More Transit Plan Challenges at County Board

Also: County attorney on medical leave; towing bid defended

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 1, 2012): A light agenda and three absent commissioners resulted in a brief 30-minute session at Wednesday’s county board meeting.

Stefani Carter Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Local attorney Stefani Carter talks with Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the county board's ways & means committee, before the Feb. 1, 2012 meeting. Carter will be filling in for the county's corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, who is taking a three-month medical leave. (Photos by the writer.)

Items not on the agenda took up much of the meeting time. As he has in the past, commissioner Wes Prater raised concerns over a countywide transit plan being developed by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. It’s expected that the county board will eventually be asked to authorize a four-party agreement with the AATA and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, but that agreement has not yet been formally presented to the board. [The Ann Arbor city council has postponed its ratification of the four-party agreement twice, and has been asked by the AATA to postpone the issue again at the council's Feb. 6 meeting. That postponement would be until March 5.]

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, county administrator Verna McDaniel introduced local attorney Stefani Carter, who’ll be filling in while corporation counsel Curtis Hedger is on medical leave. Carter has been doing contract work for the county, and previously spent 15 years with the Ann Arbor city attorney’s office.

Speaking at the time for public commentary, Billy Salamey – owner of three towing companies in the county – defended accusations that have been levied against his business during a recent bidding process for towing services with the sheriff’s office. Salamey’s commentary in turn prompted board chair Conan Smith to defend the county’s bidding process, which Smith described as transparent and fair.

Among the formal actions taken during Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners authorized a five-year, $460,000 extension to a project aimed at improving conditions at Whitmore Lake. They also gave final approval to a two-year collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 3052, representing 52 general supervisors.

Medical Leave for County Attorney

Toward the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, county administrator Verna McDaniel reported that Curtis Hedger, Washtenaw County’s corporation counsel, was taking medical leave. McDaniel introduced local attorney Stefani Carter, who will be handling Hedger’s responsibilities in his absence.

The three-month, part-time medical leave follows a diagnosis of congestive heart failure in January. Hedger told The Chronicle that he plans to work a limited number of hours per week, and will help Carter transition into her role with the county. Carter has been serving as “of counsel” with the county on a contract basis, and Hedger recommended her for this new role. Early in her career Carter worked in the county prosecuting attorney’s office, and later spent 15 years as an assistant city attorney for Ann Arbor.

At the Feb. 1 meeting, Carter told commissioners that she was happy to be there, but ”I hope my term of service will be short, as we hope Curtis comes back as soon as possible.”

Toward the end of the three-month leave, Hedger said he’ll undergo additional testing that could determine whether he’ll return to his job on a full-time basis, continue part-time work, or retire.

Later in the meeting, commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. said that the situation would be a good time to examine the county’s legal expenses and to make sure there’s a fair distribution of work around the county.

In addition to Hedger’s salary of about $117,000 $112,321, the county contracts with other attorneys to handle its legal work. Documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by The Chronicle in 2011 show that the county spent $4.83 million on outside legal counsel during the five-year period from 2006-2010. [.pdf of 2006-2010 itemized legal expenses]

During that five-year period, the county used 19 firms. But the bulk of the expenses – $4.152 million – were paid to just five firms: Dykema Gossett ($1.45 million), Reach Law Firm ($1.38 million), Miller Johnson ($869,824), Gallagher & Gallagher ($246,645) and Timothy McDaniel ($203,635). (McDaniel is the husband of county administrator Verna McDaniel.)

Much of Dykema’s work related to its role as outside counsel for a lawsuit filed against the county in 2006 by the townships of Ypsilanti, Salem and Augusta over the cost of police services. The county board voted to accept a settlement in mid-2011, but the settlement did not include recovery of the county’s legal expenses. Other legal expenses handled by the 19 law firms relate to real estate, litigation, bond issues and a range of other matters.

The response to a Chronicle FOIA request for 2011 legal expenses, filed last week, will be forthcoming.

Countywide Transit

During one of the opportunities for commissioners to bring up items for current or future discussion, Wes Prater said he wanted to address the issue of a four-party agreement for countywide transit. It’s a topic he has raised at previous meetings as well, most recently at the board’s Jan. 18, 2012 meeting, where he expressed concerns about the county’s role.

Wes Prater, Andy Cluley

WEMU reporter Andy Cluley interviews county commissioner Wes Prater.

On Wednesday, Prater observed that the project seems to be stalled. He then read a statement outlining some of his concerns. [.pdf of Prater's statement] He highlighted the Ann Arbor  Transportation Authority’s cost per passenger ride, which he calculated to be about $5 per rider – based on a $30 million budget and about 6 million riders. Prater also claimed that fewer than 1.25 average passengers are riding per route for each hour of service provided.

By way of explanation, Prater arrives at his artificially low number by starting with the AATA’s systemwide average: 32 passengers per service hour. He then divides that number by the number of routes – 26.

