Nonprofit Supporters Lobby for County Funds

Board shifts funds to homeless shelter; Brabec tapped for District 7

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Oct. 19, 2011): Lining Main Street in front of the county administration building, a dozen or so protesters stood in the rain – many with their dogs – holding signs in support of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), which faces a dramatic funding cut under the proposed 2012-2013 county budget.

Supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley

Supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley in front of the Washtenaw County administration building at Main and Catherine, prior to the Oct. 19 board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Inside during their meeting, county commissioners heard from a stream of supporters for various nonprofits, all urging the board to maintain funding for services – from the care of animals to basic safety net services like housing and food. The proposed budget calls for $1.2 million in cuts to outside agencies, including many nonprofits. Funding levels would drop from about $3 million this year to $1.8 million in each of the next two years. The cuts are proposed to address a projected $17.5 million deficit over the next two years.

Much of the public commentary came from HSHV supporters, who argued that the county is already getting more services than it pays for under its contract with the nonprofit, even before cutting annual funding from $500,000 to $250,000. That contract expires at the end of 2011, and leaders from the county and HSHV will be meeting later this month to try to reach an agreement for providing services – including those mandated by the state.

The budget was the focus of much of Wednesday’s three-hour meeting, which started with the appointment of Felicia Brabec to fill the vacant District 7 seat. Commissioners expressed support for the nonprofits they fund, but several argued that cuts are necessary because of the county’s declining revenues. They also pointed to discussions at the state level of eliminating the personal property tax. A recent analysis prepared by county staff estimates that repeal of the PPT would cut county revenues by $5.559 million, and would eliminate a total of $42.961 million in revenues for all local governments in Washtenaw County. [.pdf of PPT report]

Some commissioners urged the public to contact state legislators and oppose the PPT repeal, while others asked that everyone dig into their own pockets and contribute to local nonprofits that face funding cuts. Several commissioners expressed support for putting a human services millage on the ballot as a way to raise money for these safety net services. It would not be possible to add it to the Nov. 8 ballot, but could be considered for 2012. Wes Prater also argued that not enough cuts have been made in the budget – he believes county departments can find additional ways to trim their expenses.

In the only formal action related to the proposed budget, a resolution proposed by Yousef Rabhi reallocated $26,230 in annual dues (or $52,460 over two years) paid to the Michigan Association of Counties, transferring those funds to the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor. The resolution was unanimously approved. It followed action at the Ann Arbor city council’s Oct. 17 meeting, when councilmembers appropriated $25,000 from the city’s general fund reserve to keep the Delonis Center’s warming center open this winter. At the council’s meeting, mayor John Hieftje noted that the Delonis Center is a partnership between the city and county, and he hoped the county would uphold its end.

Final decisions on the budget haven’t yet been settled. The board must pass a budget by Dec. 31, and has only three more regular meetings scheduled for the year. The budget must first be voted on by the Ways & Means Committee – a committee of the whole board – then voted on a final time at a regular board meeting.

Though much of the Oct. 19 meeting focused on 2012-2013 budget issues, the board gave final approval to several other items, including: (1) creating a study committee to explore a historic district in Salem Township; (2) renewing a two-year contract with Governmental Consultant Services Inc., a Lansing-based lobbying firm; and (3) authorizing a contract with Sylvan Township related to the township’s bond repayment schedule.

And in non-budget public commentary, Douglas Smith submitted an appeal to the board for a Freedom of Information Act request that had been denied by the county, related to an incident that he says involves a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s office. The board did not respond publicly to his request, other than to clarify with the county’s corporation counsel that appeals are handled by the county administrator.

District 7 Appointment

The bi-weekly meetings of the county board are actually two back-to-back meetings, beginning with a Ways & Means Committee meeting at 6:30 p.m., followed immediately by the regular board meeting. The board meeting is officially posted to begin at 6:45 p.m., but typically starts much later – most of the deliberations on agenda items occur during Ways & Means, which is a committee of the entire board.

On Wednesday, rather than begin with Ways & Means, commissioners waited until 6:45 p.m. and began the evening by convening the board meeting – for the sole purpose of making an appointment to the vacant District 7 seat. Former commissioner Kristin Judge resigned from the board mid-term – effective Oct. 9 – and two people applied to replace her until special elections are held next year.

Wes Prater, Felicia Brabec

County commissioners Wes Prater (D-District 3) and Felicia Brabec (D-District 7).

The board interviewed Felicia Brabec and Christopher Nielsen at a public meeting on Monday, Oct. 17. In response to a question during public commentary at that meeting, commissioners reported that Judge had encouraged Brabec to apply, and had arranged introductions with some members of the board.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Alicia Ping read the resolution appointing Brabec. The same resolution set the special election dates: a primary on Feb. 28, 2012, and a general election on Tuesday, May 8.

The filing deadline for candidates with political party affiliations to run for this office is Dec. 6 at 4 p.m. The filing deadline for independent candidates is Jan. 3 at 4 p.m. Republican Richard Conn has already filed.

There was no discussion on Wednesday prior to the board’s vote.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Felicia Brabec to serve as District 7 commissioner. Barbara Bergman was absent.

After receiving a round of applause, Brabec was immediately sworn in by county clerk Larry Kestenbaum. Board chair Conan Smith said it was a difficult decision, and that it’s the board’s misfortune that they couldn’t appoint both candidates. [Nielsen also attended Wednesday's meeting.] To Brabec, Smith quipped, “”We will work you to death.” Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked her to introduce her husband, David Brabec, who was in the audience. Sizemore told him that commissioners are the reason Brabec will come home from these meetings in a bad mood. He appeared to be joking.

