Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Oct. 13, 2011): Supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley turned out to a special budget-focused working session on Thursday, urging county commissioners to maintain current funding levels for the nonprofit.
HSHV, which is under contract with the county to provide state-mandated animal control services, is among several outside agencies that the county funds. The proposed two-year budget for 2012 and 2013 includes a total of $1.2 million in annual cuts to outside agencies – the county budget would drop HSHV’s annual funding from $500,000 to $250,000. HSHV’s current contract with the county ends on Dec. 31. Some commissioners expressed dismay, but indicated that in light of other pressing needs – like food and shelter for struggling families – the cuts to HSHV are appropriate.
The other outside agency item that received attention on Thursday was the county’s $125,000 membership with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, as well as $10,000 for water quality work provided by SEMCOG. Paul Tait, SEMCOG’s executive director, attended the meeting with two other staff members to answer questions and urge commissioners to retain their participation in the regional planning group. None of the six other counties who are part of SEMOG are withdrawing their membership, Tait said.
Several other budget cuts are proposed in this category, including a decrease in funding to the Delonis Center homeless shelter (from $160,000 to $25,000) and the Safe House domestic violence shelter (from $96,000 to $48,000). Money for the county’s coordinated funding of human services – targeting six priority areas, including housing and food – will drop by $128,538 (from $1,015,000 to $886,462).
But most of Thursday’s discussion by the board focused on the two areas that received attention during public commentary: SEMCOG and HSHV. In addition, Chuck Warpehoski, director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, spoke on behalf of 94 co-signers of a letter urging the county to continue funding human services.
The board will also hold a public hearing on the budget at its Oct. 19 meeting, and it’s likely that supporters from other groups will address the board at that time.
Setting the stage for the board’s discussion on Thursday, commissioners got a staff update on the need for basic assistance in the county. It was not encouraging news.
Update on Need for Human Services
Mary Jo Callan, director of the county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, was asked to give commissioners an update on the demand for food, shelter and other basic needs in Washtenaw County. She’d been part of a presentation on the same issue at the board’s Sept. 8 working session, and began her remarks on Thursday by noting that the news since then isn’t encouraging.
Emergency services like those provided at the county’s Harriet Street community services office or by the Barrier Busters network are in greater demand. There’s been an unprecedented number of calls, Callan said, and state and federal funding is diminished. Local nonprofit agencies are bracing for funding cuts from the county, she said, and the county itself expects cuts in state and federal funds it receives for these services.
Callan reminded commissioners that the state legislature has passed a 48-month lifetime limit for receiving cash assistance from the state Dept. of Human Services (DHS), which was to take effect Oct. 1 and will affect 72 low-income households in Washtenaw County. [By comparison, 6,560 families in Wayne County will be affected.] A court had ruled that people receiving this aid hadn’t been properly notified about the cutoff, so families and individuals got payments in October, but will be cut off on Nov. 1. Each month after that, about 10-12 additional families will be cut off in the county, she said.
The local DHS office has a caseload of 54,000 cases, Callan said. Of those, 40,000 relate to food stamps. DHS has now instituted an asset test for people to qualify for food assistance – you can’t have more than $5,000 in assets, excluding your home. This new layer has added to the difficulty of processing cases and is costing more in staff time than the money it’s saving, Callan said. That, in turn, is impacting local agencies that provide food assistance, like Food Gatherers. [The asset test was criticized in an Oct. 14 opinion piece by three former state budget directors, published in the Detroit News. The writers urged Gov. Rick Snyder's administration to reconsider the test.]
Food Gatherers is also facing severe cuts from some of its funding sources, even as demand increases, Callan said. She noted that the state has eliminated the tax credit for food banks, which will also impact funding.
Regarding the homeless in Washtenaw County, Callan said that last year, 4,700 people were homeless – 55% of those for the first time. Shelters are reporting increased demand compared to last year, but fundraising is more difficult because tax credits for shelters have been eliminated too. The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which runs the Delonis Center shelter in Ann Arbor, is reporting that it won’t be able to afford to open its warming center this winter, unless additional funding is raised. [At the Ann Arbor city council's Oct. 17 meeting, $25,000 was authorized to fill in the gap between private donations and the roughly $81,000 budget for the warming center.]
The area’s rent burden remains high, Callan said. The average rent and utilities is about $1,000 per month. For a family of three with an income of $18,500, that means they’re paying about 70% of their income on housing, with only about $500 per month left over for food, clothing and other needs.
