Transit Issue Raised at County Board

Also: Dispatch consolidation OK'd; Head Start severed by mid-2012

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 18, 2012): The Ann Arbor city council has been grappling with the issue of a four-party countywide transit agreement – a resolution regarding the accord is on Monday’s council agenda. And although Washtenaw County is one of the four parties being asked to approve the agreement, it hasn’t come before the county board yet as a formal resolution.

Stephen Kunselman, Mary Jo Callan

At the Washtenaw County board of commissioners Jan. 18, 2012 meeting, Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman talks with Mary Jo Callan, director of the joint Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community and economic development. Kunselman was on hand to air concerns about the proposed countywide transit authority. (Photos by the writer.)

However, the issue emerged at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting when two people – including city councilmember Stephen Kunselman – spoke during public commentary to share their views with county commissioners. Among Kunselman’s points was a concern that Ann Arbor might end up shouldering the burden for countywide transit, if most other communities opt out.

A few commissioners responded to the public commentary. Alicia Ping – who represents a district covering Saline and several townships in southwest Washtenaw – indicated that many people in her district were not inclined to participate in a countywide transit authority. Wes Prater expressed concerns about the process so far, calling it convoluted and confusing.

The main action at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting also reflected ties between the county and Ann Arbor – a presentation and vote on the consolidation of county and Ann Arbor 911 dispatch services. The proposal, which was unanimously approved, called for entering into a contract with the city from Feb. 1, 2012 to Jan. 30, 2017. The city will pay $759,089 annually for dispatch services. In addition, the county expects to receive an increase of $677,893 annually from 911 fees. The Ann Arbor city council had already approved the agreement at its Dec. 5, 2011 meeting.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton told commissioners that he believes the dispatch model they’re developing will be among the best practices nationally, and will be replicated by other dispatch operations in the country. This partnership between Washtenaw County’s two largest public safety entities will strengthen core police services in the county, he said.

In other action, the board gave initial approval to one of the last remaining contracts with a union representing Washtenaw County employees – a two-year collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 3052, representing 52 general supervisors. A final vote by the board is expected at its Feb. 1 meeting. Negotiations continue with four remaining bargaining units that have not yet reached an agreement on a new contract.

The board also approved a brownfield plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a development in Ann Arbor at the corner of Washtenaw and Platt, and formally accepted a $3 million grant to support the Washtenaw County Sustainable Community project, which focuses on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor spanning Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township. Arbor Hills Crossing will be located along that corridor.

County administrator Verna McDaniel updated the board on turning over the Washtenaw Head Start program to federal officials, a move that commissioners had approved last year as part of the budget process. The county will end its 46-year affiliation with Head Start on July 31. McDaniel reported that the Washtenaw Intermediate School District is interested in applying to take over the program locally, and that federal officials plan to issue a request for proposals (RFP) during the first quarter of this year.

Not mentioned during McDaniel’s update was the status of an investigation begun last year into actions of the program’s two top officials, director Patricia Horne McGee and Lovida Roach, the program’s second-in-command. Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, said the allegations that prompted the investigation were “founded.” Heidt said the county could not release details, but that no misuse of funds was involved. Horne McGee retired at the end of 2011. Roach will remain on leave until the county relinquishes control of Head Start, and at that point she will also retire, Heidt said.

The meeting also included a transition of sorts. Commissioner Leah Gunn has typically taken on the parliamentary action of moving the agenda at each of the board’s meetings, which entails reading off the agenda items. Gunn, who is not running for re-election this year, announced that Wednesday’s meeting was her “farewell agenda” – she would be relinquishing that task for the remainder of her tenure on the board. [Her term runs through the end of 2012.] After she completed the task this final time, Yousef Rabhi teased her, saying Gunn “moved the agenda very well.”

Countywide Transit

There was no agenda item regarding the effort that’s underway to form a countywide transit authority, but the topic came up during public commentary, prompting some commissioners to respond.

A four-party agreement is being considered by Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The agreement among the four parties would set up a framework for the transition of the AATA to a countywide transit authority, incorporated under Michigan’s Act 196 of 1986. AATA currently operates under Act 55 of 1963. For a discussion of the key differences between the two pieces of legislation, see Chronicle coverage: “AATA Gets Advice on Countywide Transit.”

If approved, the four-way agreement would assign specific conditions and responsibilities to each of the parties as part of the transition to a countywide transit authority. The role of approving, signing and filing the articles of incorporation for the new transit authority would fall to Washtenaw County. [.pdf of draft articles of incorporation]

The county board has not taken any action on the proposed countywide plan. However, commissioners have been briefed by AATA staff about the proposal, most recently at the board’s Dec. 7, 2011 meeting. At that meeting, AATA CEO Michael Ford gave a presentation on the overall plan and the county’s role.

Countywide Transit: Public Commentary

Stephen Kunselman introduced himself as a resident of Ann Arbor who serves on the Ann Arbor city council. He quickly read headlines and excerpts from news articles about public transit initiatives in other communities, including Grand Rapids and Detroit. He told commissioners that any community in Washtenaw County that opts in to the Act 196 authority would have its millage revenues dictated by the whims of Ann Arbor. [The proposed governance structure includes a 15-member board, with 7 of those board members appointed from Ann Arbor.]