Funding for Nonprofits

Since county administrator Verna McDaniel formally presented the 2012-2013 general fund budget to the board at its Sept. 21 meeting, commissioners have discussed various elements of it at board meetings and working sessions. They have until the end of 2011 to modify and approve it. After Wednesday’s meeting, only three more regular board meetings are scheduled: Nov. 2 and 16, and Dec. 7.

Funding for outside agencies – $1.8 million for each of the coming two years, down from $3 million this year – is a relatively small part of the $97.7 million budget. Yet it typically receives considerable attention from the board and the community. The category includes funding for a variety of nonprofits, as well as dues and special initiatives, including funding for economic development efforts. [.pdf list of all proposed 2012-2013 outside agency funding]

Outside agency funding includes line items for several nonprofit institutions, including the Humane Society of Huron Valley, the Delonis Center homeless shelter, SafeHouse Center (a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault) and many others. It also includes a line item for coordinated funding of human services – funds that are pooled with other money from the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw United Way and Washtenaw Urban County. Those pooled funds are allocated to nonprofits in a coordinated way, focusing on six priority areas: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health safety net, and food. [.pdf of coordinated funding allocations]

If the 2012-2013 budget is approved as proposed, money for coordinated funding will drop by $128,538 – from $1,015,000 to $886,462. Several supporters who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting advocated for nonprofits who get funding through this process, which is overseen by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development.

Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle after the Oct. 19 meeting, Mary Jo Callan – director of the office of community development – said the intent would be to spread the cuts across all funded agencies, so that every nonprofit takes a small cut. Otherwise, the agencies technically funded by Washtenaw County would have to absorb the entire amount cut by the county, she wrote:

This scenario would be especially unfortunate for those agencies, since it was an administrative decision to assign agencies to specific funders. In other words, no agency specifically applied for county funds, since one application was an application to every funder through coordinated funding. … However, in order to execute the scenario where cuts are spread out across all agencies funded, other coordinated funding partners must agree to that scenario.

The board spent part of its Oct. 13 working session discussing outside agency funding. It was also the main topic of public commentary at Wednesday’s meeting, as well as at the formal public hearing on the budget.

Nearly 30 people spoke about outside agency funding at public commentary, and four people addressed the board on that issue during the public hearing. This report summarizes those remarks thematically. Many others attended the meeting – spilling out of the boardroom into the lobby of the county administration building –  but did not address the board. There was frequent applause in support of speakers’ commentary.

Funding for Nonprofits: Public Commentary – Humane Society

Ten people – volunteers and staff – urged commissioners to restore proposed funding cuts for the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Many other HSHV supporters attended the meeting but did not address the board formally. The proposed budget would cut HSHV funding from $500,000 to $250,000 annually. HSHV is operating under a contract with the county to provide state-mandated services, as well as services that go beyond the state mandate – the contract runs through 2011.

Susan Karp read a letter from Debbie Schutt of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance. Earlier this year, HSHV received the alliance’s Outstanding Large Shelter Award for 2009. It was recognized for a 75% save rate that year. It will receive the 2010 award as well, according to Schutt. The letter described several shelters that, unlike HSHV, are under fire for their practices – including the Michigan Humane Society and the shelter in Livingston County. Schutt urged the county to work with HSHV. Lisa Birchmeier read a letter from another supporter of HSHV, who characterized Washtenaw County as a community of animal lovers. The county gets a bargain for HSHV’s comprehensive, innovative services, which include support for families that are struggling financially – like the Bountiful Bowls pet food assistance.

Holding her dog Snickers, Deborah Noble tearfully told commissioners that her dog represented the faces of many others that are cared for at HSHV. She served on the Superior Township planning commission, which had to approve the new facility – it’s second-to-none, she said. A year ago, Noble was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and “there is no stage 5,” she said. Her doctors didn’t think she’d make it this long, but it’s because of Snickers and her other pets that she has survived, she said. Cutting HSHV funds doesn’t mean the animals get fewer treats – “we’re talking about killing these animals,” she said. Noble concluded by asking commissioners, on behalf of Snickers, not to cut HSHV funding.

Jessica Anderson said she’s been an HSHV volunteer for 17 years. She asked whether people would bring in strays to the shelter if they thought the animals would be killed. It’s not a pretty thought to think about animals running loose, as they did recently in Ohio, she said. [The reference is to the release of dozens of exotic, wild animals – including grizzly bears, lions and tigers – from a farm in Zanesville, Ohio. The owner killed himself after releasing the animals, and law enforcement officials killed many of the animals that couldn't be captured.] Anderson said the board’s decision-making process on funding should begin with an investigation of each organization. HSHV is run better than it’s ever been, she said. Clearly, budget cuts need to be made by the county, she said, but it’s not good to pit organizations against each other for funding.  “As we say in education, it’s not a race to the bottom.”

Karen Patterson, an HSHV educator, described how bonds between animals and humans often can’t be broken. Of all the people who refused to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina, she noted, 44% stayed because they didn’t want to leave their animals. Patterson recalled how a little girl she encountered was worried because the girl’s dog had run away. Patterson said she reassured the girl that the dog could be found and taken to the humane society. In the future, Patterson wondered what she’d be able to tell children like this. How can she tell them that every life is valuable, when the community leaders don’t believe it? She encouraged commissioners to find a way to fund HSHV.

Deb Kern, HSHV’s marketing director, said she didn’t envy the board’s position. She’d worked in Ann Arbor for 28 years and loved the city, and had taken a significant pay cut to leave a corporate job and work at HSHV. She’s proud of their work, and of being able to reunite owners with their pets. HSHV provides great customer service, and the staff have answered over 5,000 calls this year from people looking for their lost animals. People know to come to the humane society’s facility – it would be confusing if there were multiple places to look, she said, and it might result in animals being put down because their owners couldn’t reach the pets in time. It’s not cheap to do outreach and advertising, but HSHV does that. They have the highest return-to-owner rate in Michigan, she noted.