Callan said that SOS Community Services has become the single point-of-entry for people seeking housing assistance. [Its housing access phone number is 734-961-1999.] Last week, SOS fielded 195 calls for help with housing – 38% of those were from people facing eviction, 33% were seeking shelter, and 11% were homeless seeking permanent housing. For about half of the calls, the resources weren’t available to help and people were turned away, Callan said.
In summarizing other funding cuts, Callan said that DHS is cutting childcare assistance by 5-15%, and reducing the number of hours covered from 90 to 80 per week. That decrease is especially difficult for parents who must take the bus to work, she said.
Callan also reported that at the end of September, unemployment insurance for more than 800 people in the county expired. About 800 more are expected to time-out in each of the coming months.
She concluded by noting that her office is developing a job training program for the east side of the county, where unemployment is highest. Commissioners can expect to see a fleshed-out proposal at their Nov. 2 meeting.
Outside Agency Funding: Overview
Tina Gavalier of the county’s finance office gave a brief summary of the administration’s budget proposal regarding outside agency funding. To help address a projected $17.5 million two-year budget deficit, the county’s original goal was to cut $1 million from its spending on outside agencies. That category includes dues, agencies that provide human services like housing and childcare, and special initiatives like support for the economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK. [.pdf list of all outside agency funding]
The proposed budget allocates a total of $1.855 million to outside agencies in 2012 and 2013. That’s down from $3.095 million in 2011 – a $1.2 million decrease per year.
The most dramatic cuts include eliminating the county’s $125,000 annual membership in the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), cutting funding for the Humane Society of Huron Valley’s contract from $500,000 in 2011 to $250,000, and cutting funding to the Delonis Center homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000. Funding for the Safe House domestic violence shelter would drop from $96,000 to $48,000.
Also eliminated completely would be payments to the Huron River Watershed Council ($11,892), the NEW Center ($21,000), and the Area Agency on Aging ($23,712). The $200,000 for the county’s reserve for housing would be cut, as would $110,000 for a housing contingency fund. Money for the county’s coordinated funding of human services will drop by $128,538 (from $1,015,000 to $886,462).
The packet of materials for commissioners also included a five-year funding history for outside agencies. [.pdf of five-year funding] In 2006, funding in that category totaled $1.158 million, reaching a high in 2011 of $3.095 million. The proposed $1.855 million would return funding to roughly 2010 levels.
Outside Agency Funding: SEMCOG
The proposed 2012 and 2013 budget proposes eliminating the county’s $125,000 membership with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, as well as $10,000 for water quality work provided by SEMCOG.
Outside Agency Funding: SEMCOG – Public Commentary
Paul Tait, executive director for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), told commissioners that he understood they had difficult decisions to make – these are not easy times. He referenced the memo he had sent to the board outlining benefits of SEMCOG membership. [.pdf of Tait's letter] Because of the agency’s ability to leverage regional economies of scale to obtain federal grants, he said, they are able to return value to the county 10 times in excess of the county’s dues. [The memo lists items totaling $1,355,500 that SEMCOG brings to Washtenaw County, including data collection, and work developing commuter rail and the Detroit Regional Aerotropolis.] Tait noted that the county’s dues to SEMCOG have actually dropped by 13% in recent years.
Washtenaw County is part of the region, Tait said – 35% of workers in the county commute here from other areas, and nearly 24% of Washtenaw County residents commute to jobs in nearby counties. Washtenaw County officials need to be at the table, he said. It’s also an investment in the county’s future, he said, and he urged commissioners to retain their membership.
Outside Agency Funding: Commissioner Discussion – SEMCOG
Wes Prater asked Tait to answer some questions. Referring to Tait’s list of services that SEMCOG provides, Prater noted that it states the county would pay $325,000 for activities that SEMCOG now does related to developing commuter rail from Ann Arbor to Detroit. If the county drops its SEMCOG membership, who’ll pick up that cost? Prater asked.
Tait said that SEMCOG has taken the lead on that project, along with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. SEMCOGS been doing it on a shoestring since there’s been no dedicated funding, he said, but the project is close to getting federal dollars. By early 2012, there might even be demo service, he said. The project needs a champion, Tait said, and he didn’t know who would fill that role if SEMCOG didn’t.
