County Acts on Budget, Health, Policy Issues

Food policy council formed, cuts to commissioner pay proposed

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 7, 2012): Although the county board isn’t yet in the heart of discussions for its next two-year budget cycle, the specter of that effort provided a backdrop to action at Wednesday’s meeting. The county faces projected deficits of $11.6 million in 2014 and $14.7 million in 2015.

Jenna Bacolor, Michaelle Rehmann, Al Connor

From left: Jenna Bacolor of the county's public health department, Michaelle Rehmann, Farm to Table director for the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), and Al Connor of the Michigan Farmers Union. All are involved in helping create the Washtenaw Food Policy Council. (Photos by the writer.)

Two items touched directly on salary and compensation. The board gave final approval to an administrative restructuring that’s estimated to save $326,422 annually, and result in the net reduction of four full-time jobs, which are currently vacant. As he did for the initial vote on Feb. 15, commissioner Ronnie Peterson voted against the restructuring, objecting to a 4% increase that will be given to four top managers in a new cross-lateral team, as a result of their job reclassification. Though the county uniformly gives a 4% raise when any job is reclassified, Peterson argued that the county’s leadership should set an example and that the raises will make it more difficult to ask for concessions in future union negotiations in 2014-15.

Also related to upcoming budgets, commissioner Dan Smith presented a draft proposal that would cut compensation for commissioners in 2013-2014. Overall, the proposal would cut total compensation (salary and benefits) by 5.7% per commissioner – from the current $20,213 to a proposed $19,063. He plans to present a formal resolution at the April 4 meeting. The timing would allow the board to make a decision before the May 15 filing deadline for county board candidates.

Another budget-related item came from the public health department, which proposed fee increases to treat sexually transmitted diseases – one of the mandated services provided by the county. The changes, which were approved unanimously, are being made in response to federal funding cuts and an increase in charges for state services. Though he voted in favor of the increases, Peterson raised concerns about the impact on low-income residents. Dick Fleece, director of the public health department, assured the board that no one would be refused treatment because of the inability to pay.

Public health staff also presented an item with almost no budget impact: A proposal to create the Washtenaw Food Policy Council, with the goal of supporting and coordinating activities in the county’s food system. Partners who’ve been working on this initiative include the Y of Ann Arbor, Growing Hope, Food Gatherers, the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), Slow Food Huron Valley, Eat Local/Eat Natural, Michigan Farmers Union, and the Ypsilanti Food Coop. A final vote is expected on March 21.

The board also acted on items related to public safety. They voted to accept a $177,500 state grant from the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive program (EVIP), which provides incentives for local governments to collaborate and combine operations. The grant will help pay for work related to dispatch consolidation between the county sheriff’s office and the city of Ann Arbor.

And in a vote to clear up a procedural move, the board authorized a merger of its countywide 800 megahertz (MHz) emergency communications system with the Michigan Public Safety Communication System. The county’s 800 MHz system is paid for through a 10-year, 0.20-mill tax that Washtenaw County voters approved in May 2006. At the time, the plan called for eventually merging with the statewide system.

During the opportunity for commissioners to raise items of discussion, Wes Prater noted that at the Ann Arbor city council’s March 5 meeting, a four-party agreement to establish a framework for a possible countywide transit system was approved. Prater urged the board to begin discussing the issue, too. [In addition to Ann Arbor, the four parties include the city of Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Ann Arbor city council was the first entity to approve the accord, doing so after postponing action on it three times and deliberating for over 3.5 hours at Monday's meeting. See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council OKs Transit Agreement"]

A working session for commissioners to address the four-party agreement has been set for Thursday, March 22.

Prater also wondered why the board hadn’t received any reports from the county treasurer recently. The treasurer, Catherine McClary, gave a 2010 annual treasurer’s report to commissioners early last year, at their Feb. 16, 2011 meeting, but has not yet submitted the 2011 annual report. Board chair Conan Smith asked county administrator Verna McDaniel to contact the treasurer’s office and request a report.

Administrative Restructuring

Commissioners were asked to sign off on a restructuring of support services in administration, finance, information technology and facilities management. The changes are estimated to save the county $326,422 annually, and result in the net reduction of four full-time jobs, which are currently vacant. Initial approval had been given at the county board’s Feb. 15 meeting.