Kunselman also said he’s not interested in Ann Arbor “going it alone.” He plans to propose an amendment to the four-party agreement that would stipulate if Ann Arbor is the only community that opts in, then the agreement would be null and void. His final point was that true regional transportation should go beyond the borders of Washtenaw County, but that it shouldn’t be carried on the backs of Ann Arbor residents.

[Kunselman has raised similar concerns at Ann Arbor city council meetings. At its Jan. 9 meeting, the council debated the proposed four-party agreement and ultimately voted to delay voting on the accord until its Jan. 23 meeting. The council also set a public hearing on the issue for that date.]

LuAnne Bullington also spoke on the topic of the countywide transit plan. Saying she’s an Ann Arbor resident who has used public transportation for decades and has attended numerous meetings on the issue, Bullington said she knows a lot about public transportation. She asked why the board wanted to set up an Act 196 authority, when AATA is already set up to provide public transportation to other parts of the county?

Out-county communities have said they don’t want it, Bullington contended. So why is this board pushing for it? [Throughout her commentary, she repeatedly addressed commissioners and called the countywide transit proposal "your plan."] Why does the board want Ann Arbor taxpayers to pay for it – why doesn’t the county pay? Why should AATA turn over its money to an organization that doesn’t exist yet? she asked. Bullington called the countywide transit proposal a “pig in a poke.”

Countywide Transit: Commissioner Response

A few commissioners responded to the commentary on countywide transit. Wes Prater – who represents District 4, covering the southeast portion of the county – said the county board has never taken any position of any sort regarding a countywide transit authority. Individual commissioners might have made statements for or against it, he said, but there has never been any action taken by the board. It seems to be driven by the mayor and city council of Ann Arbor, he said. A lot of money has been spent on consultants to develop the plan, he said. But Prater said he doesn’t believe a countywide authority will work. Four townships have already opted out, he noted, and he estimated that more than half of the county’s townships will eventually choose not to participate.

Alicia Ping – the commissioner representing District 3, which includes the city of Saline and townships in southwest Washtenaw County – reported that in her district, one mayor and one township supervisor have expressed interest in the countywide transit authority. But no one else in her district wants it, she said. Ping expressed skepticism that the authority could be considered countywide, if most communities in the county don’t join it.

Later in the meeting, Prater brought up the topic again. He said it was strange that during the discussions by AATA staff of a countywide system, no one mentioned the University of Michigan bus system. It seems like there’s a missed opportunity for collaboration there, he said. There are duplications in administration and tasks between the two systems, he said, and about 30,000 students supplementing the population of Ann Arbor.

[Even though UM also runs its own buses to provide service between its campuses, some collaboration already exists between the AATA and the university. AATA's M-Ride program, for example, allows UM students, faculty, and staff to ride AATA buses without paying a fare when they board. The program makes up about 40% of the AATA's fixed-route ridership. UM is also a part of a partnership to explore a high-capacity connector from Plymouth Road near US-23 down through downtown Ann Arbor along State Street to I-94. The middle part of that route would connect the UM north campus and central campus.]

Prater described the process of forming an Act 196 as convoluted. “When I get it figured out a little bit more, I’m going to be asking some more questions,” he said. It doesn’t seem like the out-county population is dense enough to support public transportation, Prater said, which leads him to believe that AATA and other supporters of the plan are just looking for additional tax revenues. He also noted that Gov. Rick Snyder has a plan for regional transit that would add yet another wrinkle. “It’s quite confusing,” he concluded.

Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, said that having additional discussions about transit wouldn’t be a bad thing. He noted that an item originally on the Jan. 19 working session agenda – a discussion led by board chair Conan Smith about proposed state legislation for regional transit – would be postponed. Smith indicated that the state legislation has not moved forward yet. [See also Chronicle coverage: "AATA in Transition, Briefed on State's Plans"]

Countywide Transit: Working Session Follow-up

The following evening, at the board’s Jan. 19 working session, LuAnne Bullington returned to address the commissioners again during public commentary. She referred to the countywide transit plan as the mayor’s regional transit program – presumably a reference to Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje. She said she’d brought more documents related to the plan to give to commissioners, since it seemed to her that they weren’t informed.

Bullington questioned why there was movement forward on WALLY, a possible commuter rail service on a 26-mile route between Ann Arbor and Howell, in Livingston County.

[At its Sept. 15, 2011 meeting, the AATA board passed a resolution that expressed general support for the idea of continuing to work with surrounding communities to move forward with the Washtenaw and Livingston Line (WALLY) project. The resolution's one “resolved” clause required that the $50,000 allocated for WALLY in the 2012 budget cannot be spent, except with the explicit consent of the AATA board. At the AATA board's Jan. 19, 2012 meeting, CEO Michael Ford indicated that the WALLY project itself could not happen without some capital funding that had failed to materialize in the form of TIGER III grants. The AATA expects to see a plan for what to do about WALLY in February or March.]

Bullington said she’d been told that WALLY is dead. Yet the AATA has sent out a request for proposals (RFP) for a WALLY station that’s due Feb. 2, she said. [.pdf of RFP specifications for a WALLY railroad station feasibility study and engineering support for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.]

Bullington also wondered why the mayor is asking the county board to create a new transit authority, when the governor is talking about creating a bus rapid transit system for the four-county metro Detroit area, including Washtenaw County. And if the county is being asked to create the authority, why are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti being asked to approve a framework for it? she asked. She said that Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman had asked AATA CEO Michael Ford how much Ann Arbor taxpayers would pay for a countywide system, but contended he didn’t get an answer.