Kern recalled being at the meeting when former county administrator Bob Guenzel embraced the idea for a new facility, and she helped lead the $8.5 million capital campaign to fund it. It seems insane to her that after helping HSHV become an award-winning shelter, the county would now pull away from its contract. [.pdf of Kern's full remarks]

Elise Ramsey, an HSHV animal cruelty investigator, said they’ve investigated over 500 cases in the past year, including over 30 cases that have been handled by the prosecutor’s office – all were found guilty. Nearby counties have a lower population yet more animal control officers, she noted. HSHV’s investigators – whose work ranges from investigating dog fights to dealing with wild animals on public and private property – minimize the amount of time that law enforcement must spend on cases, and that saves the county money. The budget decisions aren’t about choosing sides, she said. It’s about creating a safer environment for the community.

Deb Ledford, an HSHV volunteer, told commissioners that people have a special relationship with their animals, and would be willing to pay more in taxes to support HSHV. She urged them to consider a millage to provide additional funding for the shelter.

Anne Alatalo, an HSHV volunteer who also had spoken at an Oct. 13 board working session, read a quote attributed to Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Kelly Schwartz, HSHV’s director of volunteers and operational support, said she lives in Pittsfield Township “and I vote.” She criticized the county’s lack of due diligence before making cuts. She noted that the job description for the two animal control officers paid for by the county – at about $180,000 per officer – doesn’t match what those workers actually do. In many cases, they simply pick up dogs and drop them off at the shelter. Picking up 192 stray dogs over a year works out to the county paying about $1,000 per animal. Schwartz expressed frustration at HSHV’s efforts possibly to handle dog licensing that’s now done by the county treasurer. She said HSHV has been told it’s not their purview. Yet HSHV handles dog licensing for Ypsilanti Township, she noted.

Regarding the possibility that the county would issue a request for proposals (RFP) for another agency to provide the state-mandated services that HSHV now does, Schwartz said that HSHV is the only facility in the county that’s licensed by the Dept. of Agriculture. That license requires a set of conditions, such as having a veterinarian on site. It would be a shame if the county didn’t support HSHV’s economies of scale and facility, she concluded.

Funding for Nonprofits: Public Commentary – Housing, Food

Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s and of the nonprofit Food Gatherers, said he appreciated how profoundly difficult the board’s choices are. But the strength of a community is measured by how it cares for its most vulnerable members. Between 2006 to 2008, the number of people needing emergency food assistance increased 138% percent, and those numbers have grown. Since 2008, there’s been a 40% increase in local families needing food stamps. Yet Food Gatherers – which serves a network of food pantries across the county – has seen funding cuts, most recently a 40% reduction in the money it gets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Barbara Niess-May, Paul Saginaw

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center, and Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman's and of the nonprofit Food Gatherers.

Saginaw noted that Food Gatherers already leverages private resources – from donors, volunteers and other partners – to provide public services that used to be handled by the government. They work creatively and efficiently to fight hunger, and are an excellent steward of their resources. He urged the board at a minimum to maintain the $166,000 annual funding for Food Gatherers, which represents 5% of the nonprofit’s annual operating budget.

Six people spoke in support of Ozone House, a shelter for homeless youth. [The coordinated funding budget approved in June allocated a total of $208,557 for Ozone House programs, including $97,625 from the county.] Lisa Jackson, vice president of the board, noted that the nonprofit is the only one that provides a shelter specifically for homeless youth, and it’s a national model. She pointed to the county board’s budget guidelines, noting that second one states that the county will “support programs that address the basic needs of children and families.” That’s what Ozone House does, she said. The county’s funding is a huge part of this community’s safety net, and she asked that they continue funding this critical need in the community.

Three teens – Eric,  Demoni and Tiffany – gave their perspectives on the need for Ozone House, saying they know youth who are homeless and that it’s hard to know what it would be like if Ozone House wasn’t around. Kids deserve a drug-free, alcohol-free, safe environment where they can study and know that they’re not alone. Colleen O’Brien, Ozone House director of youth development, told the board that these three youth represent thousands of others that Ozone House supports. These youth look up to leaders like the commissioners, she said, and if the board doesn’t prioritize basic needs and public safety, she’s not sure they’ll stay in this community when they become adults. Nicole Brown also supported Ozone House, saying it’s important to show youth that the community cares about them.

Paul Leighton, a SafeHouse Center board member, and SafeHouse executive director Barbara Niess-May both spoke in support of the center, which provides help for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. [SafeHouse received $96,000 from the county this year, and is budgeted for $48,000 annually in 2012 and 2013.] Leighton, a criminology professor at Eastern Michigan University, described the impact on victims and the services that SafeHouse provides, including a helpline, crisis intervention, counseling and shelter.

Niess-May described SafeHouse as a “community jewel,” noting that the staff of 24 and 150 volunteers serve well over 4,000 women and children each year through the shelter and advocacy work. She reminded the county that SafeHouse took over sexual assault services from the county in 2003, which at the time had cost the county $200,000 each year. She said that law enforcement officers feel comfortable leaving the scene after an incident when they know representatives from SafeHouse are there. The county is a partner, and she thanked commissioners for their continued support.

Jim Wiseman is a volunteer with Interfaith Hospitality Network’s Alpha House, a family homeless shelter. [The coordinated funding provided $92,400 in funding for IHN.] Of the 4,700 people who were homeless in 2010, 1,500 of those were under the age of 18. He described the consequences of homelessness on youth, including hunger, truancy, poor mental and physical health, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. Thousands of volunteers support Alpha House, but they need the continued support of the county as well. Wiseman noted that he has two dogs and has volunteered at the animal shelter too, but the basic need for helping the homeless population is greater.

