Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Nov. 2, 2011): At a meeting that lasted nearly five hours, commissioners gave initial approval to the county’s 2012-2013 general fund budget, following a discussion dominated by the topic of funding for state-mandated animal control.
With supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV) demonstrating outside the county administration building and speaking during public commentary at the meeting, commissioners debated at length over how to handle its contract with the non-profit. The proposed budget calls for cutting HSHV’s contract from $500,000 this year to $250,000 in 2012 and 2013.
HSHV’s current two-year contract expires at the end of 2011, and leaders of the humane society have expressed reluctance to sign a new one with such a significant cut, saying that even at the current rate the county is not paying what the services are worth. [.pdf of HSHV analysis of legal and financial costs for mandated services]
For their part, some commissioners contended that they don’t yet know the actual cost of providing mandated services, and that HSHV hasn’t provided them with the kind of financial data they need to make an informed decision.
In the budget that received initial approval, the line item that originally earmarked $250,000 in annual payments to HSHV in 2012 and 2013 was renamed to “Mandated Animal Control,” a generic reference that reflects the possibility that the county might contract with another agency for animal control services – an option they discussed explicitly.
Board chair Conan Smith also proposed an amendment to move that line item out of the county’s funding for outside agencies, where it has traditionally been listed, and add it to the budget for the sheriff’s office. The funding could then be combined with a line item of $180,000 that is already part of the sheriff’s budget – for animal control officers. The county recently has discussed the possibility of paying HSHV $250,000 plus $180,000 – a total of $430,000 – if the humane society also takes responsibility for the work now done by the animal control officers. The shift in fund categories was approved on a 8-3 vote, with dissent from Rob Turner, Rolland Sizemore Jr., and Ronnie Peterson.
After the vote, sheriff Jerry Clayton spoke to the board during public commentary, saying he hadn’t been notified that this shift in funding to his office might occur. He expressed a range of concerns about the decision.
After making two other amendments not related to animal control, the board ultimately gave initial approval to the budget on a 9-1 vote, with dissent from Sizemore, who said he still has questions about it. Felicia Brabec abstained. Appointed two weeks ago to fill Kristin Judge’s vacated seat in District 7 (Pittsfield Township), Brabec indicated she’d like more time to review the budget document. Additional amendments are expected before the board takes a final vote on the budget, likely at its Nov. 16 meeting.
The board also got a third-quarter 2011 update from the county’s finance staff, projecting a nearly $1 million shortfall for the year, which will be covered by use of the county’s fund balance.
In other business, the county voted to create a planning task force for a new pilot program in agribusiness. Called ”Seeds for Change: Growing Prosperity in Ypsilanti,” the project is intended to provide job training and placement to unemployed workers interested in agricultural employment, and to offer shared commercial kitchen space and business support to local agribusiness entrepreneurs. No funding has yet been identified for the effort.
On the agenda for approval was an initial vote of the two-year budget for 2012 and 2013, bringing closer to conclusion a process that began with a board retreat in January. Like the board’s meeting two weeks ago, much of the discussion centered on animal control – a relatively minor line item in the $97 million general fund budget.
2012-2013 Budget: Mandated Animal Control – Public Commentary
In addition to about a dozen HSHV supporters who were demonstrating in front of the county administration building before Wednesday’s meeting, three people spoke in support of HSHV during the first opportunity for public commentary.
Todd St. Clair introduced himself as HSHV’s shelter manager, saying he’s worked there for four years. He said he wasn’t trying to make commissioners cry, but he wanted to talk about the real cost of shelter work. He’s certified to euthanize animals, and has done it hundreds of times – with love, skill, a stroke on the animal’s head and a sincere apology, he said. The lengths to which HSHV staff will go in order to save an animal is a value add, St. Clair said. He talked about the impact of compassion fatigue, which can result in anxiety and depression – the staff is subjected to trauma, by witnessing situations like a kitten brought in with its tail cut off, or a dog covered in cigarette burns. Earlier in the week he had to put down a dog that was one of 39 animals rescued from a hoarder situation, living in a room where several inches of feces had hardened to become the floor. “His fate was not his fault,” St. Clair said, adding that the HSHV staff “put him to death for you.”
Jessica Anderson told commissioners she was concerned about the process in which these proposed cuts had been decided. As a kindergarten teacher, she said she’s learned that “I can’t” means “I won’t try.” People are looking to the commissioners as leaders who can preserve services – if they don’t do it, no one else will, she said. If needed, the county should raise taxes or commissioners should cut their salaries – make the same kinds of sacrifices that everyone is doing. She said she didn’t know if the county is legally bound to continue funding HSHV at the current level, but “it’s the morally right thing to do.”
Kelly Schwartz, HSHV’s director of volunteers and operational support, thanked commissioners Alicia Ping, Felicia Brabec and Rolland Sizemore Jr. for coming out to the shelter and learning about what HSHV does. It’s highly emotional, she said – there’s not a single employee who wants to kill an animal. “We will not go backwards to those days of killing more animals than we adopt,” she said. That would be like asking the county’s information technology department to move all its computers back to the DOS operating system, Schwartz noted. But instead, the IT and telecom department gets $8 million in the budget. The decision isn’t about people versus animals, she said, but it is about people vs. iPads. She hoped the commissioners would do all that they could to support both the people and the animals of the community.
2012-2013 Budget: Mandated Animal Control – Commissioner Response
Commissioners responded at length to the public commentary. Barbara Bergman distributed copies of a monthly invoice that HSHV sends to the county, and noted that the lack of detail concerns her. In addition to the invoice for $41,666, HSHV provides a monthly animal intake report, listing how many animals in different categories – bird, cat, dog, ferret, livestock, etc. – it takes in from each municipality, and indicating whether the animal was a stray, wildlife, seized, returned or surrendered by its owner.
