County Acts on Disaster Relief, Health Care

Also: Report on tax delinquencies indicate improving local economy

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 21, 2012): Public health, welfare and budget issues dominated the most recent county board meeting, which began with a briefing on the aftermath of a March 15 tornado touchdown in the Dexter area.

Mark Ouimet, Pat Kelly

Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly, right, attended the March 21, 2012 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting to thank the county for its help in the aftermath of the March 15 tornado that touched down in the township and caused considerable damage. To the left is Mark Ouimet, a former county commissioner who is now state representative for District 52, which includes the Dexter area.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township supervisor, attended the meeting along with Mark Ouimet, a former county commissioner who is now state representative for District 52, which includes the Dexter area. Both thanked the county for its support and praised county staff – from sheriff’s deputies who provided security, to parks workers and others who helped with cleanup.

Later in the meeting, the board unanimously approved up to $500,000 from capital reserves to fund disaster relief and assistance to residents, including overtime costs for staff and payment for dumpsters to haul away debris. County administrator Verna McDaniel said that full amount might not be used, but it’s also possible that she’ll return to ask for more funding if it’s needed.

The board received a budget update for 2011 from finance staff, with the caution that minor changes might be made after an audit is completed. Although the originally approved budget had anticipated needing to use more than $5 million from the county’s general fund balance, only about $800,000 was actually used for the year – significantly less than expected.

Also related to the budget, the board authorized the county treasurer, Catherine McClary, to borrow up to $45 million against the amount of delinquent property taxes in all of the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions. This is a standard request at this time of year as taxing jurisdictions – including cities, townships, schools systems and libraries, among others – turn their delinquent taxes over to the county, and are reimbursed for that delinquent amount. The county treasurer then assumes responsibility for collecting the delinquent taxes.

McClary noted that delinquent taxes are a leading economic indicator, and in that respect the trend is positive. This year, there is a drop in delinquent taxes for the first time since 2005. All jurisdictions saw a decrease, she said, and that’s really good news for the economy. McClary also gave her annual treasurer’s report for 2011, noting that revenues earned from delinquent taxes and fees totaled $5.557 million – about $3 million more than had been budgeted.

Also at the March 21 meeting, the board took a first step toward becoming a charter member of the Washtenaw Health Initiative (WHI), an effort to expand health care coverage for the county’s low-income residents. The membership includes a $10,000 annual fee in both 2012 and 2013, which would be funded through the county’s office of community and economic development. The 8-1 vote included dissent from Alicia Ping, who said she preferred funds to go directly to services, not for administrative purposes. Barbara Bergman was absent and Ronnie Peterson was out of the room when the vote was taken.

Among its other action items, the board gave final approval to creation of a county food policy council, and to an increase in certain fees charged by the public health department.

As an item for future discussion, several commissioners raised concerns over the issue of hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracking” – in rural parts of the county, to access oil or gas. Paxton Resources, a Gaylord, Mich.-based firm, has been acquiring mineral rights in the county’s rural areas for several months. A group of local residents called “No Paxton” has formed to oppose the company’s actions. The board discussed the possibility of a resolution urging more state oversight of the practice, and will likely schedule a working session on the issue.

Dexter Tornado Disaster Relief

In an item added to the agenda during the March 21 meeting, commissioners were asked to authorize up to $500,000 from capital reserves to fund disaster relief and assistance to residents impacted by the March 15 tornado in the Dexter area. The funds will be used for a variety of purposes, including overtime costs for county employees and payments to vendors who’ve provided nine dumpsters for the use of residents. There is a fund balance of $7.718 million in capital reserves, according to the county.

Before the vote, the board was briefed by Mark Ouimet – a former county commissioner who’s now state representative for District 52, which includes the Dexter area – as well as Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly. Both Kelly and Ouimet thanked commissioners for their support and praised county staff who’ve been working in the area damaged by the tornado.

