Washtenaw Board Previews Consolidations

Agenda briefing: tri-department merger; trial court consolidation

Washtenaw County board of commissioners briefing (June 28, 2011): At a briefing this week to preview agendas for their July 6 meeting and July 7 working session, county commissioners focused most of their questions and comments on a proposed departmental merger and trial court consolidation.

Ronnie Peterson Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County commissioner Ronnie Peterson, right, and county administrator Verna McDaniel before the start of the chair's briefing on Tuesday, to preview agendas for the July 6 board meeting and July 7 working session. (Photo by the writer.)

Generating significant conversation was an item on the planned consolidation of three departments: The office of community development, the economic development & energy department, and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department. Commissioners wanted clarification on the status of the employee count listed out on the agenda: 11 positions eliminated, 3 jobs created, 20 reclassifications, 5 title changes and 1 position held vacant. County administrator Verna McDaniel told commissioners that while that seems like an extensive set of changes, in terms of people, all but one person had been given a “soft landing” within the county’s organization.

Another item that generated interest among commissioners was the second phase of the trial court consolidation project. Phase two will renovate the first floor of the downtown Ann Arbor courthouse to consolidate some trial court operations, as part of a restructuring that included moving the juvenile court from its Platt Road location earlier this year to the courthouse at Main & Huron. The consolidation was made possible in part due to the relocation of the 15th District Court from the downtown courthouse to the city of Ann Arbor’s new municipal center at Fifth & Huron. Commissioner conversation centered around the purview of the board’s space committee (consisting of Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Rob Turner) in connection with the future of the Platt Road building.

The board’s July 7 working session agenda led to an extended conversation about prioritization of the three items listed: (1) the split of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) from Washtenaw County; (2) the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority; and (3) the Ann Arbor Skatepark. Chair of the working session, Yousef Rabhi, did not attend Tuesday’s briefing, but with the consent of the working session’s vice chair, Rob Turner, the order to the agenda items was revised to put the WCHO item last. The rationale was to allow an open-ended time for adequate discussion – commissioner Ronnie Peterson figured he might need at least an hour for discussion on that item alone.

The presentation that commissioners will hear on the skatepark is likely to be similar to the one presented by Friends of the Skatepark at the Ann Arbor city council’s June 20 meeting.

Tuesday’s “chair’s briefing” was in a format similar to administrative briefings used in the past to preview upcoming adendas. Those administrative briefings were abandoned due to concerns expressed by some commissioners about accessibility. The June 28 briefing was conducted in the county boardroom and was video-recorded. It was the second in a series of three such briefings scheduled for the summer – the next one takes place on July 26, starting at 4 p.m., to prep for the Aug. 3 board meeting.

Departmental Consolidation

On the agenda for July 6 is a resolution to consolidate three departments: (1) the office of community development; (2) economic development and energy; and (3) employment training and community services (ETCS). The board had previously received a presentation about the plan at a May 5, 2011 working session. Combined, the three departments employ nearly 60 people with a combined budget of about $16 million. The $16 million reflects a decrease, due to federal funding cuts, from around $29 million. At their May 5 working session, commissioners had been told that staff cuts will likely result from the changes – those and other details were still being worked out.

As they’re currently configured, here’s what the three departments look like:

  • Economic development & energy: Four employees, led by Tony VanDerworp. Programs focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, historic preservation, brownfield redevelopment, community engagement and planning, and economic development – including support for the Eastern Leaders Group, the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, and other efforts aimed at job growth.
  • Office of community development: Twelve employees, led by Mary Jo Callan. OCD, which is funded by both the county and city of Ann Arbor, handles a range of programs, including energy efficiency improvements for residential housing, affordable housing development and rehab, improvements to public facilities and infrastructure, neighborhood revitalization, and community engagement and planning – particularly focused on human services. OCD is managing the coordinated funding of local human services nonprofits by the county, the city of Ann Arbor, the Urban County, Washtenaw United Way and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation – a process that was discussed at length at the board’s May 4 meeting. The Barrier Busters program is also managed by OCD.
  • Employment training & community services (ETCS): Forty employees, led by Patricia Denig. [Long-time ETCS director Trenda Rusher retired at the end of 2009.] ETCS also offers residential energy efficiency programs, including help with weatherization, and contracts with other agencies to provide human services support, primarily related to food and nutrition. They’re involved in crisis intervention services, like Barrier Busters, and provide services to job seekers and employers.

