Washtenaw County Board Looks to the Future

Last meeting of 2011 focuses on upcoming budget, strategic issues

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Dec. 7, 2011):  At its last meeting of 2011, both the room and the agenda were packed.  A crowd showed up to speak during public commentary, and commissioners acted on several items before year’s end, many of them budget-related and looking toward the county’s future.

Supporters of Lourdes Salazar Bautista

Many of the people attending the Dec. 7 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners were supporters of Lourdes Salazar Bautista, an Ann Arbor resident who faces deportation. She is standing against the wall in the upper right corner of this photo. (Photos by the writer.)

Public commentary focused on two issues: (1) people lobbying against the imminent deportation of Ann Arbor resident Lourdes Salazar Bautista, and asking commissioners to intervene; (2) nonprofit leaders thanking the board for increasing the budget for coordinated funding, which supports human services agencies. The two-year budget for 2012-2013 approved by commissioners on Nov. 16 had included $128,538 in cuts each year to coordinated funding, but a vote on Dec. 7 restored that amount.

Another budget amendment approved by the board at the meeting relates to the unresolved status of mandated animal control services. County officials are still negotiating with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which has a $500,000 annual contract for that work. The contract expires Dec. 31, and contingency plans are being made for the case that an agreement can’t be reached. Commissioners approved a budget amendment that requires board approval for any contract for animal control services extending more than 60 days.

Two presentations were made during the Dec. 7 meeting. Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, briefed commissioners about efforts to create a countywide transit system. The board will be asked to approve a four-party agreement between the county, AATA and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti that would set a framework for incorporating a countywide transit authority. Voters may eventually be asked to approve a millage for the system – if a dedicated funding sources is not secured by the end of 2014, the effort in its current form would demise.

And in a presentation aimed at priority setting for 2012 and beyond, board chair Conan Smith proposed focusing county efforts on shoring up the county’s east side, an area that’s facing a “perfect storm of despair,” he said, including high unemployment, low graduation rates and poor health. Characterizing his proposal as the start of a board discussion, Smith laid out a variety of options that the county could pursue, including a possible Headlee override or new millage to pay for services. Feedback from commissioners indicated support for developing a strategy to tackle these problems, but a reluctance to limit the focus to only the east side – primarily Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Several commissioners pointed out that poverty exists throughout the county.

Commissioners also took a range of other actions, including: (1) rejection of a proposal from the Washtenaw County road commission for a possible millage to fund road improvements; (2) a resolution of support for same-sex benefits; (3) an extension of a deadline related to compliance with the state’s 80/20 rule for health care costs; (4) approval of a brownfield plan for Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant; (5) creation of a board subcommittee on energy policy; and (6) appointments to a variety of boards, commissions and committees.

More Money for Coordinated Funding

The two-year budget approved by commissioners on Nov. 16 had included $128,538 in cuts each year to coordinated human services funding. However, at that meeting several commissioners expressed the desire to find additional funding for coordinated funding. A resolution on the Dec. 7 agenda restored the amount that had been cut, returning the line item for coordinated funding to $1.015 million annually in 2012 and 2013, the same amount that was budgeted for 2011.

Coordinated funds are distributed to a range of nonprofits through a process administered by the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, partnering with the city of Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw Urban County, Washtenaw United Way, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The process gives priority for funding those nonprofits that serve six targeted areas: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food. [For background on coordinated funding, see Chronicle coverage: "Despite Concerns, Coordinated Funding OK'd"]

The issue had received some discussion at a Nov. 29 administrative briefing, when commissioners previewed the Dec. 7 agenda. County administrator Verna McDaniel told commissioners that when she initially presented the proposed 2012-2013 budget at the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, more than three months remained in the current fiscal year, which ends Dec. 31. She indicated that there had still been 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.]

At the Nov. 29 administrative briefing, to explain the reason for the budget amendment assigning the additional funding, board chair Conan Smith 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.]

Coordinated Funding: Public Commentary

Six people spoke during public commentary at the start of the Dec. 7 meeting to urge commissioners to restore money in the budget for coordinated funding, and to thank them for their support. Some of the speakers had previously lobbied for funding, before the Nov. 16 budget vote.

Paul Saginaw, Margie Hagene

Paul Saginaw, co-founder and board member of Food Gatherers, with the nonprofit’s board chair, Margie Hagene. Both spoke during public commentary in support of coordinated funding.

Margie Hagene, board chair for the nonprofit Food Gatherers, and board member Paul Saginaw – who co-founded Zingerman’s and Food Gatherers – both spoke in support of restoring funding. Food Gatherers is one of the nonprofits that receives money through the coordinated funding process. Saginaw thanked the board for reinvesting in human services and promoting the human potential that surrounds us, rather than discarding it.

Cheryl Elliott, president of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, thanked commissioners for their support of coordinated funding. The foundation is one of the partners in this approach, she said, and is fully committed to it. It’s the right approach at a time of great need, she said, allowing public funds to leverage private dollars. That way, each dollar has a greater impact than it would if invested alone. Other communities are interested in emulating this model, she said. She looked forward to a continued partnership.

Pam Smith, executive director of the Child Care Network, also thanked commissioners. She described two recent volunteer experiences of she’d had, helping a mother shop for children’s clothing through the Warm the Children program, and wrapping gifts that people brought in for needy families at Saline Area Social Services. She’s seen the spectrum – from those in great need, to those who are answering that need. Commissioners have a difficult job, she said, but the community is behind them.

Dick Soble, a board member of both the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Food Gatherers, and WHA board member Jean Carlberg each spoke in support of reallocating money to coordinated funding. Soble noted that the county helped found WHA, which now involves 26 organizations working to address issues of homelessness. Carlberg said the county has provided a model for public/private partnerships, and she hoped commissioners would continue their support.

Coordinated Funding: Commissioner Discussion

Several commissioners thanked the people who came to speak in support of coordinated funding. Yousef Rabhi said he was proud that the county could restore the funding. Rob Turner noted that the board had made human services a budget priority, and they were cementing that decision by restoring funding.

Leah Gunn said she supported the resolution to restore funding, and she thanked Alicia Ping for Ping’s suggestion to spread the funding over two years. [The original proposal had added $250,000 to the coordinated funding line item in 2012. At the Nov. 29 agenda briefing, Ping had argued that the amount was better allocated over two years. 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.]

At the Dec. 7 meeting, Dan Smith said he wouldn’t support the increase. He noted that the board had just approved the budget at its last meeting, and it was premature to increase funding at this point, especially since the county asked its employees to make sacrifices to balance the budget. He also pointed to the projected $14 million deficit in 2014, which will require additional cuts, saying that the county is in dire financial straits.

Outcome: On a 10-1 vote, the board approved additional money for coordinated funding in 2012-2013. Dissenting was Dan Smith (R-District 2).

After the vote, Ronnie Peterson said he wanted to clarify that contrary to some media reports, he had previously voted against cuts to coordinated funding, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and Head Start. From The Chronicle’s report of that budget vote:

The final budget vote was unanimous, though three commissioners voted no on specific line items. (Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent.) Ronnie Peterson, Felicia Brabec and Alicia Ping voted no to cuts for animal control services. Peterson and Brabec also voted no to cuts for Head Start and the coordinated funding of human services. Conan Smith voted no to the line item for the board of commissioners, referring to it only by the line item number. He later said he’d been joking. [.pdf of 2012-2013 general fund budget]

Peterson said it was amazing that they now could come up with more money for coordinated funding, but not for Head Start. [The 2012 budget includes $528,048 in funding for Head Start, but eliminates county support in 2013. The county plans to turn over the program to federal officials by 2013. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Head Start Advocates Make Emotional Plea"]

Peterson wanted to make sure the county honors its Head Start employees, and that the county administration provides appropriate documents to indicate that the decision to relinquish the program was not because of problems with its quality.