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. Their jobs are being reclassified, so the four 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 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 salary increase. [.pdf of staff memo, resolution and job descriptions]

At the Feb. 15 meeting, commissioner Ronnie Peterson had voted against the restructuring, objecting to the 4% increase that will be given to the cross-lateral team as a result of their job reclassification.

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 (D-District 7) said she had talked to some union employees and had gotten feedback that there are concerns about the 4% increases, given that unions had made concessions in the most recent round of contract negotiations. People think the cross-lateral team is a great idea, but are bothered by the compensation – Brabec said she could understand that reaction. She asked McDaniel to restate the policy.

As she had done at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, McDaniel explained that a reclassification is not a promotion. Rather, she said, it reflects an increase of responsibilities within someone’s existing job. In accordance with board policy, she said, reclassifications are handled the same for both union and non-union employees. In both cases, a reclassification results in an automatic 4% salary increase.

Brabec said what she was hearing from McDaniel is that there’s parity between union and non-union employees. She clarified with McDaniel that McDaniel’s original proposal is no longer on the table. That’s correct, McDaniel replied. [Last fall, McDaniel had initially presented a plan that called for each cross-lateral team member to receive a $15,000 stipend. A resolution to that effect had appeared on the Sept. 21, 2011 draft agenda, but McDaniel withdrew it before that meeting after several commissioners objected to the stipend.]

Verna McDaniel, Rob Turner

County administrator Verna McDaniel talks with commissioner Rob Turner (R-District 1) before the start of the March 7, 2012 meeting.

Brabec asked what happens if an employee believes their job should be reclassified. McDaniel described a reclassification request form that an employee can fill out and turn in to their supervisor. After the supervisor reviews it, the request is passed along to the county’s human resources staff for another review. Communication occurs with the employee’s bargaining unit, and the request is negotiated. A similar process exists for non-union employees, she said, although no bargaining unit is involved.

Although requests can be made at any time, McDaniel said they try to handle reclassifications during contract negotiations as part of the budget process, or if there’s a broader departmental restructuring.

Wes Prater (D-District 4) said he felt it’s time to reconsider the policy of giving an automatic 4% increase for job reclassifications. It seems like something the board should chew on, he said. The county has asked employees to make sacrifices, and will likely need to do so again – it could be three or four years before the county gets “squared around,” he said.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11) emphasized that everyone in the organization made concessions, including the people whose jobs are being reclassified now. This is a policy, and the board needs to follow through on it. He said he did a quick calculation of other jobs changes in the administrator’s proposal, and two of the union positions are getting nearly 6% and 8% increases, respectively. He said he just wanted to put that information out there.

Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) then spoke at length. He reminded other commissioners that he had voted against this proposal initially, and planned to do so again. He hadn’t intended on speaking about it, he said, because the people involved are highly professional and skilled, and he’s pleased they are staying with the organization. However, he had some concerns. Although everyone made concessions, employees at the lower end of the pay scale feel more pain.

Peterson wondered why employees who are now doing the jobs of two or three people aren’t getting reclassified. He wanted to look at the entire workforce, to see how many people’s jobs should be reclassified. When the administration asks employees to make more concessions in the 2014-15 budget cycle, he said, employees won’t likely be willing to make sacrifices again.

Peterson concluded by saying that the leaders of the organization and those who have the highest compensation should set an example and make greater sacrifices.

Outcome: The proposal was given final approval on a 10-1 vote, with dissent from Ronnie Peterson.

Commissioner Compensation

A draft proposal that would cut compensation and benefits for Washtenaw County commissioners in 2013 and 2014 was distributed by commissioner Dan Smith (R-District 2) at the county board’s March 7 meeting. [.pdf of Smith's proposal]

Currently, commissioners are paid an annual base salary of $15,500 plus $1,163 (7.5% of their salary) that the county contributes to their pension. [Officers of the board receive higher salaries: $18,500 for the board chair (Conan Smith, D-District 10), $16,000 for the board vice chair (Alicia Ping, R-District 3), $16,500 for the Ways & Means Committee chair (Rolland Sizemore Jr., D-District 5) and the working session chair (Yousef Rabhi, D-District 11).] In addition, each commissioner has a $3,550 “flex” account, which they can tap for mileage and per diem. [.pdf of 2011 flex account expenditures]

Dan Smith’s proposal calls for an increased base salary of $16,250 per commissioner, but the county’s pension contribution would be eliminated. Each commissioner would also receive $2,813 in optional benefits, including a county pension match of $813 (5% of their salary), $1,000 for education and training, and $1,000 for stipends to replace mileage and per diem payments.