Nicole Adelman, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network, said the county has been a true partner, and IHN still needs their support. Many agencies are working together to increase collaboration, she said, and they all have success stories. She urged commissioners to support nonprofits to the greatest extent possible, so the successes could continue.

Michael Appel

Michael Appel of Avalon Housing.

Michael Appel, associate director of Avalon Housing, said he deeply appreciated the county’s support through coordinated funding. [Avalon is budgeted for $140,974 in coordinated funding.] Avalon’s Shelter Plus Care program illustrates how seriously they take the county’s charge to leverage funding and be responsible stewards of public money, he said. Every year, Avalon applies with other local agencies for federal funding through the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that helps move people off the streets and into permanent housing. HUD requires that its housing subsidy be matched with supportive services that Avalon provides – the county helps pay for those services, Appel said. He urged commissioners to continue their support.

Kristin Klevering of SOS Community Services thanked commissioners for their support. [SOS receives $90,859 from the county's portion of coordinated funding, plus $124,577 from other coordinated funding sources.] SOS recently has become the single point-of-entry for people seeking housing assistance in the county. [Its housing access phone number is 734-961-1999.] For its first week in this role, SOS fielded 203 calls for help with housing, including people facing eviction and homeless families seeking permanent housing. Klevering said their staff is booked steadily because of the great need. The single point-of-entry makes it much easier for people who need help, but the staff wouldn’t be able to do it without the county’s support.

Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, described the county as a partner through successful and difficult times – and this is one of the most difficult times they’ve faced. She urged commissioners to pass a resolution that articulates their commitment to human services and outside agencies. The resolution would commit to reinstating funds as soon as revenues permit, and would make that reinstatement of funds the highest priority when revenues recover. Schulmeister also asked commissioners to use their political positions to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable citizens of the county, and to lobby their friends and professional networks to fundraise and make personal donations to local nonprofits.

Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, told commissioners she’d just been to the Michigan Homeless Summit in Lansing, where the head of the state’s Dept. of Human Services reported that Michigan’s income level used to be 14th nationwide, but is now 31st. Her organization can see the impact of that income loss throughout the county. Steiner reported some data from the first week of calls to the SOS housing hotline, and highlighted the fact that 31% of the 203 people who called had no income at all.

The question is how can those folks be helped, and the answer isn’t coming from Lansing or Washington, Steiner said. She noted that the state recently imposed an asset test for people receiving food stamps, requiring them to have less than $5,000 in assets – including their cars, which are the way most people get to their minimum-wage jobs, she observed. This came about two weeks after recipients had been told it wouldn’t happen. “The war on the poor is continuing,” Steiner said, adding that she deeply appreciated all that the county does to support human services.

Funding for Nonprofits: Public Commentary – Literacy

Three people urged continued support for the Family Learning Institute, which provides tutoring to elementary schools students in math and reading.

Dave Knight said he’s been a volunteer reading coach since 2005. “I know that what we do works,” he said. It’s a lifelong skill with a tangible return, and is worth the county’s support. Dave Morris, a math tutor for FLI, described his work with a fourth grader – a smart girl, the daughter of recent immigrants, who’s having trouble in school and is at a critical turning point in deciding that she’s not academic. When she realizes that she can understand, she’s more likely to choose a different path. Volunteers at FLI can make a difference in the lives of students like her, and it’a a value to the community, he said.

Jeff Harrold, FLI’s board chair and an academic standards advisor at the University of Michigan, told commissioners that he’s worked with some of the brightest students in the world, and he’s also seen some people who could have gone down that academic path, but who ended up in jail. The thing that connects them is literacy. FLI provides free supplemental tutoring in math and reading, and their work directly addresses the achievement gap, he said. They operate on a shoestring and can’t afford to lose funding. In a knowledge economy, you have to know how to read. FLI teaches students to read, he concluded, and ”we hope you’ll help us continue to do that.”

Funding for Nonprofits: Public Commentary – General Human Services

Alan Haber said he appreciated the incredible volunteerism that’s on display, and he hopes the county can support all of these organizations. There’s a reason why the county doesn’t have enough money, he said, citing the trillions of dollars that the federal government has spent on war in the last decade, and the $1.4 billion in federal taxes from Michigan that pay for nuclear weapons. Commissioners need to work to change priorities of the country, and to encourage innovative approaches like Camp Take Notice. Haber cited the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of the “99% against the 1%,” and said there needs to be some kind of redistribution of wealth. Local is part of the global, he noted, and he hoped that commissioners would see the bigger picture. They really need to act on a political level, he said, and to raise their voices about keeping more money in Michigan.

Max Heinrich told commissioners that they have a choice. They can accept the budget cuts that are imposed and make decisions in the least painful way, or they can ask how to be creative and find funding to do the things they need to do. If they simply say there’s not enough money, “the county is going to go down,” he said. He called on the board to identify what matters to them, then find a way to fund it.

Saying that her heart hurts, Lily Au told the board that they need to see the bigger picture. She praised commissioner Ronnie Peterson for speaking out against the coordinated funding process. [Peterson has repeatedly raised concerns about the process, but voted along with all other commissioners to approve the approach at the board's Nov. 3, 2010 meeting, and subsequently voted to approve the recommended allocations at the board's June 1, 2011 meeting.] Au criticized the overhead costs at United Way, one of the coordinated funding partners. She said she wasn’t criticizing people, just the policy. People are suffering and need as much support as possible, she said.

Thomas Partridge called for support of affordable housing, transportation, health care and education for all.