However, the “passengers per service hour” statistic is in concept already finer-grained than an individual route. A “service hour” is an hour of operation for an individual revenue-producing vehicle. And a single route can have more than one vehicle operating on it at the same time. It’s not clear how insight can be gained into route-wise performance by dividing the systemwide average by the number of routes – as Prater has done. That would be akin to trying to learn about household income levels by dividing average personal income by the number of households.

The AATA collects and maintains passenger-per-service-hour data for each route. And those numbers range from a high of nearly 46 passengers per service hour on Route 9 to a low of 11 passengers per service hour on Route 17 in the most recent year.

Prater went on to suggest that AATA discuss these issues with the county board, in light of the four-party agreement that the board will be asked to approve in the near future.

County commissioners were most recently briefed on the AATA’s countywide transit plan at the board’s Dec. 7, 2011 meeting. At that meeting, AATA CEO Michael Ford gave a presentation and answered questions, and addressed the county’s role in the process of forming a new countywide transit authority.

The four-party agreement – with the AATA, Washtenaw County, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – has not yet been placed on the agenda for the county board. It is being considered by the Ann Arbor city council, which has postponed action on the agreement two times. At a public hearing on the issue at the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, county commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. spoke in support of the countywide plan. The Ann Arbor city council had planned to discuss the agreement at its Feb. 6 meeting. But in the most recent development, on Friday, Feb. 3, the AATA requested that the city council postpone a decision on the four-party transit agreement until March 5.

Later in the Feb. 1 meeting, Prater said his statement didn’t mean that he doesn’t support public transit. He’s just concerned about the process for forming a countywide transit authority. Prater said he didn’t think AATA had been forthcoming on all items related to the plan. He also said that a financial advisory group, which was expected to release a report on Friday, Jan. 27 with recommendations on funding a countywide transit system, decided against “turning it loose,” he said. “That’s unfortunate.”

The advisory group, co-chaired by former county administrator Bob Guenzel, postponed its Jan. 27 meeting in the wake of state legislation that had been introduced the previous day – on Jan. 26. The 17-bill package, if passed, would provide for the establishment and funding of a regional transit authority that would include Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

Whitmore Lake Improvement Project

On the Feb. 1 agenda was a resolution to give initial approval to a five-year, $460,000 project to study and improve conditions at Whitmore Lake. The lake is located in Washtenaw County’s Northfield Township and Livingston County’s Green Oak Township.

The effort – focusing on removal of invasive weeds – is a continuation of a project that began in 2003, and was renewed in 2007. It’s overseen by the county board of public works. The project’s cost will be recovered through special assessments on over 860 parcels near Whitmore Lake.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked for additional details of the project. Jeff Krcmarik, an environmental supervisor with the county’s office of the water resources commissioner, said the project began in 2003 after residents living near Whitmore Lake asked for the county’s help. Invasive weeds was inhibiting recreational activities, he said, and limiting the lake’s biodiversity. The assessments require renewal every five years.

Krcmarik pointed commissioners to the project’s website for more information and historical reports.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously gave initial approval to the Whitemore Lake project. A final vote is expected at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting.

AFSCME Local 3052 Contract Approved

Without discussion, the board gave final approval to a two-year collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 3052, representing 52 general supervisors. The agreement had been ratified by its membership, and had received initial approval from commissioners at their Jan. 18, 2012 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: Commissioners gave final approval to a new contract with AFSCME Local 3052.

Workers Comp Contracts Authorized

Commissioners were asked to approve a resolution authorizing two contracts: (1) for the third-party administration of claims services for the workers’ disability compensation program from 2012-2015; and (2) for excess workers’ disability compensation insurance coverage from Feb. 1, 2012 through May 1, 2013.

The agreement for third-party administration of claims services was awarded to Broadspire Services Inc., based in Atlanta. It calls for paying Broadspire $36,750 in each of the first and second years, and $37,565 in the third year of the contract. Broadspire is the county’s current vendor for these services.

The contract for excess insurance coverage above $500,000 was awarded to St. Louis-based Safety National. The agreement calls for paying the company $62,297 for the period of February 2012 through May 2013. The resolution approved by the board also authorizes the county administrator to negotiate one-year extensions through May 1, 2015. According to a staff memo, the insurance coverage will be used to protect the county from potential worker’s compensation losses over the next year. Safety National is the county’s current excess insurance vendor.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution related to two contracts for the workers compensation program.

Public Commentary: Towing Contract

One person spoke during the opportunity for public commentary. Billy Salamey introduced himself as a Superior Township resident and owner of three towing companies. [His businesses include Budget Towing, Stadium Towing and Glen Ann Towing.]

Billy Salamey, Conan Smith

Billy Salamey, left, talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith after the Feb. 1 meeting.

Salamey said he was there to talk about allegations that had been made against his company by a competitor. It was frustrating, he said, because he felt that his character had been defamed. He said he conducts his business with integrity and honesty, and he cited several examples of work in the community to make his point.

By way of background, Salamey was referring to a letter sent to the board of commissioners on Jan. 25, 2012 from Ed Lee, towing manager of Aachen Auto in Ypsilanti. Lee objected to the process of choosing companies for towing contracts with the sheriff’s office, alleging that a company had submitted a fraudulent bid. Lee criticized the bidding process, stating that the contract extension process “has historically violated the rights of every towing company within Washtenaw County that didn’t currently have the contract.”