Bergman said there’s no indication of what the county is paying for. The information is insufficient for her to decide. She noted that, as she’s said before, if there has to be a choice between animals or children and families, she knows what she would choose. [.pdf of invoice and intake forms]
Yousef Rabhi said that in handling public money, the board must take an objective approach. The county needs to determine what it’s mandated to do, and what those services cost, he said. But they don’t have the numbers to make that determination, he added. Rabhi said he’s been asking for weeks to get that information, but the HSHV hasn’t provided it. He wants to pay the non-profit for the cost of services it provides, but he doesn’t know what that amount is.
Rabhi described himself as a pretty positive person, who tends to see the best in people. He thanked people who had attended the meeting to voice their opinions. He said he’s a strong supporter of the humane society, but he’s been saddened by the process. “It’s a process issue that did not originate with us and that’s a little disappointing to me,” he said. The county has tried to reach out to HSHV and find a solution, he said. But before commissioners talk about dollar amounts, the county needs to know what it costs to provide mandated services. The commissioners are not against animals and are not against the humane society, he said.
Wes Prater responded to Anderson’s call for commissioners to cut their salaries. He noted that commissioners haven’t raised their salaries since the year 2000, “so I do believe that this board is doing their part.” The board’s job is to represent taxpayers and to spend their money wisely, he said. With the drop in taxable value of properties in the county, there are less revenues to do what needs to be done than in the past, he said. Prater said the board is on the right track, however, and the administration is doing a good job in providing the information that the board needs to make decisions.
Dan Smith noted that the commissioners earn $15,500 each year – for a total of $170,500. That’s considerably less than the $250,000 they’ve planned to allocate to HSHV, he said. [Board officers make more: $18,500 for the board chair, $16,000 for the board vice chair, $16,500 for the Ways & Means Committee chair and the working session chair.]
Leah Gunn pointed out that when the HSHV built its new facility, the county contributed $1 million to the project and allowed HSHV to use the county’s bonding capacity, which saved the nonprofit about $600,000 in interest. It was a very generous offer on the county’s part, she said. The county appreciates HSHV’s work, she said, but the money isn’t there anymore. “Our past generosity ought to be acknowledged,” she concluded.
Bergman added that she was one of the commissioners who had insisted on the $1 million gift and the bonding for the facility. She cares about animals, she said, and wants them kept warm, dry and free of pain. But the county can’t afford medical care and boarding for every animal, she said. Every animal that’s picked up can’t be adopted, she said.
Alicia Ping asked about a meeting that had taken place the previous day – on Nov. 1 – between HSHV leaders and the county administration. Conan Smith said a meeting had originally been scheduled the previous week, but he’d had to cancel it. County administrator Verna McDaniel said she was present at the Nov. 1 meeting, and the group had discussed providing $430,000 to HSHV – $250,000 that’s earmarked for HSHV in the proposed budget, plus $180,000 from a line item currently in the sheriff’s department for two animal control officers. That would bring the amount close to $500,000, McDaniel said.
A decision hadn’t been made by the full HSHV board, McDaniel said, but the indication from members who attended the Nov. 1 meeting was that it would likely be rejected. HSHV wasn’t interested in taking on additional animal control responsibility, she said. McDaniel added that she’d keep the dialogue open.
Conan Smith described the situation as being at the start of the process, and said he’s still hopeful. There’s been a 20-year partnership that’s been beneficial to the community and county alike. HSHV has indicated that the proposed $430,000 isn’t sufficient for what the county is asking it to do, he said. In the past, the county has asked HSHV to step far beyond the state mandate. He said the county’s obligation should be to go beyond the mandate – the mandate is inhumane, he said.
At this point, Bergman spoke up, saying that Smith didn’t speak for the rest of the board. Smith continued, noting that changes are being dictated by the budget. But by adding the $180,000 line item into the mix, in addition to the $250,000 for mandated animal services, that creates more flexibility to find a solution, he said. HSHV officials have said they also value the partnership with the county and that they’re sensitive to budget constraints, he said. But the humane society sees things differently from the county.
The mandate is only for cruelty – to kill dogs, Smith said, not for care and compassion. There are options, and he hoped to reach some agreement.
Ronnie Peterson wanted more information about the meeting with HSHV. McDaniel said HSHV has indicated it have four staff members who handle animal control, including two who are deputized by the sheriff and can pick up strays. Peterson wondered if the county was now asking HSHV to take on animal control for the entire county, in exchange for $180,000.
Conan Smith replied that the county is trying to meet HSHV’s financial needs by pooling money from two line items – the $250,000 for contracted services, and $180,000 for animal control. The current contract for services expires at the end of 2011, he noted, and includes a scope of services that’s broad. The county is asking for a change in the scope of services – it’s not reasonable to expect the same amount of service that the county received for $500,o00. But the two groups haven’t gotten to that level of detail yet, he said.
Peterson said the county is asking HSHV to change direction and take on additional responsibility in order to receive more than the $250,000 in the 2012-2013 budget. If this was just proposed the previous day, it seems like a rush, he said. To say that HSHV hasn’t been willing to work with the county isn’t the case – HSHV was just given this information and hasn’t had time to consider it, he said. HSHV has volunteer board members, and the county needs to be respectful of that and give them more time.
Bergman said she didn’t know what kind of services the county was asking HSHV to do, but it was clear that the county couldn’t pay to save the number of animals that are currently being saved. “You do not speak for me, Mr. Smith,” she said.
Gunn reflected on the broader budget process, recalling that the board had begun conversations in January about the need to evaluate mandated services, and perhaps make cuts if they were currently providing more than the mandated level. Each county department has made cuts, she noted, as have county employees. There are deep cuts to human services that the county funds, she said, noting that funding for the Delonis Center homeless shelter had been cut by 80%. This has been devastating to other local nonprofits that are also run by dedicated volunteers, she said. So to give the humane society a $70,000 cut seems reasonable, Gunn concluded. If HSHV decides it doesn’t want to do business with the county, she said, then the county can issue an RFP (request for proposals) and find an organization that will.
