County Preps for More Restructuring

Also: Humane Society agreement could be reached by Feb. 15

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Feb. 2, 2012): Commissioners got a preview from county administrator Verna McDaniel about plans for more restructuring of Washtenaw County operations, in the wake of 117 retirements at the end of 2011 and an ongoing need to cut costs.

Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County administrator Verna McDaniel. (Photos by the writer)

McDaniel is asking departments to explore a “continuum of opportunities,” from cooperation on one end of the spectrum, to consolidation on the other end. As an example, she noted that the recent 911 dispatch consolidation between the city of Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office – an agreement at the county board approved at its Jan. 18, 2012 meeting – began as cooperation, when county dispatchers co-located with Ann Arbor’s operations.

As an initial step, at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting McDaniel will be asking for approval to restructure support services in administration, finance, information technology and facilities management. The changes entail creating a new “cross-lateral” team of four current senior managers, and putting two positions – including the job of deputy county administrator – on “hold vacant” status. Another nine positions will be eliminated, while eight jobs will be created. The restructuring will result in a net reduction of three full-time jobs, and estimated annual savings of $326,422.

Commissioners were generally supportive of her proposal, though some cautioned against creating the expectation that the county can provide the same or a better level of services with reduced resources. The county is facing projected deficits of $11.6 million in 2014 and $14.7 million in 2015.

Also at the Feb. 2 working session, board chair Conan Smith gave an update on negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, saying he hopes to bring an agreement for board approval at their Feb. 15 meeting. The contract would cover animal control services for the remainder of 2012, with the intent of working toward a longer-term agreement for the coming years. The county plans to ask local municipalities that have animal control ordinances – including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township – to help pay for services provided under contract with HSHV.

The board also got a brief update on the $1.3 million in renovations at the downtown county courthouse. The project, which started early last year when Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court vacated the courthouse to move to the city’s new Justice Center, will be wrapping up in mid-March.

The working session included an agenda briefing for the Feb. 15 meeting, but some commissioners expressed discontent at the new format, which had been implemented earlier this year. Wes Prater suggested that if the briefings do not include time for commissioners to ask questions, then the information might as well be emailed to them instead. “I believe all of us can read,” he said.

Humane Society Update

Toward the beginning of the working session, board chair Conan Smith announced that negotiations are continuing with the Humane Society of Huron Valley and that it’s his hope to bring a contract to the board’s Feb. 15 meeting for approval. Representatives from the county and HSHV have another meeting scheduled on Wednesday, Feb. 8, Smith said – he hopes to reach a resolution on outstanding issues at that meeting.

The contract would cover the remainder of 2012. HSHV’s previous contract for mandated animal control services expired at the end of 2011, and since then the county has been paying $29,000 per month for continued services.

Following the Feb. 2 working session, county administrator Verna McDaniel told The Chronicle that the county intends to form a study group with the HSHV and others to discuss a longer-term solution to the issue of countywide mandated animal control. The goal is to bring to the table other municipalities that have animal control ordinances – like the city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township – but that do not currently make financial contributions to the county’s animal control services.

In the previous two-year contract with HSHV, the county paid $500,000 annually for animal control – for services mandated by the state as well as additional work that did not fall under the mandate. The budget approved by the county board for 2012 cut that funding to $250,000, though commissioners also discussed the possibility of paying an additional $180,000 to HSHV if the nonprofit took over work previously done by the county’s animal control officers. HSHV officials have said that even $500,000 wasn’t sufficient to cover costs for all the work they do.

Plans for Restructuring

County administrator Verna McDaniel gave an overview of restructuring plans that are underway, in response to both dwindling resources as well as a significant number of retirements at the end of 2011. She told commissioners that she wanted to provide the rationale and perspective for the restructuring effort, and to get their input as plans are developed.

McDaniel began by noting that 117 county employees retired last year, including 51 in the health and human services area and 35 in public safety and justice (including the trial court and sheriff’s office). It’s important to look at the areas where retirements occurred, she said, because some positions are supported by the general fund, while others are supported with non-general fund sources, such as grants. Restructuring efforts should consider whether there are savings to the general fund, she noted.