Funding for Nonprofits:  Commissioner Discussion

Yousef Rabhi began by thanking everyone for coming, saying it’s refreshing to see people take an active part in the democratic process. He especially thanked Alan Haber and Max Heinrich for their words. Local government is being squeezed from all sides, he said, and now the state is talking about eliminating the ability of local governments to raise revenues via the personal property tax. Rabhi urged everyone to contact their state legislators and tell them that eliminating the PPT would place a significant burden on the local community. He said he’s especially concerned about the proposed $128,000 annual cut to coordinated funding. The process works well to distribute funds from the county, city of Ann Arbor and other groups, he said.

Regarding the humane society, Rabhi said he loves animals and knows that other commissioners do too. No one denies that the county has a mandate to provide certain services, but it’s not yet clear to him exactly what those mandated services are. The county needs to identify what services are mandated, how much it costs to provide those mandated services, and how much additional funding they can allocate to the humane society. He doesn’t think it will be at the same level in the past, but there are valuable programs at the humane society that are important to support.

Leah Gunn remembered when there was no decent homeless shelter, and the county took a proactive role in creating the Delonis Center, which is now a national model, she said. She remembered when Food Gatherers didn’t exist, and commended Paul Saginaw for the great work that he and others have done. She noted that SafeHouse Center is located in a county-owned building that’s paid for by a county millage.

The county has been extremely generous, Gunn said. But the county’s main revenues come from property taxes, and those revenues are decreasing. If the state eliminates the personal property tax, it would be devastating, she said – the county alone would lose $5 million in annual revenue, and all local governments in the county would lose a total of $43 million. State revenue sharing is also going to run out in 2013, she noted. Gunn urged people to dig into their pockets and donate to the nonprofits that do such good work.

Rolland Sizemore, Leah Gunn, Conan Smith

From left: Commissioners Rolland Sizemore, Leah Gunn, and Conan Smith.

Conan Smith also thanked the people who attended the meeting, and those who had advocated for finding additional revenue. He believes in that, too. Much of the spending at higher levels of government is wrong, and would be better spent locally, he said.

Smith thanked Rabhi for contextualizing the humane society situation. He noted that the expenses related to animal cruelty investigations can be charged back to the offenders as restitution. [At that, some people in the audience called out that it's not possible – many offenders are unable to pay.] He agreed it was time to revisit the issue of dog licenses, which are currently collected by the county treasurer’s office. HSHV has previously proposed taking over that service.

Smith said there’s another month to find alternatives, and he noted that he and other county officials will be meeting with HSHV leaders next week. The letter that the county received from HSHV’s board president, Michael Walsh – which stated that HSHV can’t afford to offer the same services at a reduced rate – is what prompted some commissioners to talk about looking for other providers, Smith said. [.pdf of Walsh's letter]

In part, Walsh’s letter states:

Should the County be unable or unwilling to find the additional resources that will allow the HSHV to continue to provide these Animal Control Services, given our long-standing relationship, we are willing to work with you on a short-term basis to provide an orderly transition to either another service provider or to a County-run shelter. This could be accomplished through a limited-term extension of the existing contract at the 2011 funding level.

The mandate doesn’t go away, Smith noted, even if HSHV decides it can’t provide the services. But he hoped the county can work with HSHV to meet that mandated obligation.

The commissioners put a priority on protecting families and children – problems of homelessness and hunger are growing, Smith said. “We are in a dire situation.” He’s highly supportive of exploring a millage to fund human services, as other commissioners have proposed – he believes voters would support that too. Smith concluded by saying that the board will be discussing the budget for several more weeks, and he encouraged people to weigh in. “Your words are our community wisdom,” he said. “Know that everyone on the board will take those to heart.”

Rob Turner noted at the beginning of this year, the board was looking at a $20 million deficit for 2012-2013. In April, when the county equalization report showed that revenues didn’t drop as much as expected, that projected deficit was revised to $17.5 million. To deal with it, the board prioritized, Turner explained, and put an emphasis on safety net services. They also directed the administration to streamline and consolidate, he noted – that led to three departments merging into the office of community and economic development. [That consolidation will take effect in January 2012.]

The staff did a good job at restructuring, and found $8 million in savings, Turner said. Employees gave concessions totaling another $8 million. Yet even with all of this, the county will need to tap its general fund balance, he said, bringing the fund balance to 13% of the total general fund budget – at the low end of the recommended level.

Repealing the personal property tax would hit the county hard, Turner said, resulting in another 5-6% cut to the general fund budget and lowering the fund balance to about 8%. Everyone needs to tell their state legislators that the PPT can’t be cut without first identifying replacement revenues. Turner said he supported a human services millage, but he noted that voters had rejected a countywide schools millage just last year.

There are people who are unemployed now who’ve never been unemployed before, Turner said. No one on the board wants to cut the funding for nonprofits, but that’s the hand they’re forced to play. If revenues increase, commissioners would like to make the funding whole again, but right now, the money’s just not there, he said.

Wes Prater observed that the county has been very generous when times were good. If the personal property tax is eliminated, these organizations will face even deeper cuts, he said. There are no secrets about the budget situation, Prater said – all of the information is available online. He hoped the humane society understood that there would be cuts, and that the nonprofit needs to think about fundraising from its volunteers. It’ll take more revenues to support those services, he said. “I’m sorry to have to say those words, but they’re true.”

Ronnie Peterson noted that the board hasn’t yet adopted the budget, so it’s premature to state that certain items will be cut – the board hasn’t voted on that yet, he said. He told the audience that he appreciated their advocacy, regardless of whether he agreed with their positions. Personally, Peterson said he’s not interested in contracting with an alternative agency to the humane society, and he asked the board chair, Conan Smith, to clarify the status of HSHV.