Rabhi responded to Smith, saying he has a lot of respect for Smith but that Smith’s tone has changed substantially from previous meetings. It’s hard to swallow Smith’s words, Rabhi said. This has been a long process, he added, and it’s been only recently that HSHV agreed to meet with the county. HSHV does important work and he’s hopeful, but “the word partnership is key.” Times aren’t good anymore, and everyone needs to realize that. The two groups need to find common ground.
Rabhi urged people in the community to contact HSHV and encourage them to work with the county. He said he thinks they can reach an agreement, but noted that any deal that’s negotiated needs to come back to the board for approval. He said he understands the depth and magnitude of the issues they’re dealing with.
Ping voiced her support for fully funding HSHV, but added that “our pies are not that big anymore.” She said she’s hopeful that they can reach an agreement for the $430,000 and possibly find other resources as well.
Felicia Brabec asked for details on what the state mandate requires, and a breakdown of the cost for those services. The county needs that baseline information before making a decision, she said.
Dan Smith said he wanted to refresh some budget history regarding HSHV. The board has information about historical funding for the humane society, he noted. In 2006, HSHV received $214,119 from the county. Subsequent funding was $300,000 in 2007 and 2008, $400,000 in 2009, and $500,000 in 2010 and 2011. Many organizations would be happy to get the same amount they’d received in 2008, he said – that piece tends to get lost in the conversation.
Rob Turner asked a series of questions about the current contract. [.pdf of 2010-2011 HSHV contract with Washtenaw County]
By way of background, the contract specifies the following scope of services:
The Contractor will:
1. Accept and impound, in accordance with the laws of the State of Michigan or other applicable law or ordinance, all dogs and cats brought to the Contractor’s facility by any law enforcement officer in the employ of the County, or any local unit of government within Washtenaw County.
2. Release animals impounded pursuant to Paragraph 1A, above, in accordance with instructions from the impounding officers; and
3. Collect statistics that accurately reflect the number and source of animals brought to its shelter, the jurisdiction (city, village or township) in which the animal was picked up, and the disposition of the animals, and agrees to maintain an accounting system that accurately indicates its costs under this Agreement.
McDaniel characterized the contract as fairly global in nature, relating to dogs and cats. She said she’s never seen a per-animal cost breakdown – the contract specifies $500,000 for 2010 and 2011, to be paid by the county in monthly installments. HSHV does provide animal intake reports, she said, but not the cost breakdown that the county has been asking for.
In response to another question from Turner, McDaniel said the sheriff’s animal control officers pick up about 190 animals per year. Turner said he’s not sure how the humane society is coming up with its numbers. Everyone on the board has compassion for animals, he said, but they have to do more with less. He hoped the two groups could reach an agreement for the $430,000. At some point in the future, he hoped the county could make all the organizations it supports “whole” again.
Gunn said the new contract should not include the pick-up of cats – that’s not a mandated service. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, acknowledged that the state law does not mention cats. He said the board should keep in mind the distinction between the county’s mandate and HSHV’s mission, which is much broader.
In response to a question from Peterson, Hedger elaborated on the state mandate, which is based on the Dog Law of 1919. The law specifies that under certain circumstances – if a dog is rabid, for example – the sheriff has authority to shoot the dog. Over time, Hedger said, court cases have softened the law, requiring dogs to be held for a certain period and treated humanely. [For additional background on the law and the county's relationship with HSHV, see Chronicle coverage: "Dog Watch: Humane Society Bond"]
Gunn clarified with McDaniel that by excluding cats from a new contract, the county would be reducing HSHV’s scope of services.
Rabhi requested that in future contracts, the terms should specify that commissioners must receive reports on cost breakdowns, so they can see what their money is paying for.
Peterson noted that he has cats and his neighbors have cats. He said he didn’t realize the meeting that night would be so long and intense, but he had concerns about the process and about what will happen next. He noted that some commissioners have said that the board chair [Conan Smith] doesn’t speak for them – that means these discussions about HSHV should happen at the board’s meetings. He wondered what the limitations were for the chair to negotiate with HSHV, and what would happen to the county’s cats under a revised scope of services.
At this point, Gunn reminded commissioners that the line item for HSHV was being changed to “Mandated Animal Control.” The service doesn’t have to be provided by HSHV, she said, and the mandate applies only to dogs, not cats. She said she didn’t understand why HSHV won’t accept a cut of $70,000.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. observed that there seemed to be problems on both sides – the county and HSHV. He expressed frustration that he hasn’t been able to learn what other counties are doing regarding animal control, although he’s asked for that information. [Later in the meeting during public commentary, HSHV's Kelly Schwartz pointed out that comparative information for other counties had been sent to the board – some commissioners acknowledged that they had received it, but Sizemore said he hadn't. .pdf of comparison chart provided by HSHV]
Sizemore said he had questions that hadn’t been answered, so he didn’t plan to support the initial vote of approval for the budget that night.
Rabhi again stated that talking about dollar amounts to fund HSHV was premature, because the county didn’t have information about how much it costs to provide mandated services. He said he’s been asking for it for weeks. The county shouldn’t just offer an amount and ask HSHV if that’s sufficient, he said.
2012-2013 Budget: Mandated Animal Control – Shift to Sheriff’s Budget
Later in the meeting, during deliberations related to the 2012-2013 proposed budget, funding for mandated animal control was again the focus.
Conan Smith moved to shift the line item for mandated animal control – formerly labeled as funding for the Humane Society of Huron Valley – out of the county’s funding for outside agencies, where it has traditionally been listed, and add it to the budget for the sheriff’s office. The funding could then be combined with a line item of $180,000 that was already part of the sheriff’s budget – for animal control officers.
Ronnie Peterson said this is the first time he’s heard this proposal – what is the intent? he asked. Smith said that combining the two line items would give the administration more flexibility in negotiating for animal control services.