Prater said he was concerned about dropping membership. He questioned whether the county would need to get certified in order to receive certain federal transportation grants – would the county road commission be capable of that? He felt there needed to be more of a conversation about the implications of leaving SEMCOG.
County administrator Verna McDaniel said she’d continue discussions with SEMCOG executives and county commissioners on the issue.
Ronnie Peterson noted that SEMCOG is one of the few organizations that puts multiple local governments in the same room, including six other counties as well as townships and cities. He asked whether other counties are cutting their memberships. No, Tait said – only Washtenaw County is considering that. Tait added that SEMCOG would continue to provide services to local municipalities within the county that are also members, like Ann Arbor. But it’s the regional, long-term efforts – like commuter rail – that benefit from having county officials at the table, he said.
Peterson requested seeing a 10-year list of services that SEMCOG has provided to the county. It’s more than just transportation, he said. Tait replied that SEMCOG works with the county’s water resources commissioner on various projects, and provides discounted aerial photography, among a host of other services.
Peterson said he can’t imagine walking way with six other counties in the room. What would be the substitute for regional planning? he asked.
Yousef Rabhi said the ultimate question is this: If the board decides to keep the $125,000 membership, then where will that amount be cut elsewhere in the budget? Peterson replied that the buck stops with the board, not the administration. The board is responsible for dealing with the budget, and they need all the facts they can get before making a decision about SEMCOG.
Rabhi noted that the budget discussion certainly will continue, regarding SEMCOG and all other items. He’s been attending SEMCOG meetings on behalf of the board since he was elected, and one value is being part of a regional conversation that includes Detroit, Oakland County and Macomb County, among others. They don’t always agree, but it’s a productive conversation. If Washtenaw County decides to remain a member, Rabhi added, there are ways to derive more benefits than they currently are. SEMCOG offers services like training programs and workshops that they could take more advantage of, he said. But ultimately, it’s about finding the money.
Prater told his board colleagues that if there’s value in SEMCOG, he didn’t want to lose that opportunity. They needed more information before deciding to withdraw.
Alicia Ping suggested perhaps withdrawing membership for a couple of years, then rejoining. It’s not like the whole county would go without SEMCOG’s services, she said – other municipalities are members, too.
Later in the meeting, Dan Smith recalled that Gov. Rick Snyder had proposed legislation regarding the creation of metro governments. He said he hadn’t heard anything about it recently, but that might serve as an alternative to SEMCOG.
By way of background, Snyder outlined his proposal for metropolitan authorities in a March 21, 2011 message regarding community development and local government reforms. An excerpt:
We should permit open minds across the state to not only enter into collaborations, but to consolidate governmental units and activities as appropriate in their respective communities. The final decision regarding such consolidation should be left at the local level, but the consideration of such consolidation must not be prevented or discouraged by state government. I will support new legislation that permits the establishment of metropolitan government as a metropolitan authority in Michigan. Under such legislation, existing county government would be superseded by the new metropolitan government, with all the functions of the county and city government performed instead by the metropolitan government. In addition, the legislative and executive powers of the city would be transferred to the metropolitan government.
I want to emphasize again that such legislation cannot and should not be mandatory. Rather, it should be drafted in a way that permits broader discussion about consolidation at the local level.
Outside Agency Funding: Humane Society, Human Services
Several human services agencies that receive support from the county are facing cuts in the proposed 2012 and 2013 budget. In addition, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which is under contract with the county to provide state-mandated animal control services, is slated for a cut in annual funding from $500,000 to $250,000. HSHV’s current contract with the county ends on Dec. 31.
Outside Agency Funding: HSHV, Human Services – Public Commentary
Six people spoke on behalf of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), and one person spoke on behalf of 94 others in the community who signed a letter of support for human services funding.
Kate Murphy said she lives in Livingston County so she doesn’t have the opportunity to vote for or against any of the commissioners. But she does spend a substantial percentage of her entertainment and charitable giving budget in Washtenaw County, she said, adding that she hoped that gave her some standing for her comments. She also noted that her experience as a former administrator at Michigan State University and as someone who ran for public office makes her aware of the financial challenges that the county faces. Even so, the proposed 50% cut to HSHV funding “seems beyond drastic to me.”