Humane Society Update

Ronnie Peterson, who has opposed cuts to the county’s funding of state-mandated animal control services provided under contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, asked for an update on negotiations for a new contract. HSHV’s current contract, for $500,000 annually, ends on Dec. 31. The county has budgeted a total of $430,000 annually for 2012 and 2013, which HSHV has indicated is insufficient for the work required by the county. [See Chronicle coverage: "Animal Control Mandate Unresolved" and "Washtenaw County Budget Set for 2012-2013"]

Board chair Conan Smith reported that HSHV board chair Mike Walsh had been sent a draft RFP, including a “scope of work” for animal control services that the county believes are mandated by the state. [.pdf of draft RFP] Representatives from the county and HSHV are planning to meet soon to continue negotiations, Smith said, and he hoped to move quickly to find common ground for a new contract. The negotiating team for the county includes Smith, sheriff Jerry Clayton, and county administrator Verna McDaniel. HSHV is represented by Walsh, Mark Heusel, and HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf.

Peterson pressed for information about what might happen after Jan. 1 if a new agreement isn’t reached. Smith replied by recounting that in October, the county had received a letter from Walsh indicating that HSHV likely wouldn’t be able to continue providing services at the reduced amount, but offering to handle some kind of transitional service until the county sought another provider. Smith said McDaniel has been investigating other options in case the county needs to bid out the work. There is at least one entity, possibly more, that could handle animal control services for the county starting Jan. 1, Smith said, if negotiations with HSHV break down. McDaniel added that she didn’t want to name those other entities, but the county does have options.

The county has budgeted roughly $25,000 a month for animal control services, Smith said. For contracts under $25,000, the county administrator has the discretion to authorize those agreements. Such a contract would be temporary, Smith said, while negotiations with HSHV continue. He said he didn’t view Jan. 1 as a deadline for negotiating.

Regardless of the entity that eventually enters into a long-term contract with the county, Smith said, it’s important that a detailed billing of services be provided to the county. [One criticism of the current HSHV contract is that there's no itemized billing in the monthly invoice sent to the county.] Smith said the bill should list details such as boarding fees per animal and veterinarian services, so that it’s clear what’s being paid for on behalf of the county’s taxpayers.

Some commissioners wanted to ensure that a new long-term contract with HSHV – or perhaps another provider – would be brought to the board for approval. Rob Turner noted that the funding for animal control services is part of the sheriff’s budget now, and that the sheriff has authority to enter into such contracts. The board didn’t approve food service or laundry contracts with the jail, for example, so why should this be different? This had been a concern of his when they originally voted to shift the funding from the “outside agencies” category to the sheriff’s office, Turner said. He felt it had indicated a severing of the board’s relationship with HSHV.

Peterson said he didn’t feel that shifting the funds to the sheriff’s office meant the board had relinquished control. He assumed any contract for animal control services would be coming back to the board.

Smith conceded that this was a gray area. Other funds in the sheriff’s office budget are controlled by the sheriff. Clayton and McDaniel had both indicated that they understood the board intended to remain involved in decisions about animal control services, Smith said.

To clarify the issue, Smith proposed a resolution amending the 2012 budget line item for animal control services, stating “No contract for animal control services that extends beyond 60 days shall be entered into without approval by the board of commissioners.”

Barbara Bergman indicated that she believed the sheriff should make decisions about how to handle animal control services, now that the funds are in his budget.

Outcome: The budget amendment passed on a 10-1 vote, with dissent from Barbara Bergman.

Peterson also brought up the issue of the investment that the county has made in HSHV’s facility. By way of background, in mid-2007 the county board approved the issuance of $6.5 million in bonds for the construction of HSHV’s new animal shelter, plus a $1 million contribution to the HSHV construction fund from its capital reserves. That bond was to be repaid on a seven-year schedule by the county – using funds supplied by HSHV. The bonds were sold in August 2008, with the final payment due in 2015.

To issue to bonds, the county needed to have an ownership stake in the project. So currently, and through the end of the scheduled bond payments, the county owns the animal shelter, and leases the facility back to HSHV. That arrangement is possible through a ground lease agreement in which the county leases from HSHV the property on which the animal shelter is built. HSHV owns part of that land, and leases the other part from the University of Michigan in an arrangement approved by UM on July 17, 2008. The UM lease to HSHV is for $8,000 for the first 30 years of the 65-year lease, with the amount after 30 years reduced to $1 per year.

At the county board’s Dec. 7 meeting, Peterson described the situation as a liability on the county’s books, and said there’s no obligation for HSHV to make payments on the bonds. The taxpayers’ investment in that facility should be protected, he said – that’s an argument in favor of reaching an agreement with HSHV for a new contract.

Turner replied that even if the county’s contract isn’t continued with HSHV, the nonprofit wouldn’t consider leaving its new facility. He also said that losing the county’s contract won’t make or break HSHV financially.

Road Commission Proposal

On the Dec. 7 agenda was a resolution to reject a proposal from the Washtenaw County road commission that included a variety of road improvement projects, and the possibility of a countywide millage (that would not require voter approval) to pay for them.

Road Commission Proposal: Public Commentary

Christine Jones of Ann Arbor said it would be completely unfair for voters not to have a say in raising taxes for road repair. People didn’t elect the county commissioners with the understanding that commissioners would raise taxes, she said. Jones said she wanted to make sure the road tax didn’t pass and that the board heard from taxpayers about it.

Road Commission Proposal: Commissioner Discussion

By way of background, the proposal had been discussed at length by the board in October, when commissioners ultimately decided to defer action until the Dec. 7 meeting.

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]

Washtenaw County road commission truck

A truck parked at the Zeeb Road facility of the Washtenaw County road commission.

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.

The item was discussed at some length during a Nov. 29 administrative briefing, held to preview the Dec. 7 agenda items. That meeting was attended by all but two commissioners: Ronnie Peterson and Dan Smith. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Board Poised to Reject Road Millage"]

At the briefing, there was no enthusiasm for acting on the road commission’s plan. In addition to concerns about levying a millage, commissioners pointed to uncertainty related to pending state legislation that would, if passed, allow the county to take over operation of the road commission. [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 await action in the state Senate. The state senator representing Ann Arbor's District 18, Rebekah Warren, is married to county board chair Conan Smith. She attended a portion of the Dec. 7 board meeting.]

The discussion at the Nov. 29 briefing also touched on the leadership change at the road commission. Long-time managing director Steve Puuri is retiring at the end of 2011.

None of these issues were raised when the item came before the board on Dec. 7, and there was only limited discussion. Noting that there are major roads in his district that need repair, Ronnie Peterson expressed frustration that it didn’t appear the issue would be discussed by the board before the vote. He said he thought the road commissioners and staff would make a presentation, but that wasn’t the case. [Schwartz was the only representative from the road commission at the Dec. 7 meeting, but he did not formally address the board.]

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, reviewed the process that had taken place to this point, including the decision by the board on Oct. 5 to defer the item until Dec. 7, and the discussion at the board’s Oct. 6 working session.

Outcome: As part of the board’s consent agenda, commissioners voted unanimously to reject the road commission proposal.