Peterson then spoke at length about the proposal, saying it must have been discussed at some time when he wasn’t there – perhaps when he’d been in the restroom. It’s clear that the county has entered into negotiations with HSHV. Commissioners had heard a brief report that night, but only because he and Alicia Ping had asked about it, he said. One meeting with HSHV had been canceled, and another one had taken place only the previous night, he noted. And now there’s a resolution to shift funds to the sheriff’s office – and shifting responsibility, too, he added.
Responsibility should rest with the board, Peterson said, but it’s unfair to negotiate at the board table without the other party also at the table to present their side. He said he used to understand the hand waves, ear rubs and eye winks that commissioners would use as signals, but somehow they’ve changed the way they operate. He’s no longer privy to certain discussions, and indicated that those talks need to happen in public.
When the county paid HSHV $1 million for its new facility, that wasn’t a gift, Peterson said, and HSHV raised much more than that from donors. HSHV provides services to the county – it’s a partnership. But it sounds like the county is signaling the end to that partnership, he said. If the county is going to contract out to another agency, commissioners need to say that, Peterson said. They have an obligation to talk about why, and the budget shortfall has nothing to do with it. “You choose to fund what you choose to fund,” he concluded – prompting applause from HSHV supporters in the audience.
Conan Smith replied, saying that every contract over $25,000 must get board approval – it doesn’t matter what line item it’s under. Any animal control contract will come back to the board, he said. His proposed amendment simply increases flexibility in negotiating with the county’s preferred provider, Smith explained.
He noted that the board had received a letter from the HSHV board chair Michael Walsh, indicating that $250,000 would be insufficient for HSHV to provide services to the county. [.pdf of Walsh's letter] Smith said he’s spoken to county commissioners individually, and there’s no consensus about where they might find additional funding for HSHV. However, there was support for adding the $180,000 from the sheriff’s animal control line item to the $250,000 already earmarked for HSHV – that increases the county’s ability to meet HSHV’s needs without compromising the county’s bottom line.
It’s not his intent to sidestep the issue, Smith said. The person who’s most at risk is the sheriff, he added, because the law states that the sheriff can be found guilty of malfeasance and removed from office if the mandate isn’t met. “That’s a pretty serious endgame,” Smith said. Combining the two line items gives the county more options.
Smith noted that the letter from Walsh also indicates that HSHV would not sign a new contract under the proposed financial terms, but has offered to provide transitional services if the county moves to a new contractor. On Jan. 1, the county will still have a mandate for animal control services, Smith said, so it behooves commissioners to have a Plan B in case HSHV doesn’t agree to new terms. That’s not his hope, he added, but they need to be prepared.
Wes Prater clarified with Smith that the animal control contract would definitely require board approval. Prater noted that there are some cases in which certain contracts over $25,000 don’t come to the board. He wants to make sure this one does.
Prater said he has no problem with issuing an RFP right now, for services beginning Jan. 1. It’s been the county’s practice to issue RFPs just to see what’s out there, he said. The relationship with HSHV has been cozy – it’s been a long-term relationship that’s worked well until now, but there are problems. He referenced Dan Smith’s comments about the history of funding HSHV, adding that costs are “totally out of hand.” The county might get a good response from the private sector, whether it’s for boarding dogs or for clinical work, Prater said.
The demands from HSHV are very high, given the county’s financial situation, Prater said. “It’s unreasonable, in my opinion – and when those things occur, we need to look at alternatives.”
At this point Dan Smith proposed an amendment to Conan Smith’s amendment: Directing the administrator and requesting that the sheriff continue negotiations on mandated animal control services for the county. Conan Smith said he had no objection to it.
But Barbara Bergman did object, saying it simply added another layer. She’d been prepared to support Conan Smith’s amendment, but wouldn’t if Dan Smith’s amendment were added to it.
Dan Smith said he had no intent of creating a heated debate. He’d wanted to clarify the original amendment, to indicate that negotiations would continue even though the funds were shifted. It wouldn’t limit the administration from negotiating with other parties besides the HSHV.
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, noted that if even one commissioner objected, the amendment could not be viewed as a friendly amendment – it would therefore require a vote.
Peterson said that the 2012-2013 budget was proposed by the administrator, but now it’s in the board’s hands. The county administrator recommended the funding cut to HSHV, but now the board is sending her back to negotiate with HSHV without giving her anything to offer. He said he’s never seen anything like it. He thought it would be fair to send the chair or a chair designee at this point. But it seemed to him that some commissioners have already made up their minds.
Leah Gunn argued that everything has been discussed publicly. She wouldn’t support Dan Smith’s amendment, and said that Conan Smith has done all he can do. She suggested that because the dog law mentions the sheriff, it should be the sheriff who issues an RFP and then brings back a proposal to the board. Then they can vote on it, she said. She hoped Dan Smith would withdraw his amendment. Bergman also called for the amendment’s withdrawal.
Dan Smith said he was simply trying to codify the intent of Conan Smith’s amendment, but he agreed to withdraw it.
Rob Turner expressed concern about the discussion, saying he didn’t think Conan Smith’s amendment meant that the board would turn over responsibility to the sheriff. If that happens, it seems like that would severe the county’s relationship with HSHV. “I would really not like to do that,” he said, and so he wouldn’t support the amendment.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. weighed in – he felt the amendment muddied the waters, and sent a bad signal that the county was moving in a different direction from its partnership with HSHV. He hadn’t made that decision. He also felt that Conan Smith should continue negotiations, because things seemed to be moving along faster now.
Yousef Rabhi felt the board was looking at it in the wrong way. They shouldn’t be talking about how to come up with more money at this point. The county doesn’t know how much it costs to provide mandated services, he argued, so they shouldn’t be throwing money at the organization. That applies to anything, whether it’s HSHV, the sheriff’s office or any organization, he said. The county needs to know what it’s paying for, he said, and HSHV should be providing that information now. Rabhi said he’d support Conan Smith’s amendment, but the county needs to be more objective.