Smith reviewed that county administrator Verna McDaniel had presented the budget to the board several weeks ago. It was developed based on the board’s direction to her, he said, and includes recommendations to cut outside agency funding. In the case of the humane society, the recommendation is for $250,000 per year, down from $500,000. They haven’t taken a vote on the budget, Smith said, and they are now deliberating it. But whatever decisions they make have to result in a balanced budget, he noted. They can make whatever adjustments they see fit, but the result must be bottom-line neutral.

Peterson asked whether the board was considering an alternative provider for animal control services, rather than HSHV. Smith replied that HSHV has indicated it can’t provide the services at the recommended funding level of $250,000 – that message was in the letter from HSHV board president Michael Walsh. Smith said he appreciated that communication, and HSHV’s offer to serve in a transitional role if the county needs to find another provider.

The county’s current contract with HSHV ends on Dec. 31, and there’s only a limited time to reach a solution, Smith said. No one anticipated that the county would end its relationship with HSHV, Smith said, and there’s wide misunderstanding about what services are mandated. Perhaps a new contract will eliminate non-mandated services, like care for cats, Smith said. There are also possible revenues strategies that can be explored, he said. “By all means, the door is open.”

Peterson then raised the issue of coordinated funding, which he has criticized in the past. Addressing poverty must be a discussion among policy-makers, he said, not relegated to a county department. [Coordinated funding is overseen by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development.] And it shouldn’t be limited to just county commissioners, he said – there are two major public universities in this area, as well as several private ones. Those institutions have resources, he said, and should be concerned about quality of life in this community. “We cannot do it by ourselves,” Peterson said, and it’s unfair that nonprofits should have to fight over funding.

As he has in the past, Rolland Sizemore Jr. called for a working session to discuss all potential new millages, including those for road repair and to fund human services. He recommended that the public attend those working sessions to give their views about the millages – he believes raising revenues is the only way out of the current budget situation. He also called for more information about the budget, including administrative salaries.

Funding for Nonprofits: More Funds for Homeless Shelter

Yousef Rabhi indicated that priorities for him in this budget are coordinated funding and the homeless shelter. Given the increased homelessness in this community, he thought the county should step up funding for the shelter. The county’s membership in the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) has been useful in the past, he said, but it’s time to prioritize the homeless over that. He then moved to eliminate $26,230 in annual dues to the Michigan Association of Counties, and transfer those funds to the Delonis Center, the homeless shelter at 312 W. Huron. Over the two-year budget period, a total of $52,460 would be added to the Delonis Center funding.

Chuck Warpehoski, Julie Steiner

Chuck Warpehoski of the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice talks with Julie Steiner of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.

Conan Smith supported the motion, saying that the county has ample representation in Lansing through its lobbyist, Governmental Consultant Services Inc. [Later in the meeting, the board voted to give final approval to a two-year contract with GCSI at at $54,250 per year. Kirk Profit is the primary GCSI lobbyist dealing with the county.]

Dan Smith said that as a new commissioner elected in November 2010, he had gone through a training session in December – MAC had been one of the organizers, and it had been a valuable experience. However, after he was sworn in the county staff have provided even more orientation, so he was comfortable dropping MAC membership at this time. He hoped that when the board reaffirms the 2013 budget in a year, they’ll revisit membership for MAC and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), if the board decides to drop SEMCOG too. [The board will adopt a two-year budget for 2012 and 2013, but then at the end of 2012 they will make readjustments and vote to reaffirm the 2013 budget.]

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he’d support Rabhi’s motion, but he wondered why they were voting on one item now, and not waiting until they’d made decisions about all changes.

Outcome: The board unanimously voted to amend the proposed budget by eliminating its membership in the Michigan Association of Counties, and shifting its $26,230 in annual dues for 2012 and 2013 to the Delonis Center homeless shelter. The budget itself will receive a vote later this year. 

2012-2013 Budget: Continued Discussion

Following the discussion on outside agency funding and a vote on shifting funds to the Delonis Center, the board discussed the 2012-2013 budget more broadly.

They initially discussed how to proceed with making changes to the budget, without handling it piecemeal. Rolland Sizemore Jr. noted that it’s getting to be “crunch time” – there are only three more regular board meetings scheduled before the end of the year, and if they want to give final approval at the Nov. 16 meeting, as planned, they’d need to take an initial vote at their next meeting, on Nov. 2. He suggested that commissioners email any changes they had to the administrator, who could then forward all proposed changes to the entire board.

Wes Prater noted that in the list of eight revenue categories for the general fund, only two categories – fees & services, and fines & forfeitures – show an increase from 2011 to 2012. He expressed frustration that 16 departments showed increases in their expenditures compared to 2011. The line item for information technology, for example, grows from $5.28 million in 2011 to $6.49 million in 2012. The budget for the board of commissioners also is increasing, he noted, rising from $496,587 this year to $505,664 in 2012. This can’t continue, he said – they need to get expenses under control. ”I think there’s some money there we can find [to cut], and I want to try to find it.”

County administrator Verna McDaniel responded, saying that the departments aren’t just being given money to go spend indiscriminately. The increases relate primarily to increased personnel costs, including health insurance, as well as to higher amounts for each department’s cost allocation plan (CAP).  [The CAP sets a charge that’s levied on each county unit and designed to cover general costs like administration, technology, building use, and insurance, among other things. It’s intended to reflect the county’s true cost of doing business.]

McDaniel said her staff would write up a report explaining these increases, and distribute it to commissioners.

It would be great to get that information, Prater replied, but the bottom line is that there are still cuts to be made.

Dan Smith, Kelly Belknap

Commissioner Dan Smith talks with Kelly Belknap, interim deputy county administrator.