At least two commissioners appear to be under the impression that there’s no mandate to fund services for abandoned and abused animals, Murphy said, but that’s wrong. If the funding cuts go through, who will take care of the 4,500 abandoned and abused animals that were rescued by HSHV last year? She wanted to hear their plans. Murphy gave examples of three dogs who had been saved by HSHV, and asked what would have become of them otherwise. She also noted that in Livingston County, a pack of wild dogs have attacked and killed two people – dogs left in the wild will form packs, and it’s dangerous. She urged commissioners to rethink cuts to the HSHV contract.
Jerry Nordblom of Webster Township noted that he’s a volunteer for seven local nonprofits, including HSHV. He told commissioners that a raccoon had come onto the deck of his house and was dying – he called the humane society and they came out within an hour, took the animal back to their facility and put it out of its misery. Nordblom also described the saga of a dog named Brownie, who was beaten with a tire iron and dumped by a man who also abused his girlfriend. The man, who at that time was out on parole for another crime, eventually pled guilty to a charge of animal torture – a felony.
Nordblom said the humane society helped him prepare a victim impact statement for the dog, describing how animal abuse is a symptom of the same pathological problem that leads to other violent crimes. Judge Schwartz agreed with him vigorously, Norblum said, and gave the maximum sentence. Meanwhile, Brownie has been renamed and is now a trained therapy dog, visiting nursing homes and children in schools. Nordblom said when he joked in an email that the dog would be available to commissioners for therapy, he didn’t mean to imply that they had dementia or acted like children.
Jo-Anne Julius of Pittsfield Township said she’s one of more than 500 volunteers for HSHV, and worked for them when the nonprofit was still operating out of a “shanty,” before its new facility was built. The buildings had been deplorable but the care was stellar, she said. Julius encouraged commissioners to visit the new facility, saying that it’s not a place where animals go to die. The kill rate is 18% – the lowest in the state.
Customer service is a priority, and she’s proud to be part of it, Julius said. Children and neighborhoods are safe because of HSHV’s animal control service. There are families that are having their homes foreclosed and can’t keep their pets. Who will they call? Who’ll take the 1,200 calls each year for help with abandoned and injured animals or diseased wildlife? It will fall to the county, she said. Julius said she wouldn’t mind paying more taxes to support such an efficient, essential organization. Please uphold the county’s end of the contract, she said.
Heather Karschner of Ann Arbor told commissioners that she works in the nonprofit sector and understands the challenges that the county faces. Some causes will inevitably lose funding. But HSHV is a smart investment, she said. It’s an innovative, effective organization with one of the highest save rates in the state. They take care of basic services, and conduct about 500 cruelty investigations each year. Working for them as a volunteer, Karschner said she can attest that there’s not a lot of waste in the organization. They use their resources well, their workers are dedicated, and the volunteers equal about 17 full-time workers, she said.
Anne Alatalo, a Superior Township resident, said she adopted her first pet from the humane society in 1957 – she’s a lifelong county resident. What message are they giving if the county doesn’t support this service? she asked. She’s especially concerned about cruelty cases. HSHV has a room full of unadoptable cats who were rescued from a hoarder, she said. It’s important to be compassionate. Alatalo also noted that many people believe HSHV gets funding from other sources, like the federal government, the U.S. Humane Society or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). They don’t, she said. What’s more, the $500,000 from the county is something that HSHV has counted on in its planning – she urged commissioners to continue their support.
John Koselka identified himself as an attorney and Scio Township resident. He said he reviewed a recent article about the county’s funding for HSHV, noting there were some incorrect statements. The county is not giving a charitable contribution to HSHV – it’s paying a low amount for services that the county is mandated to provide. If the county provided those same services, rather than contract with HSHV, it would cost much more, he said. The HSHV estimates that it would cost the county $1.5 million annually to provide the mandated services itself – and that doesn’t include the cost of building a facility. If HSHV tells the county it can’t provide the services for $250,000, then what?
There are about 10 cruelty cases every year, and the county must house those animals in a humane way until the court case is over, Koselka said. Who will do that? What if the county had to house 350 animals at a private facility for $12 per day, with an average stay of 90 days? He noted that last year the county paid $180,000 for two animal control officers. But mostly what they do is pick up animals and drop them off at HSHV, he said.
Though she did not attend Thursday’s working session, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf had prepared a six-page letter earlier this month that responded to the proposed cuts. [.pdf of Hilgendorf's letter] In part, the letter states:
When we were planning to build our new animal shelter, our contract with the County was $200,000 annually for these services – a level we knew we absolutely could not sustain going forward. Therefore, we offered the County the option to either pay us a fair amount closer to actual costs or to make plans to build and run their own animal control facility. This was a very important turning point. HSHV would have needed a shelter only half the size and half the cost if we weren’t providing contracted County services.