As Peterson began to speak, Bergman “called the question” – a procedural move that forces a vote. Peterson told her she needs to learn some manners, and noted that having this discussion seemed to get on some commissioners’ nerves. This has been a challenging board in terms of sharing information, he said. How did the board reach this point? he wondered. Bidding out the work isn’t negotiating, he said. HSHV understands what’s happening, and knows that the board is trying to shift responsibility, Peterson said. Humane society supporters aren’t naive, he said.
Prater again called for the county to issue an RFP. After that the board can evaluate its options – that’s the best use of taxpayer dollars, he said. The county needs to get the work done as cheaply as possible. If they had bid out the work decades ago, the county would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Outcome: The budget amendment to shift $250,000 in mandated animal control funds from the “outside agency” category to the sheriff’s budget was approved on a 8-3 vote, with dissent from Rob Turner (R-District 1), Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5), and Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6).
2012-2013 Budget: Mandated Animal Control – Public Commentary Round 2
Sheriff Jerry Clayton spoke to the board during public commentary after the vote, saying he hadn’t been notified that this shift in funding to his office might occur. He said he’d been taken aback by the direction that the discussion had taken.
He expressed some concerns about the decision, saying it’s not clear that his office is in the best position to negotiate for these services. For one thing, the county and the sheriff’s office have different mandates related to animal control, he said, and it’s important not to blur those lines.
The board talks about transparency and how they value county employees, Clayton noted, but there are two animal control officers who are watching these proceedings and impacted by these decisions.
Clayton also stressed the importance of identifying the specific items that are mandated by the state, the specific services that HSHV provides to fill those mandates, and the itemized costs for those services. He agreed that the county should go beyond the mandate, but that means they need to prioritize how to spend of funds that remain after the mandate is fulfilled. He suggested the board take more time to consider all the variables.
Jenny Paillon, operations manager for HSHV, said there hasn’t been a transparency issue on the humane society’s part. Since July they’ve been providing a breakdown of mandated services, she said. What the county is paying for isn’t a gift – it’s mandated, she said. Former county administrator Bob Guenzel had estimated that the services would otherwise cost the county $1.5 million, Paillon said.
She also noted that the board hadn’t discussed a memo provided by HSHV that gave a legal and financial analysis of mandated services. [.pdf of HSHV analysis of legal and financial costs for mandated services] Anything above the mandated costs are covered by donors or volunteers, she said. All of HSHV’s costs and budgets are on its website, she noted, and they are happy to keep the dialogue open. However, she said HSHV had received a letter from the county at 5:30 p.m. that evening, indicating that continued dialogue might be off the table. She concluded by urging commissioners to work with HSHV.
Mark Heusel, vice president of HSHV’s board of directors, said there’s common ground that both groups share, and that he’d been surprised by the tenor of the discussion. He sees how passionate the commissioners are, and how they’re trying to deal with the county budget while addressing the needs of the humane society. But he was also surprised by the lack of common ground based in facts. There’s a profound misunderstanding of the underlying facts that support the amount paid to HSHV. He urged commissioners to dig deeper to understand those facts. Both parties need to understand the numbers, Heusel said, and the HSHV board is ready to do that. But so far, that negotiation hasn’t taken place. In his world, he said, both parties sit at the table and talk about solutions to solve problems. “That can still happen,” he said.
Kelly Schwartz of HSHV spoke again, reporting on the people who had attended the previous day’s meeting between the county and HSHV. Among them were county administrator Verna McDaniel; Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director; HSHV board president Mike Walsh; local attorney Paul Gallagher; and HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf. She also read from the chart of costs per capita that other counties pay for animal control, compared to Washtenaw County. [.pdf of animal control cost comparison chart] Washtenaw County pays the least, she said, yet the shelter has the highest save rate – about 80%.
2012-2013 Budget: Mandated Animal Control – Commissioner Response Round 2
Yousef Rabhi said he appreciated the sheriff’s comments, and he hadn’t been sure what kind of dialogue had taken place about the funds being shifted to the sheriff’s budget. Rabhi said he hadn’t been aware that the change would be suggested that night, either. In response to Paillon’s assertion that the information on costs is available, Rabhi said he’d love to see those numbers, but so far he hadn’t. He told Heusel that Heusel’s impassioned speech was great, and the willingness to work with the county board was heartening. He thanked all the HSHV volunteers for their work.
Ronnie Peterson told Heusel, Paillon and Schwartz that he was glad they had spoken up and defended HSHV. He said he was glad the sheriff hadn’t known in advance about the possible shifting of funds – that meant the discussion happened in public.
2012-2013 Budget: Other Amendments
In addition to amendments related to the animal control line item, two other amendments were proposed.
Alicia Ping proposed a budget amendment to reallocate $30,000 previously budgeted for the economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK and shift those funds to the Michigan State University Extension ($15,000) and the Food Systems Economic Partnership ($15,000). The original proposed budget called for SPARK’s allocation to increase from $200,000 in 2011 to $230,000 in both 2012 and 2013. Ping had raised objections to increased SPARK funding at the board’s Oct. 18 working session. The original budget also funded both the MSU Extension and the Food Systems Economic Partnership at $15,000 annually. Those groups will now receive $30,000 annually.
The funds come from revenues of an Act 88 millage levied at 0.05 mills, which the board authorized in September. Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, and therefore the millage can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. Ping had voted against the Act 88 millage.
Outcome: Without discussion, the board unanimously approved the amendment shifting $30,000 from Ann Arbor SPARK to the MSU Extension and FSEP.
