County Board Poised to Reject Road Millage

Also: more nonprofit funding; animal control mandate unresolved

The Washtenaw County board of commissioners will hold its last meeting of 2011 on Wednesday, Dec. 7. At a Nov. 29 administrative briefing to review that meeting’s draft agenda, two items drew discussion among commissioners: (1) a proposal from the county road commission, asking the board to levy an 0.6 mill tax for road projects, and (2) a $250,000 increase in funding for human services.

Sign near Washtenaw County Road Commission facility

A sign near the Washtenaw County road commission facility has been pushed over. In the background is a WCRC storage unit for road salt.

The road commission proposal was expected. It had been discussed at length by the board in October, when commissioners ultimately decided to defer additional action until the Dec. 7 meeting. Based on discussion at last Tuesday’s briefing, the millage proposal will likely be rejected, in part because of uncertainty related to pending state legislation that would, if passed, allow the county to take over operation of the road commission.

Though the road commission issue had been expected, coming as a surprise to some commissioners was the proposal to increase the budget for human services via the coordinated funding program, which the board had just voted to cut at its last meeting – as part of the 2012-2013 budget approval. County administrator Verna McDaniel said additional funds are available – the result of a settlement with Augusta and Ypsilanti townships over a police services lawsuit.

The roughly $250,000 that’s proposed to be shifted to coordinated funding is the same amount as the 2012 cut to a contract for animal control services, currently held by the Humane Society of Huron Valley. That animal control contract wasn’t discussed at Tuesday’s administrative briefing. After the meeting, McDaniel reported that the county is still negotiating with HSHV for a new contract at a reduced rate and reduced scope of services. The current two-year contract expires Dec. 31.

At previous meetings, commissioners have indicated interest in issuing a request for proposals (RFP) to get bids from other potential providers of animal control services. On Friday, board chair Conan Smith sent a letter to HSHV board chair Mike Walsh, along with a draft RFP that includes a scope of services for animal control services. [.pdf of letter from Smith] [.pdf of draft RFP] It’s the first time the county has provided a detailed written description of what officials believe are the state-mandated animal control services the county is required to provide.

In response to a query from The Chronicle, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf stated that HSHV does not agree with the scope of work outlined in the RFP, based on both legal and moral grounds. As of Monday morning, no meeting had yet been scheduled between the county and HSHV officials, but Smith said he hoped the two groups would meet sometime soon to continue negotiations.

Road Commission: Millage, Possible Consolidation

The draft agenda for the Dec. 7 meeting included a proposal from the Washtenaw County road commission that had been floated earlier this year.

By way of background, the board had initially discussed this issue at its Sept. 8 working session, and it was expected to be on the agenda for the Sept. 20 meeting. But it wasn’t until Sept. 23 that the road commission formally submitted its plan to the county clerk’s office outlining a set of possible road projects throughout the county, costing about $8.7 million. [.pdf of projects list and .pdf of map showing the location of the proposed projects]

The plan was then brought forward as an item of discussion at the board’s Oct. 5 meeting. However, no resolution related to the topic was proposed, and no member of the road commission attended that meeting. The following night, at an Oct. 6 working session, the issue was tackled yet again as the board met with Ken Schwartz, a former county commissioner who’s now one of three road commissioners, and Roy Townsend, the road commission’s director of engineering. Schwartz was instrumental in identifying a 1909 state law that would allow the county board to levy a millage for road repair without voter approval.

Schwartz had pointed to Public Act 283 of 1909, which he said requires the road commission to submit a plan of recommended road repairs and the cost to do the projects. Levying a millage would be one way to pay for the work, he said.

The board ultimately decided to push back consideration of the plan to its Dec. 7 meeting.

At Tuesday’s agenda briefing, Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he wasn’t in favor of action on the road improvement plan until the state legislature weighs in on the future of the state’s road commissions. [Later in the week, on Thursday, Dec. 1, the state House of Representatives passed bills that would allow county road commissions to be eliminated or restructured, and folded into operations of the county government. Currently, road commissions operate independently, with separate budgets and staff. The bills will head to the state Senate for consideration. The state senator representing Ann Arbor's District 18, Rebekah Warren, is married to county board chair Conan Smith.]