Dan Smith recalled the process leading up to this point, beginning with board retreats early in the year, and continuing with extra working sessions in the summer devoted to the budget. There are mandated services that must be funded, and that leaves the county in a difficult situation. The board had a healthy debate in developing its budget priorities, Smith noted – all of this was conducted in public. It’s been a long process and these aren’t easy decisions, he said, but they must work with the money they have to produce a balanced budget. That’s the law.

In response to Prater’s concern about the board of commissioners budget, Smith said it’s a topic of an upcoming working session, and they can discuss it in more detail then.

Leah Gunn noted that the board has discussed this already. She referred to the budget “puzzle” that McDaniel had presented earlier this year, which sought to overcome a projected $17.5 million deficit with roughly $8 million in concessions from employees, $8 million in departmental restructuring and cuts, about $1 million in cuts to outside agencies, and another $1 million in additional revenues. But even though some items have been cut – like health care – that doesn’t mean the total expenses will decrease, she said. It just means the increases won’t be as high. The bottom line is that they have a balanced budget, she concluded, and an acceptable fund balance.

There was some discussion about whether to address some of these issues at an upcoming working session. Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the working sessions, noted that there’s not much time between now and the point of passing the budget – the goal is to take a final budget vote at the Nov. 16 meeting.

Ronnie Peterson responded that the board can take until Dec. 31 to pass the budget, and they should take as much time as necessary. The fact that they reallocated funds earlier in the meeting – from the Michigan Association of Counties to the homeless shelter – indicates that there’s flexibility in the budget, he said. He’s also interested in reconsidering the proposed elimination of SEMCOG membership. They can look at the entire budget to find funds, he said, and it’s their responsibility to do so. If a commissioner just wants to rubber stamp the budget, Peterson said, then they shouldn’t run for office. They should have been looking more closely at these decisions months ago, he said.

Gunn said she found it difficult to respond to Peterson. She’s spent a solid year on this budget, and it’s been gone over with a fine-tooth comb. McDaniel and her staff have done an excellent job in presenting a balanced budget, and Gunn said she has no major problems with it. Her main issue is that the county is spending millions of dollars to subsidize police services for the townships, Gunn said, but she’s not going to argue about that because she doesn’t have the votes to change it. She’d like to see the board pass this budget and move on.

Conan Smith noted that the board has had this budget for a long time. [McDaniel formally presented it at the board's Sept. 21 meeting.] They’ve delved into it at previous meetings and working sessions throughout the year, and it’s an excellent document with a tremendous amount of information, he said. Smith said you can read it, as he has, and understand it with enough clarity to be confident in your decisions. “It’s a boring read,” he conceded, but the information is there.

Using the IT department as an example, Smith noted that a detailed explanation in the budget for that department indicates that much of the increased expenses relate to the administration’s decision to “unleash the CAP.” That’s reflected in the line item for internal service charges, which jumps from $436,343 in 2011 to $1.586 million in 2012.

Smith agreed with Gunn in praising McDaniel and her staff for presenting a balanced budget. He urged the board not to dwell on smaller items – like the board’s own line item – but to look for larger structural reforms that could yield greater savings. He believes the board should pass the budget by mid-November, or by the first meeting in December at the latest.

Prater replied that he wasn’t saying it’s a bad budget, but simply that there’s room for more cuts. It’s possible for departments to cheat when reporting their projected expenses, he noted. Every expense should be absolutely necessary, and he’s not convinced that’s the case. If there are unnecessary expenses in the budget, he’ll vote against it.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said there are a lot of questions for which he needs answers – including what services are actually mandated by the state for animal control. He also wants comparisons with budgets from other counties, noting that he’s repeatedly asked for this information in the past. There’s also the question about whether cutting ties with SEMCOG will jeopardize the county’s ability to secure certain types of federal grants. Until he sees answers, Sizemore said he won’t approve the budget.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to move this budget discussion item to the agenda of their next meeting, on Nov. 2.

Other Business: Sylvan Bonds, Lobbyist, Salem Historic District

Aside from budget issues, the board voted on several items during the Oct. 19 meeting that were not discussed, but that had received initial votes at their Oct. 5 meeting. Here are the highlights.

Other Business: Lansing Lobbyist

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to renew a two-year contract with Governmental Consultant Services Inc., a Lansing-based lobbying firm. The contract would run from Nov. 1, 2011 through Oct. 31, 2013 at $54,250 per year. That’s the same rate that the county currently pays, and is already built into the proposed 2012-2013 budget. [.pdf of draft contract]

GCSI lobbyist Kirk Profit and his colleagues most recently gave a formal update to the board at their March 2, 2011 meeting. GCSI provides lobbying services at the state level for several local units of government, including the city of Ann Arbor.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the two-year contract with GCSI.

Other Business: Salem Township Historic District

Commissioners were asked to appoint a committee to study the creation of a historic district in Salem Township. The district would be at 7991 North Territorial Road, where the Jarvis Stone School and the Dickerson Barn are located.

Terry Cwik, president of the Salem Area Historical Society, had attended the board’s Oct. 5 meeting and spoke during public commentary, urging commissioners to approve the study committee. The one-room schoolhouse is owned by the historical society. It was built in 1857 and in continuous use until 1967. The historical society now uses the school as its headquarters. It would be the second historic district in Salem Township – the first one is Conant Farm on Napier Road.

Cwik is one of the members of the study committee appointed on Wednesday. Other members are: Jean Bemish, Sue DiMilia, Helen Gierman, Jane Griffith, Marie Turppa, and Marcia Van Fossen and Nancy Snyder. The appointments were recommended by the county Historic District Commission.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to create the study committee for an historic district at 7991 North Territorial Road in Salem Township.

Other Business: Sylvan Township Bond Deal

On the agenda was a resolution giving final approval to a contract with Sylvan Township related to the township’s bond repayment schedule. The township has been struggling to make payments on $12.5 million in bonds issued in 2001 to build a water and wastewater treatment plant intended to serve future development. The township expected that connection fees would cover the bond payments, but the development never materialized.