Then County Administrator Bob Guenzel and the Board of Commissioners said unequivocally they did not want to provide this service themselves and understood the vast cost savings and benefits to the community in this contractual arrangement – a clear win/win. As such, we kindly agreed to a multi‐year, incremental strategy that allowed the County to increase our contract over four years until finally reaching $500,000 in 2010. After that, we agreed that HSHV would get an annual cost of living increase so that in 10 years we would not find ourselves in the same compromising financial position.
Last week the County Commissioners unilaterally changed that agreement without renegotiation or even notifying the HSHV. So today, we are at another crossroads and the County will need to decide whether they want to provide HSHV fair payment for services rendered or they want to provide some or all of the services themselves.
The HSHV board president Michael Walsh has also sent a letter to commissioners, stating that the humane society’s board and staff were shocked to hear of the funding cuts. [.pdf of Walsh's letter] Attachments to the letter included (1) a financial and legal analysis by HSHV of the services it provides to the county; (2) a May 1, 2008 letter from then-county administrator Bob Guenzel to University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, which references a 10-year contract with HSHV; and (3) a chart comparing the cost of animal control services provided by HSHV compared to other counties.
Speaking in support of human services funding, Chuck Warpehoski, director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, told commissioners on Thursday that he was there on behalf of 94 co-signers of a letter urging the county to continue funding human services. [.pdf of joint letter] The letter makes three points, he said. It thanks the county for supporting the social safety net, which is important for the community. It acknowledges that the commissioners have difficult decisions ahead. For his final point, Warpehoski unfurled the letter with the 94 signatures, and asked that the county not balance its budget on the backs of the poor.
The commissioners are hearing from groups like SEMCOG, which says it does important work, he noted. But it’s also important that children whose parents have lost their jobs have food on the table, he said. Yes, it’s important that the humane society takes care of animals that have suffered abuse, but it’s also important the Safe House can provide support for victims of domestic violence. Warpehoski urged commissioners to continue their support for human services.
Outside Agency Funding: HSHV, Human Services – Commissioner Discussion
Barbara Bergman said her first concern is for the well-being of children and families in this county. There’s a real food scarcity, and whenever anyone asks her what they can do to help, she tells them to write a check to their local food bank.
Bergman said she grew up on a farm in Livingston County and has had a dog almost all of her adult life, though she doesn’t have one now. She knows that rogue animals present a serious problem, but it’s also a problem if children don’t get the support they need – they sometimes grow up and do horrible things, she said, even though they don’t bite.
She noted that humans are the singular beings who understand their own mortality. Her dogs did not understand that, when she’s had to put them down. The animals don’t deserve to suffer. She described one dog she had that was “snarky” – whenever she left it with sitters, she made sure they understood that their safety came first.
The county’s contract with HSHV ends on Dec. 31 of this year, Bergman noted. The county previously had offered a 10-year contract, but the humane society didn’t want that, she said. Bergman said she’ll be among those commissioners who’ll ask the county administration to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the animal control services that are mandated by the state. She’s pleased that the HSHV doesn’t kill animals unless forced to, but if it’s a choice between that and supporting families, then it’s really no choice.
Bergman said she doesn’t know what the county will be able to buy for $250,000, but they should find out. It probably won’t be luxurious for animals, and she’s sorry about that. It will be humane, but they probably won’t be able to save as many animals as they have in the past. But again, she said, animals don’t have intimations of mortality. And on a hierarchy of needs, she said, the needs that take priority are those supported by the 94 people who signed a letter of support for human services.
Alicia Ping described this meeting as the worst one she’s attended in her 12 years of public services. [Prior to her election in 2010 as county commissioner, Ping served on the Saline city council.] Unfortunately, when you allocate money, people get used to that level of funding, she said. And now, the money isn’t there. The humane society funding is what bothers her most, she said, because she’s passionate for those who can’t speak for themselves – animals and children. It was breaking her heart, but they needed to fund immediate needs more so than initiatives that are farther out, like SEMCOG. She noted that the county can’t even afford to repair its roads.
Dan Smith observed that in looking at the five-year funding levels, some of the 2012-2013 recommendations are simply taking funding levels back to what they were three or four years ago. While severe, that’s the reality that the county is facing, and nobody likes it. He also noted that Act 88 restricts the uses on which millage proceeds can be used – it’s for economic development and agriculture, and can’t support human services.