Dan Smith

Washtenaw County commissioner Dan Smith (R-District 2).

Overall, the proposal would cut total compensation by 5.7% per commissioner – from the current $20,213 to a proposed $19,063.

Due to redistricting, the number of board seats will shrink from the current 11 commissioners to 9 commissioners, as of Jan. 1, 2013. Combining the proposed compensation cuts with the reduced number of commissioners, Smith calculated that compensation for the entire board would drop from $222,338 to $171,583 – a 22.8% decrease. These calculations do not factor in the higher salaries for board officers.

Smith noted that county employees have been asked to pay a portion of their pension contributions, and that his proposal would do the same for commissioners. Also, having stipends instead of flex accounts would make the paperwork simpler, he said – stipends could be calculated annually, based on each commissioner’s committee assignments.

The goal is to bring forward a formal proposal at the April 4 meeting for discussion and an initial vote. Any changes would need to be approved by the board before the end of 2012, Smith noted, but his intent is for the board to make a decision before the May 15 filing deadline for county board candidates.

He said he hoped to get feedback on the proposal from commissioners between now and April 4. There were no comments made by other commissioners during the meeting.

Food Policy Council

Creation of a food policy council – with the goal of supporting and coordinating activities in the county’s local food system – was on the March 7 agenda for  initial approval. The board had been updated on this effort at a Feb. 16 working session, and is expected to take a final vote on March 21.

According to a staff memo, the Washtenaw Food Policy Council would support local “small and mid-sized farmers by fostering policies that encourage local food purchasing and production.” Among other activities, the council could also: recommend policy changes at the local, state and national levels; provide a forum for discussing food issues; encourage coordination among different sectors of the local food system; evaluate, educate, and influence policy; and launch or support programs and services that address local food needs.

Partners who have been working on this initiative include the Y of Ann Arbor, Growing Hope, Food Gatherers, the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), Slow Food Huron Valley, Eat Local/Eat Natural, Michigan Farmers Union, Ypsilanti Food Coop, and the Washtenaw County public health department.

The resolution calls for a 15-seat membership roster, with members drawn from the following sectors: agriculture, nutrition, education, emergency food system, health care, food services, food manufacturers and distributors, waste management, planning or transportation, retail/business or economic development, human services, faith-based organizations, local governments (board of commissioners), public health, and at large community member(s). The county public health department will be responsible for recruiting members. A draft set of bylaws also was provided to the board for review. [.pdf of of food policy council draft bylaws]

If final approval is given by the board, the council will convene its first meeting later this spring using grant funds from the Michigan Dept. of Community Health, passed through to the Washtenaw County public health department. The council eventually expects to secure financial support from private grants and philanthropic funds. The project will also seek significant in-kind and volunteer support, according to a staff memo.

This is not the county’s only effort related to the local food system. At its Nov. 2, 2011 meeting, the county board voted to create a task force that is developing a pilot training program for agribusiness jobs in Ypsilanti, including support for entrepreneurs in food-related businesses. The project – called ”Seeds for Change: Growing Prosperity in Ypsilanti” – is intended to provide job training and placement to unemployed workers interested in agricultural employment, and to offer shared commercial kitchen space and business support to local agri-business entrepreneurs.

And in 2010 the county board approved an ordinance change to allow the county parks and recreation department, through its natural areas preservation program (NAPP), to include farmland in its land preservation efforts. At the board’s Feb. 15, 2012 meeting, commissioner Yousef Rabhi – who also serves on the county’s agricultural lands preservation advisory committee (ALPAC) – reported that the committee is recommending the purchase of development rights on six parcels of farmland.