McDaniel then reviewed the current hiring process. The phrase “hiring freeze” is really a misnomer, she said. Human resources staff review all departmental requests to fill vacant jobs. Among other things, departments must submit a business plan and work plan related to the job, and answer a series of questions: (1) What’s the critical nature of the position to the department’s operation? (2) Can the vacant position be consolidated or reclassified with another position? (3) Do vacancies exist that can be put on “hold vacant” status or eliminated? (4) Can a temporary assignment offset the need to fill the position for a defined period?

In addition, support and supervisory positions are reviewed based on their function within a specific building, with an eye toward possible consolidation.

Funding sources are also taken into consideration, McDaniel said. It’s more likely the jobs will be filled if they are completely funded from non-general fund sources, or if the jobs are 100% revenue-generating. Other exceptions include contractual commitments – such as sheriff’s deputies who are paid through police services contracts with municipalities. There are also positions related to public safety or the provision of mandated services that need to be filled. And because the county funds the courts through a lump sum budget, court administrators have total discretion over hiring there, she said.

McDaniel described a “continuum of opportunities” that she wants county departments to explore, from cooperation on one end of the spectrum, to consolidation on the other end. She noted that the 911 dispatch consolidation between the city of Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office – an agreement at the county board approved at its Jan. 18, 2012 meeting – began as cooperation, when county dispatchers co-located with Ann Arbor’s operations in 2010.

Other examples from the previous budget cycle include the merger of three county departments to form the new office of community and economic development, and the relocation of the juvenile court to the downtown courthouse.

On Feb. 10, the “Group of 180″ – the county’s departmental leadership, including managers and union leaders – will meet to start talking about the process of restructuring, McDaniel said. Other elected officials who lead departments will be part of the discussion too: the county clerk, treasurer, prosecuting attorney, water resources commissioner, and sheriff.

McDaniel ended her presentation by reading a mission statement for restructuring:

Through the guidance and review of the Board of Commissioners as part of Working Sessions, all Communities of Interest within Washtenaw County shall strive to further cooperate, collaborate and consolidate services and functions, demonstrate good stewards of community resources, all while seeking to improve service delivery to our customers.

Plans for Restructuring: Commissioner Discussion – Temp Assignments

Felicia Brabec asked about the process of making a temporary assignment to fill a vacant position. She clarified with McDaniel that the assignment is typically given to another staff member who gets “bumped up,” with an 8% pay increase for taking on additional responsibilities. Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, noted that such assignments are for a defined period of time – it’s not indefinite.

Wes Prater said there seems to be a blur between responsibilities when someone is asked to take on a temporary assignment, in addition to their own job. Heidt explained that union contracts address this situation. The assignment also can enable an employee to learn a new skill set. She gave the example of teachers’ aides in the Head Start program being able to lead classrooms for a period of time, because of temporary vacancies.

Plans for Restructuring: Commissioner Discussion – Group of 180 Meeting

Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked about the Feb. 10 meeting – when would it be held, and where? Is it open to commissioners? He indicated that he wanted to attend.

McDaniel replied that the Group of 180 meets quarterly to discuss leadership and operational issues. The name stems from a time when there were 180 department heads, managers and union leaders – the number is smaller now. Commissioners haven’t been invited because often the meetings focus on operational issues, like training, she said. On Feb. 10, much of the meeting will involve a discussion about internal audit controls, for example, in addition to the talk about restructuring.

Sizemore again asked for the time and location. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m., McDaniel said, at the Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence Building.

Conan Smith said what he’s hearing from McDaniel is that she’d prefer commissioners not to attend the meeting. He felt it was inappropriate for commissioners to get involved at that operational level.

Saying she’d never tell commissioners not to attend, McDaniel nevertheless indicated that Smith was correct. The meetings are intended to encourage open dialogue among staff, she said. But although commissioners haven’t been invited in the past, that’s not to say things couldn’t change, she added. McDaniel said she thought the meetings might bore commissioners, but the sessions aren’t secret.

