County Policy Issues: Salaries, Animals

Also: Funds OK'd for Pure Michigan; final labor deals approved

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 15, 2012): Two major items – and underlying policy related to them – took up much of the Feb. 15 county board meeting.

Mark Heusel

Mark Heusel, vice president of the board for the Humane Society of Huron Valley, with his daughter at the Feb. 15 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

After months of uncertainty and sometimes heated negotiations, the county approved an agreement with the Humane Society of Huron Valley through 2012, along with a strategy for a longer-term solution to the county’s animal control services.

A work group, led by the sheriff, is now tasked with determining the cost of animal control services. The work group will involve other jurisdictions in the county that have animal control ordinances – like the city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township – but do not currently make financial contributions to the county’s animal control services. The group will present a report to the board by Sept. 15 that recommends a final cost methodology and budget for 2013, based on an agreed-upon scope of services.

In an amendment to the resolution that was proposed from the floor, the board also created a separate task force to develop an animal control policy for the county. The policy will be used to guide the scope of services for a request-for-proposals (RFP). Meetings of the task force will be open to the public and to any commissioner who wants to participate. The task force will submit a preliminary report to the board by May 15, with a final report due by Oct. 15.

Following a lengthy discussion later in the meeting, the board also gave initial approval to an administrative restructuring proposal that included a net reduction of four positions, an estimated annual savings of $326,422, and creation of a new “cross-lateral” team of four current senior managers. The issue of pay increases – given as a result job reclassifications – prompted debate about whether the county’s current policy treats employees equitably at the low end of the pay scale.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson voted against the restructuring. He objected to the 4% increase that will be given to the cross-lateral team, saying the raises aren’t justified in light of concessions that union employees gave in the most recent round of contract negotiations. A final vote on the proposal is expected at the board’s March 7 meeting.

In other board action, commissioners approved allocating $200,000 to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) as part of funding for a Pure Michigan campaign focused on the Ann Arbor area. The funding comes out of revenues from the county’s accommodations tax. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) is developing a Pure Michigan pilot program, entitled “Sense of Place,” to combine support for tourism and economic development. The Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County area has been chosen as the first region to be featured as a partner in this program, which will include a $1 million national TV ad campaign.

The board approved several other items during the Feb. 15 meeting, including: (1) labor agreements with the final four of 17 bargaining units representing county employees; (2) a change in board rules allowing commissioners to abstain from voting; and (3) a Whitmore Lake improvement project.

Animal Control Services

At its Feb. 15 meeting, commissioners were asked to approve a $415,000 contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley that will provide animal control services for the county just through Dec. 31, 2012. The county’s previous contract with HSHV, for $500,000 annually, expired on Dec. 31, 2011. Since then, the two entities have been operating under a $29,000 month-by-month contract.

County officials said the new contract would provide time for ongoing talks to develop a longer-term solution to animal control services in Washtenaw County, including services that are mandated by the state. During the rest of 2012, the county will work with HSHV and other stakeholders to determine the cost of an “animal service unit” – that is, the itemized per-animal cost of providing animal control services. The county eventually will issue a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit bids for the next contract.

The budget approved by the county board for 2012 cut funding for animal control services to $250,000, although during last year’s budget deliberations 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. That brought the total amount budgeted for animal control to $430,000 in 2012. HSHV officials have said that even $500,000 wasn’t sufficient to cover costs for all the work they do.

The new $415,000 contract does not include the $180,000 that the county has budgeted for its own animal control officers. Instead, the county plans to allocate an additional $165,000 from its general fund balance, to be added to the previously budgeted $250,000 for animal control services in 2012.

Animal Control Services: Public Commentary

Mark Heusel, vice president of the board for the Humane Society of Huron Valley, said he wanted to communicate the HSHV board’s support for the resolution that the commissioners would be voting on. He noted that he had spoken to the board last fall, when the differences between the two entities had seemed very significant. [See Chronicle coverage: "Animal Issue Dominates County Budget Talks"]

The message then, Heusel said, was confidence that the county and HSHV could come together for the benefit of residents. With hard work and perhaps a little hand-wringing on both sides, he said, they’ve reached an agreement that can serve as a stepping stone for a new relationship. Heusel described the agreement as one that’s forward-thinking and based on mutual respect. He thanked the county administration, sheriff Jerry Clayton, and county board chair Conan Smith for their work, as well as commissioners who supported HSHV or kept an open mind during negotiations.

Heusel said he was confident they could strike a relationship that’s long-lasting and that moves beyond 2012. He urged support for the resolution that commissioners were considering that night, then joked that if his appeal didn’t work, he’d brought his young daughter to the meeting and she might be more persuasive.

Animal Control Services: Board Discussion

Conan Smith kicked off the discussion by thanking Heusel and other HSHV representatives for their help in crafting the contract language. He also thanked commissioners for their input, saying they’d had some good conversations over the last few weeks, and thanked county administrator Verna McDaniel, sheriff Jerry Clayton, and Stefani Carter, who’s filling in as corporation counsel while Curtis Hedger is on medical leave. Smith said he was glad to have the rest of the year to investigate the public policy side of the issue.