In addition to financial items, the proposed budget includes several revisions to board policies and directives regarding the budget. The policies and directives cover budget transfers, personnel matters and other issues. [.pdf of budget policies and directives]
Dan Smith highlighted a revision to one of the items in that document [revised, added text in italics]:
CURRENT: 14. The Board of Commissioners authorizes the County Administrator to red circle an employee’s salaries above the pay range for up to 6 months. After that period, the department head must submit a Position Description Questionnaire to Human Resources for review and approval by the Board of Commissioners.
REVISED: 14. The Board of Commissioners authorizes the County Administrator to red circle an employee’s salaries above pay range. If assignment extends past six months the County Administrator will provide a report of employees on extended assignment to the Chairs.
He noted that by changing approval from the board to the board’s three chairs – chair of the board, chair of the ways & means committee, and chair the working session – it was changing policy. He proposed a single word revision – changing the final word “Chairs” to “Board.”
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved Dan Smith’s amendment to the board’s budget policies and directives.
Wes Prater clarified with the administration that amendments could still be brought forward at the next meeting, even after initial approval of the budget. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that the board could amend the budget at any time, even after they give it final approval.
2012-2013 Budget: General Discussion
Ronnie Peterson began by stating that he wanted the record to show that he was voting against three specific line items in the budget: (1) elimination of $125,000 in membership dues for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), (2) cuts to the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and (3) elimination of support in 2013 for Washtenaw Head Start. The county administration has proposed relinquishing administration of that program – federal officials would then be charged with selecting another agency to take over the program.
Dan Smith observed that the budget process had started in January with a board retreat. Commissioners had asked what entity would be the best provider of services, and acknowledged that it might not be the county in all cases, he said. They had indicated they might be getting out of the business of providing some services that the county has traditionally provided – now they’ve done that, he said. They also talked about the need to reduce serviceability levels in some cases. They’ve discussed the budget at numerous working sessions, Smith noted, and even scheduled additional working sessions for that purpose. Everyone has had the opportunity to voice their objections. There are items that he doesn’t like in the budget, Smith said, and he knows that there are some items that other commissioners don’t like. But it’s a good budget, he concluded, and he’s proud of the work they’ve done.
Leah Gunn described politics as the art of compromise. The board has reached a compromise on the budget, “and I can live with that,” she said.
Peterson said he was proud to stand up for Head Start – he had not compromised on that. He would not compromise on the treatment of pets. He said that’s why he chose to be part of the Democratic Party, which believes in caring for children and those who can’t care for themselves – even the pets. [Peterson is among 8 of the 11 commissioners who are Democrats. Republicans are Alicia Ping, Dan Smith, and Rob Turner.]
Conan Smith thanked everyone for their work, especially noting county administrator Verna McDaniel, interim deputy administrator Kelly Belknap, and Tina Gavalier, the county’s finance analyst. The three women received a round of applause from commissioners and other staff. Smith said the fact that the board has spent the last few weeks focused on about $1 million worth of expenditures speaks well for the rest of the $97 million budget. He thanked the staff, noting the massive three-department consolidation that’s taking place under the leadership of Mary Jo Callan [the office of community development, ETCS (the employment training and community services department) and the economic development & energy department].
The board also owes a debt of gratitude to the employees who made labor concessions to help overcome a budget deficit, Smith said. The willingness to sacrifice pay and benefits says a lot about the county’s culture, he said.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. told his board colleagues that he wouldn’t support the budget at this point – he still had questions. He wanted information on part-time employment, saying he has a problem with people retiring and then returning to work for short periods of time on a contract basis. [Wednesday's meeting was attended by Pete Ballios, the county’s former finance director who retired at the end of 2009 but is now working on contract for the sheriff's office.]
Sizemore also said he has a problem with some people getting 8% raises when there’s not enough money for children and animals. [This was a reference to the possibility that McDaniel will give 8% temporary pay increases to four top administrators, in lieu of previously proposed $15,000 stipends that some commissioners objected to.]
Felicia Brabec, who was appointed to the board two weeks ago to fill a vacancy in District 7 following Kristin Judge’s resignation, said the budget is an incredible document and she thanked everyone for their work. But because she hasn’t had enough time to digest it, she didn’t feel she could vote for it. “I’m playing catch-up,” she said.
Conan Smith asked corporation counsel Curtis Hedger if the board could suspend its rules to allow Brabec to abstain instead. Hedger said the rules requiring commissioners to vote on the budget applied to the regular board meeting, not to the initial vote taken at the Ways & Means Committee. [All resolutions are voted on twice by the board: first at the meeting of Ways & Means, a committee of the entire board; and finally at the regular board meeting. Ways & Means and regular board meetings are held back-to-back, but typically a resolution that's passed at the Ways & Means meeting is considered at the regular board meeting two weeks later for a final vote.]
Wes Prater said he wasn’t really ready to vote on the budget. He said he had several questions, including questions about expenditures in certain departments. He also wanted the finance staff to take a closer look at revenue projections, to ensure they are as accurate as possible.
Prater asked McDaniel how many bargaining units accepted labor concessions, including furlough days and reductions in health care benefits. Of the 17 bargaining units, McDaniel replied, all but 5 had made concessions. In response to a question from Prater, McDaniel said that the units not accepting concessions were those representing the prosecuting attorneys, the prosecuting attorney supervisors, attorneys in the public defenders office, supervisors of attorneys in the public defenders office, and AFSCME Local 3052 representing general supervisors.
Yousef Rabhi thanked the public, saying it was a long process but that he’d been heartened by the emails and public commentary, which showed that people are engaged. He also thanked commissioners who have worked to find solutions. He finds it difficult when some commissioners identify problems but don’t offer any solutions. This isn’t the final budget document, he noted. It sets the tone, but they can still make changes.
Rob Turner also thanked everyone for their work, and described the budget as a living document. Adjustments can be made throughout the year, he said, but he was ready to approve it.
Peterson called the employees who’ve made concessions for two budget cycles “the real heroes.” As a commissioner, he said, he has a responsibility to advocate for his constituents. “Ronnie can always find solutions,” he said. If given the opportunity, he added, he can find the resources.