Sizemore said he agreed with Smith that commissioners shouldn’t get involved in operations. But if McDaniel is asking for his support in restructuring, he needs to be informed – the more he learns, the easier it will be for him to support restructuring, Sizemore said. “So I’ll be there.”

Wes Prater cautioned that any commissioner who attends needs to be aware of their role, and only go as an observer. Leah Gunn said she wouldn’t dream of going.

Plans for Restructuring: Commissioner Discussion – Mission Statement

Gunn praised the restructuring mission statement. The county’s role is to provide services – both mandated and non-mandated – with diminishing resources. It’s the board’s job to set priorities for that, she said.

Alicia Ping noted that for a long time, employees have been asked to do more with less. But there comes a point when you can only do so much with the resources you have, she said. It’s wonderful to say the goal is to “improve service delivery,” Ping said, but she doesn’t want it to seem that the county is able to do more than it actually can. Employees might feel they’re asked to do too much, she added: ”I don’t want anyone to get stressed out because they’re trying to achieve mission impossible.”

Dan Smith said he agreed with Ping. In terms of services, the county would be happy to maintain the status quo, given the financial circumstances.

Yousef Rahbi noted that focusing on customers is key as the county restructures. He appreciated seeing that in the mission statement.

Rob Turner said he loved the mission statement. This kind of focus needs to happen all the time, not just during hard financial times, he said. How the county government delivers services has an impact on how residents view the county, he said. It’s important to do a few things well, he added, rather than to do a lot of things not very well.

Prater asked whether levels of services will examined as part of the restructuring. McDaniel said the staff will be looking at how to make services more efficient, from the front counter to the back office. For example, if a building currently has multiple entry points and a staff person is located at each entry to handle customers, perhaps it makes more sense to have one entry into the building, and one staff person to direct customers to the appropriate office. These kinds of ideas will be put on the table, she said, then the staff can talk about whether operational changes can make it work.

Employees are the best source of information regarding potential changes, Prater said, as long as administration is clear about the outcomes it’s looking for.

Plans for Restructuring: Commissioner Discussion – Retirements

Felicia Brabec asked for more details about the 51 retirements in health and human services area. McDaniel said that most were in the public health department and the community support & treatment services (CSTS) department. Heidt added that in the public safety and justice area, the bulk of the 35 retirements were in the trial court, though there were also some in the sheriff’s office.

Dan Smith asked for some clarification on how many retirements were in positions funded by the general fund, compared to non-general fund jobs. Heidt replied that most of the 51 retirements in health and human services were non-general fund positions. In contrast, most of the 35 public safety and justice retirements were in general fund jobs.

Smith also asked for an example of a 100% revenue-generating job. Heidt said such jobs could be funded through grants or contracts. For example, 13 dispatch operators will be classified as 100% revenue generating, because the positions are funded through a contract with the city of Ann Arbor. Another example would be the county’s emergency management jobs that are paid for with a state grant. Heidt also gave an example of non-general fund positions: Employees with the county parks and recreation department, who are funded by a dedicated millage.

Plans for Restructuring: Commissioner Discussion – Budget Outcomes

Dan Smith noted that the words “cooperate, collaborate and consolidate” are used a lot, but it should be clear that these actions are the means to an end. The county isn’t consolidating for consolidation’s sake, he said. They’re doing it because of financial circumstances.

Wes Prater asked whether budget outcomes are driving the decisions to restructure. That’s the primary driver, McDaniel replied.

Yousef Rahbi reminded commissioners that at the previous working session, they had discussed the need to start talking about the next two-year budget cycle – for 2014-2015. [The county's fiscal years are based on calendar years, and budgets are developed in two-year periods. The most recent budget, approved in November 2011, covered 2012 and 2013.] Rabhi said it’s productive to think about 2014-2015 as they move through this restructuring process.

Rabhi also asked how McDaniel would be encouraging employees to participate – how would ideas for restructuring be solicited? There’s never any foot-dragging, McDaniel replied. Generally, department heads and managers are always looking for ways to improve services and deliver them more efficiently, she said. In fact, there are usually more suggestions for restructuring than the organization can implement – it’s difficult to do, McDaniel said. So she did not have any additional plans for outreach.