Animal Control Services: Board Discussion – Amendment

Leah Gunn then proposed an amendment to the resolution, saying it had nothing to do with the contract. Rather, she said, the amendment focused on the “internal machinations” of the county and how they’ll handle the process of developing a policy and RFP for future years.

The original resolution called for the creation of an animal services steering committee, led by the sheriff with members including the county administrator, four members of the board of commissioners, the county prosecutor and the county treasurer. That committee would have recommended a final cost methodology and animal control services budget for 2013, based on an agreed-upon scope of services.

Instead, Gunn’s amendment specifies a sheriff’s work group to determine cost, and a separate task force to develop an animal control policy [deletions in strike-through, additions in italics]:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners authorizes the Office of the Sheriff to develop a methodology to determine the cost of an Animal Service Unit (ASU) on behalf of the County. The Sheriff may choose the members of his work group, with the understanding that the Board of Commissioners will appoint Commissioner Rob Turner to act as a liaison. The work group’s report is due no later than September 15, 2012.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hereby establishes an Animal Services Steering Committee (ASSC) for the purpose of reviewing the findings of the Sheriff’s process and recommending a final cost methodology and animal control services budget for 2013 to the Board of Commissioners and establishes the membership of the ASSC as the County Administrator or her designee, four members of the Board of Commissioners, the County Sheriff or his designee, the County Prosecutor or his designee and the County Treasurer or her designee.  a Task Force on Animal Control Policy. This group will exist solely for the purpose of developing an animal control policy for the county. This policy will be reflected in the RFP for a scope of services that the county will purchase. Meetings will be posted. Membership is open to any Commissioner who wishes to attend, and the report will be submitted by May 15th. Once the data from the Sheriff’s work group is published, the RFP will go out forthwith.

Ronnie Peterson wanted clarification between the original resolution and the proposed amendment. He also expressed frustration about the time it’s taken to resolve the process.

Yousef Rabhi explained that the amended resolution would create two separate entities and processes. The sheriff’s work group would focus on identifying the cost of animal services, and would make a recommendation on that. Rob Turner would be a liaison, and report back to the board about the group’s work.

The second entity – the task force on animal control policy – would look at broad issues for setting policy as the county looks toward 2013 and beyond. Rabhi said he’s in favor of separating the two groups because the sheriff’s work group is objective – collecting and analyzing data – while the policy task force will be more subjective. The policy task force will submit a report to the board of commissioners that will be reviewed at a working session before being adopted, Rabhi said.

Noting that politics is the art of compromise, Gunn said this was a good compromise. She noted that the date of Sept. 15 was set at the sheriff’s request – she had originally set it earlier in the year, but moved it back because the sheriff felt it would take longer to collect the data. That’s a fair request, she added, especially since this is a task that the board is imposing on him. Gunn observed that the board of commissioners isn’t a fact-finding entity – it’s a policy-making board. That’s why she proposed the separate policy task force. And by posting the meetings in compliance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act, they don’t need to worry about how many commissioners attend, she said.

Conan Smith said it makes sense to shift the work of determining cost to the sheriff, while creating a separate policy task force. It’s a staff function to collect and analyze data, he said, and the work is in the sheriff’s purview. The findings of that group will come back to the board and guide its budget deliberations, he said.

Regarding the policy task force, its scope should include broader issues that go beyond developing the RFP, Smith said – issues like finding additional revenue sources.

Animal Control Services: Board Discussion – Amendment (Timeline)

Conan Smith was concerned about the proposed May 15 deadline for the policy report. The policy should be informed by the data that the sheriff’s work group will be analyzing, he said, but the work group’s report won’t be done until Sept. 15, according to the proposed timeline. Smith didn’t feel the policy task force could develop an RFP without having a strong sense of the costs for animal control services. So his recommendation would be to have the policy task force report due on Oct. 15 instead – a month later than the sheriff’s work group report.

Smith also observed that without appointed leadership on the task force, he thinks that entity will struggle.

Gunn said she’d accepted the Oct. 15 date as a friendly amendment. But Barbara Bergman expressed concern about pushing back the date, saying she wouldn’t support it. She felt the policy should be determined earlier in the year.

Felicia Brabec asked for a description of the typical RFP timeline. Kelly Belknap, the county’s finance director, said the entire process – including issuing the RFP, soliciting responses, analyzing those responses, and developing a contract – can take two to three months. She noted that a new contract would need to be in place by Jan. 1, 2013.

Jerry Clayton, Dan Smith, Barbara Bergman

From left: Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton, and county commissioners Dan Smith and Barbara Bergman.