Food Policy Council: Board Discussion

Wes Prater (D-District 4) described the food policy council as one of the best initiatives he’s seen in a long time. It was great to see the effort involve the process from the farm to the table – “and I’m stopping there,” he joked.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11) also praised the proposal. As the county works to become self-sufficient and sustainable, the food system is an essential piece of that puzzle, he said. When a community is dependent on the global food economy, “we are a prisoner to that system.” Quality and dependability is much greater from local food sources, he said. Rabhi also cited the economic advantages of developing a local food system, rather than relying on multinational corporations in other countries to fulfill this basic need.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) wondered why the initiative couldn’t be handled within the county’s public health department – why does a separate entity need to exist? Sharon Sheldon, a manager in the public health department who is administering this project, noted that there are many different food initiatives throughout the county. This council was envisioned as convening representatives from all of these projects and programs, improving communication and coordinating efforts when appropriate.

Organizers looked at similar councils nationwide, she said, and got advice that this structure was the best approach. Being created by an authority like the county board of commissioners gives the council some weight, she said.

Sizemore asked for more information about how the council would be funded. Sheldon replied that initially, funds will be used from a grant that the county received from the state Dept. of Community Health. She said the grant is expected to be renewed in September. [Sheldon later clarified for The Chronicle that $7,000 of the $25,000 state grant will be used for the food policy council.] Aside from that funding, the council is intended to be a volunteer organization, Sheldon said, and other food-related organizations have committed to providing some staff time to support it.

Sizemore said he didn’t like the fact that the council’s membership, as described in the bylaws, would include people who work in the county, but don’t necessarily live here. He said he doesn’t like the idea of people from outside the community telling the county what to do, but that he would support the effort.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to give initial approval to the formation of the Washtenaw Food Policy Council. A final vote is expected on March 21.

Fees for Public Health Services

An increase in fees to treat sexually transmitted diseases – one of the mandated services provided by the county’s public health department – was on the agenda for initial approval. The changes are being made in response to federal funding cuts and an increase in charges for state services.

The board also was asked to approve changes at the medical examiner’s office, including fees for organ procurement services provided to the Michigan Gift of Life program, and a new late payment policy. According to a staff memo, about 10% of revenues are not realized because of non-payment. [.pdf of revised fee schedule]

Dick Fleece, Jennifer Brassow

Dick Fleece, director of the county's public health department, and Jennifer Brassow, the department's finance director.

By way of background, the adult clinic – which treats sexually transmitted diseases – is a mandated service that has relied on federal funding administered by the state. In mid-2011, the county was notified that federal funding for this program, which the state passed through to local health departments, would be cut by 33%. Since then, the Washtenaw County public health department has been notified that it will receive just half of its expected appropriation for this program. At the same time, the department was notified that the Michigan Dept. of Community Health (MDCH) would be increasing its testing fees for gonorrhea and chlamydia from $36 to $78 in January of 2012. It’s in this context that the fee increases are being proposed.

There will be a sliding fee scale for low-income residents, and a commitment that no one will be denied services, according to county staff. In order to verify income, as well as to handle the billing and collection process, the public health department will be buying ePrescribing software at a cost of $28,000. Most of that – $21,500 – will be covered by a federal incentive program.

Fees for Public Health Services: Board Discussion

Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) asked for a more detailed explanation of these new fees, saying it would affect the county’s most vulnerable population. Often, these people can’t afford to go to a doctor, he said, and only come to the public health department when they’re in crisis. The county needs to be clear that these services won’t be discontinued, Peterson said. The changes should have been presented to the board a long time ago, he said.

Dick Fleece, director of the public health department, assured Peterson that no one would be refused treatment because of the inability to pay. Fleece reviewed the financial issues that are driving this decision, and noted that the fee changes relate specifically to tests for sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Jennifer Brassow, the public health department’s finance director, told commissioners that the sliding scale will be based on federal wage rates. The proposed fees are based on standard Medicaid rates, and the county intends to bill Medicaid for those charges. People who aren’t eligible for Medicaid and can’t pay, she added, won’t be charged.

Peterson again cautioned against limiting access, saying that for some people, the emergency room and the public health clinics are the only places they can get medical care. He said he’d hate to see a reduction in services.