Rabhi praised McDaniel for proposing to restructure her own department, saying that it’s a great way to set an example. McDaniel said she felt it was necessary to practice what she’s preaching.

At the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, McDaniel will be asking for approval to restructure support services in administration, finance, information technology and facilities management. The changes entail creating a new “cross-lateral” team of four current senior managers: Kelly Belknap, director of finance; Greg Dill, infrastructure management director; Curtis Hedger, corporation counsel; and Diane Heidt, director of human services and labor relations.

The position of deputy county administrator – which has been vacant since April 2011 – and one other position will be put on “hold vacant” status. Another nine positions will be eliminated, while eight jobs will be created. The restructuring will result in a net reduction of three full-time jobs, and estimated annual savings of $326,422.

Rob Turner called the overall restructuring the perfect springboard to launch into the next budget cycle. He asked for more information about the internal audit, saying it would be a pivotal report.

Belknap, who’s currently serving as interim deputy administrator, replied that the Group of 180 meeting on Feb. 10 will be the kickoff for the internal audit process. [At its June 1, 2011 meeting, the board had authorized hiring the professional services firm Experis (formerly known as Jefferson Wells) for $87,500 to perform internal auditing services for the county for one year, with the possibility of extending the contract over additional years.]

The audit’s first step entails a survey of current internal controls, she said. Then Experis will conduct an audit on a limited number of departments. Belknap said she expects a report will be ready for commissioners in the spring or early summer.

Plans for Restructuring: Public Commentary

During public commentary at the end of the working session, Nancy Heine – president of AFSCME Local 3052, which represents about 50 county employees who have supervisory jobs – raised concerns about some of the proposed administrative restructuring changes that commissioners will be voting on at their Feb. 15 meeting. The plan calls for eliminating two senior accounting positions that are part of the union, she said, and creating two non-union jobs in their place with a higher salary range.

Heine noted that this kind of situation has occurred in the past, and the union has restored the positions by filing a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC). She said the union wants to work with the administration and human resources to resolve this issue, but the union will have to pursue whatever options are necessary.

In response to Heine’s commentary, Yousef Rabhi noted that the proposed restructuring also involves a non-union job being reclassified as a job represented by Local 3052. That position is in the information technology group. Rabhi said it’s a concern to lose the two union jobs, but at least another one is being created.

Diane Heidt, director of human services and labor relations, noted that several jobs are being reclassified, and that commissioners would be given more details about the changes before their vote on Feb. 15.

Trial Court Renovations

Jason Fee with the county facilities unit gave an update on renovations at the county courthouse in downtown Ann Arbor, located at Main and Huron. The courthouse houses the Washtenaw County trial court, an entity that includes the 22nd Circuit Court, juvenile court, probate court and Friend of the Court program.

Greg Dill, Bob Tetens, Dan Dwyer, Dave Shirley

From left: Greg Dill, county infrastructure management director; Bob Tetens, director of county parks & recreation; trial court administrator Dan Dwyer; and Dave Shirley, county operations and maintenance manager.

There were two main phases, Fee said. The first phase, which cost about $300,000, started in early 2011 after the 15th District Court moved out of the courthouse and into the city’s new Justice Center at Fifth and Huron. The second floor of the county courthouse was remodeled to create a new jury assembly room, and the third floor was renovated for the juvenile court, which was previously located at a Platt Road facility.

The second phase – focusing on first-floor renovations and costing about $1 million – is still underway. The first floor is where the public comes to do its court-related business, Fee said. Renovations included an active file room; offices for the Washtenaw County Bar Association, Legal Resource Center, and court administration; and a new staff lunchroom.

First-floor renovations began in August of 2011 and are scheduled to wrap up by March 16, 2012 – though Fee said the work might be finished sooner. He credited Dan Dwyer, court administrator, for working hand-in-hand on the design and execution of the work, and said the county saved money by keeping much of the labor in-house.