Dan Smith said he’d just looked at the board’s meeting scheduled for the remainder of the year. Commissioners have only one meeting in November and one in December, he noted. Their second meeting in October is Oct. 17 – only two days after the proposed Oct. 15 task force report would be due. The board needs to keep these constraints in mind, he said, so that they don’t end up in the same position they are now. He’d rather see them set dates earlier in the year.

Peterson then spoke at length about his frustrations with the project, saying he didn’t understand why the process took so long. He indicated that the board is responsible for making spending decisions, and commissioners should be involved in that. He wondered why the board was able to eliminate Head Start and cut funding for nonprofits in one night, but needed so long to deal with animal control issues. [As part of the 2012-2013 budget process, the board did vote to relinquish its involvement in Head Start. And commissioners also initially reduced funding to human services nonprofits, though that funding was subsequently restored. However, discussions on both of those issues took place at public meetings over a period of several months last year.]

The county has a strong partnership with HSHV, Peterson said, and holds the debt for the society’s new facility. The public wants this issue wrapped up tonight, he said, and he hoped the board would move aggressively.

Peterson also expressed surprise that a resolution of this kind would explicitly name a commissioner – Turner – for a particular role, but said he supported the idea of commissioners being involved.

Conan Smith said the reason he’s suggesting a longer timeline is out of respect for the time commitment required by stakeholders, including HSHV staff and board members, and other local jurisdictions that will be involved in the policy discussion and data collection. It’s not just the county staff and commissioners who’ll be working on this, he noted. The sheriff’s work group will need several months to collect sufficient data that can provide a fair analysis of cost. It doesn’t have to be complex, Smith said, but it does take time.

Rabhi pointed to a central question: Should the cost of animal control inform the county’s policy? Or should the policy be developed independently of cost? He said he doesn’t envision that the policy task force would dissolve after they issue a report on May 15, but it’s important to have a report earlier than October.

Rabhi then proposed keeping the May 15 deadline for the policy task force report, adding that they could issue a second report in mid-October.

Gunn proposed withdrawing the friendly amendment that would have pushed the deadline for the task force report from May 15 to Oct. 15. She moved to substitute this Resolved clause instead [changes from the original amendment in italics]:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hereby establishes a Task Force on Animal Control Policy. This group will exist solely for the purpose of developing an animal control policy for the county. This policy will be reflected in the RFP for a scope of services that the county will purchase. Meetings will be posted. Membership is open to any Commissioner who wishes to attend, and a preliminary report will be submitted by May 15th. Once the data from the Sheriff’s work group is published, the RFP will go out forthwith, and the final report of the task force will be published by Oct. 15.

Rob Turner expressed support for this amendment, saying it would put fire behind the effort and keep the task force focused on the work it needs to do.

Gunn then called the question on the amendment – a move aimed at ending discussion and forcing a vote. There was a fair amount of confusion about procedural issues at this point, but the board ultimately voted to call the question. They then took a vote on the amendment to the amendment.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved Gunn’s amendment to her original amendment, characterizing the May 15 task force report as preliminary, with a final report due by Oct. 15.

Conan Smith indicated he was still leery of the May 15 deadline, even for a preliminary report. For example, how the county funds cat-specific animal control issues is a substantive policy question, he said. [The county has contended that the state mandate for animal control does not apply to cats.] Until the county has data on the cost of providing animal control services for cats, commissioners might not be able to make a well-informed policy decision, he said.

Bergman said that many questions – like the county’s mission, mandate and types of services they want to spend money on – could be answered by May 15. It’s just a preliminary report, she said.

Outcome on amendment: Commissioners unanimously approved Gunn’s amended amendment.

Animal Control Services: Final Board Discussion

Saying he’d support the resolution, Dan Smith added that he was concerned because this is the second time the county recently has dipped into its fund balance. The first time was in December, when the board voted to take $257,076 from the county’s general fund balance to restore funding it had previously cut to human services nonprofits in the 2012 and 2013 budget.

Smith noted that the county faces a projected deficit in its next two-year budget cycle – for 2014 and 2015 – and that’s troubling. He said he’s very interested in the data that will be collected to determine the cost of animal control services. He had supported the county administrator’s original proposal to cut HSHV funding to $250,000 annually because of historical payments the county had made – $214,119 in 2006, and $300,000 in 2007 and again in 2008. He said he’d be interested to see if the data regarding costs is closer to those amounts, or is vastly different.

HSHV has always been the preferred provider, Smith said, but the county is facing extreme financial constraints, and that factor should be at the forefront. He said he’s not entirely pleased with how this process has unfolded, but he’s glad to see a plan in place.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. noted that another item on the board’s agenda that night – an initial vote to approve restructuring in the administration – indicated that the restructuring would result in annual savings of $326,000. He suggested using funds from those savings to pay the extra $165,000 for the 2012 contract with HSHV. He did not make a formal amendment to that effect, however.

Outcome: The resolution authorizing a new contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley and creating a work group and policy task force were unanimously approved by the board, as part of the consent agenda.