Countywide Public Transit Update

Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, gave a presentation to commissioners about efforts to create a countywide transit system. [For background on a variety of transportation issues, including the countywide plan, see recent Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Transit Talk in Flux"] Also attending the Dec. 7 meeting was AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein, and Sarah Pressprich Gryniewicz, AATA’s community outreach coordinator.

Wes Prater, Michael Ford

Michael Ford, right, CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, talks with county commissioner Wes Prater.

Ford began by outlining three major steps being taken to create a countywide transit system: (1) developing a governance structure for regional service, (2) planning service improvements, and (3) figuring out funding at the local, state and national levels. The first step has been taken this year, he said, with the creation of the unincorporated 196 board (U196).

Act 196 of 1986 is a state enabling statute that explicitly provides for the formation of a transit authority at the county level. The AATA is formed under Act 55 of 1963.

Membership in the 11-member unincorporated board (U196) is as follows: Pittsfield District – Mandy Grewal (supervisor, Pittsfield Township); Northeast District – David Phillips (clerk, Superior Township); North Middle District – David Read (trustee, Scio Township) with alternate Jim Carson (councilmember, Village of Dexter); Southeast District – (1) Karen Lovejoy Roe (clerk, Ypsilanti Township) and (2) John McGehee (director of human resources, Lincoln Consolidated Schools); West District – Bob Mester (trustee, Lyndon Township) with alternate Ann Feeney (councilmember, city of Chelsea); Ypsilanti District – Paul Schreiber (mayor of Ypsilanti) with alternate: Peter Murdock (councilmember, city of Ypsilanti); South Middle District – Bill Lavery (resident, York Township); Ann Arbor District: (1) Jesse Bernstein (AATA board), (2) Charles Griffith (AATA board) and (3) Rich Robben (AATA board).

Ford said that next steps for governance include: (1) securing a 4-party agreement with AATA, the county, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti; (2) writing up the articles of incorporation; and (3) developing bylaws. On the funding side, Ford noted that a report on funding options was released in the fall, and a task force of local financial experts – chaired by former Washtenaw County administrator Bob Guenzel and McKinley CEO Albert Berriz – has met three times so far. A report with both short- and long-term funding recommendations will be ready in early 2012.

A 30-year plan for service improvements has already been developed, Ford said. The U196 board has been discussing it, with the goal of developing a five-year transit improvement program that will be presented to municipalities in the county before incorporating as a countywide transit authority. The program, to be completed in 2012, will include service recommendations, a funding plan, and recommended fare structures and policy.

What’s needed from the county, Ford said, is help in developing a clear and transparent process that’s fair to citizens, uses public resources in an efficient way, and maintains local control while allowing municipalities to work together. More specifically, a four-party agreement between the county, AATA and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is being developed that will set a framework for incorporating a countywide transit authority. [.pdf draft of four-party agreement]

Among other things, the agreement would enable the transfer of dedicated transit millages in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to the new authority, and establish a process for opting-out of the authority.

Ford described the process that would lead to the establishment of a new countywide authority, assuming the county approves the authority’s articles of incorporation and that the four-party agreement is also approved. In 2012, the U196 board will finish a report on a five-year transit improvement program, then request that the county clerk – Larry Kestenbaum – file articles of incorporation for a countywide transit authority.

The articles of incorporation would establish the authority with boundaries of Washtenaw County. Certified letters, required by law, would be sent to each municipality announcing incorporation of the authority. Any municipality could opt-out, and those communities would not be taxed or receive transit service. The county would not take on liabilities, Ford said, nor provide its full faith and credit to the authority. The county could appoint a liaison to attend transit authority meetings.

The county would not be expected to make any request for funding, such as a levy on taxpayers. A chart provided by Ford indicated that a funding request would be made directly to voters. If voters rejected it, the request would be put on the ballot again, once a year. If voters do not approve a millage by the end of 2014, the incorporated 196 board would be dissolved.

Ford said that if and when countywide funding is set, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti then would transfer their current dedicated transit millages to the new authority. AATA would transfer its assets, obligations and operations to the new authority, too, and the authority would begin implementing the countywide five-year transit plan.

The county board will be asked to vote on the articles of incorporation and four-party agreement in January, Ford said. He again stressed that the county would not be taking on liabilities or debt. Nor would the board be asked to request funding from voters, he said. Local governments will have the opportunity to opt-out when the authority is formed. The municipalities that participate will have input into planning countywide transportation, he said.

“I really could use your support in moving this thing forward,” Ford concluded, alluding to the catch-phrase used to promote the countywide initiative at MovingYouForward.org. He noted that AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein was in the audience, and that either of them would be happy to answer questions.

Countywide Public Transit Update: Commissioner Discussion

Rolland Sizemore Jr. thanked Ford for coming, and praised AATA staff for their help in Sizemore’s district putting in bus stops along Holmes Road and in the Willow Run neighborhood. Ronnie Peterson thanked both Ford and Gryniewicz, saying that they’d done a tremendous job in explaining the possible expansion. It was difficult to do during these challenging economic times, Peterson said, but it’s a vision that he’s been advocating for a long time. He asked Ford what’s needed from the county board at this point.

Ford replied that the board’s approval of the four-party agreement in January would be appreciated. Any outreach and support that commissioners can do would also be welcome, he said, noting that AATA can’t do it alone.

Peterson said there’s no millage that the county board is being asked to levy, and no administrative costs that the county would incur. He clarified with Ford that although the county board would allow for the formation of this new entity to take place, the responsibility for it would rest with the local communities. Nor would the county need to bond or incur any kind of debt. In that case, Peterson said, he fully supported the initiative.

Peterson commended Ann Arbor officials for allowing AATA to move in this direction, noting that in general “I don’t commend them too much.” The project had moved more quickly than any other government initiative he could recall, and there’s no question it had his support.

Wes Prater asked when the articles of incorporation would be ready for review. In January, Ford replied. Prater then clarified with Ford that local communities could opt out of the 196 organization if they wanted to – they didn’t have to participate.

Prater noted that the five-year plan doesn’t indicate any capital improvements that will be needed. Ford said that piece of it is still being developed, and they’re looking at potential funding needed for both operations and capital. That information will be provided to the board in the future, he said.

Yousef Rabhi described this project as one of utmost importance. He doesn’t own a car, and said he would love to be able to get where he needed to go throughout the county via public transportation. He said he’s attended two of the three U196 meetings so far, but he’s not an official liaison for the county board. Anyone can go to the U196 meetings.

Leah Gunn indicated support for appointing Rabhi as a liaison. She said when she first met Ford, she knew he could pull off this initiative.

Dan Smith said he had some doubts that all of the local communities would participate, and it appears that’s the case. He said he expected more would pull out eventually. Smith added that he’s glad the financing piece is coming together, and he thanked Ford for the outreach and updates, and for soliciting public opinion on this effort.

Barbara Bergman joked that she now knows how to get a free lunch – an allusion to several lunch meetings that AATA hosted for community leaders to brief them about this project. She thanked Ford for tutoring her on the effort.

Setting the Stage for 2012

Typically the report from the board chair is a relatively brief agenda item. But at the Dec. 7 meeting, Conan Smith used the time to make a presentation outlining a framework for setting priorities in 2012. With the county’s two-year budget now approved for 2012-2013, the board has the luxury of using 2012 as a planning year, he said, putting in place policy changes that will guide the county in the future.

Smith identified two main issues facing the county: (1) institutional financial stability, and (2) a crisis facing the east side of the county.