Outcome: The initial vote on the overall budget passed 9-1, with dissent from Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5). Felicia Brabec (D-District 7) abstained. Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) stated that he was voting in favor of the overall budget, but against cuts to SEMCOG, the humane society, and Head Start.
The board has until the end of the year to give final approval to the budget, but only two more regular meetings are scheduled – on Nov. 16, and Dec. 7. More amendments are expected to be brought forward before the final vote. The budget can also be amended at any time after approval, with a six-vote majority of the board.
2012-2013 Budget: General Public Commentary
Caryette Fenner – president of AFSCME Local 2733, the county government’s largest union – spoke with emotion during public commentary following the initial budget vote. She said she was a little disappointed in the board’s discussion. Some bargaining units made concessions even when their employees couldn’t afford to, she said. Yet now she’s hearing that some departments are already planning budget adjustments and increasing their budgets. And there’s talk about the county administrator’s cabinet getting 8% raises instead of the $15,000 bonus, she noted. Were the unions asked for too much money? The commissioners don’t have to listen, as she does, to the employees who can’t afford their health care or can’t afford the cuts they’ve taken through elimination of their banked leave days. Fenner said she asked her union members to make sacrifices, and now she has to explain the decisions that commissioners are making. She asked the board to think about that before they take a final budget vote.
Earlier in the meeting, a representative from CenturyLink – a telecom company that merged this year with Qwest Communications – spoke about the fact that the county can get a discount on CenturyLink’s services via a membership with the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC). It was one benefit to retaining membership, he said. [The county's proposed 2012-2013 budget was amended at its Oct. 19 meeting to eliminate $20,315 in annual dues to the Michigan Association of Counties. Those funds were reallocated to the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor operated by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.]
Thomas Partridge spoke during three of the four opportunities for public commentary, saying he was an advocate for seniors, the disabled, and others who weren’t able to attend these meetings. Commissioners seemed intent on making cuts, he said, when they should be looking to raise revenues. The county should ask those who’ve been blessed by “the gods of Wall Street” to voluntarily pay higher taxes, Partridge said. He called on commissioners to table the budget vote.
Pilot Project for Agribusiness
On the agenda was a resolution to create a task force that will guide a pilot training program for agribusiness jobs in Ypsilanti, including support for entrepreneurs in food-related businesses.
Called ”Seeds for Change: Growing Prosperity in Ypsilanti,” the project is intended to provide job training and placement to unemployed workers interested in agricultural employment, and to offer shared commercial kitchen space and business support to local agri-business entrepreneurs, according to a staff memo. The initiative will also encourage local entities – including governments, universities, hospitals, and other partners – to buy products made from people in this program. Products will be available for purchase with food stamps, to address the nutritional needs of low-income residents and expand the market for locally-produced products.
The project will rely initially on existing county staff, including workforce development resources, as well as local Dept. of Human Services support and possible other public funding, which has not yet been specified. It will be administered by the new office of community & economic development, led by Mary Jo Callan. Additional funding from state and federal sources will be needed, according to the staff memo, and the project will seek private grants and volunteer support.
Possible partners include Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, Food Gatherers, Food Systems Economic Partnership, Growing Hope, Think Local First, two local food co-ops, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and University of Michigan Hospital, local school systems, University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, local working farms and farmers’ markets. [.pdf of staff memo with additional details]
None of the 17 members to the task force have been identified. Those appointments will be made at a later date.
Pilot Project for Agribusiness – Commissioner Discussion
Wes Prater asked whether the resolution allocated any funding for the program. No, Callan said – part of the task force’s job will be to help identify funding sources. Prater teased Callan, saying that he suspected she might have “hid back” some money in her department’s budget for this project.
In response to a question from Barbara Bergman, Callan said that at this point, the county will be providing staff time , initially forming a technical team to develop the program with staff from various departments. Tony VanDerworp has agreed to be project manager.
Yousef Rabhi described the project as “absolutely phenomenal.” It addresses job creation, hunger, the environment, and the community’s reliance on fossil fuel to transport food into this area. The project focuses on the local economy, local food, health, and civic engagement, he said. There are a lot of strong partners, and this is the kind of thing he can get really excited about, Rabhi said.
Conan Smith pointed out that Matt Shane of the MSU Extension was in the audience. The board had voted earlier in the meeting to increase funding for that program, Smith noted, and it has a direct interest in the food economy as well.
Dan Smith joked about how store-bought tomatoes taste lousy.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to create the task force for ”Seeds for Change: Growing Prosperity in Ypsilanti.”
Third-Quarter Budget Update
The board got a third-quarter 2011 budget update from finance staff and county administrator Verna McDaniel. The county now faces a nearly $1 million projected shortfall for the year, which will be covered by use of the county’s fund balance. That includes a projected net revenue shortfall of $363,690 and a net of $619,939 in higher-than-budgeted expenses.
Tina Gavalier, the county’s finance analyst, gave the formal presentation and answered most of the questions posed by commissioners. The board had received a second-quarter update in August.
Third-Quarter Budget Update: Presentation
Gavalier reviewed major items on both the revenue and expenditure sides. For revenues, highlights include:
- $2.9 million use of fund balance revenues, which was planned.
- $749,000 surplus from the police services lawsuit settlement, paid by August and Ypsilanti townships.
- $78,000 surplus from property tax reimbursement by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
- $268,000 surplus from the clerk/register of deeds office, due to higher-than-expected fees & transfer taxes.
- $77,000 surplus from the treasurer’s office, including increases from dog license fee collections.
- Revenue shortfalls at the district court and trial court of $56,000 and $45,000 respectively. The district court cited declining case filings and less state drunk-driving reimbursements. The trial court attributed its shortfall to lower state reimbursement revenue.
- A $65,000 shortfall in interest revenue was attributed to the county’s lower cash balance and interest rates.