Administrative Restructuring

A restructuring of support services in administration, finance, information technology and facilities management was on the agenda for the Feb. 15 meeting. The changes are estimated to save the county $326,422 annually, and result in the net reduction of four full-time jobs – positions that are currently vacant.

The changes include 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 proposal also calls for putting two positions – including the job of deputy county administrator – on “hold vacant” status. Another 11 positions will be eliminated, while nine jobs will be created. A total of seven jobs will be reclassified, and will receive a 4% salary increase. [.pdf of staff memo, resolution and job descriptions]

The four cross-lateral positions are among those getting a 4% raise, capped at $126,099. Because of the cap, Heidt’s current salary of $126,098 will remain unchanged. The salaries of the other three managers will increase from $116,758 to $121,437.

The board had been briefed about this proposal by county administrator Verna McDaniel at its Feb. 2, 2012 working session. At that meeting, McDaniel also outlined plans to seek broader restructuring of the county operations, in the wake of more than 100 county employees retiring at the end of 2011.

Administrative Restructuring: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec noted that some staff and constituents had raised concerns over salary increases that are part of the restructuring, and she asked McDaniel to comment on that.

McDaniel said she was aware of the concerns, but she noted that these are job reclassifications, with increases set at 4% – they aren’t moving to new pay grades. McDaniel told commissioners that she’s following their directive to restructure in the wake of 117 retirements at the end of 2011, including nine retirements in administrative services.

McDaniel said she’s very sensitive to the sacrifices that employees have made, and she did take into account the county’s financial situation. [To overcome a projected two-year deficit of $17.5 million in 2012-2013, the county administration had secured wage and benefit concessions from unions representing about 80% of the county's 1,360 employees.]

McDaniel reminded commissioners that the estimated structural savings from her proposal is $326,422. It will help the fund balance, she said, and shows that the administration is practicing what they’re preaching as they ask other departments to restructure in the coming months.

McDaniel contended that this move means that Washtenaw County is taking the lead among Michigan’s 83 county governments. She promised to return in six months with a report to the board about the impact of the restructuring, both its successes and pitfalls. She also passed out additional information in a handout – which she said she’d share with union leaders – that outlined responsibilities of the cross-lateral team in more detail.

Kelly Belknap, Diane Heidt

At right, Diane Heidt, the county's director of human services and labor relations, talks with Kelly Belknap, director of finance. If restructuring is given final approval in March, the two administrators will be part of a four-member cross-lateral administrative team, splitting responsibilities formerly held by the deputy county administrator.

Each member of the cross-lateral team will oversee specific areas of the organization. Hedger will handle administration and support services. Belknap will be responsible for civic infrastructure. Dill will manage public safety and justice, as well as land use and environment areas, while Heidt will be in charge of health and human services, and community and economic development. They’ll meet with McDaniel once a week, with the goal of improving communications, providing additional resources for commissioners and other elected officials, and creating a “deep bench” of leadership.

Wes Prater said it’s hard to swallow change, but it’s necessary. He said he’d prefer to keep the deputy administrator position rather than the cross-lateral team, but he would yield to McDaniel and see how things work out. Prater also said there needs to be close scrutiny of the finance staff. The restructuring will decrease the number of accounts payable jobs from three to two, he noted, and the rationale given is that the change allows for better alignment of day-to-day finance operations with the rest of the organization. It makes you wonder what was happening before now, he said. Prater said he hopes it works.

Ronnie Peterson noted that two positions – the deputy county administrator, and a maintenance technician – are on “hold vacant” status, but not eliminated. They could be filled in the future. Those positions have a maximum salary of $144,000 and $52,000 respectively, he said, and if the positions are filled, that would wipe out about $200,000 of the projected $326,000 annual savings.

Saying he respects the individuals involved in this restructuring, Peterson expressed concern about the raises. The argument is that salaries are increasing because of increased responsibilities, he noted. But most people in the workforce are seeing increased responsibilities without a bump in wages. He said he believes in leading by example – if he takes his nieces and nephews to Dairy Queen, he doesn’t buy himself a bigger ice cream cone than theirs. That’s what you do as a team, he said.

Peterson noted that someone who was attending the meeting that night, a long-time county employee who he said he didn’t want to embarrass by naming, took a significant pay cut in order to keep her job. Knowing that, he said, it would be difficult for him to vote for this restructuring. The county is facing a projected deficit in 2014-2015, Peterson added, and he doesn’t know how they’ll be able to ask employees to make concessions again in two years when the union contracts are negotiated. It’s troubling to him, and his vote on this resolution would be no. His remarks received applause from a handful of employees in the audience.

Dan Smith said he also had some concerns about the raises, which he said he’d shared with the administration. That said, he added that he supports McDaniel. The board has hired her to handle day-to-day operations, and if she feels this is the best way to move forward, Smith said, he’ll support that. If the board wants to take a more active role, that’s their prerogative. But for now, she’s operating under the guidelines they’ve given her, Smith concluded.