He addressed the county’s financial stability first, noting that the county has a structural deficit with long-term implications. Though the administration has done yeoman’s work in making structural reforms, Smith said, it’s not sufficient, given other challenges at the federal, state and local levels. Among those challenges, he said, are declining property values leading to lower tax revenues, a reduction or elimination of state revenue-sharing, changes to federal programs that affect revenue, and the possible elimination of the personal property tax. On the expenditure side, the county is challenged by increasing labor costs, particularly related to health care and to retiree health care liabilities.

There’s also “complexity” regarding the cost of police services, Smith said. The county’s contribution to police services is escalating, he noted, and if other communities want to opt in and contract with the sheriff for police services, how can the county afford it?

Looking ahead, the county faces a sizeable gap between projected revenues and expenditures, he said. The projections anticipate deficits of $11.6 million in 2014 and $14.7 million in 2015. At the community level, there are several threats, he said, including dramatic disparities in child poverty rates, high unemployment rates, declining per-capita income levels, and disparate graduation rates. Related to that last issue, Smith noted that the Chelsea school district has the county’s highest graduation rate, and he hoped the board could look to commissioner Rob Turner – who served on the Chelsea school board for nine years – for guidance.

Turning to issues facing the county’s east side, Smith said that area is facing what someone else characterized as the “perfect storm of despair.” The unemployment rate in the city of Ypsilanti is nearly 12%, compared to 8% countywide. Between 1999 and 2008, per-capita income in Ypsilanti Township fell to 19% to $24,038. Per-capita income in Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti, at $21,014, is below the amount that would be generated from the county’s living wage ordinance of $12.50 an hour, he noted. The situation ought to be untenable and unacceptable, he said.

Chart showing rates of free or reduced school lunches

Chart showing rates of free or reduced school lunches. (Links to larger image)

Other measures that reflect the disparity between the east side and the rest of the county include the percentage of students enrolled in the free or reduced school lunch program, the percentage of residents reporting they experience poor mental health days, and lower graduation rates.

Smith said that while you can find pockets of poverty, hunger and homelessness throughout the county, there’s a layering of challenges on the east side that make it especially dire, and difficult for residents to break out of the cycle of poverty. He said he was grateful that two Ypsilanti city councilmembers – Pete Murdock and Brian Robb – were attending that night’s board meeting. He noted that despite being one of the state’s best-managed cities, Ypsilanti is facing a financial crisis that could lead to bankruptcy. Ypsilanti has the highest tax rate in the county, yet because of declining property values, its property tax revenue is falling. That creates an environment in which it’s difficult to attract businesses or residents, Smith said.

It’s a cross-jurisdictional challenge, Smith argued, and the county needs to work hand-in-glove with Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to address these problems. He maintained that east side issues are county issues. For one thing, a decline in property values affects the amount of revenues in the county budget. From 2007 to 2011, the county’s general fund has lost $3.75 million in revenues because of falling property values in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. In addition, he noted that the board has made human services and public safety a priority – those issues are particularly a concern on the east side.

Smith then outlined options for addressing these challenges, saying that the county’s financial stability and the problems facing the east side are interconnected. Regarding the county’s financial stability, Smith looked at three options: (1) cut costs and services; (2) raise the tax rate; and (3) improve the tax base. The first option is not sustainable, he argued. It has an immediate impact, but a declining effect. It would entail workforce reductions, which would in turn mean cuts to direct services for residents. And some would argue that the county has already cut to the bone, he said.

The second option – raising the tax rate – would also have a near-term impact and declining long-term effect. It might be an effective strategy to address specific issues, he said. Potential targets might include a Headlee override, or a millage for specific county services such as housing, police services or community health. The strategy could also be used to fund outside agencies, such as the nonprofit sector – the possibility of a human services millage has been floated in the past.

Ballot deadlines

2012 ballot deadlines.

Smith said that Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, has pledged to schedule a discussion on this topic in early 2012. Passing a millage or Headlee override, which would reset the millage rate to its original value, would be an uphill battle, Smith said, and something the board would need to tackle quickly. Regarding the Headlee override, the county would gain about 9/10ths of a mill, he said – equating to around $13 million to $14 million annually.

With respect to levying an additional millage, Smith said he had used 0.5 mill as an example, and had calculated how much residents across the county would pay if such a millage passed. [.pdf of chart showing millage calculations] Ann Arbor residents, for example, would pay on average $55.25 annually. On the low end, residents in the village of Manchester would pay $25.54, based on the average taxable value of property there. A half-mill would raise about $7-8 million for the county, Smith said.

The third option is to improve the county’s tax base, which is the most sustainable, but hardest and longest approach, Smith said. It would focus on improving economic opportunity and quality of life, but would require a coordinated investment from both the public and private sectors, he noted – the county couldn’t do it alone.

Smith proposed that the board explore this third option. The board needs to look strategically at whether to put a millage on the ballot, and to develop a policy framework for the county’s investments – how it spends its revenues. Those investments are already being made in the county’s hardest-hit areas, he said, but there are better, more strategic ways to do that.

A policy framework would identify the outcomes that are desired, such as improved jobs, health or public safety. A policy framework would also provide better clarity and coherence in decision-making across all county agencies, as well as for voters and community partners. Developing this kind of framework would be a long process, he said, and would require leadership from the board.

Within this context, Smith identified five goals to work toward:

  • Stabilize or increase property values.
  • Create opportunities for living-wage jobs.
  • Provide access to lifeline resources for physical and emotional health and well-being.
  • Ensure safety and security for all residents.
  • Build an engaged, empowered citizenry.

Smith said he hoped to hold working sessions focused on each of these goals in early 2012. He also wanted to take the first several months of the year to talk about a possible millage, but set a longer timeline for the policy discussions. The outcome of their work would be (1) a decision on whether to put a millage on the ballot, and (2) a policy framework for dealing with issues on the county’s east side.

Regarding a possible millage proposal, Smith laid out the following timeline:

  • January 2012: Hold a working session to explore the focus of a millage, rates and logistical considerations.
  • February/March 2012: Craft a proposal for the board to review, approve or reject.
  • March through May, August or November 2012 (depending on when a millage would be put on the ballot): Support a campaign for the millage.

For developing a policy framework, Smith proposed starting with a half-day retreat in January that would include other county elected officials. Working sessions could be held in February through May with staff and others focused on the five goals. From May through August a policy framework would be drafted, reviewed, amended and adopted, he said, followed by implementation starting in September.

Smith concluded his presentation by saying he looked forward to discussing these issues as the board moves into a very challenging 2012.

Setting the State for 2012: Commissioner Discussion

The board spent about 45 minutes discussing Smith’s proposal. Yousef Rabhi began by describing the goals as phenomenal. It was great to have those goals for the east side, he added, but everyone in the county should have access to living-wage jobs, or a home that’s not at risk of foreclosure. The need is everywhere, he said, though the rates of poverty are higher on the east side. He noted that the county is already spending about 70% of its resources on the east side. It’s good to have a discussion about how to make those resources more effective, but Rabhi also wanted to have that same discussion include other parts of the county.

Barbara Bergman told Smith that if other commissioners had been involved in developing his proposal, it would have included all of the county, not just the east side. [Bergman represents District 8, which covers the northeast portion of Ann Arbor. Smith's District 10 also is in Ann Arbor, on the west side.] It would be difficult to pass a millage unless the revenues it generated would be spent countywide, she said. There is poverty all over the county, she added, and unless that’s considered, she wouldn’t support this approach.