Ouimet began his remarks by joking that it was an honor to be before this “prestigious group, other than the two Smith brothers” – a reference to fellow Republican Dan Smith and Democrat Conan Smith, who are not related. Ouimet said he initially went out to the area a couple of hours after the tornado hit, and personally saw what a great job county employees did in responding to the disaster. About 30 state police were brought in to secure an outer ring around the area that was hit, while sheriff’s deputies and personnel directed traffic and went door-to-door making sure everyone was accounted for, he said. Sheriff Jerry Clayton and his troops worked tirelessly for many days, Ouimet said, and deserve special thanks, as do firefighters from eight surrounding communities who responded.

The entire community came together to help, Ouimet said. The Dexter school system opened a building for people to take inventory of what was needed. Groceries and restaurants donated food and water, and “everybody from the community pitched in,” he said.

Ambulances had lined up near the area and local hospitals had prepared their emergency rooms for the worst, Ouimet noted, but “that worst never came.” An emergency plan that’s been worked on for years kicked into effect, and while there were a few glitches to learn from, overall it went very smoothly, he said. There were no discussions about jurisdictions – people just stepped up and asked how they could help, from law enforcement workers to staff of the parks and recreation department, who brought wood chippers to help handle the debris. Ouimet thanked everyone involved in the effort for their work.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township’s supervisor, also spoke briefly to thank the board. Kelly said the first call she got after the storm was from Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community and economic development. After that she heard from many others with the county, all asking how they could help. ”This county should be damn proud of themselves today and this whole week,” she said.

Kelly wrapped up by joking that initially, people had assumed the tornado touched down in the village of Dexter, ”so the carpetbaggers and media stayed away from the township and we were grateful.”

Dexter Tornado Disaster Relief: Board Response

Rob Turner – who represents District 1, which includes the Dexter area – also praised the county staff for their work. He reported that he and county administrator Verna McDaniel met with Pat Kelly to ask what they could do. He noted that the village of Dexter has a support infrastructure, but the township doesn’t have those resources. Kelly showed great leadership, he said.

Rob Turner

County commissioner Rob Turner, whose district includes the Dexter area where a tornado struck on March 15.

The needs were very practical, including portable toilets for workers and volunteers to use, and a place to dump large amounts of trash and debris. Bob Tetens, director of the county parks and recreation department, had his crew deliver port-o-pots and wood chippers, Turner said. The county also contracted with a vendor to bring nine dumpsters into the area for residents to use as they cleaned up their property – the dumpsters were needed because there were a lot of things that insurance companies wouldn’t pay to have hauled away, Turner said.

Turner said he’s been calling Mary Jo Callan a lot – she and her staff at the office of community and economic development have been very helpful and are doing a wonderful job, he said. The shock of the disaster has worn off, and people are needing help. Security checkpoints were still in place, which gave residents a level of comfort knowing that they could sleep safely, he said.

It was a miracle that no one was killed or seriously injured, Turner said, and that no rescue or cleanup workers had been injured, either. It’s been amazing to watch as the community pulls together. On some of the boarded-up garages, people have written “We love Dexter,” he noted. It’s been exhausting, ”but it makes you feel good that you’re a part of a county that cares.”

Several other commissioners weighed in with comments. Leah Gunn said she appreciated that Ouimet and Kelly had come to the board – it’s rare for the county to hear thanks, she said. Gunn was proud that the county staff took action without worrying about the budget impact, because it needed to be done. She thanked the sheriff’s office and its emergency management division, and “above all, Rob Turner.”

Yousef Rabhi said his first instinct had been to grab his chainsaw and head over to help, but he realized that wasn’t the right thing to do. To find out how much the county was doing had been very moving, he said. The people of Washtenaw County stood up and helped the people in Dexter and Dexter Township, and that was ”a phenomenally moving experience to be a part of,” he said. Rabhi thanked the community leaders in that area for their work.