Fee told commissioners that they’d get another update at their March 8 working session, with a tour scheduled for March 22.

Trial Court Renovations: Commissioner Discussion

Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked a question he’s voiced at other meetings: Is chief judge Donald Shelton happy with the work? Court administrator Dan Dwyer quipped: “He’s as happy as he gets!”

In response to another question from Sizemore, Fee said that renovations to the exterior of the courthouse aren’t part of this current project. Wes Prater encouraged Fee to look at the outside of the courthouse along the Main Street side, saying there are parts of the wall that look like they’re ready to fall off.

Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director, told commissioners that staff planned to look at possible exterior work in the spring.

Rob Turner, the commissioner who has acted as a liaison for this project, described himself as usually a hard-head, but said it had been a pleasure to work with Fee and others on this effort. He noted that last year the project had been behind schedule, but they had managed to pull it back together and finish possibly ahead of schedule and on budget.

Sizemore commended the fact that the county’s facilities department was getting an intern to work with them. He encouraged the IT (information technology) department to do the same thing. Even though there’s not as much new housing construction now, Sizemore said, young people can still learn to work on construction projects like the courthouse renovation. It gives them hope that they’ll be able to find a job in this field, he said.

Agenda Briefings

At the Jan. 4, 2012 board meeting, commissioners had voted to change the start time of working sessions to 6 p.m. and add the administrative briefing as the session’s first agenda item. Previously the administrative briefings – held to review the board’s upcoming agenda – were held at 4 p.m. the week prior to a regular board meeting. It had been a difficult time of day for some commissioners to attend.

At the Feb. 2 working session, Alicia Ping expressed some frustration about the new format. The intent was good, she said, but it’s not working. She indicated that because the briefings are held so far ahead of the next meeting – nearly two weeks in advance – many items on the agenda aren’t finalized, and commissioners can’t get enough information to make the briefings productive.

Leah Gunn noted that the briefings are just that – briefings. They are meant to give commissioners an indication of what will be on the agenda, she said, but they aren’t meant to be detailed.

Wes Prater said that if the briefings are only meant to be informational, he didn’t see the point. Why not just email commissioners the agenda information instead? ”I believe all of us can read,” he said. “If we’re not going to talk about it, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Conan Smith pointed out that the agenda isn’t finalized until the week prior to the next meeting. The Feb. 15 meeting agenda, for example, won’t be set until Wednesday, Feb. 8. It won’t be posted publicly until Friday, Feb. 10. The idea for the briefings is to give commissioners a heads up for the big items that will likely be coming before them, he said.

As for when the briefings are held, and who attends, Smith described it as ”a crazy nightmare” to figure out, adding that they’ve tried scheduling it “seven ways from Sunday.”

In March 2011 the board had voted to eliminate the briefings entirely. That decision was made in the wake of criticisms by commissioner Ronnie Peterson, who did not attend the briefings during that period because of his objections to the format. He had called the briefings “backroom” meetings where deliberations occurred that he believed were too far out of the public eye. [The briefings are posted in accordance with the state's Open Meetings Act and The Chronicle has attended nearly all of the public briefings since late 2008.]

After that March 2011 vote, a weekly agenda-setting meeting took the place of briefings, attended by senior staff and just three commissioners: Smith, as board chair; Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the ways & means committee; and Yousef Rabhi, chair of the working sessions. Because the meetings did not involve a quorum of commissioners, they were not be required to be open to the public.

Later in the year, the briefings were re-instituted. The 2012 calendar approved by the board at its Dec. 7, 2011 meeting included administrative briefings scheduled at 4 p.m. on the Tuesday during the week prior to the board’s regular Wednesday meetings. They were changed to the current schedule – as part of the board’s workings sessions – to accommodate the schedules of more commissioners, and to be included as part of a televised meeting. [Working sessions are broadcast by Community Television Network and available on the county's website.]

After the brief discussion on Feb. 2, the consensus appeared to be that the briefings would remain a part of the working sessions.

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

Absent: Barbara Bergman, Ronnie Peterson.

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