendations. [.pdf file of recommendations]

  3. By Mark Koroi
    May 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm | permalink

    I notice no one appeared during the public commentary period to address the commissioners who have yet to reimburse the county for mileage expense and per diem overpayments found to be not properly payable by the audit of a CPA firm.

    Last report I had was that current Commissioners Conan Smith and Barbara Levin Bergman had not repaid the county and that former commissioners Jessica Ping and Kenneth Schwartz likewise have not disgorged such overpayments although none of the four have publically contested the amounts set forth in the aforesaid audit. Jessica Ping owes about $5,000.00 per the audit results.

    Is there any further progress in the county receiving any monies from these four?

  4. By Rod Johnson
    May 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    “Thomas Partridge spoke during the four opportunities available for public commentary.”

    I am at a loss for (polite) words.

  5. By Alan Goldsmith
    May 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm | permalink

    Maybe Conan Smith is waiting for a State appointed emergency manager, a concept he’s been praising lately, to come in and collect the overpayments?

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    May 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    “The board passed a resolution declaring the week of May 15-21, 2011 as Police and Correction Officers Week, to honor all officers who have served in Washtenaw County. The same resolution declared May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day, honoring the memory of all officers who died while serving the community. The U.S. Congress has designated the same week and day to honor officers at the national level.”

    Kudos to the County for doing this. It’s a refreshing contrast to the bashing some City of Ann Arbor employees receive from the Ann Arbor City Council.