Bergman said she’s long been a supporter of Ypsilanti, but this plan doesn’t take into consideration other parts of the county and it would be difficult to ask her constituents to support a millage for it. She said she hoped he would take this into consideration “as you plan agendas with us, Mr. Smith.”

Felicia Brabec asked Smith what the process would be, now that he has presented his proposal. Smith characterized it as similar to the budget process this year, when he presented some issues and a framework for board discussion. He noted that he didn’t present solutions, only options. Part of his role as chair is to make sure the board’s agendas are driving forward their priorities. He said he has background and experience in fostering these kinds of conversations, and if the outcome doesn’t go his way, “that’s not new.” Responding to Bergman’s comments, Smith said the board will make decisions on how to proceed – his job is just to kick off the conversation.

Brabec said her thought is that these goals would fit a lot of communities, but she was struck by how difficult it would be to identify objectives for these goals. That alone could take a year or two, she said.

Smith said if it were up to him, they’d talk about it for five years – he and Tony VanDerworp, one of the county’s managers who’s responsible for energy and economic development programs, would be “drunk on process,” Smith joked. But there are ways to tackle these goals more quickly. For one, the board can rely on staff leadership – many county workers have been dealing with these challenges for decades, he noted. The other thing is simply to attune people to the outcomes that the board is seeking, and focus efforts across county government – including the sheriff, treasurer and other elected leaders – on getting greater impact from their investments. How can they all work together better, for a greater impact?

Wes Prater said he was impressed by Smith’s “white paper,” adding that it will make commissioners think about these issues. He noted that they can use census data to drill down and determine specific areas of poverty to target the county’s resources, but agreed with others who said the effort needs to look countywide. There are tough decisions to be made, he said, “but I guess that’s our job.”

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he agreed with Prater. There are duplication of services that he’d like to address, especially related to services for youth. Sizemore said he was organizing a countywide summit for youth, and he planned to work hard on these goals.

Saying he’d been concerned about the challenges coming up in the 2014-2015 budget, Rob Turner praised Smith for focusing the board on these issues. These are great ideas, but the biggest thing that will help improve the county financially is to make people more productive, he said. Turner also expressed concern about focusing mainly on the east side – everyone needs to buy into it, he said. [Turner represents District 1, covering the west and northwest part of the county.]

Turner told commissioners that his niece is a teacher in the Willow Run school district on the county’s east side, and that kids there aren’t prepared for school because of their socioeconomic situation – it puts them at a terrible disadvantage. The financial viability of an area depends on the education of its residents, he said. It’s an interconnected issue that needs to be addressed.

Related to a millage proposal, Turner said he’d been involved in two proposals recently: a countywide school enhancement millage, and a special education millage renewal. The enhancement millage failed because “Ann Arbor voters stayed home,” Turner said, and it wasn’t supported in the out-county areas. Ann Arbor voters again stayed home for the special education millage – some precincts recorded less than 2% turnout – but turnout was greater in other parts of the county, and it passed. Ann Arbor residents must be passionate about any effort that the county puts forward, in order for it to succeed, Turner said. He looked forward to continuing this discussion, and to the board’s retreat in January. The year 2014 will be here before they know it, he said.

Ronnie Peterson praised Smith’s presentation, then said the millage proposal should be separate from the policy framework discussion. That’s correct, Smith replied. Any millage would be countywide and support countywide issues. The other discussion would help the county focus its current investments on the east side more strategically.

Peterson – who represents District 6, which covers much of Ypsilanti – argued that the rest of the county would benefit from helping the east side. “You can’t be half sick,” he said, and Ypsilanti needs healing. He described Smith’s proposal as one of the best initiatives he’d ever seen in county government, and said the needs are great for education, poverty and public safety.

Peterson took issue with the implication that it was somehow unfair for the east side to be getting 70% of the county’s resources. Much of that is federal funding that’s based on data regarding income and other measures, he noted – and he’d be willing to share his district’s poverty, if others wanted those federal resources. He told other commissioners not to compare the few census tracts of poverty in their districts with the situation on the county’s east side. “We will all rise together,” he said.

Rabhi clarified that he hadn’t meant the county should reduce that 70% in spending on the east side, but rather that they should ensure it’s spent more wisely.

80/20 Rule

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to a resolution stating that the county will comply with Section 4 of the state’s Public Act 152 of 2011, also known as the “80/20″ rule regarding health care costs. Initial approval was given at the board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

On Jan. 1, 2012, public employers like Washtenaw County will be prohibited from paying more than $5,500 for health benefits annually for a single employee, $11,000 for an employee plus spouse, or $15,000 for family coverage. However, the law allows a public employer, by a majority vote of its governing body, to choose another option: to pay not more than 80% of the total annual costs of all the medical benefits plans it contributes to or offers its employees and elected public officials.

When the board initially passed this resolution on Nov. 16, it stated that collective bargaining agreements entered into by the county on or after Sept. 15, 2011 must comply with the 80/20 rule. Five of the county’s 17 bargaining units, representing about 95 employees, do not yet have agreements with the county for 2012-2013. Those employees would be subject to the 80/20 rule, which will place more responsibility on employees for the cost of health care.

The units that haven’t accepted concessions are 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.

However, on Dec. 7 an amendment was proposed to change the Sept. 15 date, which the board had initially approved, to Jan. 1, 2012.

Alicia Ping spoke out against the date change. She said that 90% of the employee had come to the table in good faith to meet the Sept. 15 deadline, and it sends the wrong message to them if the board now extends that date. Dan Smith said he’d be voting against the amendment for similar reasons. He noted that the board had held a special meeting in September for the sole purpose of approving labor agreements before the Sept. 15 deadline.

Ronnie Peterson asked why the date change to Jan. 1 is needed. County administrator Verna McDaniel said the change simply gives the administration more flexibility in trying to reach agreements with the unions before the end of this year.

Wes Prater and Yousef Rabhi indicated support, though Rabhi also expressed concern this wasn’t treating the different bargaining units equally. Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, came to the podium and said that the change has no impact on the other bargaining units. For the remaining five units, members will either be subject to the 80/20 rule or the hard cap, she said – in either case, they’ll be paying more for their benefits than the other bargaining units.

Outcome: On a 9-2 vote, commissioners approved the date change related to the 80/20 rule deadline for bargaining units. Dissenting were Alicia Ping (R-District 3) and Dan Smith (R-District 2).

During public commentary at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie spoke to the board, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for some commissioners to imply that the five remaining bargaining units are negotiating in bad faith. He said there is nothing wrong with the way that they’re negotiating, and noted that two years ago, the prosecuting attorneys had been the first of the county’s bargaining units to agree to pay for a portion of their medical insurance. [As an elected official, Mackie is not represented by any of the bargaining units.]

2011 Apportionment Report

In a process mandated by the state, commissioners were asked to accept the county’s 2011 apportionment report, which gives details of the 2011 taxable valuations for property in the county, by municipality. The report also includes the amount of millages levied and the dollar amounts collected in taxes. December tax bills have already been mailed out to property owners, based on these calculations.

Every April, the county’s equalization department produces an annual report describing Washtenaw County’s total equalized (assessed) value of property. The report – part of the state-mandated equalization process – gives an indication of how much revenue the county will receive from property taxes in the coming year. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw County's Taxable Value Falls"]

In November, the equalization and property description department presents an apportionment report, which gives details of the taxable valuations for property in the county, by municipality. The report also includes the amount of millages levied and the dollar amounts collected in taxes. [.pdf file of 2011 apportionment report] Like the equalization report, the board is required by state law to vote on adopting the apportionment report.