Now Sylvan Township – located west of Ann Arbor, near Chelsea – is facing default on its bond payment in May 2012, which the county will need to cover. The township board voted to put a proposal for a 4.75 mill, 20-year tax on the Nov. 8, 2011 ballot for township residents, with proceeds to repay the cost of the bond payments that would be made by the county.

The millage proceeds alone would not be sufficient to cover the entire cost of the bond payments, however, and the county would need to tap its capital reserves as well. After the bond is repaid, the millage proceeds would continue to be used to repay the county to cover the amount used from its capital reserves, as well as interest. The millage proceeds would also be used to repay the county treasurer’s office, which advanced about $1.2 million to the township in 2007 and 2008 related to this project.

The contract between the county and township is contingent on voters passing the 4.75 mill tax. If the millage fails and the township defaults, the county could file suit against the township for breach of contract in failing to meet its debt repayment obligation, according to a staff memo. The county would also need to make the bond payments, to avoid having its bond rating negatively affected.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the bond deal with Sylvan Township.

Other Business: Drain Projects

Drain projects in Ann Arbor – including two related to the East Stadium bridge reconstruction project – were on the agenda for final approval at the board’s Oct. 19 meeting.

The county water resources commissioner’s office was asked by the city of Ann Arbor to design and build stormwater control measures for the bridges along Stadium Boulevard between Kipke and South Industrial, according to a staff memo. The Allen Creek East Stadium bridges drain project and the Malletts Creek East Stadium bridges drain project will require in total no more than $415,000 for bonds issued with the county’s full faith and credit. The bonds will be repaid through special assessments on property in the drain district for this project.

Separately, county commissioners gave initial approval to an Allen Creek drain project in Ann Arbor. The project involves installing an underground infiltration system on the west side of the Veterans Park Ice Arena and putting in a rain garden near the entrance of the ice arena on the east side of the building. Rain gardens will also be installed next to Fire Station #3 at 2130 Jackson Ave., and trees will be planted in the city right-of-way throughout neighborhoods on the city’s west side.

The Allen Creek project had been previously approved by the board at its July 2011 meeting, as one of several drain projects authorized at that time. The overall cost of the projects approved then is now expected to be $1.45 million less than originally estimated. However, the $330,000 approved for the Allen Creek project turned out to be an underestimate – that project is now expected to cost up to an additional $65,000. That $65,000 – covered by bonds issued with the county’s full faith and credit – was the amount commissioners were asked to approve at Wednesday’s meeting.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the drain projects for Allen Creek and East Stadium bridges.

Misc. Commentary, Communications

During the meeting there were multiple opportunities for public commentary, and for communications from the administration and commissioners.

Misc. Comm/Comm: Public Commentary

Douglas Smith told commissioners he was submitting an appeal for a Freedom of Information Act request that had been denied by the county. He described an incident at Ypsilanti Township hall, where a court employee had reported that $20 was stolen out of her car in the parking lot. She had requested video surveillance footage, but instead of providing it to her, the building’s security officer had emailed the sheriff’s office, Smith said. That apparently prompted an internal investigation, he said, involving a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s office.

Several FOIA requests have since been made, Smith said, but all have been denied. One of the reasons given is that the matter is part of a personnel file. But there can be a balance test applied, Smith said. He indicated there’s a stronger public interest in ensuring there’s no coverup by law enforcement, which outweighs the interest of an employee’s privacy. He asked the board to reconsider his FOIA request and release the surveillance video.

In commissioner follow-up to public commentary, Wes Prater asked Curtis Hedger – the county’s corporation counsel – to explain how the appeal process is handled. Hedger noted that for FOIA appeals, there’s a shorter time to respond, and that’s why the law gives the option of having the head of a public body – in this case, the county administrator – to handle it. Otherwise, the board would need to call a special meeting each time there’s an appeal, he said. He noted that the county administrator doesn’t just rubber stamp the decision, adding that former county administrator Bob Guenzel had overturned decisions several times on appeal. [Guenzel, who retired in May of 2010, is an attorney who had served as the county's corporation counsel before becoming county administrator.]

In addition to the commentary reported above, Thomas Partridge spoke during three other opportunities for public commentary at Wednesday’s meeting. He criticized the commissioners for holding discussions that sounded like corporate insiders talking to each other, rather than talking to the public. The county should find more ways to raise revenue, such as increasing its grant-writing efforts. They shouldn’t neglect animals, but there are families, children and senior citizens who are also abused and neglected, and who need the county’s help. He also advocated for the recall of Republicans and Republican-acting Democrats, and urged the county to provide affordable housing, transportation, education and health care for all residents – and not to outsource those services.

Misc. Comm/Comm: Communications from Commissioners

Rob Turner gave a liaison report from the Washtenaw County road commission. Road commissioners are concerned that the county is considering dropping its membership in the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), and urged the board not to cut that funding, Turner said. The road commission benefits directly from SEMCOG, he said – most of the $1.355 million in benefits that were outlined in a memo to the board from SEMCOG relate to road commission work. [.pdf of SEMCOG memo] Turner reported that the road commission might be willing to pay part of the county’s $125,000 in annual membership dues, and road commissioners are interested in meeting with the county administration to discuss that possibility.

Turner also reported that the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County is in a funding crisis. [See Chronicle coverage: "Literacy Coalition Faces Uncertain Future"] The group is asking its member organizations – including the county – to pick up some of the coalition’s work, such as administrative tasks like answering emails and maintaining the coalition website. There was no further discussion about this among commissioners.

Present: Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Absent: Barbara Bergman.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 2, 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.

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