Why should there be a vote on a framework when it’s not clear what’s being voted on? she asked. She said the mayor used to sell real estate. Would anyone want to buy a $9 million house without seeing it? The cities are being set up for a bait and switch, Bullington contended. There shouldn’t be a rush about it, especially since the governor is expected to announce his transit plan in February, she concluded.

Responding to Bullington’s commentary, board chair Conan Smith said it would be worthwhile to schedule a working session about the intent of the four-party agreement. There have been some amendments proposed by other governing entities, he noted. Smith said he felt that the board should be asserting that the process isn’t being handled in the right way. If four different bodies can amend the agreement piecemeal, the process could take forever, he said. It would be better to have a negotiating committee work on the agreement, then take it back to the four governing bodies for an up or down vote.

Barbara Bergman expressed reluctance to get involved in negotiating an agreement, saying it’s not the county’s role to broker a deal.

Wes Prater said he felt like there are things going on that he doesn’t know about, and he asked county administrator Verna McDaniel to explain how the county was involved. If the county is the enabling public entity, why aren’t county staff and commissioners involved in writing the articles of incorporation or the four-party agreement? he asked. Although individual commissioners have taken a stance, the county as an entity hasn’t taken part in developing this transit plan, he said. Prater wondered why the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, was working on it – at whose request was he doing that?

As he’d done the previous evening, Prater described the process as convoluted, and he wondered why it was so difficult and confusing when there were easier ways to proceed. “It looks to me like there’s some kind of scamming going on,” he concluded.

McDaniel responded by saying that any work the corporation counsel is doing is to review documents on behalf of the board.

Noting that he has attended information sessions held by AATA, Dan Smith said his understanding is that the county’s role is extremely limited, and that the board could decide to play no role whatsoever. By participating, the county would streamline the process, he said. It’s possible for the townships and cities to create a transit authority without the county’s involvement, he said, but it would entail more red tape. If the county’s role were more extensive, Smith said he’d have some concerns. As it is, they’ll just be filing paperwork “and that’s it,” he said.

911 Dispatch Consolidation

The board was asked to give approval to move forward with consolidating 911 dispatch operations between the county sheriff’s office and the city of Ann Arbor. The proposal called for entering into a contract with the city from Feb. 1, 2012 to Jan. 30, 2017. The city would pay $759,089 annually for dispatch services. In addition, the county expects to receive an increase of $677,893 annually from 911 fees.

The Ann Arbor city council had already approved the agreement at its Dec. 5, 2011 meeting. The city expects eventually to save $500,000 a year with the move, which will entail laying off all of the city’s current dispatchers, not all of whom would be able to obtain employment within the expanded sheriff’s office dispatch operation.

The combined operation is proposed to employ 30 full-time dispatchers and 12-15 part-time dispatchers. The county’s action on Wednesday called for creating 15 full-time employees, including 13 communications coordinators (dispatchers), one dispatch operations coordinator and one dispatch manager.

For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Ann Arbor, Washtenaw: Joint 911 Dispatch?

911 Dispatch Consolidation: Presentation

Sheriff Jerry Clayton began his presentation by saying this consolidation is an example of good public policy. It improves services and creates efficiencies, and while both dispatch units were “magnificent,” he said, they’ll be enhanced by coming together.

Jerry Clayton

Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton addresses the county board of commissioners. In the background is Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the sheriff's office.

It’s not a new idea, Clayton told the board – the possibility of consolidated dispatch has been kicked around for more than two decades. If communities want their own dispatch operations, that’s their right, he said. But it makes sense to streamline operations and save money.

Since 1990, the county has operated its own dispatch, and provided dispatch services under contract with Northfield Township, the Michigan State Police, the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, and jurisdictions in the county that contract for police services. In 2009, the county restructured its dispatch operations, changing the number of supervisors and increasing the number of dispatcher positions.

In January of 2010, the county started providing dispatch services for the city of Ypsilanti. It was a decision largely driven by Ypsilanti’s difficult financial situation, Clayton said, and is an example of how the county tries to provide a safety net for communities. The savings allowed Ypsilanti to keep another police officer on the street, he said.

In May of 2010, the county dispatch co-located to the same site as the Ann Arbor dispatch operation – in the fire station across the street from Ann Arbor city hall. It was not part of a long-term plan to consolidate, Clayton said. Rather, it made sense to have dispatchers in the same room for better communication, he said, in part because crime knows no boundaries.

In March of 2011, public safety officials with the county and city of Ann Arbor began talks about how to find additional efficiencies. It was in the context of budget challenges that the city was facing, Clayton said. Ann Arbor police chief Barnett Jones asked the county for a proposal, and after further talks, Jones decided it made sense to contract out for services. The proposal was taken to city council last year, and approved at the council’s Dec. 5, 2011 meeting.

This was a major move for the city, Clayton said. The dispatch operation is in some ways the lifeline of the police force, he said, and it shows great trust in the county to contract out that service. The decision was not made lightly, he said, in part because it would be very difficult and expensive for the city to reverse the decision in the future.

The consolidation is anticipated to save the city $500,000 annually, enabling Ann Arbor to retain more police officers, Clayton said. It allows the county to maintain an adequate dispatch staff – the operation has been understaffed for some time, and has had to rely on overtime hours. That issue can now be addressed, he said.