This year, all the taxing entities in Washtenaw County will be levying in total about $622 million in property taxes – a drop from $639 million in 2010. The county alone will levy about $81 million this year, compared to $83 million in 2010.

Raman Patel, the county’s equalization director, spoke briefly to commissioners, saying that the equalization process is underway in preparation for the annual report in April. He noted that the next equalization report will be calculated based on a CPI of 2.7%, compared to 1.7% for the previous report. [The consumer price index (CPI) is an indicator of inflation.) He said it appears that the market is stabilizing, and that taxable value won’t be declining as much as it did last year.

Conan Smith expressed some surprise and gently teased Patel, noting that this was the first time that he could recall Patel ever hinting at the outcome of an equalization report in advance of its completion. Smith also thanked Patel for his professionalism and guidance over the past few decades for the county during these difficult economic times. Though Smith's remarks implied that Patel would be retiring, after the meeting Patel told The Chronicle that he hadn't announced that decision yet.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the apportionment report.

Support for Same-Sex Benefits

A resolution brought forward by Washtenaw County commissioner Yousef Rabhi urged state lawmakers to reject HB 4770HB 4771 and “any legislation that codifies discrimination.”  [.pdf of resolution] The state legislation removes the ability to extend benefits to same-sex partners. As of the Dec. 7 meeting, it had been passed by both the House and Senate. It now awaits Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature before becoming law. A Dec. 9 article in the Detroit Free Press quoted Snyder’s spokeswoman, who indicated that the governor intends to sign the bill pending a final review.

Currently, Washtenaw County offers its employees the option of benefits in an “other eligible adult” category, which includes benefits to same-sex partners as well as opposite-sex partners. There are nine people enrolled in this category of benefits, according to Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director.

Support for Same-Sex Benefits: Public Commentary

Sandi Smith said she was there as a private citizen, even though she serves on the Ann Arbor city council. The council had voted unanimously at its Dec. 5 meeting to support equality, she said, and she hoped the county commissioners would do the same. She noted that the legislation had been passed in the Senate earlier that day, and would go to the governor for his signature imminently. It’s a question of equality, she said. People should be compensated equally, Smith said, and Michigan can’t afford to be viewed as an unfriendly place to be.

Andy LaBarre introduced himself as vice president of of government relations at the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce. In November, the chamber had announced its opposition to the legislation, he said, because of its detrimental effect on the business community. [.pdf of chamber statement on HB 4770 and HB4771] LaBarre said he was there to applaud the board for its resolution.

After LaBarre’s commentary, Rabhi pointed out that in addition to his work at the chamber, LaBarre is a candidate for the county board. [LaBarre, a Democrat and former aide to Congressman John Dingell, has announced his intent to run in 2012 for the newly redistricted seat in Ann Arbor's District 7.] Wes Prater kidded Rabhi about how much LaBarre had paid him to mention that.

Support for Same-Sex Benefits: Commissioner Discussion

In an email to The Chronicle prior to the Dec. 7 meeting, Rabhi described the situation as an issue of fairness and equality – the county should be able to treat all of its employees, regardless of sexual orientation, with the same level of care. He also argued that eliminating the county’s ability to extend benefits would hamper its hiring ability. That’s of particular concern because the county is expected to fill about 100 positions in the coming year, in the wake of a high number of retirements at the end of 2011.

At the Dec. 7 meeting, Rob Turner asked to pull the resolution out of the consent agenda so that it could be considered separately. He said he had appreciated that during his year on the board, commissioners haven’t proposed resolutions on state issues. These kinds of votes don’t promote cohesiveness, he said – they are divisive. Because the resolution sets a bad precedent that the board might later regret, he asked that it be withdrawn so that there aren’t hard feelings among commissioners. He said that this kind of resolution has no influence on state legislation.

Leah Gunn countered that this is a message the board needs to send. There are some county employees whose families depend on health insurance and other benefits provided through the “other eligible adult” category, she noted. Gunn said she felt strongly that this is one instance in which the county would be directly affected by the state legislation, and she supported Rabhi’s resolution.

Brian Mackie, Sandi Smith

Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie and Ann Arbor city councilmember Sandi Smith. Both spoke during public commentary at the county board meeting, on different topics.

Barbara Bergman agreed with Gunn, saying that the quality of life for county employees is the board’s responsibility, and this legislation affects their quality of life. Generally she agreed with Turner that the board should stay away from state issues, but this is a moral obligation to employees, who are doing “yeoman’s work” for the county, she said.

Dan Smith supported Turner’s view opposing the resolution. They could spend lots of time debating issues at the state and national level – or even issues at the United Nations. The board needs to stay focused on Washtenaw County issues, he said.

Rabhi acknowledged the concerns raised by Turner and D. Smith, and said he respected their opinion. He hoped this wouldn’t be divisive, and he didn’t think it would be – the commissioners work together “phenomenally,” he said. But Rabhi added that he wouldn’t withdraw the resolution, saying he firmly believed they needed to take a stand on this, and that it’s important to staff.

Felicia Brabec also supported the resolution. It’s an issue of fairness and equality, she said, and it affects everyone – not just those who receive benefits. Alicia Ping pointed out that there are around 50,000 people in the county who don’t have health insurance, and any legislation that affects people’s access to health insurance is a bad thing, even if it’s just nine people.

Turner said there have been other times when issues at the state level would have affected staff. He cited a time when AFSCME leaders approached commissioners about an issue. In that case, the approach was for individual commissioners to write letters to state legislators. That was a good way to handle it, Turner said.

Conan Smith said he agreed with Turner in terms of process – the board faces challenges, and needs unity. He said they know their legislators extraordinarily well, and it was easy to get in touch. [This remark elicited laughs, as Smith is married to state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-District 18), who attended part of the Dec. 7 meeting.]

In general, C. Smith hoped the board would stay far away from issues that don’t impact the county, and he hoped to minimize the times that they would weigh in on state issues.

Gunn added that anyone can vote the way they want, and it won’t be held against them.

Ronnie Peterson said the resolution had his vote “even without the phone call” – an allusion to Rabhi’s communication with individual commissioners prior to the meeting. The benefits came as part of the condition of employment at the county, he said, and no one should be able to take them away. “Any form of discrimination is wrong,” he said.

Outcome: On a 9-2 vote, commissioners passed the resolution urging state lawmakers to reject HB 4770 and HB 4771. Dissenting were Rob Turner (R-District 1) and Dan Smith (R-District 2).

Brownfield Plans for Ford, Arbor Hills Crossing

Two brownfield plans were on the agenda for the Dec. 7 meeting: for Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant, and Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw. Projects at locations within municipalities that are part of the county brownfield redevelopment authority – including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township – must have brownfield plans approved by the county board.

Brownfield Plan: Arbor Hills Crossing

Commissioners were asked to give initial approval to a brownfield plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw. The project involves tearing down three vacant commercial structures and putting up four one- and two-story buildings throughout the 7.45-acre site – a total of 90,700-square-feet of space for retail stores and offices. Three of the buildings would face Washtenaw Avenue, across the street from the retail complex where Whole Foods grocery is located. The site would include 310 parking spaces. The brownfield plan includes $6.7 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to be paid back over a 19-year period.

The Ann Arbor city council approved the brownfield plan at its Nov. 21, 2011 meeting.