Sizemore also expressed concern about the hiring of a new managing director, saying he’d hate to see the road commission bring someone new on board, given the uncertainty of the commission’s future. [The road commission's long-time managing director, Steve Puuri, is retiring at the end of the year. The county board of commissioners does not currently have authority to appoint staff of the road commission. Its authority is limited to appointing the three road commissioners, who are responsible for governance of the road commission, including the hiring of a managing director.]

Rob Turner addressed the topic of the proposed road improvement plan that’s on the Dec. 7 agenda, saying it’s a bad deal. This kind of millage should be put before the voters, he said, not levied by the county board. He indicated that Doug Fuller, chair of the road commission board, doesn’t support it. The best thing is to kill the proposal, he said.

Washtenaw County Road Commission HQ

Washtenaw County road commission headquarters on Zeeb Road.

When Barbara Bergman proposed removing it from the agenda, Curtis Hedger – the county’s corporation counsel – said the board is required to act, now that the proposal has been formally submitted. He noted that most agenda items include a draft resolution, and a recommendation from the administration on whether to approve or reject it. However, he said the administration did not make a recommendation on this proposal, and the agenda simply indicates options for actions that the board could take. Those options include: (1) approve the projects and millage needed to complete the projects in its entirety; (2) reject the projects and millage in its entirety, or (3) approve some of the projects, with the necessary millage to complete those project, and reject all other projects.

Hedger suggested that at the Dec. 7 meeting, this item could be pulled out from the consent agenda for discussion, separately from the other action items. He noted that the road commission could bring back a proposal like this annually, if it chose to do so. Turner said he thought that if the board rejects it this year, Schwartz wouldn’t attempt to make a similar proposal in the future.

Leah Gunn said the board should vote no on the proposal and move on. Hedger said at some point the board would need to decide on a resolution to vote on – he again stated that the administration didn’t want to presume that they knew what action the board wanted to take. “I think we know how the vote will turn out,” Gunn said.

Alicia Ping said she didn’t think they should be talking about the vote outcome at that point.

Hedger said if there’s a consensus that commissioners want the administration to draft a resolution that would reject the road commission proposal, that’s what the administration would prepare. Conan Smith recommended that Hedger prepare a resolution rejecting the proposal, but said he’d suggest keeping it as part of the consent agenda. That way they wouldn’t need to pull the item out separately, he said, or discuss it at the Dec. 7 meeting.

Road Commission: Managing Director

Turning to the issue of the road commission’s hiring of a new managing director, Wes Prater said he’d heard that the road commissioners were planning to make an internal promotion. When Leah Gunn pointed out that there’s nothing the county board can do about that hire, Prater suggested the board could pass a resolution stating that the road commission should hold off on a decision until the state legislature acts.

Prater also noted that the road commission is having some difficulty in negotiations with its Teamsters union over a new collective bargaining agreement. The county had previously handled human resources and labor relations for the road commission – in 2009, that partnership was highlighted as saving the road commission $86,528 annually. But county administrator Verna McDaniel told the board that the relationship has ended.

Gunn said she didn’t feel comfortable intervening. Bergman agreed: “I’m not for fussing with their internal policies at this point.”

Conan Smith suggested that the board propose forming a joint hiring committee, with representatives from the county board and the road commission board. When Gunn pointed out that Turner already serves as a liaison from the county board to the road commission, and that the board has an alternate liaison as well, Smith said that perhaps those liaisons could take a more active role in the hiring process. Prater noted that the road commissioners won’t like that.

Smith countered that having the county board involved in hiring the next managing director would be a way to avoid future conflicts, in the event that the county takes control of the road commission. He was concerned that if there are signals that the board wants to take over the road commission, that leads to instability and would likely limit the talent pool for a new managing director.

Bergman said that anyone who takes the job would be aware that the position’s future is uncertain. Turner added that candidates would need to understand that it might be a temporary position. If state legislation is passed that allows the county board to take control of the road commission’s responsibilities, the board could decide to restructure it completely, he said. This uncertainty might encourage road commissioners to make an internal promotion, he said.

The problem with hiring from within, Prater replied, can be summed up in two words: “Customer service.” [At previous meetings, Prater has expressed concern about the quality of customer service at the road commission.]

Turner noted that it depends entirely on the person who would be promoted.

Funding for Human Services

The other item discussed at some length during Tuesday’s agenda briefing related to a recommendation to amend the 2012 budget, which commissioners approved at their Nov. 16 meeting. The amendment would add $250,000 to the line item for coordinated funding of human services.