This chart shows cost savings associated with dispatch partnerships with Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. (Image links to larger chart.)

Clayton gave three examples of the cost savings from contracts with Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, and from the county’s co-location with Ann Arbor.

Clayton said the dispatch contract with Ypsilanti brings in $73,000 annually to the county, plus an additional $75,228 in 911 fees. Co-locating with Ann Arbor saved $430,000 every eight years by eliminating the need for a phone switch replacement, and saved another $80,000 every 10 years by eliminating the need to replace a logging recorder. The county also saw a one-time $440,000 savings from co-location by eliminating the need to buy equipment for the Michigan Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS).

The new contract with Ann Arbor will bring in $759,089 annually to the county, plus an additional $678,000 in 911 fees that were previously paid to Ann Arbor.

Separately, each community that contracts with the sheriff’s office for police services pays for dispatch services too, Clayton noted. For each police services unit (PSU) – the term used to indicate one sheriff’s deputy plus overhead – the contract includes $10,707 for dispatch services. In 2012, there are contracts for 79 PSUs countywide, which will bring in an additional $845,853 for dispatch services.

Clayton outlined the benefits of consolidating dispatch services with Ann Arbor. It would save the city $500,000 annually, allowing Ann Arbor to maintain more police officers on the street. For the sheriff’s office, consolidation will relieve staffing shortages and reduce the use of overtime, as well as bring in additional revenues.

Consolidation also addresses some challenges of co-location, he said, including the lack of a common mission, common standards, and frustration over how the work is distributed. There will now be one approach to training and quality assurance, he noted. Performance will be measured uniformly, and reported regularly. Measurements will fall into four categories: (1) operations, including call volume, speed to answer and speed to dispatch; (2) financial, including overtime hours, performance to budget, and cost per 911 call; (3) service quality, such as satisfaction of law enforcement officers and citizens who use 911; and (4) development, including the number of certifications and hours of training per employee.

Clayton said he believes the model they’re developing will be among the best practices nationally, and will be replicated by other dispatch operations in the country. A partnership of Washtenaw County’s two largest public safety entities will strengthen core police services in the county, he said.

After showing some schematics of the operation’s layout, Clayton concluded his presentation by describing the proposed number of employees for the combined dispatch. The goal is to employ 30 full-time dispatchers, 12-15 part-time dispatchers, one manager and two supervisors.

As part of approving the overall project, the board was being asked to vote on a resolution that authorized creating 15 new full-time employees, including 13 communications coordinators (dispatchers), one dispatch operations coordinator and one dispatch manager.

Clayton then fielded questions and comments from commissioners, who were uniformly supportive. This report organizes the board’s discussion thematically.

911 Dispatch Consolidation: Commissioner Discussion – Logistics

Felicia Brabec called it a wonderful example of collaboration. She asked how the consolidation would happen logistically – what would happen to people who called in on the day of the switchover, for example?

The physical logistics won’t be a problem, Clayton replied. He said the city of Ann Arbor did a great job in designing the co-location facility, where both county and Ann Arbor dispatchers have been operating. For the caller, it will be a seamless transition.

But there are significant logistics to handle in terms of personnel, he said. The county currently employs 17 dispatchers. If the board approves the proposal, another 13 dispatchers will need to be hired. Clayton said he’s hopeful that some Ann Arbor dispatchers will join the new operation, but he knows that some are planning to retire, or are seeking jobs elsewhere.

He indicated that if half of the Ann Arbor dispatchers come over, that would go a long way toward easing the transition. The county had held a job fair the previous Saturday, Clayton said, and they had identified 15 potential candidates from that event who’ll be brought back for further interviews. [The job fair was held at the same time as an Ann Arbor City Democratic Party event, which a representative from the sheriff's office attended on his behalf to announce that Clayton will be running for re-election this year.]

Another piece of the transition is training, Clayton said. After Clayton took office in 2009, the previous training program for dispatchers was scrapped, and a new one was developed that includes three weeks of classroom training. In addition, there are over 250 core tasks that dispatchers must master and prove proficiency in, he said.

All of this must be coordinated with the city, Clayton said. He did not identify a specific date when the transition will occur, saying that it’s a floating date, as different activities of the dispatch operation are aligned.

911 Dispatch Consolidation: Commissioner Discussion – Finances

Brabec referred to the budget that Clayton had presented, and asked why there’s almost an $800,000 difference between revenues and expenditures. [The proposed 2012 dispatch budget identifies $2,653,036 in revenues and $3,449,881 in expenditures.] Clayton said that roughly $800,000 in additional revenues will come from a line item in the police services budget – communities that contract with the sheriff’s office for patrol deputies pay for dispatch services as part of their contracts.

Yousef Rabhi described the consolidation as a phenomenal project. When he was out campaigning, he said, he told residents about the co-location of Ann Arbor and county dispatchers, and people thought it was a great move. Now, it’s taken to the next level, he said.

Mark Breckenridge, Sarah Taylor

Mark Breckenridge, the county's director of emergency management, and dispatch operations coordinator Sarah Taylor.

Rabhi asked how the E-911 funds are distributed. Mark Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management, explained that the state collects 911 fees from wireless providers based on the number of wireless devices that are registered for Washtenaw County. Funds from those fees are paid to the county quarterly.