Dan Smith asked staff to tell him how much of the TIF capture would otherwise be coming to the county’s general fund. Brett Lenart, who has provided staff support for the county’s brownfield program, said that the project is expected to bring an annual increase of $432,000 in property taxes for all taxing jurisdictions. Of that, the county’s portion would be $58,913 compared to the current $16,254. These higher amounts would occur after the end of the 19-year period of the brownfield plan.

Smith said he would support this plan reluctantly. The board still hasn’t had a broader discussion about brownfield plans that require TIF capture, he noted. There are tradeoffs, but commissioners haven’t discussed those tradeoffs.

Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the working sessions of the board, said he’d schedule the topic for an upcoming session. [The board had debated the issue of brownfield projects in May of this year, in the context of a request from developers of Packard Square in Ann Arbor.] Rabhi noted that the increase eventually coming to the county is money is money it doesn’t currently have.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to give initial approval to the Arbor Hills Crossing brownfield plan. A final vote will likely occur at the board’s Jan. 18, 2012 meeting, when a public hearing is set. 

Brownfield Plan: Ford’s Rawsonville Plant

The board held a public hearing and was asked to give final approval to a brownfield plan for Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant. The plan would allow Ford to apply for $625,000 in Michigan Business Tax credits. According to a staff memo, the plan – with the potential tax credits – would allow the company to retain 260 jobs by bringing back work that’s currently done in China and Mexico. Investment in 2012 would be about $20 million, with total jobs stabilized at about 700 workers.

Two people spoke during the public hearing. Thomas Partridge criticized the hearing for being held so late in the meeting, when the public would have a difficult time being there. He also said these kinds of hearings should be better publicized. Partridge urged the company to reconsider its request and to lower the amount of tax credits and shorten the time it would receive this assistance. The project was taking away vital resources from schools and other taxing entities, he said.

Jeff Donofrio, with Ford Motor Co.’s government affairs office, said this request is all about keeping the Rawsonville plant competitive within the Ford system, so that it can receive additional investment and retain jobs. The request is part of a package of incentives to bring in new investments for Ford’s hybrid-electric and plug-in electric vehicles. He urged commissioners to support the plan.

During the brief discussion of this item, Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked whether there might be job-shadowing opportunities at the Rawsonville plant for local youth. Donofrio indicated that Ford would be willing to explore that idea.

Ronnie Peterson recalled when the plant had employed more than 5,000 workers, including his father and brother. He was pleased to see jobs coming back, and said the board should be advocates for Ford to continue investing in the county.

As a general commentary on the brownfield program, Wes Prater said the county gives more than $2 million in tax breaks to companies each year, and the board needs a better policy to guide decision-making in this area.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the brownfield plan for Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant.

Western Washtenaw Recycling

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to issue up to $2.7 million in bonds – backed by the county’s full faith and credit – to help pay for a $3.2 million facility operated by the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA). The board had approved a contract for this project at its Sept. 21, 2011 meeting, and taken an initial vote on the bonds at its Nov. 16 meeting.

The WWRA plans to use $500,000 from its reserves to fund part of the project. The $2.7 million in bonds will be repaid through special assessments on households in participating WWRA communities: the city of Chelsea, Dexter Township, Lima Township, Lyndon Township, and Manchester Township. Bridgewater Township is participating in the WWRA, but will not help fund the new facility. The village of Manchester and Sylvan Township have withdrawn from the WWRA.

Drop-off recycling bins will be located in the township, where residents will be assessed $24 per household per year. In Chelsea, where residents will receive curbside recycling service, the assessments will be $56 per household per year. The first of the 15-year assessments, established through the county’s board of public works, will be on the December 2011 tax bills for these areas.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the WWRA bonds.

Energy Subcommittee Formed

On the Dec. 7 agenda was a resolution to create an energy policy subcommittee. The subcommittee’s purpose is to help develop a county energy policy. Such a policy is required in order to receive federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants.

By way of background related to energy issues, at its Aug. 3, 2011 meeting, the board had held a public hearing and subsequently approved an interlocal agreement with the Southeast Michigan Energy Office Community Alliance (SEMRO). The Ferndale-based nonprofit (SEMRO) provides technical services to the county in identifying and implementing federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant projects. [.pdf of interlocal agreement]

The energy office is a division of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. County commissioner and board chair Conan Smith is CEO of the alliance. The board voted initially to join the energy office at its March 17, 2010 meeting. Smith abstained from that vote. Smith was absent from the Aug. 3 meeting.

At the Dec. 7 meeting, Ronnie Peterson complained about a lack of information regarding the resolution. He asked how far-reaching the subcommittee’s scope would be. Tony VanDerworp, who leads the county’s energy initiatives, told commissioners that having an energy policy is a requirement for receiving federal block grants. But the subcommittee’s charge can be whatever the board wants it to be, he said. The subcommittee’s focus was intended to form a policy for internal purposes, he added – looking at county-owned buildings, its vehicle fleet, and overall energy conservation efforts. But it could be farther-reaching.

In response to a query about who would be appointed, Conan Smith said the members would be commissioners Rob Turner, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Yousef Rabhi. However, he added, others could join if they were interested.

Barbara Bergman noted that any policies or actions proposed by the subcommittee would come before the board for approval. That is, she said, the subcommittee wouldn’t be “czaristic.”

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to create an energy policy subcommittee.

York Twp. Drain Project

Commissioners were asked to authorize the county’s full faith and credit to back the payment of bonds used to repair sinkholes and replace broken tile in a drain along Saline-Milan Road in York Township. [.pdf of map showing project area]

The amount of the bonds is not to exceed $235,000, and will be retired in part through special assessments against the property owners in that area’s drainage district. Money from assessments will account for 69.16% of the project cost, with remaining project costs prepaid by York Township (20%), and Washtenaw County (10.84%). The Wasthenaw County road commission will pay half of the county’s portion of this project, which is being managed by the county office of the water resources commissioner.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to authorize bonds for the York Township drain project.


Immediately prior to the board’s Dec. 7, commissioners held an appointments caucus to review applications to 15 county-appointed boards, commissioners and committees – a bi-annual process.

Washtenaw County appointments caucus

The start of the Washtenaw County appointments caucus. Other commissioners arrived later in the meeting. From left: Alicia Ping, deputy county clerk Peter Simms, Wes Prater, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Leah Gunn, Rob Turner.

Many of the applicants already serve on these groups and were seeking reappointments. Most of the board, commissions and committees require certain categories of people to serve. For example, the brownfield redevelopment authority board required the appointment of someone from a development company (Douglas McClure), a nonprofit (Anna Sandhu), and a municipality (Todd Campbell). There were no other applicants for those slots, and all were reappointed.

In some cases, there were insufficient applicants to fill all the available seats. The local emergency planning committee, for example, has 12 seats to fill, but only one person – Leon Moore – applied.