After expressing his thanks as well, Dan Smith asked Ouimet for an update on possible legislation related to the disaster relief. Ouimet said there are two possibilities that he’s researching. One would relate to how damaged properties are assessed for tax purposes, he said, given that many homes have been completely destroyed. The other possible bill might address how local governments could be reimbursed by the state for costs incurred from overtime and other cleanup-related expenses. It’s challenging for local governments that are already stretched thin, he said.

Wes Prater praised Marc Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management, as well as the sheriff’s office, public health department and road commission. He noted that every six months, Breckenridge organizes a mock emergency drill. The emergency command center is activated and organizations practice their response plans. Because they’ve done their training, Prater said, they can respond efficiently during an actual emergency.

McDaniel pointed out that she’s heard from a range of elected officials – including U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, state Sen. Rebekah Warren and others – who offered their support. The county has also set up a website with more information about how people can help.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said there are a lot of times when the board has to deal with difficult issues, but commissioners stick together when emergencies like this arise. He was glad no one got hurt.

Dexter Tornado Disaster Relief: Resolution

Later in the meeting, the board took up discussion of the proposed resolution. McDaniel said she might not need as much as $500,000 but it’s also possible that she’ll return to ask for more. At this point, it’s unclear what would be needed. She said the board would receive a full accounting of the expenditures, which would be overseen by administration and finance staff.

Dan Smith said he fully supported this resolution – he’d seen firsthand that the need is great. This is why the county has a fund balance, he said, so that it can respond to emergencies. He wanted to put the expenditure in the context of broader budget discussions, noting that the board had made cuts to balance the 2012-13 budget. He asked McDaniel to clarify where the $500,000 would come from, and what the plans are for replenishing these funds.

McDaniel replied that the $500,000 will be taken from capital reserves, not from the general fund balance. There is a substantial amount in that capital reserves fund – a balance of $7.718 million. There are no specific plans to replenish it, she said, but the funds will be used conservatively and will be monitored.

Smith said he was more comfortable approving this expenditure after hearing the 2011 treasurer’s report and budget update from finance staff earlier in the meeting. [See below for coverage of those topics.] He was glad the county was in a position to support this relief effort.

Rob Turner said that as point person for the effort, he would work as a liaison to the board in providing oversight of this expenditure.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to allocate up to $500,000 for Dexter area disaster relief. Barbara Bergman was absent and Ronnie Peterson was out of the room at the time the vote was taken.

2011 Budget Update

Tina Gavalier, the county’s finance analyst, briefed commissioners on 2011 year-end financial results. She noted that these are preliminary numbers – after the audit is completed, there might be slight adjustments. [.pdf of year-end report]

Gavalier reminded the board that at the beginning of 2011, the finance staff had projected that $5.3 million would need to be drawn from the general fund balance for the year – the board had approved the 2011 budget based on that assumption. Over the months, it became clear that less of the fund balance would be needed, and by the end of the year only $791,059 had been used from the fund balance, she said.

Total revenues for the year were $101.208 million, compared to expenses of $101.999 million.

In several areas, revenues were higher than expected, Gavalier reported. One of the highest was a surplus of $869,000 from the sheriff’s office, from civil fees, state revenue, overtime reimbursements and E-911 surcharge transfers. Other areas with revenue surpluses compared to budget include:

  • $749,000 in surplus revenue for the corporation counsel’s office, due to a settlement of the police services lawsuit.
  • $348,000 in property tax revenue due to TIF (tax increment finance) reimbursement from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
  • $199,000 from the clerk/register of deeds due to higher-than-expected revenues from fees and transfers.
  • $67,000 from information technology services supplied to other local governments.
  • $59,000 from the treasurer’s office due to dog licenses and other fees.
  • $54,000 from the office of the water resources commissioner due to drain contributions and local revenue.
  • $27,000 from the prosecuting attorney’s office due to a new Title IV-E reimbursement grant.

However, Gavalier highlighted two areas where revenues fell short of projections: The district court, with a revenue shortfall of $169,000 from declining case filings, and the trial court, with a $69,000 revenue shortfall because of lower state revenue reimbursements. In both cases, the shortfall was offset by lower-than-budgeted expenses, she said.