There is also a 911 revenue stream from landlines. The distribution of those funds is overseen by a county emergency telephone district board. At this point, each of the three dispatch centers in the county – in the sheriff’s office, Ann Arbor, and Pittsfield Township – get funds based on a formula that factors in population, landline count and call volume.

In response to another question from Rabhi, Breckenridge said that revenues from landlines are decreasing, while wireless revenues are increasing. In two years, 911 revenues will be based only on population.

Rabhi clarified with Clayton that the contract with Ann Arbor runs for five years, and that although the annual amount that Ann Arbor will pay doesn’t change, the amount reflects anticipated cost increases over that period. He also confirmed with Clayton that the contract is expected to be renegotiated in five years, and that any cost increases will be part of a renegotiated rate. Clayton said he’s already had that conversation with the city, and that they know they should anticipate a higher rate in the next contract.

Rabhi said it’s great to see a budget neutral proposal that’s helping to streamline government operations. Clayton said he appreciated the kind words that were directed at him, but that the staff has been instrumental in developing the plan, and that it was the vision of Ann Arbor police chief Barnett Jones that made the consolidation possible.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked a series of questions. He clarified with Clayton that the county is paying $12,500 annually to the city for rent at the dispatch facility. If dispatch operations eventually move to the county’s western service center on Zeeb Road, would the city then pay the county rent? Clayton said the rent that the county pays is part of the context for what the city will pay to the county after consolidation.

Sizemore asked why the dispatch operations couldn’t move to the county’s Zeeb Road facility now? [The western service center on Zeeb Road includes considerable vacant space.] Clayton replied that the sheriff’s office wants to be part of the county’s overall infrastructure plan, but it would be too much to take on a physical relocation at this time. Moving would also cost a substantial amount, he noted. Sizemore asked if Clayton is budgeting for an eventual move. The sheriff indicated that his staff is working with county administrator Verna McDaniel and Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director, to see how a move might fit into upcoming budgets.

Who’ll pay for equipment upgrades? Sizemore asked. The county would need to pay for upgrades for its dispatch operations regardless of whether it provides services to other entities, Clayton said. In response to another question from Sizemore, Clayton said the county has the capacity to handle dispatch operations for other communities as well.

911 Dispatch Consolidation: Commissioner Discussion – Technology

Alicia Ping asked if there is any way to quantify the number of cell phone calls that are directed to different dispatch operations. If she places a 911 call from Pittsfield Township, do county dispatchers answer it?

Breckenridge explained that there are currently three public safety answering points (PSAPs) in Washtenaw County – that is, dispatch operations that answer 911 calls. Right now, such calls are handled by the sheriff’s office, the Ann Arbor police department, and the Pittsfield Township department of public safety. Only a limited number of PSAPs are allowed, he said, in order to eliminate confusion from overlapping cell phone service coverage.

Ping wanted to know how calls were distributed to the three PSAPs. Breckenridge said he could find out and send that information to her. Ping said her point is that the county is subsidizing certain communities that don’t pay for police services, yet rely on the county’s dispatch operations when their residents call 911.

Barbara Bergman asked whether the dispatcher could locate a caller who makes a 911 call. Yes, Breckenridge replied. If your phone has GPS, then it’s possible to spot the location directly. If the phone isn’t equipped with GPS, then it’s possible to use cell towers to triangulate the location within 50-150 yards, he said. Eventually, all cell phones will send GPS signals to make the location easy to determine.

If her constituents ask what kind of phone to buy, Bergman said, it seems she should tell them to buy a smartphone with GPS. She noted that if a triangulated location covers 150 yards, that means emergency responders might have to knock on three doors before finding the right house. Breckenridge replied that the best phone for someone to have who’s homebound is a landline. For landline calls, the dispatcher sees a display of the caller’s phone number and address.

911 Dispatch Consolidation: Commissioner Discussion – Partnerships

Leah Gunn praised the project, noting that the county and city of Ann Arbor have been trying to coordinate dispatch operations for more than 20 years. She gave credit to Clayton for making it happen, saying that the residents of Ann Arbor trust and respect him, and obviously the ANn Arbor city council does too. It’s a great collaboration, she said.

Rob Turner thanked Clayton and his staff. A year ago, Turner recalled, the board held a retreat and reached consensus that public safety was one of the top priorities for the county. The only way to make that happen is through collaboration and partnerships. Another example is the police services steering committee, Turner said, and its work on developing a new police services contract for local communities to contract for sheriff deputy patrols.

The steering committee worked to bring costs down for the contracting communities, Turner said, adding that he realized Ann Arbor shouldered some of the financial burden for that. Now, the county is in a position to help Ann Arbor lower the city’s costs, he said. Consolidation maximizes the police services that are offered to the county’s residents, he said, noting that there are many needs, especially in some areas where crime is high.

Turner told Clayton that other police forces within the county view Clayton as a friend and partner, and speak highly of him. Though there are ways to improve, Turner said he’s very impressed with the work that’s been done so far.

Wes Prater told Clayton that he’d done an amazing job in putting this consolidation together. He hoped it would make it easier for Clayton to actually take a vacation in the next 3-4 years. Clayton indicated that his wife hoped so, too.

Dan Smith pointed to some of the historical information that Clayton had mentioned – the county has been handling dispatch for Northfield Township since 1990. Smith – who represents District 2, which includes that township – said he’s never heard of any problems related to dispatch operations. When he served on the township board, Smith said, he did a ride-along with the police in a pursuit situation. The dispatchers handled it smoothly, he said, and you couldn’t tell that the dispatchers weren’t located in Northfield Township. He said he was certain that it will work out as well for Ann Arbor as it has for the township.