Yousef Rabhi noted that when this proposal was initially floated, the plan had called for each cross-lateral team member to receive a $15,000 stipend. Now, the proposal was for a 4% raise. He asked for an explanation about how that 4% figure had been set. [A similar restructuring proposal had initially appeared on the Sept. 21, 2011 agenda, but McDaniel withdrew it before that meeting after several commissioners objected to the $15,000 stipend for the cross-lateral team.]

At McDaniel’s request, Heidt responded to the question. The county has policies and procedures in place regarding job changes – these are part of the union contracts, too, and relate to pay increases for temporary assignments, permanent reclassifications and other changes. If a job is reclassified, the salary increases by 4%. If someone is promoted, they’ll generally receive an 8% increase, she said. Temporary assignments – adding responsibilities on top of an existing job – also get an 8% increase. Lateral moves are generally kept at the same salary. These apply to union positions too, she said.

Rabhi clarified with Heidt that when any position is reclassified, it’s handled in the same way. Absolutely, Heidt said.

Conan Smith said he wanted to present a different perspective that he hoped might change Peterson’s mind. Every point that Peterson made is valid, Smith said. But equally important is the consistent application of good, fair policies. The board has operated with a set of policies with regard to job changes that help keep the peace, Smith said, to ensure that people are treated fairly. But there are some employees who are asked to take on more work, yet don’t get higher wages because their jobs aren’t officially reclassified. There’s a set of employees at the lower end of the pay scale who need a different set of protections and policies. But those protections and policies aren’t in place now, he said.

Until that issue is addressed, however, the county needs to implement its current policies, Smith continued. Changing horses midstream isn’t right. The board needs to have a robust policy conversation that they haven’t had to date, he said.

Peterson replied that he had raised the policy question months ago, when the administrative restructuring had first been proposed. He said restructuring happens for a reason – some people are “weeded in,” while others are “weeded out” – and he’s seen it happen over the years. Peterson also observed that it’s different if you’re talking about someone making $40,000 or $50,000 a year, compared to someone making over $100,000. The county must find a way to make a policy that’s more inclusive of all employees, he said. That responsibility rests with the board, he added, not the administration.

Conan Smith, appearing a bit frustrated, noted that the board approves job reclassifications regularly throughout the year. There were six reclassifications as part of the 2012-2013 budget that was passed by the board late last year, he said. It’s standard operating procedure, and the 4% increase is part of that – it’s consistently applied to all reclassifications. All of those reclassifications come to the board for approval, he observed, so it’s commissioners who are making these decisions.

Felicia Brabec asked whether it was possible to have a pay decrease following a reclassification. No, McDaniel said. If your job is reclassified, you get a 4% pay increase because a reclassification is an upgrade – that’s a policy that applies to any job. If you receive a involuntary demotion, she said, your pay remains the same. If you take a voluntary demotion, your pay decreases. If you are promoted, you receive an 8% increase. The county doesn’t have divisive policies, McDaniel said. These salary practices are part of union contracts and apply to non-union employees as well.

Is there any other situation that might result in a pay cut? Brabec asked. If you’re fired, McDaniel quipped. Or if there are concessions made as part of union contract negotiations. In response to a query from Barbara Bergman, McDaniel reiterated that temporary assignments get an 8% bump – for example, if you’re asked to take over the responsibilities of your boss for a limited time. You would return to your original salary when your temporary assignment ended.

Peterson said he hadn’t planned on this being a long conversation, but felt it was important to discuss these concerns. This has been the worst economic period in the county since the Depression, he said. Peterson contended that changes tend to affect minorities and women – who are often heads of households – more than others. The board shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of county employees, he said.

Conan Smith said his understanding of Peterson’s position is that the county has a policy that creates equality, but not necessarily equity. At the top of the wage scale, concessions don’t hurt as much, compared to an employee who’s making far less. It’s a complicated issue, Smith said, and one he’d like to tackle collaboratively with labor leaders.

Rob Turner asked McDaniel what metrics she would use to measure the performance of the cross-lateral team. McDaniel cited better communications, work on broader organizational restructuring, improved customer service and program improvements as areas that she’ll be measuring. How will those areas be measured? Turner asked. One way is through cost savings, McDaniel said. But it’s not just about money, she added. It’s also about customer service and program improvements. She said she’d provide more details on that as they move forward.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to give initial approval for the proposed administrative restructuring, with dissent from Ronnie Peterson. A final vote is expected at the board’s March 7 meeting.

Pure Michigan Campaign

As part of funding for a Pure Michigan campaign focused on the Ann Arbor area, commissioners were asked to allocate $200,000 to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), out of revenues from the county’s accommodations tax.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) is developing a Pure Michigan pilot program, entitled “Sense of Place,” to combine support for tourism and economic development. The Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County area has been chosen as the first region to be featured as a partner in this program.