The additional funding would come via a transfer out of the final 2011 general fund balance. County administrator Verna McDaniel told commissioners that more money is available as the result of payments from settlement of the police services lawsuit.

Alicia Ping expressed some surprise at the proposal, noting that $250,000 would be more than the amount that coordinated funding had been cut in the 2012 budget. In 2011, that line item received $1.015 million, but was cut by $128,538 annually – to $886,462 in both 2012 and 2013. Those funds are distributed to a range of nonprofits through a process administered by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, pooled with money from Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw Urban County, and Washtenaw United Way. [For background on coordinated funding, see Chronicle coverage: "Despite Concerns, Coordinated Funding OK'd"]

McDaniel said that when she initially presented the proposed 2012-2013 budget at the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, there were still more than three months remaining in the current fiscal year, which ends Dec. 31. She indicated that there was still uncertainty about the county’s financial needs for the remainder of this year.

Also, she said, the county received a repayment of captured taxes from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and from a settlement with the townships of Ypsilanti and Augusta over a police services lawsuit. [The county received about $242,000 from the DDA, in a payment related to excess capture in the DDA's tax increment financing (TIF) district. That news had been announced in May 2011. The board voted in July 2011 to accept a $749,427 settlement related to the police services lawsuit. The county was paid in August.]

In explaining the reason for the additional funding, Conan Smith, chair of the board, noted that there’s increased need for basic human services, like food and housing. He also cited changes in the office of community development (OCD), which was recently awarded a $3 million grant. [The federal grant, administered by OCD, was awarded to the Washtenaw County Sustainable Community project. It's for a project focusing on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor, spanning Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township.]

The grant funding gives the county some flexibility with their resources, Smith said. It’s also more clear what the general fund balance will be at the end of this year, he said. Because of all these factors, there was the opportunity to allocate an additional $250,000 to coordinated funding, he said.

Wes Prater complained that they were changing the game at the last minute. He also wondered why the amount was $250,000. They needed to start holding the line on the budget, he said, because next year and 2013 will be even worse. He noted that the final 2011 budget – at $101.4 million – was about $2.5 million higher than the 2011 budget they had originally approved in 2009. [The county plans its budget in two-year cycles. In 2009, it approved the budgets for 2010 and 2011.]

Smith noted that the change stemmed from the fact that the county received more revenues than they had originally projected. Leah Gunn added that the board, including Prater, had approved those adjustments to the 2011 budget earlier this year.

Alicia Ping said she’d rather see the $250,000 spread out over the two years – $125,000 in 2012 and $125,000 in 2013. that would essentially restore the $128,000 annual cut. Otherwise, coordinated funding would see a significant increase in 2012, then a sharp dropoff in 2013 if the county couldn’t find money for it at that level, she said.

Smith noted that the advantage of this approach – dividing the funds evenly – would be to provide some consistency for the program over the next two years. Rob Turner said he liked that idea too. If $250,000 is transfered for 2012 alone, he said, it would set that amount as a higher benchmark in funding for subsequent years.

Barbara Bergman was hesitant to spread the $250,000 over two years, indicating a preference to provide the full $250,000 in 2012. The need is clear, she said, and either way, it won’t stop people asking for more. Several commissioners agreed that with state welfare cutbacks and a still shaky economy, a lot of residents will be hurting even more in the coming years.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said that supporters of the Humane Society of Huron Valley and Head Start will likely be asking why there’s $250,000 for coordinated funding, but not for their programs. [HSHV's $500,000 annual contract with the county, for mandated animal control services, ends on Dec. 31. The county has cut that line item to $250,000. The budget calls for eliminating county funding completely for Head Start in 2013, and turning the preschool program over to federal officials.]

Bergman replied that it’s the right of people to petition the board, for as long as they want. “I’ll bring a sandwich,” she said.

In the revised Dec. 7 agenda posted online late last week, the additional amount to coordinated funding is set at $257,076 – completely restoring the previous funding cuts of $128,538 in 2012 and 2013.

Contract for Animal Control Services

The status of a contract that’s ending on Dec. 31 with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, to provide mandated animal control services to the county did not come up at the Nov. 29 agenda briefing. However, it’s an item that’s received considerable public commentary and sometimes heated discussion at recent board meetings.