In his letter, Lee requested time at the Feb. 1 meeting to discuss the issue with the board. The letter did not refer to Salamey or his business by name. [.pdf of Lee's letter] However, no presentation on the issue was made at Wednesday’s meeting.

During his time at public commentary, Salamey thanked the county for conducting due diligence in responding to the allegations.

Bob Mossing, business manager for the sheriff’s office, had responded to Lee’s allegations in a Jan. 27 memo to Angela Perry, the county’s purchasing manager – the memo was also cc-ed to the county board. Mossing noted in the memo that “no official action has been taken relative to this RFP or awarding any areas to any tow companies.” [.pdf of memo from Mossing] [.pdf of original RFP, issued in June of 2011]

Public Commentary: Towing Contract – Commissioner Response

Conan Smith, chair of the board, responded to Salamey’s comments by saying that the county prides itself on the transparency of its processes. The bids were vetted by the county’s corporation counsel and sheriff’s office, he said, and the bids were found to be in compliance with the county’s policies. He said he appreciated that Salamey attended the meeting, and that the county has a fair, solid bidding process.

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

Absent: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Ronnie Peterson

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Feb. 15, 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. February 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm | permalink

    Thank you very much for linking to the data on ridership. I’m happy to see that my local route has increased by more than 10% in total ridership and riders per hour since FY 2007.

    As you note, this is very granular and trying to analyze usage and need by simple statistics may miss the point. For example, how many people are left behind in buses running at peak usage times? But people won’t use the bus at all if hours are too circumscribed, so the system must be run at low-usage times as well as highly impacted ones. I know that AATA has spent much staff time on trying to study these data.

  2. By Brian
    February 5, 2012 at 7:52 pm | permalink

    Seriously? County’s administrator is directing taxpayer legal fees to her husband? Who does the county corporate attorney report directly to? Yep – the county admin.

    Has this clear conflict ever been discussed by the board in an open meeting? Better than $200,000 isn’t chump change. Curious to know past and current year’s amounts. Guessing way more than that.

    Good scoop, Chronicle. Seems if you dig a little you’ll find this place is falling apart. How many scandals does that make in the last few years?

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 6, 2012 at 11:03 am | permalink

    “Seriously? County’s administrator is directing taxpayer legal fees to her husband? Who does the county corporate attorney report directly to? Yep – the county admin.”

    One big happy place here in Ann Arbor, where there are no conflicts of interest worries, Commissioners can thumb their noses about paying back looted expense funds and the local ‘newspaper’ is staffed by writers investigating lost laundry at the local dry cleaner. And congrats to on their Mlive driven “makeover” of the print edition. Guessing the great ‘blog’ experiment is in its final days and Mlive will be in driver seat very soon.

  4. February 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    I know Verna McDaniel to be a conscientious careful public servant. (Yes, I worked with her over 8 years as a commissioner.) Let’s not jump all over her because she is also married to a professional who obtained one contract from the county. Why not explore possible conflicts of interest of various officials with Dykema Gossett, who were paid a much larger sum? I don’t know the details of that one contract but I suspect that it was a case where Mr. McDaniel’s particular expertise was called for. This is a cheap shot.

    Anyone who has followed my history will know that I am as skeptical and questioning about the conduct of local government as anyone. But when we allow cynicism to substitute for vigilance, we disable the very government that is supposed to be working for us.

  5. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm | permalink

    I don’t know Ms. McDaniel but Federal Employees who make contracting and financial decisions are required to file Finance Disclosure Statements on a yearly basis. Does anyone in the County Government do that? Does Ms. McDaniel? Does Conan Smith? I’m more upset at reading this in the Chronicle (and it IS a valid question) and not having a newspaper that should be doing this reporting too than I am with the vague details of Ms. MaDaniel’s possible conflict. If my asking about ONE contract disables ‘the very government that is supposed to be working for us’ then there’s something very wrong.

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm | permalink

    “Good scoop, Chronicle.”

    I agree. Thanks for the reporting!

  7. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 7, 2012 at 6:44 am | permalink

    Just so there is no confusion, I admire and respect Vivienne’s writing and reporting. My point wasn’t Ms. McDaniel so much as the lack of a local media climate where such things didn’t surface because of a weak local media. It’s why I tossed in the good reporting comment for the Chronicle…I’m curious about the 200K in legal fees, but in all fairness, most of those if not all were contracts BEFORE McDaniel was in her current job. I’m not defending the process, just wondering why it takes a FOIA request to gather this information.

  8. February 7, 2012 at 9:25 am | permalink

    Thank you, Alan. The sharpness of my response was probably because of reading too many comments on the other online news source. I get so tired of anonymous commenters continually taking shots at any and all public people. We don’t know whether Brian works or used to work for the county, for example. The automatic tendency these days seems to be to throw out an imputation of wrongdoing at every opportunity. I don’t know whether this is cynicism or just bad will towards all.