A projected revenue surplus in the sheriff’s office of $374,000 – from higher-than-expected civil fees, state revenue and E-911 surcharge transfers – will be offset by $298,000 in higher expenses, Gavalier said. Those expenses relate to one inmate medical case, she said. Other highlights from expenditure changes in the first nine months of 2011 include:
- IT maintenance contracts are $191,000 higher than budgeted.
- The district court’s projected expense reduction planned for 2010-2011 hasn’t fully materialized, with a shortfall of between $40,000 and $75,000 of its expense-reduction goal.
- $439,000 in higher-than-budgeted expenses for the OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) certificate of participation (COP) bond will be covered with reserve funds.
- Expenses in the treasurer’s office are expected to be about $116,000 less than expected, due to a vacant position and other expense reductions.
- Expenses in support services are about $389,000 less than budgeted, primarily due to job vacancies and cost savings for professional development.
The total projected 2011 shortfall is $983,629, to be covered by use of the general fund balance.
Third-Quarter Budget Update: Commissioner Discussion
Rolland Sizemore Jr. clarified with Gavalier and McDaniel that savings for vacant positions are calculated cumulatively each quarter. Barbara Bergman cautioned that the 2011 budget won’t be settled until all the bills come in by the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31.
Wes Prater described the presentation as one of the best he’d ever seen. He noted that when the board originally approved the two-year budget in 2009, the finance staff had projected revenues for 2011 at $98.7 million. In fact, this year’s budget will be closer to $101.2 million, he noted – that means the projections were off by $2.5 million, he said.
Prater said he understood that the 2011 budget has been amended since then. His point is that he doesn’t want the staff to make the same mistake for 2012-2013. He said he was just raising the issue.
Alicia Ping asked about the $77,000 surplus in the treasurer’s office, in part related to dog licenses. She noted that the licenses are for a three-year period, and wanted to make sure that’s accounted for in the 2011-2012 projections. That is, the county can’t expect those licenses to be renewed until 2014. Gavalier reported that the budget calls for $40,000 in dog license revenues in 2012 and 2013.
Conan Smith clarified with Gavalier that a $1.3 million item on both the revenue and expenditure side – related to capital leases for the information technology department – was an accounting adjustment, not a mismanagement of a contract.
Both Dan Smith and Rob Turner asked about the fund balance. The balance currently stands at $14.3 million, Gavalier said. At the end of the second quarter, it was projected to be $14.2 million, she said – so it’s $100,000 higher than projected.
Turner noted that the county can’t really have a balanced budget if it’s drawing from the fund balance to make that happen.
A resolution on the agenda called for making technical adjustments to the 2011 budget, related to the items discussed during the third-quarter update.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to make adjustments to the 2011 budget, resulting in a net increase to the general fund budget of $619,939.
Misc. Communications, Commentary
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, who also spoke during public commentary at the board’s Oct. 19 meeting, said he wanted to follow up on some comments made by the county’s corporation counsel regarding the Freedom of Information Act appeal process. [Smith had filed a FOIA request with the county regarding 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, according to Smith. That apparently prompted an internal investigation, he said, involving a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s office. His FOIA request for the video footage has been denied on appeal to the county administrator, and he has asked the board to take up the issue.]
Curtis Hedger – the county’s corporation counsel – had told the board 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 had said. During his Nov. 2 public commentary, Smith said the reality is that the county has 10 business days to respond to an appeal, and can ask for an additional 10-day extension. A regular board meeting would easily fall within that period, he said. Smith also rebutted the reasons cited by county FOIA officer Judy Kramer in denying his request.
Later in the meeting, Smith spoke on another subject: Renaissance Community Homes. He referred to an August 2011 news article about patient neglect at an Ypsilanti Township group home run by Renaissance, and noted that the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) contracts with Renaissance to provide services to county residents. The question is why does WCHO keep renewing its contract with Renaissance? Smith urged commissioners to read the article and look into the situation.
Thomas Partridge requested that appropriate accommodations be made at county buildings for physically challenged residents. He said he’s made this request multiple times, and was ready to make it through an attorney, if necessary. Later in the meeting, commissioner Ronnie Peterson asked whether there was a review that could be done to ensure that facilities are accessible. He challenged anyone to try to get into the boardroom in a wheelchair without the door hitting the back of the chair. Barbara Bergman said the county has completed such a review, and that Dave Shirley, the county’s operations and maintenance manager, would have that information.
Misc. Comm/Comm: Communications from Commissioners
Rob Turner reported that Phase 1 of the renovations of the downtown county courthouse are completed. [The board had been briefed by in January 2011 about this project by Donald Shelton, chief judge of theWashtenaw County Trial Court – an entity that includes the 22nd Circuit Court, juvenile court, probate court and Friend of the Court program.] Phase 2 – which entails renovating the first floor of the courthouse – is ongoing, Turner said, with about 60% of demolition finished. The project is a bit behind schedule, but will likely hit a February 2012 completion date.
Turner, who serves as a board liaison to the Washtenaw County Road Commission, reported that he and Yousef Rabhi had attended the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for reopening of the Lima Center Road bridge in Lima Township and the Waldo Road bridge in Sharon Township. Both bridges cross Mill Creek. He said it shows that things can happen, and now the route is easier for school buses and other vehicles to use that part of the county.
Conan Smith told commissioners that Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed him – along with executives from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties – to a planning group for a possible regional transit authority (RTA). He said they’d be working hand-in-glove with representatives from the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to address AATA’s concerns. [For background on these recent transit developments, see Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Transit Talk in Flux"] The RTA would focus on a handful of regional corridors, Smith said, but the one of most interest to Washtenaw is between Ann Arbor and Detroit, with a connection to Detroit Metro Airport. He said it sounds like the governor would like to move quickly on this project.
At the end of their Nov. 2 meeting, the board voted to enter into executive session for the purpose of discussing labor negotiations. They emerged about 15 minutes later and immediately adjourned.
Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 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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