Outcome: The board unanimously authorized moving forward with consolidating 911 dispatch operations between the county sheriff’s office and the city of Ann Arbor.

Head Start Update

County administrator Verna McDaniel gave an update on the process of relinquishing administration of the local Head Start program, which the county has managed for 46 years. Federal officials have been formally notified, she said, and the program will be officially relinquished back to the feds on July 31, 2012. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Options Weighed for Washtenaw Head Start," "Head Start Advocates Make Emotional Plea" and "Washtenaw County Budget Set for 2012-2013"]

Brian Mackie, Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie talks with county administrator Verna McDaniel.

McDaniel also noted that the former Head Start director, Patricia Horne McGee, had retired as of Dec. 31. Cassandra Sheriff, site director for the Ypsilanti Head Start location, is acting as interim director.

McDaniel and board chair Conan Smith met earlier this month with the local Head Start policy council. McDaniel described it as a positive meeting, with members asking pertinent questions about the transition process. The council had expressed interest in meeting with officials from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), which is applying to the federal government to become the designated grantee of the program. So another meeting was held, McDaniel said, with WISD superintendent Scott Menzel attending.

Menzel had praised the Head Start program, and said he believes in continuity, McDaniel reported. He had said he didn’t want to be presumptuous and assume that WISD would be named the grantee. But if that happens, WISD would want to retain Head Start’s stellar staff and have as little disruption to the program as possible. McDaniel said the policy council was supportive of WISD’s application, and would likely submit letters of support to federal officials.

A request for proposals (RFP) will likely be issued by the federal-level Head Start agency in the first quarter of 2012, McDaniel said. County staff are providing information required to draft the RFP, she said.

Head Start Update: Commissioner Discussion

Felicia Brabec asked whether the county is prepared to do everything it needs to do in order to relinquish the program. McDaniel replied that the staff has made a commitment to provide all required information to the federal officials, including an inventory.

Brabec asked what the status was regarding the main Head Start building and the debt that the county held on that. Previously, county staff had reported that the county owes about $2.6 million on the bond and makes $167,000 in bond payments annually at the building, located at 1661 Leforge Road in Ypsilanti. The bond payment schedule runs through 2022.

McDaniel said that nothing is certain. It will depend on the entity that’s eventually chosen to take over the program, she said. A discussion of assets – including the Leforge building – would be part of that transition.

Yousef Rabhi asked whether the county would submit a letter of support for the WISD. McDaniel indicated that the county could submit a letter of support for the WISD, if the board wanted to do that.

Head Start Update: Administrative Investigation

During her update, McDaniel did not mention that Horne McGee and senior management assistant Lovida Roach – Horne McGee’s second-in-command – had been placed on administrative leave on Dec. 13, pending the outcome of an investigation that had started in October. [See Chronicle coverage: "Two Head Start Managers Put on Leave"]

Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, said that the allegations which prompted the investigation were “founded.” Citing the fact that it was a personnel issue, Heidt said the county could not release details, but that no misuse of funds was involved. When the investigation started, Horne McGee chose to retire at year’s end, Heidt said. Roach will remain on leave, using personal time she has accrued, until the county relinquishes control of Head Start. At that point, Roach will also retire, Heidt said.

AFSCME Local 3052 Agreement

One of the last remaining contracts with a union representing Washtenaw County employees was given initial approval by the board at its Jan. 18 meeting. The tentative two-year collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 3052, representing 52 general supervisors, has been ratified by its membership. A final vote by the board is expected at its Feb. 1 meeting.

AFSCME Local 3052 was one of five bargaining units – out of 17 units representing county employees – that did not reach an agreement with the county by the end of 2011, when its previous contracts expired. Negotiations continue with the other four units – representing the prosecuting attorneys, the prosecuting attorney supervisors, attorneys in the public defenders office, supervisors of attorneys in the public defenders office.

The new agreement, which runs from Jan. 1, 2012 through Dec. 31, 2013, calls for a 10% retirement contribution from employees, and a 10-year vesting period for new hires. Employees will take 10 unpaid “bank leave” days in 2012 and 2013, with no furlough days imposed. Though bank leave and furlough days are similar – both are unpaid – the bank leave days do not affect calculations toward an employee’s retirement or longevity pay.

The default health care plan will comply with the state’s hard cap on costs. The cap limits the amount that public employers can contribute toward employee healthcare annually: $5,500 for single-person coverage, $11,000 for individual and spouse coverage, and $15,000 for family coverage. Employees have the option to upgrade their plans for additional annual costs of $2,724 or $1,772, based on the plan.

The agreement also eliminates longevity pay for new hires, and reduces longevity pay by 25% for current employees in 2012. Step increases will be frozen for 2013. The collective bargaining agreement stipulates that if county property tax revenues increase by at least 2% on or before Dec. 31, 2012, a 1% wage increase would become effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board voted unanimously to approved the AFSCME Local 3052 agreement.

Arbor Hills Brownfield Plan

The board was asked to give final approval to a brownfield plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor city council approved the plan at its Nov. 21, 2011 meeting, and the county board had given initial approval on Dec. 7.