Expenses were lower in several areas, she said. Information technology maintenance contracts were $369,379 less than budgeted. Net personnel services were $257,325 lower than expected because of attrition, job vacancies and planned reductions. Departmental operating expenses were $191,484 lower than budgeted, and unspent housing reserves contributed to $361,000 in lower expenses for that line item. The county also spent $424,000 less than expected in tax appeals and refunds, Gavalier said. However, appropriations and transfers out of the general fund were $1.579 million more than originally budgeted.

Gavalier noted that the general fund balance stood at $14.5 million at the end of 2011 – or 14.2% of expenditures for the year.

In April, the board will be presented with the year-end audit and comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) for 2011. That same month, Gavalier said, the “highly anticipated” equalization report will be delivered. The equalization report, produced by the county’s equalization department, is the basis for determining the taxable value of property in the county, which in turn indicates how much tax revenue is collected by local taxing entities. It is critical in developing budgets for the coming year.

The board will receive quarterly budget updates in May, August and November, and will vote to reaffirm the 2013 budget – with adjustments, if necessary – this fall. [The county plans its budget in two-year cycles, generally with relatively minor adjustments made to the second year. The current two-year budget, which the board passed in late 2011, is for 2012 and 2013.]

2011 Budget Update: Board Discussion

Board chair Conan Smith reminded commissioners that in planning for the 2010-2011 two-year budget cycle, the budget had called for building up a fund balance in 2010 to be carried over and used in 2011.

As he’s done in the past, Wes Prater took issue with the use of general fund balance. It’s deficit budgeting, he said, and doesn’t conform to the state’s Uniform Budgeting and Accounting Act. [.pdf of the Uniform Budgeting and Accounting Act, which outlines how local units of government must prepare their financial reports]

County administrator Verna McDaniel suggested that she and the county’s finance staff meet with Prater later to go over the budget again and address his concerns. Leah Gunn characterized it as good news that the county needed to use far less of its fund balance than they had originally anticipated, “so thanks!” she told the staff.

Prater said that’s not what he’s concerned about. He noted that he’s the only commissioner who speaks up on this issue, and it appears that others don’t care. He’s concerned about how they’re preparing the budget, and they need to talk about it, he said. [Although he has raised similar concerns in the past, Prater voted to approve the 2010-2011 budget as well as the current 2012-2013 budget.]

Conan Smith responded by saying that he and Prater discussed this issue extensively when the 2010-2011 budget was being prepared. The county has never not complied with the Uniform Budgeting and Accounting Act, Smith said. Prater has a different view of the act than the entire finance staff and all other commissioners, Smith said, but to say that others don’t care “is simply erroneous.”

Gunn said the budget is what the county expects it will receive in revenues and what it expects to spend. The “actuals” are the actual amounts of revenues and expenditures. The budget is a policy document, she said, and can be adjusted. At the end of the year, the board receives the comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), which provides a detailed accounting of actual revenues and expenditures, she said. That’s different from the budget, she noted. Gunn concluded by saying the county has been frugal and they are good stewards of the public’s money.

Dan Smith asked whether the results from 2011 will affect the projected $14 million budget deficit that the county is facing in 2014-2015. McDaniel replied that any time the county can reduce spending, they’ll be better off. The budget outlook will be clearer in April, when the equalization report is delivered, she said. The trends so far are good, in terms of improved revenues. But she expressed caution, saying the county isn’t yet out of the woods. The state revenue-sharing outlook isn’t yet clear – McDaniel said it’s uncertain how much money would be available, and whether Washtenaw County would qualify to receive it. Also unclear is whether the state will repeal the personal property tax, which would affect revenues.

McDaniel confirmed that the county wouldn’t prepare a revised budget projection until after the 2011 audit and 2012 equalization report are completed.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. highlighted the shortfall in the courts’ budgets, and called for the county administration to meet with Kirk Tabbey, chief judge of the 14-A District Court, and Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenaw Trial Court, to figure out how to address these ongoing budget issues.