Fleece replied that the reason his department is seeking approval for these fees is so that people who can afford to pay – either personally, or through Medicaid – actually do pay. That way, the department gets the resources it needs to provide services to those who can’t pay, he explained.

Peterson said he understood the need to find revenue, but he restated his concern for the county’s most vulnerable population. The problem of health care coverage is increasing, not decreasing, he said. He asked that the department’s staff return with a report on how they plan to address the need for more funding of health care for low-income residents. The community isn’t aware of this situation, Peterson said, and the board hadn’t been aware of it until that night.

Barbara Bergman (D-District 8), who also serves on the board of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, reported that the WCHO’s chief of staff, Hazelette Robinson, has been coordinating with the sheriff’s office to do outreach and sign up as many county residents as possible for Medicaid. That relieves pressure on the general fund, she said, because the county is then reimbursed for the health care that those people receive.

She noted that the county’s public health department isn’t the only entity serving low-income residents. Packard Health Clinic, Hope Clinic and others are doing the similar work. ”You’re an important piece of the puzzle,” she told Fleece, “but you’re not the only piece of the puzzle.”

Bergman also reminded commissioners that the Washtenaw Health Initiative, which was launched last year, is also working on ways to serve the low-income population. [Earlier that day, the WHI issued a press release estimating that about 6,400 county residents are eligible for Medicaid, but are not enrolled in the federal program. WHI also estimates that as many as 25,000 residents could become newly eligible if the federal health care reform act remains in place. Since last year, the WHI has helped about 700 residents sign up for or retain Medicaid coverage, according to the release. (.pdf of full WHI press release)]

Bergman concluded her comments by saying that ”the situation is dire, but none of us here in the county are sitting on our hands.”

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously gave initial approval to the fee changes. A final vote is expected at the board’s March 21 meeting.

State Grant for Dispatch Operations

A resolution accepting a $177,500 state grant to help pay for work related to dispatch consolidation between the county sheriff’s office and the city of Ann Arbor was on the March 7 meeting agenda. The grant was significantly less than the $698,625 that had been requested. Part of the amount that was denied was a $500,000 request related to transition costs for the city of Ann Arbor. Responding to an emailed query from The Chronicle, city of Ann Arbor chief financial officer Tom Crawford confirmed that the $500,000 had not been assumed for budgeting purposes for the coming year.

The award came from the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive program (EVIP), which provides incentives for local governments to collaborate and combine operations. The county board had approved the dispatch consolidation at its Jan. 18, 2012 meeting. The proposal had previously been authorized by the Ann Arbor city council on Dec. 5, 2011. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor, Washtenaw: Joint 911 Dispatch?"]

Five requests had been made to the EVIP program related to this consolidation. The state denied a $500,000 request from the city of Ann Arbor for transition costs related to paying out leave banks, pension, VEBA and associated costs for terminated employees. Also denied was a $21,125 request from the sheriff’s office to cover 25% of the current dispatch manager’s annual salary and benefits, for time spent handling the transition.

The state did award three other requests from the sheriff’s office: (1) $65,000 for a metro dispatch project manager (an outside consultant); $37,500 to cover the cost of newly created dispatch coordinator jobs for three months, before the contract with Ann Arbor takes effect; and (3) $75,000 to pay for an instructional design consultant who is redesigning the sheriff’s Communications Training Officer (CTO) program for dispatch. That $75,000 will also cover a portion of employee wages for time spent cross-training.

The board’s resolution accepting the award also amended the previously approved county general fund budget for 2012. The line item for state revenue was amended from the original $4,810,249 to 4,987,749 – reflecting the additional $177,500 state grant. The total 2012 general fund budget is now $99,419,930.

State Grant for Dispatch Operations: Board Discussion

Conan Smith (D-District 10) noted that the EVIP grants were created by the state in lieu of revenue sharing with local communities, with the aim of recognizing outstanding collaboration efforts at the local level. Sheriff Jerry Clayton and his team deserve congratulations for pulling off a project that’s been discussed for more than two decades, Smith said.

He also proposed a friendly amendment – the signatory on the grant should be the county administrator, he said, not the board chair.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved receipt of the EVIP grant.