The campaign will feature a $1 million national TV ad campaign. Ann Arbor SPARK, the local economic development agency, is contributing $70,000 toward the campaign, with $200,000 coming from the county, $230,000 from the two local CVBs, and $500,000 from the MEDC. Other elements of the pilot program might include an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters” program that would focus on the Ann Arbor area, and a national digital ad campaign directing people to Ann Arbor SPARK’s website.

The $200,000 from the county will be paid from the accommodations ordinance administrative fund – an early payment that the county otherwise anticipated making in May of 2013. More than $350,000 is currently in that administrative fund, according to the county.

At the board’s Sept. 21, 2011 meeting, commissioners had voted to amend the contract for the distribution of the county’s accommodations tax. The county collects a 5% excise tax from hotels, motels, and bed & breakfasts, which is then distributed to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention & visitors bureaus and used to promote tourism and convention business. The contract calls for the county to retain 10% of that tax to defray the cost of collection and enforcement. (Until 2009, the county had only retained 5% for this purpose.) The remaining funds are split, with 75% going to the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau, and 25% going to the Ypsilanti Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The contract amendment made in September 2011 addressed the process for distributing excess funds that might accumulate from the county’s 10%, if that amount exceeds the expenses required to administer and enforce compliance with the tax. Beginning in May 2013, the county will continue to retain 10% of the tax proceeds, plus 10% of any remaining fund balance. If additional funds accumulate in the fund balance, they are to be returned proportionally to the two convention & visitors bureaus – 75% to Ann Arbor, and 25% to Ypsilanti.

Several representatives from the groups involved in this campaign attended the Feb. 15 county board meeting: Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor CVB; Debbie Locke-Daniel, executive director of the Ypsilanti CVB; Elizabeth Parkinson, MEDC senior vice president of marketing and communications; and Donna Doleman, Ann Arbor SPARK’s vice president of marketing, communications and talent.

The links between the MEDC and Ann Arbor region are strong. Several MEDC executives – including Parkinson and CEO Mike Finney – are former top staff at Ann Arbor SPARK, which Gov. Rick Snyder helped launch several years prior to his election.

Pure Michigan Campaign: Board Discussion

Several commissioners voiced support for the campaign. Ronnie Peterson said he’s hoped for years to see the joint promotion of tourism and economic development. Rolland Sizemore Jr. indicated that it might be possible to use some of these funds as matching funds for Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township’s participation in the Detroit Region Aerotropolis.

Barbara Bergman said if the funds were to be used for the aerotropolis, the board should get a report on that project. She said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, but thought it should be monitored.

By way of background, as of Feb. 18, a message on the website for the Detroit Region Aerotropolis stated that the site has been disabled. There have been no posts on the entity’s Facebook or Twitter accounts since April of 2011. Responding to a query from The Chronicle, Bryce Kelley of Wayne County EDGE – which is overseeing the project – said the site is being redeveloped, and that work on the aerotropolis is progressing. Washtenaw County joined the aerotropolis consortium in 2009, and received its last public briefing on the project at its April 21, 2010 meeting. It was more recently mentioned in a memo sent to the board in October of 2011 by Paul Tait, executive director for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). Tait cited SEMCOG’s work on the aerotropolis as one justification for why the county should continue paying dues to SEMCOG. The 2012 and 2013 budget approved in November 2011 eliminated the county’s $125,000 annual SEMCOG membership.

Sizemore said he was simply trying to find ways to do things without spending additional money.

Leah Gunn said it had been smart of the accommodations ordinance commission to recommend setting aside funds for administration, but because it’s not needed for other purposes, the money should be used for an opportunity like this. Felicia Brabec expressed enthusiasm for the possibility of this area being featured on HGTV’s “House Hunters” program, saying that when she watches the show, she’s often interested in visiting the locations that are highlighted. [The Ann Arbor area has previously been featured on the show, most recently in 2009.]

Outcome: The board unanimously approved allocating $200,000 to the local convention and visitors bureaus for the Pure Michigan advertising campaign.

Labor Contracts

The county had previously reached labor agreements with all but four of the 17 bargaining units representing county employees. At the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, an agenda item was added during the meeting to enter into executive session for the purpose of discussing labor negotiations. When commissioners emerged, they added to the agenda two resolutions to approve collective bargaining agreements with the four remaining units.

These final four bargaining units represent a total of 36 employees – the prosecuting attorneys, the prosecuting attorney supervisors, attorneys in the public defenders office, and supervisors of attorneys in the public defenders office. In total, the county employs about 1,360 workers, and more than 80% of them are represented by labor unions.

All four agreements considered on Feb. 15 were identical, covering a three-year period from Jan. 1, 2012 through Dec. 31, 2014. Because these deals weren’t struck before the deadline to comply with Section 4 of the state’s Public Act 152 of 2011, also known as the 80/20 rule regarding health care costs, union members will pay 20% of their health care premiums.