Prater pointed to a $2.2 million adjustment in the original 2011 budget for personnel expenses – an increase from $61.42 million to $63.65 million. Why wasn’t that $2.2 million in the original budget? he asked.

Gavalier said the adjustments were made in response to board actions that called for various increases over the year, which commissioners had approved. Conan Smith noted that one significant change related to an increase in costs to staff the jail expansion. [Extra jail staffing was actually budgeted for 2010, but some of the hiring was delayed until 2011.]

Rob Turner noted that budget adjustments had been brought to the board each quarter during the year, and the board had voted on those adjustments.

Most recently, the board voted unanimously at its Nov. 2, 2011 meeting to adjust the 2011 budget – increasing revenues and expenditures by $619,939. From The Chronicle’s report of the board’s discussion:

Wes Prater described the presentation as one of the best he’d ever seen. He noted that when the board originally approved the two-year budget in 2009, the finance staff had projected revenues for 2011 at $98.7 million. In fact, this year’s budget will be closer to $101.2 million, he noted – that means the projections were off by $2.5 million, he said.

Prater said he understood that the 2011 budget has been amended since then. His point is that he doesn’t want the staff to make the same mistake for 2012-2013. He said he was just raising the issue.

Delinquent Tax Borrowing

On the March 21 agenda was a resolution authorizing the county treasurer to borrow up to $45 million against the amount of delinquent property taxes in all of the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions .

Catherine McClary, Mark Ouimet

County treasurer Catherine McClary, left, talks with state Rep. Mark Ouimet (R-District 52) at the county board's March 21 meeting.

County treasurer Catherine McClary explained the process to the board. After March 1, taxing jurisdictions – including cities, townships, schools systems and libraries, among others – turn their delinquent taxes over to the county, and are reimbursed for that amount. The county treasurer then assumes responsibility for collecting these delinquent taxes. This is a standard procedure that’s conducted annually at this time of year. The borrowed funds – general obligation limited tax notes – are used for cash flow purposes, to fund operations for the first half of the year.

McClary told the board that she projected needing to much borrow less than the $45 million authorized – likely about $26 million. Last year, the county borrowed about $32 million for this purpose.

McClary noted that delinquent taxes are a leading economic indicator, and in that respect the trend is positive. This year, there is a drop in delinquent taxes for the first time since 2005. All jurisdictions saw a decrease, she said, and that’s really good news for the economy.

McClary also pointed to a drop in the number of parcels that are delinquent in paying taxes. In recent years there have been about 11,000 delinquent parcels each year, but this year it’s closer to 9,500 – about a 14% drop. If a family’s finances are tight, they’ll make other payments – like their mortgage – before paying taxes. So the fact that there are more people paying taxes on time is a good sign, she said.

Delinquent Tax Borrowing: Board Discussion

Alicia Ping wondered how long it takes to pay back the borrowed funds. McClary said that the 2011 notes have a maturity date of June 2013 – so about 2.5 years. Ping said it’s good to know the debt isn’t long-term.

Felicia Brabec asked why the resolution authorized up to $45 million, if McClary expected to use only about $26 million. McClary said she had to prepare the resolution before all of the jurisdictions turned in their delinquent tax amounts. Now she had a clearer indication of what those amounts would be – only two townships (Scio and Sharon) hadn’t yet reported their totals, she said.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously authorized the treasurer’s request for delinquent tax borrowing.

Treasurer’s Report for 2011

County treasurer Catherine McClary also gave her annual report to the board, providing a look at the county’s investment portfolio as of Dec. 31, 2011.

Investment earnings totaled $860,891 for the year, on a portfolio valued at $116 million as of Dec. 31. [Investment earnings were $737,602 in 2010.] With an average weighted yield of 0.835%, the investments earned well above the three-month U.S. Treasury benchmark of 0.02%, McClary said.