Merger with State Communications System

To clear up a procedural move, the board was asked to authorize the merger of its countywide 800 megahertz (MHz) emergency communications system with the Michigan Public Safety Communication System (MPSCS).

The merger had been approved in August of 2011 by the county’s 800 MHz project oversight committee. However, the state attorney general’s office informed the county that authorization needed to be given by the county board. The authorization covered three areas: (1) an integration agreement, (2) a co-location license agreement, and (3) a memorandum of agreement.

The county’s 800 MHz system is paid for through a 10-year, 0.20-mill tax that Washtenaw County voters approved in May 2006. At the time, the plan called for eventually merging the county system with the MPSCS, in exchange for $5 million in state credits to be used for future maintenance costs.

Merger with State Communications System: Board Discussion

Two representatives of the Washtenaw County 800 MHz Consortium – Jack Ceo, former deputy police chief for the city of Saline, and Craig Swenson of the Pittsfield Township public safety department, who’s project manager for the MPSCS merger – were on hand to answer questions.

Felicia Brabec (D-District 7) asked for an explanation about how the system worked. Ceo said the merger allows the county’s emergency responders to communicate throughout the state, because the county’s 800 MHz system integrates with the state’s system. It’s also a “two-way handshake,” he added, because the local system must abide by the state’s regulations – specifying things like the amount of fuel that must be kept on hand for the system’s emergency generators, for example. The state also provides certain services to the county, including technical support.

Swenson noted that in the past, responders often had to use their cell phones to communicate with responders from other agencies, or when they traveled outside of their jurisdictions.

Barbara Bergman (D-District 8) observed that the new system also addressed the problem of dead zones – spots where cell phone coverage isn’t available. Swenson reported that the 800 MHz system uses seven towers throughout the county, and now there are rarely complaints about coverage.

By way of background, the locations of those towers were included in a 2010 working session presentation to the board. Those locations are:

  • Jackson Avenue west of Baker Road, in Scio Township
  • Sunset Road, at the city of Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant
  • Dixboro Road south of Pontiac Trail, in Northfield Township
  • WEMU radio station tower at the corner of LeForge and Clark, in Superior Township
  • Bemis Road, east of the state Forensic Center in York Township
  • Manchester Public Schools property, at the corner of Hibbard and Geiske
  • Werkner Road north of Waterloo Road in Lyndon Township, at the Chelsea landfill

Rob Turner (R-District 1) asked about the costs to comply with the MPSCS regulations. Ceo replied that those requirements were factored in from the beginning, and were part of the local system’s upfront costs.

Turner also asked whether this project, which involves collaboration among multiple jurisdictions in the county, would be eligible for the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive program (EVIP). Probably not, Swenson replied, because many counties in the state are doing similar projects.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3), a former Saline city councilmember, thanked Ceo for his ongoing work on the project, even though he retired from the Saline police department last year. She noted that sheriff Jerry Clayton had told her that without Ceo’s help, the project would have taken much longer to complete.

Stefani Carter, the attorney who’s filling in while corporation counsel Curtis Hedger is on medical leave, told the board that the only reason they were being asked to pass this resolution is because the action was specifically required by the state attorney general’s office.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to approve merging the countywide 800 MHz emergency communications system with the Michigan Public Safety Communication System.

Communications and Public Commentary

During the March 7 meeting there were several opportunities for communications from commissioners as well as general public commentary.

Communications: Packard Health Clinic

At the start of the meeting, county administrator Verna McDaniel welcomed Nancy Allcroft, the new executive director for the Packard Health Clinic. Allcroft spoke briefly to commissioners, telling them that Packard Health is the biggest, best-kept secret in Washtenaw County. The clinic provides health services both to those who can pay, as well as those who otherwise couldn’t afford health care, she said. It’s a truly integrated organization, she said, with partners in the public and private sectors.