However, after the briefing, county administrator Verna McDaniel told The Chronicle that negotiations were continuing with HSHV, and that a draft had been developed, giving details about the scope of services that the county was seeking (see below).

By way of background, at its most recent meeting – on Nov. 16, when the board gave final approval to its 2012-2013 general fund budget – much of the public commentary and discussion by county commissioners focused on funding for the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV). The 2012-2013 budget reduces the amount for animal control services from $500,000 this year – as stipulated by the county’s contract with HSHV – to $250,000 each year in 2012 and 2013, an amount that HSHV officials have said doesn’t cover the cost of the services they provide. The state mandates that counties provide certain animal control services, but there’s disagreement between the county and HSHV about what those mandated services entail. [.pdf of HSHV analysis of legal and financial costs for mandated services]

During their budget deliberations over the past few weeks, commissioners had approved several changes related to the HSHV contract. 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.

At its Nov. 2 meeting, the board also approved an amendment, proposed by Conan Smith, 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 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 on Nov. 2, 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.

Late last week, Smith emailed a draft RFP, including a “scope of work” for animal control services, to HSHV board chair Mike Walsh, along with a letter indicating Smith’s hope that the county could reach an agreement that would satisfy both parties. From Smith’s email:

The attached Scope of Work is the description of the animal control services the County wishes to contract for. These items have been developed administration and reviewed by the County’s most relevant service providers including our environmental health department, our corporate counsel, and the offices of the Sheriff, Prosecutor and Treasurer. I think it fairly and substantively represents the County’s interpretation of our mandate for animal control. The document is structured as the basis for a public Request for Proposals, but please understand that HSHV is our preferred provider and that if we can develop a mutually satisfactory agreement in the near term the services may not need to be bid out.

Regarding process moving forward, it would be helpful if your team can review this SoW and prepare a cost response to it. When you are ready, please let Cheryl Perry in administration (copied here) know, and we’ll work quickly to get a meeting scheduled with among the six of us (you, Mark, Tanya, Jerry, Verna and myself) to talk through the details. [.pdf of letter from Smith]

The others mentioned in Smith’s letter include HSHV board vice president Mark Heusel, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf, sheriff Jerry Clayton, county administrator Verna McDaniel. According to the HSHV website, other board members are Del Dunbar, Diana Kern, Peter Fink, Laurence Jonas, Susan Kornfield, Jane Lumm, Tom Piotrowski, Kathy Power, Sharon Rothwell, and Anne J. Staebler.

Seven items are listed in the draft scope of work provided to HSHV [.pdf of draft RFP]:

1. Provide a shelter to hold stray and unlicensed dogs for the statutory holding period of 4 days (if the dog has indicia of ownership, i.e. collar, license, etc.) and 7 days (dog has no indicia of ownership). While in the Contractor’s care, these dogs must receive proper food, water, adequate exercise and veterinary care. Please note that the County is not requiring you to hold stray cats, birds or any other animals and will not generally pay for such animals which you voluntarily choose to board. The Contractor will only be required to accept stray and unlicensed dogs from Washtenaw County residents with proof of residency and law enforcement agencies located within Washtenaw County. Please note that dogs that are voluntarily surrendered by their owners are not considered stray dogs and, as such, do not come within the County’s responsibility under the proposed contract.

2. Provide a means to humanely euthanize such dogs pursuant to those methods approved by the State Department of Agriculture after the statutory holding period has expired. Please note that while the County’s financial support to hold such dogs only lasts through the statutory holding period (4-7 days as noted above), the Contractor has the right to continue holding those dogs beyond that time period at its own expense if it is interested in adopting or transferring of the dog in a different legal and humane manner.

3. Provide a shelter to house those animals which are the subject of certain animal cruelty investigations, specifically MCLA 750.50 and MCLA 750.50(b) until such time as the legal proceeding is ended or the court overseeing the case orders the animal forfeited to your facility. If such a forfeiture occurs, the County’s legal responsibility to your facility to board the animal ends on the effective date of the forfeiture and you will be free to immediately dispose of the animal through adoption or other means.