Yousef Rabhi said the funding cuts aren’t just numbers – they represent people, and animals. For him, the funding cuts to the Delonis Center and to coordinated funding stood out, because those areas support people who are facing challenges. The Delonis shelter funding is being proposed to drop from $160,000 to $25,000. “To me, that’s wrong,” Rabhi said. [Coordinated funding – the county's share of pooled resources with the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw United Way and the Washtenaw Urban County, to fund prioritized human services – would drop from $1.015 million this year to $886,462 in 2012 and 2013.]
Rabhi said he’d rather see the county eliminate its $26,230 annual dues to the Michigan Association of Counties. It’s better to spend that money on coordinated funding or services for the homeless, he said. The county already hires a lobbyist in Lansing to advocate for the county’s specific interests, he said, and it’s not clear that the more general advocacy that MAC provides is necessary. [At its Oct. 5 meeting, the board gave initial approval of a two-year contract renewal for Governmental Consultant Services Inc. – lobbyist Kirk Profit is a director of the Lansing-based firm. A final vote on the contract is expected on Oct. 19.]
Bergman also said she questioned the county’s membership in the National Association of Counties, but she didn’t see the dues listed in the budget. She agreed with Ping – these are difficult times. Bergman said the state needs a progressive income tax – people like her, who live in the lap of luxury compared to most of the world, should pay more, she said.
Ronnie Peterson wanted to know the specifics of the county’s contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Was the county fulfilling its end? He also wondered who would provide those services, if HSHV did not. It’s one thing to talk about funding, he said, but first the board needs to talk about their obligations. County administrator Verna McDaniel said she’d provide that information to the board. [.pdf of current contract]
By way of background, the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, prepared a memo of points related to the county’s relationship with HSHV that had been emailed to commissioners the previous day, on Oct. 12. [.pdf of Hedger's memo] Points made in the memo include:
- There is no mandate in the state Dog Law of 1919 indicating how long a county must hold a stray or unlicensed dog before it may be euthanized.
- The county is not responsible for stray cats, raccoons or any other species of animal.
- Under the Dangerous Animals Act (MCLA 287.321 et seq), a dangerous animal may be ordered by a court to be placed in a facility, including a humane society building, pending the outcome of the legal proceeding involving that animal. The owner, however, not the county or Humane Society, is financially responsible for the boarding of the animal during this period.
- The county paid $1 million toward the $7.5 million cost of the new HSHV facility, and issued bonds for the remaining $6.5 million. HSHV is making payments on those bonds, and is saving $682,000 over the seven-year repayment of the bond because the county’s bond ratings resulted in lower interest rates.
- Funding to HSHV from the county over the past decade has ranged from $159,000 in 2001 to $500,000 in 2011.
- In the fall of 2007, the county discussed funding the HSHV via a 10-year contract beginning in 2008 with the HSHV receiving $300,000 in 2008, $400,000 in 2009 and $500,000 per year for the remainder of the contract, with a 3% cost of living increase per year. However, the board never approved a 10-year contract and instead continued to execute 2-year contracts with the HSHV – including the current one that expires at the end of 2011. HSHV did not object when the proposed 10-year deal did not materialize in 2008, and agreed to the 2-year deal.
Peterson said he didn’t blame the county administration for proposing the HSHV cuts, but someone else had suggested it and it wasn’t him – his fingerprints aren’t on it, he said. HSHV supporters wouldn’t be sending emails to commissioners if this proposal had previously been discussed in public view, he said. If that had happened, the board wouldn’t have to face this “embarrassment of protests,” he said. When had this been deliberated? If it happened in private, that troubled him.
The HSHV is highly praised throughout the state and is a model for other organizations, he said. The relationship with the county needs to be clarified by the corporation counsel, he added. Hedger “does work for the board, doesn’t he?” Peterson asked.
McDaniel replied that she and her staff would provide detailed information to commissioners, but she cautioned against relying on verbal legal opinion. The reason to provide the corporation counsel’s legal opinion in writing is that it gives him the opportunity to conduct thorough research, she said.
Peterson argued that the HSHV contract should have been provided to the board in its meeting packet of materials. The board needs to be clear on what the relationship is, before voting on the budget. He said he’s independent in his thinking, “unbossed and uncontrolled” – and he likes it that way. HSHV and SEMCOG provide services that can’t be found elsewhere, yet they’ve been lumped into the same category as other types of funding, he said.