There are some significant differences between these four agreements and the 13 other union agreements that were previously reached with the county. The other agreements are for two-year periods, ending Dec. 31, 2013. Medical costs for the other union-represented employees are lower, because those agreements were reached prior to the 80/20 deadline. However, because of a “me too” clause, the overall package of salaries and benefits is on par with other labor agreements, according to Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director. So while medical expenses are higher, the agreements with these four bargaining units do not include items like reductions in longevity pay, for example.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board unanimously approved the four labor agreements.

Board Rule Changes

A resolution that was tabled from the board’s Jan. 4, 2012 meeting was on the agenda for the Feb. 15 meeting.

The resolution, proposed by Dan Smith, changed the board rules to give commissioners the option of abstaining from a vote. His resolution amended the section on board resolutions, adding the following statement: “Members may abstain from voting on any resolution expressing support (or opposition), but otherwise taking no action.” During a brief discussion at the Jan. 4 meeting, some commissioners had objected to the change, and the board had tabled the item until the second meeting in February.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Smith did not elaborate on his reasons for proposing the change, but the issue was relevant at the board’s final meeting in December 2011. A resolution brought forward at that time by Yousef Rabhi urged state lawmakers to reject HB 4770HB 4771 and “any legislation that codifies discrimination.” The state legislation, which was later signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, removed the ability of public employers to extend benefits to same-sex partners. During deliberations on that resolution, commissioners Dan Smith and Rob Turner had objected to bringing forward resolutions that were not focused on Washtenaw County issues – both commissioners ultimately voted against Rabhi’s resolution, though it passed with a majority of support from the rest of the board.

Prior to the Feb. 15 meeting, Dan Smith indicated to The Chronicle that he would withdraw the item if any other commissioner pulled it out of the consent agenda to be voted on separately. But that did not occur.

Outcome: Without discussion, the resolution passed, with dissent from Wes Prater.

Whitmore Lake

Commissioners were asked to give final 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. An initial vote on the project had been taken at the board’s Feb. 1 meeting.

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 800 parcels near Whitmore Lake.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board voted to give final approval to the Whitmore Lake project.

Communications and Public Commentary

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

Communications: Congratulations to Joe Burke

Board chair Conan Smith congratulated Joe Burke on his appointment as judge to the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor. Burke’s appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder had been announced earlier in the day. Burke currently serves as the county’s chief assistant prosecuting attorney. Smith said that while the county is sorry to lose him, Burke will do justice as a member of the judiciary. And now, Smith joked, ”we should go bribe him.”

Communications: Road Commission, Court Renovations, VEBA

Commissioner Rob Turner gave several updates during the time set aside for liaison reports.

Rob Turner

Washtenaw County commissioner Rob Turner.

He serves as the board’s liaison to the county road commission, and reported that revenues from the state transportation fund to the commission have increased 1.5%. It’s the first time since 2007 that there hasn’t been a decrease in state funding, he noted.

The mild winter has resulted in lower expenses for plowing and salt – $1.019 million, compared to $1.9 million a year ago. While that might seem like a windfall, Turner said, the flip side is that warmer weather means more potholes. So spending has shifted to road maintenance. Turner also indicated that the road commission is interested in working with townships to upgrade road conditions.

Turner reported that renovations at the downtown courthouse at Huron and Main are in their final phase. He said that usually by this point some surprises emerge – like unanticipated asbestos, for example – but nothing like that has arisen, and the project remains on schedule. The board had received a briefing on the project at their Feb. 2, 2012 working session.

Finally, Turner mentioned that requests for proposals (RFPs) are being developed to hire an actuary for the county’s VEBA (Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association) retirement fund. They’d need to wait until the actuarial report is complete, Turner said, but he’s concerned about the performance of the VEBA pension funds, which he said are not meeting projections.

Communications: Public Works, Head Start, Transit, Land Preservation

Yousef Rabhi also gave several liaison reports. Reporting from the most recent meeting of the county’s board of public works, Rabhi said that work on the new recycling facility being built the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA) is moving ahead, he said. At its Dec. 7, 2011 meeting, the board had approved issuing up to $2.7 million in bonds – backed by the county’s full faith and credit – to help pay for a $3.2 million facility, which will allow WWRA to handle single-stream recycling for communities on the county’s west side. Rob Turner noted that WWRA revenues increased by more than $400,000 in 2011. He knew that some commissioners were worried about the financial viability of WWRA and its ability to make bond payments, but the situation seemed good, he said.

Rabhi reported that the Head Start policy council is very interested in writing letters of support to federal officials, encouraging the selection of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District as the next grantee for the county’s Head Start program. The county is relinquishing management of the program later this year, after being the grantee for more than four decades.

In his report from the county’s agricultural lands preservation advisory committee (ALPAC), Rabhi said the committee is recommending the purchase of development rights on six parcels of farmland. Because the county can secure federal funding for these PDRs, the local millage dollars will spread further, he said. ALPAC makes recommendations to the county park & recreation commission, which will make the final decision on these applications. A 10-year millage renewal to support the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP) was approved by voters in November 2010, and a portion of millage proceeds can be used for farmland PDRs.