Members of the development team for Arbor Hills Crossing

Members of the development team for Arbor Hills Crossing, from left: Arthur Siegal of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss; Anne Jamieson-Urena of AKT Peerless Environmental and Energy Services; and Bill Carpenter of reFORM studios.

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 to be paid back over a 19-year period.

Because Ann Arbor is part of the Washtenaw County brownfield redevelopment authority, all brownfield plans in the city must get approval from the county board as well as from the Ann Arbor city council.

Wednesday’s meeting included a public hearing on the brownfield plan. The only speakers were three members of the development team: Anne Jamieson-Urena, director of brownfield and redevelopment incentives for AKT Peerless Environmental and Energy Services; Arthur Siegal, an attorney with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss; and Bill Carpenter, an architect with reFORM studios. They all spoke briefly, highlighting attributes of the project and asking for the board’s support of the brownfield plan.

There was no discussion of the project among commissioners.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the brownfield plan for Arbor Hills Crossing.

$3 Million HUD Community Grant

On the agenda was a resolution to approve the acceptance of a three-year, $3 million grant recently awarded by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The approval included authorizing $65,000 in matching funds from the county’s housing contingency fund, and the hiring of a full-time management analyst.

HUD’s Community Challenge Planning Grant grant was awarded to support the Washtenaw County Sustainable Community project, which focuses on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor spanning Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township. County administrator Verna McDaniel had announced news of the grant award at a Nov. 17, 2011 working session of the county board.

According to the grant application, the project focuses on “removing barriers to create a coordinated approach to expanding existing affordable and energy efficient housing options and connecting them to job centers and healthy food through an enhanced multi-modal transportation corridor.” It’s part of the Reimagining Washtenaw project, which has been underway for several years. The joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community and economic development, led by Mary Jo Callan, is taking the lead on the project. Callan was on hand at the Jan. 18 meeting to answer questions, but commissioners had none.

In addition to the county and four other jurisdictions, partners in the project include the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, Arts Alliance, Community Housing Alternatives, Eastern Michigan University, Food System Economic Partnership, Growing Hope, Habitat for Humanity, SEMCOG, Ann Arbor SPARK, University of Michigan Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, Washtenaw County Public Health, and the Ypsilanti Housing Commission.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board unanimously approved a resolution to accept the $3 million grant, approve matching funds and hire a full-time management analyst.

Board Appointments

Board chair Conan Smith announced nominations of commissioners to fill slots on more than two dozen advisory committees, commissions and boards. He also nominated sheriff Jerry Clayton to act as liaison to the 800 Megahertz oversight committee, which oversees the countywide millage passed in 2006 for an emergency communications system. [.pdf of 2012 appointments]

Smith noted that the board is planning to evaluate its participation in the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County – he is the commissioner designated as a member of that group, which has been struggling with funding and engagement of its membership. [See Chronicle coverage: "Literacy Coalition Faces Uncertain Future"]

Responsibility for the police services steering committee, which has worked on the issue of sheriff deputies that serve local communities on a contract basis, will be shifted to the sheriff’s office rather than the board of commissioners, Smith said. The number of commissioners serving on that committee will be reduced from four to two – Rob Turner and Alica Ping.

Smith also proposed that the public safety and justice oversight committee, which had been formed to oversee the jail expansion, would be dissolved because that project has been completed.

Outcome: All appointments and other changes were approved unanimously, without comment.

Communications & Commentary

During each meeting, there are opportunities for public commentary and for communications from commissioners and staff. Here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Board Retreat

Ronnie Peterson apologized for arriving late to the meeting – he said he’d been in Lansing, and had a flat tire on the trip back to Ann Arbor. He noted that board chair Conan Smith had asked staff to call commissioners and schedule a retreat for Saturday, Jan. 21. Peterson said he’d be unable to attend – he would be out of town, he said. He expressed frustration that alternative dates hadn’t been considered. Smith apologized, indicating that he had misinterpreted a conversation he’d had with Peterson about the retreat.

Peterson also said he wanted to ensure that the board’s strategic planning included public input, and that such input should be encouraged.

Peterson’s comments were the only time that the board retreat was mentioned. At the board’s Dec. 7, 2011 meeting, board chair Conan Smith made a presentation that outlined some possible strategic goals for the coming year, and had indicated that a retreat might be in the offing. A notice announcing the meeting was posted at the end of the day on Thursday, Jan. 12, at the county administration building in downtown Ann Arbor, in accordance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act. However, county offices were closed on Friday and the following Monday, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Smith did not mention the retreat during opportunities for communications at the Jan. 18 board meeting.

[The four-hour retreat was subsequently held on Saturday morning at the county's parks and recreation offices on Platt Road. Other than county commissioners, staff, the sheriff and prosecuting attorney, the only others who attended the retreat were The Chronicle and Andy LaBarre, a candidate for county commissioner.]

Comm/Comm: Honoring Paul Bunten

Commissioner Alicia Ping presented a resolution honoring Paul Bunten, who recently retired as police chief for the city of Saline. Ping, a former Saline city councilmember, now represents District 3 on the county board, which includes Saline. The resolution recognized Bunten for his 47 years of public service. Bunten was not at the meeting, but will be given a framed plaque of the resolution.