McClary thanked the board for not pressuring her to generate a higher yield on investment. She said she manages the portfolio for safety, not for the highest yield. No one is happy with the current yields, she added – in past years, the portfolio was able to earn millions annually in investment income. Treasurers in other counties feel pressure to invest in riskier ways designed to generate higher yields, but “that’s not what you want to do with public funds,” she said. Investment rates are likely to remain low, as the Federal Reserve has indicated plans to keep benchmark interest rates at record lows in order to stimulate economic recovery, McClary said.

The portfolio is diversified by both the type of investment as well as the maturity date, she explained. At the end of 2011, cash and investments totaled $155.557 million (compared to $147.545 million in 2010). The portfolio is invested in the following ways: $63.11 million in certificates of deposit (CDs), certificate of deposit account registry service (CDARS) and money market accounts; $17 million in commercial paper; $14.5 million in U.S. treasuries and agencies of the U.S. government; and $27.657 million in bank accounts. [.pdf file of two-page 2011 treasurer's report]

Revenues earned from delinquent taxes and fees totaled $5.557 million – about $3 million more than had been budgeted, McClary noted. [Revenues in this category were $6.262 million in 2010.] The county has a healthy capital projects fund because of revenue that the treasurer’s office has generated, she said.

The accommodation tax, which is collected by the treasurer, brought in $3.993 million in 2011 compared to $3.539 million in 2010. 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 county also got $18,344 in fees from tax searches that the county performs, down from $24,970 in 2010. The treasurer’s office charges 50 cents per search.

McClary noted that revenues from dog licenses increased dramatically – to $86,322 from $37,922 in 2010 – because of changes that commissioners approved in 2010. The changes included (1) allowing the treasurer’s office to issue multi-year licenses, and (2) increasing the license fee for the first time since 1981. [For spayed/neutered dogs, the fee is $12 for per year. It costs $24 per year for dogs that aren't spayed or neutered.] The increase in revenues is primarily from people buying multi-year licenses, so revenues are expected to be closer to $30,000 in 2012, she said.

Treasurer’s Report for 2011: Board Discussion

Wes Prater asked how much of the accommodations tax is kept by the treasurer’s office for administrative expenses. Very little, McClary said – just an amount that can be documented for expenses to collect the taxes.

By way of background, the county’s contract with the  Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention and visitors bureaus calls for the county to retain 10% of that tax revenue to defray the cost of collection and enforcement. A contract amendment passed by the board 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.

At its Feb. 15, 2012 meeting, the board voted to make an early distribution of $200,000 from those administrative funds to help pay for a Pure Michigan national ad campaign focused on the Ann Arbor area. At the time, more than $350,000 was in that administrative fund, according to the county.

At the recent March 21 meeting, Prater also asked where the revenues from delinquent property taxes are deposited. Those go into the county’s capital projects fund, McClary explained.

Prater said he was glad to hear a good report from 2011, and wondered when the board would see the treasurer’s reports from January and February of this year. McClary said the finance department had those reports, and would also receive the March report in early April.

McClary then offered to brief the board on the status of tax foreclosures and mortgage foreclosures in the county, but there was no interest expressed on the part of commissioners in hearing that update.

Washtenaw Health Initiative

At the March 21 meeting, commissioners were asked to take the first step toward becoming a charter member of the Washtenaw Health Initiative (WHI), an effort to expand health care coverage for the county’s low-income residents. The membership includes a $10,000 annual fee in both 2012 and 2013, which would be funded through the county’s office of community and economic development.

The board had been briefed on the initiative, most recently at a Feb. 16, 2012 working session. The plan is intended to help local health care providers handle an influx of an estimated 50,000 newly insured patients when federal health care reforms take effect in 2014. The goal is to develop a plan to provide better health care for the county’s low-income residents, the uninsured and people on Medicaid – prior to changes that will be mandated by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The WHI is a collaboration co-chaired by former county administrator Bob Guenzel and retired University of Michigan treasurer Norman Herbert, who both attended the March 21 meeting, along with Ellen Rabinowitz, executive director of the Washtenaw Health Plan. The effort is jointly sponsored by the UM Health System and Saint Joseph Mercy Health System – Guenzel told commissioners that retired Saint Joseph Mercy Health System CEO Bob Laverty had been the “sparkplug” behind the effort. It’s faciliated by Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation – a joint venture of UM and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Other partners involved in the project include the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, Arbor Hospice, Catholic Social Services, Dawn Farm, Hope Clinic, Huron Valley Ambulance, Integrated Health Associates, Packard Health, Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan, United Way of Washtenaw County, and the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan.