4. Provide a shelter to house those animals which are consider either “dangerous” under MCLA 287.321 because they have bitten a human or attacked another dog or have been involved in dog-fighting pursuant to MCLA 750.49. You should be aware that boarding expenses for animals held under these Michigan Statutes are ultimately the responsibility of the animals’ owner if he/she may be located. For those cases where the owners of the animals have been identified, the County shall have no legal responsibility to pay for the care of these animals. It is the Contractor’s duty to collect these boarding costs from the owners of the animals. Likewise, if a judge in an animal cruelty case orders the owner of the animal to pay for boarding costs of that animal, the County will not be responsible for such costs and it will be the Contractor’s responsibility to collect these costs from the animal’s owner.

5. Provide a shelter to hold those animals suspected of being rabid or of having contact with another rabid animal for the holding periods as established by the State of Michigan. For most cases the maximum time such animals are held for observation is 10 days.

6. Provide monthly reporting to the County indicating how many animals were held by the shelter for the County that month, from which political jurisdiction those animals originated, the number of total days for those animals and the reason why the animal is being held (i.e. stray dog, cruelty prosecution, rabies hold, etc.). In addition, the Contractor agrees to announced or unannounced inspections of the shelter by the County and/or Sheriff’s Office. The County will provide a telephone number and e-mail address to encourage shelter staff, volunteers and customers to report problems or suspected irregularities.

7. (Optional) Beginning in October, 2012, on an as needed basis, facilitate the processing of suspected rabid animals for testing by euthanizing the animal and sending its head to the MDCH in Lansing for rabies testing. A vendor who chooses not to bid on this subsection of the RFP is not precluded from responding to the rest of the duties requested by the County under this RFP.

In response to an email query from The Chronicle on Monday, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf wrote that HSHV does not agree with the scope of work in the RFP based on both legal and moral grounds:

Temporarily housing stray dogs as the County seems to derive out of the 1919 Dog Law is just one feature of our work within the animal control portion of our responsibilities. Just as critical, if not more so, are the state’s animal cruelty laws. Animal cruelty – intentional abuse, neglect and abandonment – cover all vertebrate, not just dogs, and the housing and care requirements and standards go far and above this extremely antiquated law. Being the County’s animal impound facility requires much more than this RFP covers.

No dollar amounts are mentioned in these documents, and no meeting date has yet been scheduled between the county and HSHV to discuss this draft RFP.

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  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 5, 2011 at 2:29 pm | permalink

    Hours of bickering about a few thousand dollars but not a peep from the County about hundreds of thousands that have gone to SPARK without access to its financial reports. If I have to wait for the County to be good stewards of my tax dollars, I better brings plenty of sandwiches.


  2. By Sue Stewart
    December 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm | permalink

    What a bunch of messed up fools we have in county government. I am so happy they found money for some of the non-profits but it’s the way they have gone about this whole process that confounds me. The total lack of leadership is evident since many of the commissioners always seem surprised at every meeting.

    Now they need to ‘find’ more money to pay for animal control. If they think the voters are going to let them off the hook for the care of the other domestic animals, they got another thing coming. Drop the egos and do what is right for this county. They are not fooling anyone. They got the money – spend it right!

  3. By Rod Johnson
    December 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm | permalink

    I’m really hoping that the bills you mention, HBs 5125 & 5126, pass the Senate. I don’t have a lot of faith that the current board can fix things, but I think the current situation, with a Road Commission that’s accountable to nobody, is unhealthy. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be just another agency of county government instead of a fiefdom.

  4. By Ann Lund
    December 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm | permalink

    The draft scope of work provided to HSHV represents a reversal to the Dark Ages of animal control law that ignores the reality of animals in the human environment today and our improved, more encompassing treatment of them. The stance that some members of the Board of Commissioners are taking is disheartening and embarrassing. Hopefully we are better than this as human beings.

  5. By Janie Weaver
    December 9, 2011 at 12:07 pm | permalink

    I don’t understand why the board would go so far as punish the animals and the people of our county because they’ve had their egos bruised over discussions regarding contracted animal control. I don’t think they’ve realized how they have shown themselves as individuals acting out of pique rather than as representatives of their districts. And everyone can see that the extra $250,000 given to Human Services is the exact amount they had initially slated for HSHV — they want to give HSHV a public slap in the face. Ms. Bergman, Mr. Smith, and others: if you want to slap someone in the face, please do it to that person and make it so that the animals don’t pay for it. In fact, I’ll volunteer, if it’ll end this brutality.