Several other commissioners expressed their thanks to Bunten. Leah Gunn noted that he had worked for many years at Ann Arbor’s police department. When former Ann Arbor police chief Dan Oates left that position, she said, Bunten stepped in for Oates as chair of the emergency communications committee, which campaigned for a millage that voters approved in 2006. The millage supported a new 800 megahertz system that enabled emergency responders from all jurisdictions to communicate with each other.

Barbara Bergman said she’d worked with Bunten on several different committees, and he was always a pleasure to work with, giving good advice and support. Wes Prater noted that he’d worked with Bunten back when Bunten was a rookie, “and then he was a lot of fun!”

Comm/Comm: Fracking

Yousef Rabhi said that he and commissioner Alicia Ping are concerned about fracking, which he said is happening in Washtenaw County and becoming more common. The term – also known as hydraulic fracturing – refers to a practice of extracting oil or gas by injecting high-pressurized fluid into rock. He said he and Ping have received emails from residents who are concerned about the practice, with questions about property rights, property values, environmental impact and the health of humans and neighborhoods. The state regulates fracking, Rabhi said, but the county needs to be aware of it and start thinking about how to handle it.

Wes Prater commented that the reason behind increased fracking stems from regulations being removed several years ago from the federal Clean Water Act. Companies are ruining the underground water supply, he said. He’s heard that it’s happening near Adrian. [Adrian is located in Lenawee County, immediately south of Washtenaw County.]

Barbara Bergman said she hadn’t realized that fracking was taking place locally and that she was “absolutely horrified.” If the board agrees that it’s a dangerous practice, then they need to make a big noise about it, she said.

Comm/Comm: Trial Court Renovations

Rob Turner gave an update on renovations at the Washtenaw County trial court in downtown Ann Arbor, at the corner of Huron and Main. The trial court includes the 22nd circuit court, juvenile court, probate court and Friend of the Court program. The renovation is now on schedule, Turner said, and the third phase will likely be done by Feb. 10, with the entire project completed by mid-March. It’s on time and on budget, he said – the contingency funds aren’t even being used. He said he’s been told that chief judge Donald Shelton is “ecstatic.”

Turner reported that Jason Fee with the county facilities unit will be making a presentation to the board about this project in February. Rolland Sizemore Jr. commented that the county’s facilities workers are the reason why this project is going well, and he asked county administrator Verna McDaniel to convey his compliments to the staff.

Comm/Comm: WATS & WCHO Moves – Zeeb Road Facility

As the county board’s liaison to the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), Yousef Rabhi reported that WATS has been leasing office space from the county’s western Washtenaw service center on Zeeb Road, but has been asked to leave. The Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan, will be moving into that space instead. The county has offered WATS four other options, Rabhi said, but WATS officials have decided to look elsewhere – at leasing from landlords in the private sector, or from other public entities. WATS hasn’t definitely ruled out other county facilities, Rabhi said, and he encouraged commissioners to express their support for the county’s continued relationship with WATS.

Barbara Bergman, who serves on the WCHO board, reported that only the administrative offices of WCHO will be relocating to Zeeb Road. The parts of the organization that provide services to consumers, including the community support and treatment services unit (CSTS), will remain at accessible locations, such as the county’s 555 Towner St. building in Ypsilanti.

A space plan update for all of the county’s facilities is being developed and will be presented at an upcoming board working session.

Comm/Comm: Eastern Leaders Group

Leah Gunn reported that earlier in the month she had attended a meeting of the Eastern Leaders Group. She noted that she’s been a member of the ELG steering committee since it was formed. Because Gunn is stepping down from the board of commissioners – she has decided not to run for re-election this year – commissioner Felicia Brabec will now serve on the leadership team in her place, Gunn said. At the end of the ELG meeting, Gunn reported that commissioner Ronnie Peterson, who also serves on the ELG steering committee, had given a speech praising her work, and she appreciated it. “We don’t get praised too often,” she said.

Comm/Comm: Thomas Partridge

During public commentary at the beginning of the Jan. 18 meeting, Thomas Partridge said he wanted to send a message straight to Lansing, on behalf of the county’s most vulnerable residents. Priority should be given to human services – affordable housing, health care, and education – rather than spending money on railroad stations and bridges. He noted that Gov. Rick Snyder would be giving the State of the State address that same night. He said Snyder and his allies bought the governor’s office through corrupt means, and that a recall effort is still underway. The county’s economy hasn’t recovered, Partridge said, and until it does, there must be attention paid to altruistic attitudes and finding solutions to very serious problems.

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, Feb. 1, 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 commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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  1. January 23, 2012 at 8:41 am | permalink

    Local communities aren’t allowed to opt out of the system of subsidies that keep privately owned automobiles running on our publicly owned roads. If they were, we wouldn’t have the freeway system. So why should they be allowed to opt out of a regional bus system? Unfortunately I think this is a big problem that can’t be solved at a county-wide level. My biggest fear is that we’ll end up with an expensive system that doesn’t work, and a lot of people will be convinced that public transit can’t work, when it really hasn’t been given a chance.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 23, 2012 at 9:09 am | permalink

    “Smith did not mention the retreat during opportunities for communications at the Jan. 18 board meeting.”

    Of course not. Open and transparent democracy are apparently continue to be something he’s not interested in.

  3. By Andy
    January 24, 2012 at 3:18 pm | permalink

    RE: #1 — Jim Rees raises an excellent point. One need look no further than the SMART system next to door to see how opt-out slowly kills public transit systems by a thousand cuts.