Wes Prater, Bob Guenzel

County commissioner Wes Prater, left, talks with former county administrator Bob Guenzel, who is co-chair of the Washtenaw Health Initiative.

Organizers have said they hope this initiative will become a model for other communities nationwide that are facing similar issues.

Guenzel told commissioners that he’s been around a long time, and it’s hard to imagine how well the community has come together to support this initiative. More than 40 organizations have been involved, including the major hospitals, to focus on 11 efforts that will better coordinate care and deliver services for the uninsured and underinsured. Even if the Affordable Care Act weren’t in place, he said, the community would still have a plan to address these needs.

The WHI is looking for the county’s seal of approval, Guenzel said. It’s an all-volunteer effort, he noted, but signing the charter means that member organizations support it and that it’s OK for employees to work on it.

Rabinowitz said the effort is extremely involved in Medicaid outreach and enrollment. [A press release issued by the WHI earlier in the month stated that more than 700 people have been enrolled in Medicaid since the initiative got underway, out of an estimated 6,400 people in the county who are eligible but have not accessed the coverage. .pdf of press release] Other WHI efforts focus on providing access to dental care, and creating support structures for case management to help residents get the health care they need, Rabinowitz said. The Washtenaw Community Health Organization is involved in providing access to mental health services, she said.

Rabinowitz concluded by saying that the WHI is an example of the community coming together to address existing needs.

Washtenaw Health Initiative: Board Discussion

Alicia Ping said she appreciated the hard work of the organizers and all those involved, but she would not support the initiative. The idea behind it is good, she said. But the board had to make a lot of budget cuts last year that directly affected services to residents. She couldn’t support giving funds that would support another layer of administration and not directly support people who are delivering services. Ping said she’d want to see funding first restored to organizations like SafeHouse Center.

Outcome: On an 8-1 vote, with dissent from Alicia Ping, the board gave initial approval to the Washtenaw Health Initiative. Barbara Bergman was absent and Ronnie Peterson was out of the room when the vote was taken. A final vote is expected at the board’s April 4 meeting.

Workforce Development

Three items related to Washtenaw County’s administration of the Michigan Works workforce development program were on the March 21 agenda.

The board was asked to authorize acceptance of a $92,309 federal grant to operate a local Michigan Works service center. The primary location in Washtenaw County is the Career Transition Center at 301 W. Michigan Ave. (the KeyBank building) in Ypsilanti. Additional services are offered at the Harriet Street Service Center at 304 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti.

Acceptance of another $16,000 federal grant was on the agenda to fund ongoing professional and partnership development of the local Michigan Works operation.

The third item that the board was asked to approve would ratify a mandatory 2012 “system plan” for the local Michigan Works office. The plan provides annual documentation of local administrative policies and procedures for the employment and training programs, as well as for other documentation required in order to receive funding as a workforce development agency. [.pdf of the complete system plan for 2012] [.pdf of required grievance procedure documentation]

Outcome: With no discussion, commissioners gave initial approval to the workforce development items. A final vote is expected on April 4.

Environmental Planner

Approval to hire a senior environmental planner at an annual salary of $77,000 was on the March 21 agenda. The position required board approval because the salary is above a midpoint of $66,634 for that non-union job classification.

According to a staff memo, the $77,000 base salary is $2,659 less than what the previous person in that position was paid, and is within the authorized salary range of $53,732 to $79,537 for that job. The memo also notes that because of mandatory unpaid furlough days, the $77,000 salary would be adjusted down by 3.846% to $74,034.