Mary Jo Callan, OCD director, will lead the new department.

At the briefing on Tuesday, county administrator Verna McDaniel offered some clarification about the “bottom line on staffing” that is reflected in the resolution: 11 jobs eliminated, 3 jobs created, 20 reclassifications, 5 title changes and 1 position held vacant. McDaniel cautioned that those numbers could be deceiving. Based on her conversations with Diane Heidt, Washtenaw County’s human resources and labor relations director, everyone in the three departments had a place except for one, and that person has the ability to “bump” – a union term referring to reassignment based on seniority.

Wes Prater asked for confirmation, which he received from McDaniel, that when the board receives the budget, it would be presented as required by the Uniform Budgeting and Accounting Act, with budgets for the past year, the current year, next year.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. confirmed with McDaniel that the reorganization results in eliminating a net of eight jobs and creating five positions through title changes. Sizemore also wanted to know who was in the position labeled “human services division director” and why there’s a salary range of $73,846-$116,758 listed. McDaniel explained that it’s Trenda Rusher’s old position, which has been changed because it’s no longer needed – a position lower than a director position has been created instead. [Rusher was the long-time ETCS director before retiring at the end of 2009.] The salary is listed in a position to be eliminated, not added, she said.

Prater said it’s a good thing to reduce costs, and it appears the county would be doing that with this move. He got confirmation from McDaniel that all eight positions to be eliminated would be coming from jobs in the departments to be consolidated.

Trial Court Consolidation: Space Committee

On the July 6 agenda is a resolution that would authorize up to $1 million for the next phase of consolidation of services at the downtown courthouse facility, where the juvenile court is now located. Phase two entails renovation of the first floor of the courthouse. Commissioners had previously received a detailed briefing on this project from Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenew County trial court, at their Jan. 19, 2011 board meeting.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., who’s a member of the board’s space committee (along with Rob Turner), noted that the board needs to look at the property on Platt Road where the juvenile court was previously located. The county needs to decide whether it wants to keep the property or not. He said he didn’t think that renovating the building was an option – the facility was beyond renovating.

Barbara Bergman offered that whatever the board decides to do, it’s important to put it back onto the tax rolls.

Ronnie Peterson questioned whether the space committee had purview to decide the future use of the Platt Road property, asking whether that decision would rest with the board or with the space committee.

Conan Smith, who chaired the briefing, told Peterson that he was hopeful that Sizemore and Turner would work together on that issue, and it would come back before the board. Peterson noted that he’d previously served on the space committee, and determining alternative uses of property was not, he felt, within the scope of the space committee’s work. He wanted some deliberation on the question by the full board of commissioners.

Sizemore assured Peterson that the space committee looks at all buildings and property, but that anything that actually happens to the county’s facilities comes back to the board for its approval. Sizemore said it’s time to look at all of the county’s buildings. He noted that the western service center on North Zeeb Road is partly empty. It’s a question as to whether some staff might relocate out to that facility. But he concluded by assuring Peterson that it would not be the case that the committee would come back to the board with: “Here’s a decision and here it is!”

On the topic of moving the juvenile court to the downtown courthouse, Turner said someone had needed to give it a push to get things going. The building on Platt Road is in such bad shape, he said, it would cost more to repair than to tear it down. He wanted to make sure that the renovation of the first and third floor of the downtown courthouse was brought before the board for its approval. The next phase for the Platt Road building would be oversight of the existing building – he ventured that it probably needs abatement of some materials. Beyond that point, it’s beyond the scope of the space committee, Turner concluded.

Peterson confirmed that the outline sketched by Turner was consistent with what Peterson understood the scope of the space committee to be.

Barbara Bergman said that as the discussion of the future use of the Platt Road property progresses and the board gets to a point where there is a committee that would have such scope, she’d be interested in seeing a list of pros and cons for its use.

Working Session Priorities: WCHO Split

On the working session agenda for July 7 are three items: (1) the split of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization from Washtenaw County; (2) the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority; and (3) the Ann Arbor Skatepark.

The presentation that commissioners will hear on the skatepark is likely to be similar to the one presented by Friends of the Skatepark at the Ann Arbor city council’s June 20 meeting.

The Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) is a partnership between Washtenaw County and the University of Michigan Health System. Each institution appoints six members to the board. The partnership focuses on providing services to children and adults with mental or emotional health disorders, substance abuse problems or developmental disabilities.

Bylaws for the WCHO were changed recently by approval of the UM board of regents (at its April 21 meeting) and by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners (at its March 2 meeting). The changes included: (1) removing language for the UMHS to provide money for physical health services; (2) providing for the executive committee to act on behalf of the board and for actions to be reported to the full board at its next meeting; and (3) removing Washtenaw County as the fiscal agent for the WCHO.

It’s this last change on which the board is scheduled to receive a July 7 working session presentation from WCHO executive director Patrick Barrie.

Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the working sessions and sets those agendas, did not attend Tuesday’s briefing; however, vice chair of the working session Rob Turner did attend.

Ronnie Peterson noted that the board was sensitive to time constraints, but he thought the conversation on the WCHO would be a helpful discussion. He wondered how long the presentation on the WCHO would be. Having three items meant that it’s a “stacked agenda,” he said. Peterson cautioned that the WCHO item would need at least an hour of discussion. He also wanted to make sure that there would be background documentation provided in advance of the working session so that board members could follow Barrie’s presentation.

Barbara Bergman, who serves on the WCHO board, assured Peterson that the 48197 and 48198 zipcodes “are districts of importance to all of us, including you and to the WCHO.” [Those zipcodes are in the Ypsilanti area, which Peterson's board district covers.] Regardless of the outcome of the split, she said, it will not affect the fact that the county has under-served those two zipcodes. She said as a WCHO board member, she wanted to allay Peterson’s fears – those two zipcodes are primary in the WCHO’s thinking, she said.

Leah Gunn then suggested that the other two items on the working session agenda be heard first, before the WCHO item. She said she’d never heard that there’s a limit on the amount of time board members can use for their meetings – they could stay until 10 p.m. if they want to dig deeply into the WCHO issue, she said.

Wes Prater said he thought that currently UM and Washtenaw County each appointed six members to the WCHO board. He wondered what was meant to be achieved through the split. Conan Smith cautioned that the purpose of that day’s briefing was not to deliberate. Bergman summarized for Prater that the CSTS and WCHO want to serve the county with the best services possible. [CSTS is the county's Community Support & Treatment Services department, which is merging with WCHO.]

Sizemore ventured that everybody seemed to think the WCHO split was a “hot item,” but he felt that the recycling authority is also a hot item. The board could be there until 11:30 p.m., he ventured.

Peterson responded to Sizemore, saying that he had no problem staying as long as was needed. But he had wanted to be respectful of Rabhi’s expressed wishes to limit working session meetings to two hours.

Gunn reiterated her suggestion that the skatepark and the recycling items be placed first on the agenda, to leave the time for the WCHO item open-ended.

Conan Smith noted that it’s the chair’s agenda to set. Vice chair of the working session, Rob Turner, agreed to the agenda order change.

The recycling item was dealt a glancing mention, when West Prater asked whether the recycling authority would have the ability to place a millage on the ballot. County administrator Verna McDaniel told him no – it would require the $3.2 million of the county’s full faith and credit, which would be backed by assessing the participating communities.

Peterson returned to his point that when items are scheduled for a working session, he wanted commissioners to have some background material provided to them. He also wanted one or two pages of material explaining why the item was being scheduled for the working session. C. Smith responded by saying that the agendas are set by the working session chair. Peterson then pointed out that the working session chair is new, and it’s a new board – the board should not go into a working session blindly. [Rabhi was elected to the board in November 2010, and took office in January 2011. It's his first term on the board.]

In response to Peterson, Gunn reminded him that Rabhi had been elected to the leadership position of working session chair, and setting the agenda is one of the things a chair does. The board should be respectful of the chair’s decisions. She also noted that the board is always provided with background material. Gunn indicated that the board should follow the decisions of its elected leaders.

Peterson responded by saying that he was not a “follow-the-leader kind of guy.”

The board concluded with an apparent consensus that there would be adequate information provided to commissioners about the content of the working session on July 7, in advance of that session.

Before adjourning its briefing, the board went into a closed session to discuss pending litigation.

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