Some of the other appointments include:

  • Washtenaw County Historic District Commission: Paul Darling (general public), Nancy Snyder (general public) and Alice Ralph (architect) were reappointed to terms ending Dec. 31, 2014.
  • Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission: Jimmie Maggard, Janice Anschuetz and Robert Marans were all reappointed in the category of general public to terms expiring Dec. 31, 2014. A fourth position was left open, also in the category of general public, although two other people applied. Conan Smith, the county board chair who also serves on the parks & rec commission, said there’s some concern about the aging membership of the commission – about two-thirds of the group is 70 or old, he said, and younger commissioners are needed. He wanted to keep the fourth position open to take time to find someone who loves the work and “will be able to stick around.”
  • Environmental Health Code Appeals Board/Public Health Advisory Committee: Jim Carty (general public).
  • Community Action Board: Much of the caucus discussion focused on this board, which had nine openings and 16 applicants. Ultimately only six appointments were made: Mary Smith (consumer/Head Start), Joe Dulin (private sector), Deloisteen Brown (private sector), Howard Edelson (private sector), Faye Askew-King (private sector) and Greg Pordon (public sector/Dept. of Human Services). Several other current members did not respond to queries about whether they wanted to be reappointed, and the plan was to attempt to contact them again before making a decision on the remaining appointments. The length of these terms varies.
  • Workforce Development Board: Nine positions were open and 12 people applied, but the board only appointed seven people on Dec. 7, with remaining appointments to be made at a later date. The appointees are: Paul Ganz (private sector), Charles Penner (private sector/economic development), Les Alexander (private sector), Howard Edelson (private sector), Steven Gulick (organized labor) and Wes Prater (organized labor). The length of these terms varies.
  • Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee: Two reappointments were made to this group, which oversees the county’s natural areas preservation program: Rane Curl (land trust/conservation) and David Lutton (professional real estate or development practice). The terms end Dec. 31, 2013. A third reappointment request – for John Russell (environmental education) – was denied. In explaining the decision to commissioners at the appointments caucus, Conan Smith described Russell as passionate, but not a constructive committee member. Smith said the position will be reposted, and noted that other applications came in after the deadline. Barbara Bergman urged Smith to send a letter of thanks to Russell for his service.

Outcome: At the board’s regular meeting, appointments were approved unanimously. [.pdf of all appointments]

Communications/Public Commentary

There are various opportunities for communications from commissioners as well as general public commentary.

Communications: Parks & Recreation Grants

Conan Smith, who also serves on the county parks & recreation commission, asked parks & rec director Bob Tetens to come forward and report on state grants that were recently awarded to projects in the county. Tetens reported that earlier in the day he’d been notified by Kirk Profit – a Lansing-based lobbyist for the county – that the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund had awarded grants to four local projects: (1) a skatepark  to be built at Ann Arbor’s Veterans Memorial Park, (2) improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery, (3) improvements at Rutherford Pool in Ypsilanti, and (4) a Michigan Ave. (US-12) Border-to-Border bridge project.

In addition, Tetens said the county had been awarded $2.2 million toward the purchase of a 54-acre parcel near Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor Township, through the county’s natural areas preservation program. In total, about $3.5 million were awarded to projects within the county, Tetens said. “We were happy.”

Rolland Sizemore Jr., another commissioner serving on the parks & recreation commission, thanked state Sen. Rebekah Warren for her help in securing the funds.

Ronnie Peterson also praised Warren, especially for pointing out this possible funding source for the Rutherford pool, which is located in Peterson’s district. He also thanked Profit and others for working on these projects.

Communications: Pearl Harbor Day, Armistice Day

Rolland Sizemore Jr. noted that Dec. 7 was Pearl Harbor Day, saying that he wanted people to keep that in mind.

Dan Smith said he’d recently come across some relevant state legislation:

MCL 46.11a Armistice day celebration; appropriation by board of supervisors. [The board of supervisors is a predecessor to the current board of commissioners.]

The board of supervisors is hereby authorized to appropriate such sum as they deem fit for the purpose of a public celebration on Armistice day. The board shall provide for the expenditure of this money in any way they see fit.

He noted that Armistice Day is now called Veterans Day, celebrated in September. He said his father served in the navy from September 1945 through August 1946, and was always proud of that naval service.

Public Commentary: Lourdes Salazar Bautista

In addition to the public commentary reported above, six people spoke regarding the imminent deportation of Ann Arbor resident Lourdes Salazar Bautista. Many others were in the audience carrying signs of support and applauding those who addressed the board. Some of the speakers had also attended the Dec. 5 Ann Arbor city council meeting and spoken during public commentary there as well.

Speaking Spanish that was translated by an interpreter, Lourdes Salazar Bautista described how she’d lived in Ann Arbor for 14 years, fulfilling a dream of hers to come here. Her father had often come to America to work in the fields, and had spoken highly of the country. Her three children – ages 7, 9 and 13 – were all born here. Everything was going well until agents of the federal Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) office had detained her in front of her oldest daughter last year. They deported her husband, but told her that everything else was fine. Then in September of this year, they told her that she would be deported too – her deportation date is set for Dec. 27. She tearfully asked commissioners to do whatever was in their power to help.

Laura Sanders of the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR) said that Bautista’s case is not isolated. Washtenaw County is a target because of its proximity to the border with Canada, and the need for federal immigration official to meet deportation quotas. Thousands of residents are affected, she said. Sanders urged commissioners to sign a letter of support for Bautista, that would be sent to ICE director John Morton and Janet Napolitano, director of homeland security. [.pdf of WICIR's cover letter to commissioners] [.pdf of proposed letter to Morton and Napolitano] Sanders praised county sheriff Jerry Clayton, saying he had been accessible to WICIR on this issue.

Diana Carolina, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, said she was the daughter of an immigrant who was a domestic worker, often coming home with her hands smelling like cleaning products. ICE is tearing families apart, she said, including families with children who, like her, have assimilated to the U.S. She noted the irony of the U.S. government promoting policies that destroyed economies in South America, while at the same time deporting people who were forced to come to America to find jobs.

Carlos Zalval identified himself as a member of WICIR and of the St. Mary Student Parish, where Bautista is also a member. He’s known Bautista for years, and described her as a role model for families, working with children even under this adverse situation. She is a positive influence, and the U.S. would gain a productive and caring person if she stayed. She’s a hard worker and pays taxes, he said. Immigrants move this country forward, and he urged commissioners to help stop her deportation.

Linda Kurtz is a neighbor of Bautista, living across the street from her for more than 10 years. Bautista is a good neighbor and a good friend, Kurtz said, and their children played together for many years. She’s hard-working, quiet, respectful and caring, and turned a run-down house on the block into a nice home. Of the nine houses on the block, two had been foreclosed on and one of those is still vacant. The block doesn’t need another empty house, she said. Bautista pays her bills on time, and is an asset to the community – an embodiment of the American dream, Kurtz said, and it would be devastating in she was deported.

Priscila Martinez read a letter from David DeYoung, the principal of Wines Elementary, where Bautista’s two youngest children attend school. In the letter, DeYoung described the children as model students, and said that Bautista is an active member in the school community. Pulling them out of school would have a devastating affect on their future. Martinez also told commissioners that other letters were being written in support of Bautista by leaders of the Catholic church and by Congressman John Dingell and Sen. Carl Levin.

Three commissioners – Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, and Yousef Rabhi – responded to the public commentary, thanking people for coming and indicating their support. Gunn noted that all the commissioners had signed a copy of the letter to Morton and Napolitano – it had been passed around the board table earlier in the meeting.

Public Commentary: Thomas Partridge

In addition to the public hearing on Ford’s brownfield plan, Thomas Partridge spoke during the four other opportunities for public commentary during the Dec. 7 meeting. He reiterated themes he frequently touches on during commentary at various public meetings, advocating for action to bring more affordable housing, transportation, education and health care to the county’s most vulnerable residents. He urged commissioners to enact protections for the vulnerable, and impose penalties for those who bully the disadvantaged. He asked the board to reverse course and find a way to fully fund programs like Head Start.

Partridge also called on commissioners to oppose the deportation of Lourdes Salazar Bautista, saying that the county’s corporation counsel should go to court to seek an injunction against such an action.

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, Jan. 4, 2012 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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