Communications: Four-Party Countywide Transit

Wes Prater (D-District 4) noted that at the Ann Arbor city council’s March 5 meeting, a four-party agreement related to a possible countywide transit system was approved. [In addition to Ann Arbor, the four parties include the city of Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The Ann Arbor city council was the first entity to approve the accord, doing so after postponing action on it three times and deliberating for over 3.5 hours at Monday's meeting. The agreement lays out a framework for a transition to a new transit governance structure provided under Act 196 of 1986 instead of the state statute under which the AATA is currently incorporated – Act 55 of 1963. See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council OKs Transit Agreement"]

Prater wondered when the board would see a copy of the agreement. Board chair Conan Smith (D-District 10) said the agreement had been emailed out to commissioners on Tuesday, but that he’d make sure everyone had a paper copy, too.

Rebecca Head, Conan Smith

Rebecca Head, former Washtenaw County director of public health, talks with county commissioner Conan Smith prior to the start of the March 7 board meeting. Head serves on the Ann Arbor District Library board, and attended the meeting with her daughter, a Skyline High School student who was completing a class assignment.

Prater said he had received the report from the financial advisory group that’s been working on recommendations for possible mechanisms to fund countywide transit. He hadn’t had the chance to fully digest it, he said, but it does raise some questions. The board needs to be discussing these documents, he said, as well as the articles of incorporation.

One concern Prater cited relates to the 15-member board for a new Act 196 authority. That board would have very little accountability, he said. It doesn’t report to any other entity, he noted, and that’s a concern.

Yousef Rabhi gave some background on the issue, saying that he’s been attending the meetings of the U196 board. [By way of background, the 11-member unincorporated Act 196 board (U196) started meeting in late 2011. Rabhi is not a member, but the meetings are open to the public. Assuming that the authority’s articles of incorporation are approved by the county board and that the four-party agreement is also approved by all parties, the U196 board will finish a report on a five-year transit improvement program, then request that the county clerk file articles of incorporation for a countywide transit authority.]

At the U196 board’s last meeting, Rabhi reported, former county administrator Bob Guenzel attended and briefed the board about the report of the financial advisory group, which Guenzel co-chairs. [.pdf of financial advisory group's draft report – see Chronicle coverage: "AATA Financial Group: Let's Continue"] Rabhi said the group initially identified a funding gap of about $60 million, between existing funding and what would be needed to fund the first five years of expanded services. Then, the group extracted services that have other funding sources, such as federal and state grants. That left a roughly $32 million funding gap for remaining services, he said. The group identified a possible millage amount to cover the gap, he said, but made no recommendations at this point.

Prater raised the issue of a possible regional transit authority (RTA) in southeast Michigan, and noted that Smith had participated in discussions. Smith replied that the meetings he was involved with ended several months ago, and state legislation that would enable formation of an RTA was introduced in January 2012. A state senate committee had held hearings on the legislation, Smith said, and action was expected on the package of bills next week.

Leah Gunn (D-District 9) noted that state Rep. Jeff Irwin – “who used to be one of us,” she said, referring to his former tenure on the county board – had attended Monday’s city council meeting. He had said that this community shouldn’t depend on the RTA, she reported, and should move ahead with the proposed five-year plan for countywide transit. Even if the RTA happens, she added, it would just be a regional overlay. “I’ll take his advice, and hopefully you will too,” she told her board colleagues.

Prater replied by saying that the co-chairs of the financial advisory group – Guenzel and McKinley CEO Albert Berriz – had recommended putting the project on hold until the state acts on the RTA legislation. Smith clarified that Guenzel and Berriz were referring to different legislation separate from the RTA. A bill is being considered that would allow counties to use a different funding mechanism for transit – a vehicle registration fee – rather than a millage. He said when the legislature acts on that bill, then the financial advisory group is expected to reconvene and make its recommendations.

Gunn observed there’s been so much information about the proposal that seems conflicting, and the board wouldn’t resolve those issues that night. Prater noted that they’ll have to talk about it at some point, and Rabhi – who chairs the board’s working sessions – indicated that he would schedule a session on that topic. The session has subsequently been set for March 22.

Communications: Treasurer’s Report

Prater also asked why the board hasn’t received a monthly report recently from the county treasurer, Catherine McClary – it’s required that such reports are submitted, he contended. When board chair Conan Smith replied that McClary does send the reports quarterly, via email, Gunn said she agreed with Prater – she hasn’t received a treasurer’s report in months.

Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Jason Brooks of the county administrator’s office said the county’s corporation counsel verified that the treasurer does not have a requirement under state statute to provide a monthly report. However, counsel noted that powers outlined in MCL 46.11(k) give the board the authority to compel the treasurer to make a regular report. That section states:

46.11 Powers of county board of commissioners.
Sec. 11. A county board of commissioners, at a lawfully held meeting, may do 1 or more of the following:

(k) Require a county officer whose salary or compensation is paid by the county to make a report under oath to the county board of commissioners on any subject connected with the duties of that office and require the officer to give a bond reasonable or necessary for the faithful performance of the duties of the office. An officer who neglects or refuses either to make a report or give a bond within a reasonable time after being required to do so may be removed from office by the board by a vote of 2/3 of the members elected or appointed, and the office declared vacant. The board may fill the vacancy for the unexpired portion of the term for which the officer was elected or appointed. If an election occurs before the expiration of the unexpired term, and if the office is elective, the vacancy shall be filled at that election. The board shall give reasonable notice of the election to fill the vacancy.

McClary gave a 2010 annual treasurer’s report to commissioners early last year, at their Feb. 16, 2011 meeting, but has not yet submitted the 2011 annual report. Annual reports from the treasurer for the years 2006 through 2010 are posted online. A page on the treasurer’s website – “Safeguarding the Public’s Money” – included a “Monthly Treasurer’s Report” link, but the link was no longer functioning. When this link was pointed out to McClary later in the week, she said she had been unaware that the link existed. She then directed her staff to remove it, because the treasurer’s office was not using it to post reports.

On Friday, McClary also sent The Chronicle two recent treasurer’s reports: (1) for the month ending Dec. 31, 2011, and (2) for the month ending Feb. 29, 2012. She indicated that the report from the end of 2011 will provide the basis for her annual treasurer’s report, and includes information on the amounts and yields of various investments, including certificates of deposit, municipal bonds and treasury notes.

At the March 7 meeting, Smith requested that county administrator Verna McDaniel communicate with the treasurer’s office and establish a schedule for regular reports.

Communications: Public Commentary

The only speaker during public commentary was Thomas Partridge, who spoke at both opportunities during the evening. He called on everyone to recognize the anniversary of the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, and to renew the quest for civil rights. County residents need vital services such as affordable, accessible countywide transportation, he said, including transportation for senior citizens and the disabled. The county needs to help the homeless people living in “Camp Take No Notice,” he said. [The name of the enclave is Camp Take Notice.] People there need immediate help, he said.

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

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, March 21, 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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One Comment

  1. March 10, 2012 at 11:48 am | permalink

    I believe that Commissioner Rabhi’s explanation of the Financial Task Force recommendations is not quite correct or is misleading. It is true that they recommended that capital-intensive projects like commuter rail and high-capacity connector systems be removed from the financing of the 5-year plan. The precise language (from a subcommittee’s report) is “should be considered separately” and that there should be “no local dollars at this point”.

    As I read the report here of Mr. Rabhi’s comments, he implies that the capital-intensive projects have other funding sources, thus are of no import to the local dollars required. But these projects do always require local dollars. Broadly, most Federal grants require a 20% dollar match locally. (MDOT has sometimes supplied these matching dollars for some projects.) Further, there are expenses involved in planning and designing projects prior to obtaining Federal dollars, including the use of consultants (AATA has already spent considerable money on consultants for this process). The FTF report seems to say that these local dollars should not be expended.

    AATA’s executive, Michael Ford, appears to sidestep these recommendations in his statement that is in the Board packet for this week.

    “Capital intensive portions of the original program were removed
    with the caveat that alternate sources of funding should be secured to support the service. However, the planning and development of the capital projects will continue, but will not be slated to utilize the new local funding source.”

    Note that he excludes only the new millage or funding source, not AATA’s current funding. Thus, the budgetary assumptions that the FTF was relying on have shifted. The budgets provided by the consultants would have already factored in existing revenue and expected balance between local and Federal fund contributions. (They have a very complex model that was used to arrive at their figures.)

    In other words, by continuing to plan for the capital-intensive projects, AATA is introducing a new budget gap and the 0.5 mill figure will not cover expenses in the overall picture.