Peterson also said he wants to revisit the way the county handles coordinated funding. [The coordinated funding approach was approved unanimously by the board earlier this year, though Peterson has previously expressed reservations about the process. It involves a partnership of the county, city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw United Way and other entities to award funding based on a set of community priorities. The six priorities are housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health safety net, and food. The process is managed by the office of community development, a joint county/city of Ann Arbor department. For an overview, see Chronicle coverage: "Coordinated Funding for Nonprofits Planned"]
There will never be enough money, Peterson said, but the current system pits HSHV against other agencies – and the humane society will never win if they’re competing against food for children. The county needs to sit down with representatives from the University of Michigan, United Way, the chamber of commerce and other entities to address this problem, he said. Literacy is another important need, he said.
Bergman clarified with Hedger that the commissioners had been sent a communication about the HSHV contract status. Hedger replied that he also planned to follow-up with additional research.
Rabhi said it’s unfortunate they’ve come to this point. The budget decisions are obviously difficult, and many people have taken cuts – county employees, the Delonis Center, Safe House and others, he noted. No one on the board is an animal hater, he said. There is a state mandate for the county to provide certain animal control services, he said, and he wanted to find out exactly what that mandate is, and how much it should cost the county. After that basic service is provided – via HSHV or another entity – then the county can look at doing something beyond that, if they want, he said.
Rabhi also noted that this discussion needed to be held in the context of the long-term support that the county has provided HSHV. That includes giving the nonprofit $1 million toward construction of the new facility, and issuing the bonds – saving nearly $700,000 off the cost of the debt. That’s all in addition to annual financial allocations in the budget, he said. He’s proud of that relationship, but he doesn’t like it when HSHV supporters talk about walking away from it if they don’t get as much money as they want. ”Put the guns down,” he said. “We can work together.”
Peterson said it’s not about the funding – it’s about the contractual agreement. Your word should be your bond, he said – that’s integrity, and it would matter to him in determining how he’ll vote.
Outside Agency Funding: Agriculture & Economic Development
Alicia Ping asked several questions related to the Food Systems Economic Partners (FSEP). The county has allocated $15,000 for the organization. What does FSEP do? she asked. County administrator Verna McDaniel described it as an excellent program providing support for the regional food network, and said she could provide more detailed information if Ping wanted it.
McDaniel noted that FSEP is funded by the county with proceeds from the Act 88 millage. [At its Sept. 21, 2011 meeting, the board voted to levy 0.05 mills for support of economic development and agriculture. The millage is expected to raise $688,913 – much of it will be used to fund Ann Arbor SPARK, the area's economic development agency. Jennifer Fike, FSEP's executive director, spoke during public commentary at the Sept. 21 meeting as well as other board meetings this year. Because the Michigan statute that authorizes this millage predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. Ping voted against the Act 88 levy.]
Ping asked whether FSEP feeds anyone, or does it help children get access to healthier food. McDaniel replied that the agency provides agricultural-related education and training, and that one of its missions is to support work like the Farm to School program.
Ping also asked about funding for the law library – $12,400 annually. McDaniel said that’s a state-mandated service that the county must provide, giving access to legal research for local attorneys. [The library is located next to the Washtenaw County Bar Association office in the county courthouse at 101 N. Huron in Ann Arbor. It has two computers with access to several legal research databases.] In response to a query from Ping, McDaniel said she didn’t know if the library is open to the general public.
Ping then objected to increased funding for Ann Arbor SPARK – from $200,000 to $230,000. McDaniel said it wasn’t actually an increase, but that $30,000 had dropped off from another county funding source, so the Act 88 millage was adjusted to cover that amount. The administration felt it was critical to continue employment-related funding. Ping said she opposed the Act 88 millage, and said that everyone was experiencing cuts – SPARK should be no different.
Dan Smith agreed with a comment that Barbara Bergman had made earlier in the meeting – he encouraged residents to write checks to causes that they support. Most of the county’s revenues come from property taxes, he noted, and property values have declined. His own house is worth 20% less than when he bought it 11 years ago. That’s great for him personally since he has to pay lower taxes, he said, but that’s also why the county is facing cuts.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Dan Smith.
Absent: Leah Gunn, Conan Smith, Rob Turner.
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. 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.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!