Rabhi said he had a great first meeting as chair of the Washtenaw Urban County last month, adding that he had big shoes to fill by following Leah Gunn, who previously served as chair. He noted that five new local jurisdictions have joined the group this year, adding to the previous 11 members. The Urban County is a consortium of local governments that receive federal funding for programs that serve low-income residents and neighborhoods.

Finally, Rabhi reported that he and Barbara Bergman – as board liaisons to Regional Partners Advocating Transit Here (R-PATH) – had attended a hearing in Lansing held by the Michigan senate’s transportation committee. Board chair Conan Smith had testified at the hearing, Rabhi said. Smith did a great job, “other than giving away one of our votes,” Rabhi joked.

The hearing related to a new regional transit authority (RTA) that’s described in legislation currently pending in the state legislature. The legislation would create a four-county region for the RTA that would include Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. [For coverage of the proposed legislation, see "Michigan Regional Transit Bills Unveiled"] The RTA legislation as introduced would give two seats on a 10-member board to Washtenaw County – with two seats for each of the other three counties, one for Detroit, and one non-voting ex-officio appointment made by the governor.

According to a report in the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), Smith told the committee that he would be willing to give up one of those seats: “Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith not only supported the bills, but expressed an openness to support giving up one of Washtenaw County’s appointments on the RTA to Detroit if ‘that’s what it took” to get the bills passed.’”

Smith’s wife, state Sen. Rebekah Warren, is one of the co-sponsors of the RTA legislation.

Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge said he applauded the board for approving the acceptance of a $299,821 federal grant to fund the county’s foster grandparent program, but criticized commissioners for the administrative restructuring because it eliminated jobs. He argued that the county needs to meet the challenge of diminishing resources by putting a Headlee override on the ballot and advocating for tax reforms that will do away with the county’s reliance on property taxes.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Absent: Alicia Ping.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, March 7, 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. By TJ
    February 19, 2012 at 8:26 pm | permalink

    “the downtown courthouse at Huron and Maine” – has it gone interstate during the renovation? :-)

  2. By Mary Morgan
    February 19, 2012 at 11:18 pm | permalink

    Re: “the downtown courthouse at Huron and Maine” – we went a bit too far east with that. The typo has been fixed.

  3. February 20, 2012 at 5:09 am | permalink

    Thanks for your lucid reporting for what was obviously a long and complicated discussion. A couple of comments:

    1. In my eight years on the BOC, number of minutes spent discussing county animal control = 0. This was evidently a responsibility that the BOC took on in more recent years. I was startled a few years ago to read about the county’s funding the new shelter. I didn’t follow the discussions or process that preceded that.

    2. Many communities across the nation use hotel and other hospitality taxes to fund programs not related to tourism. I’ve often wondered why our local accommodations tax is only used for more promotion. Perhaps it has to do with Michigan’s constitutional limitations on taxation? I found the percentages stated in the article confusing. It had been my impression that the tax collected increased a couple of years ago and that the county was able to retain more of that revenue for other purposes. I note that the CVB is getting involved in additional programs, for example taking on part of the marketing of the airport shuttle that the AATA just launched. I’d like to see more discussion of this issue (use of the revenue) at some point.

    3. You make reference to VEBA “pension funds”. Please clarify – does this body actually have anything to do with pensions? I thought it was only benefits, i.e. medical coverage for retirees.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    February 20, 2012 at 9:25 am | permalink

    Re. the reference to VEBA “pension funds”: VEBA (Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association) is a defined benefit retirement healthcare plan. I was using the term “pension” too loosely, and thus inaccurately. I struck the word from the report. Thanks for pointing it out.

  5. By Leah Gunn
    February 20, 2012 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Michigan law states that the accommodations tax may be used ONLY to promote tourism. (It can also be used to build a convention center, but that was inserted for Cobo Hall. There is not not enough revenue nor support for a government funded convention center in Washtenaw County.) It has been discussed at length as to whether or not the county should get into the marketing business. It has been decided that the two CVBs do such a great job in promoting the features of Washtenaw County that it would not make much sense for the county to try to duplicate their efforts. Other states may allow other purposes, but Michigan does not.

    As to the percentages: the county used to get a 2% tax, but the hoteliers lobbied us to raise it to 5%, to enable more robust marketing. At the time this was done, the Treasurer requested 10% of the enhanced revenue to administer the tax (it is paid monthly to the Treasurer) and for enforcement (for those who do not pay). In 2011, the BOC agreed to set aside the 10%, but since we now (for the first time) have a separate account for both revenue and expenses, it was found that 10% appears excessive. There is about $350,000 in the account, and $200,000 of that was allocated to this new national Pure Michigan partnership. There is $150,000 excess left over, and, if this is not spent (and there is no reason to believe that it will be) it will eventually revert to the CVBs in 2013, with a 10% reserve kept in the Treasurer’s office. The allocation that was voted on Feb. 15th could be termed an “early withdrawl” The money is not part of the General Fund and does not appear in our budget.