Heather Rice is being hired to fill this position, which is part of the office of the water resources commissioner, an elected position held by Janis Bobrin. Rice is a senior environmental specialist for the University of Michigan’s Department of Occupational Safety and Environmental Health, and is responsible for the UM’s stormwater permit program. As senior environmental planner with the county, Rice would be responsible for administering and ensuring compliance with all requirements of the county’s Phase II stormwater permit program.

Environmental Planner: Board Discussion

Only one commissioner had questions on this item. Rolland Sizemore Jr. clarified with Bobrin that her request was for one position, not two. He also confirmed with her that the job would not be paying more than the maximum authorized salary range.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the above-midpoint salary for the senior environmental planner job.

Public Health Fees

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to an increase in fees to treat sexually transmitted diseases – one of the mandated services provided by the county’s public health department. Initial approval had been given at the board’s March 7 meeting. 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]

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 the county. 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.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board gave final approval to the requested public health fee increases. 

Food Policy Council

Final approval for a county food policy council – with the goal of supporting and coordinating activities in the local food system – was on the March 21 agenda. The board had been briefed on this effort at a Feb. 16 working session, and it received initial approval at the board’s March 7 meeting.

The Washtenaw Food Policy Council would support local “small and mid-sized farmers by fostering policies that encourage local food purchasing and production,” according to a staff memo. 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 council will have 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 has also been developed. [.pdf of of food policy council draft bylaws]

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.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved formation of a county food policy council.

Communications & Commentary

During the meeting there were opportunities for public commentary, as well as for communications from the administration and commissioners.

Comm/Comm: Public Commentary

The only person to speak during public commentary was Thomas Partridge, who addressed the board twice. He described himself as an advocate for all people who are challenged during these challenging times, and called on the state legislature to fully restore funding for important assistance programs. He urged the board of commissioners to pass a resolution in support of the Detroit mayor and city council in their efforts to resolve the city’s financial problems and remain a viable democratic institution. [The city of Detroit is negotiating a consent agreement with the state in hopes of preventing a state-appointed emergency manager from taking control of the city's operations.] Partridge applauded the items on the county board’s agenda that related to grants the county would receive, but noted that the grants were negligible in light of the great needs of residents.

During his second speaking turn, Partridge noted that the area had been literally struck by a tornado recently, but was also figuratively struck by the tornado of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP state legislators who are attacking cities across the state. We need to prepare for both emergencies, he said.

Comm/Comm: Fracking

Wes Prater raised the issue of fracking in the county, saying he had attended a recent meeting of the Washtenaw County Road Commission where the board had voted unanimously not to enter into an oil and gas lease agreement for land it owns in Saline Township. [Paxton Resources, a Gaylord, Mich.-based firm, has been acquiring mineral rights in the county's rural areas for several months. The term fracking – also known as hydraulic fracturing – refers to a practice of extracting oil or gas by injecting high-pressurized fluid into rock. A group of local residents called "No Paxton" has formed to oppose the company's actions.]

Prater suggested that the board prepare a resolution that it can send to the governor and Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, requesting that the state increase inspections of wells where fracking occurs.

Yousef Rabhi said that he and Alicia Ping have met with several county department heads to talk about the county’s options on this issue. He also thought a resolution would help, as well as getting informational material to residents who might be approached by Paxton or other companies. He suggested that the board schedule a working session on the topic.

Rob Turner, the board’s liaison to the road commission, noted that even though the road commission rejected leasing its property to Paxton, the company plans to appeal to the state because the road commission’s land is only a small part of the 160-acre area that Paxton is hoping to explore. Turner said that one of his concerns is the transport of oil from Washtenaw County to the refinery. The company plans to use tanker trucks, he said, which will be running back and forth through that area causing wear and tear on the roads.

Present: Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner. Ronnie Peterson was present at the meeting, but was out of the room when votes occurred.

Absent: Barbara Bergman

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, April 4, 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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