County Board Focuses on Public Health Issues

Program launched to ban synthetic drugs; medical director hired

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (June 6, 2012): Several action items at the most recent county board meeting related to public health, but the one that drew the most discussion did not require a vote: A new program by the public health department to ban the sale of synthetic drugs.

Leah Gunn, Conan Smith

Washtenaw County commissioners Leah Gunn and Conan Smith, who both represent districts in Ann Arbor, exchange hand gestures before the start of the June 6, 2012 board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners were briefed by Dick Fleece, the county’s top public health official, about the new effort to eliminate the sale of synthetic marijuana – known as “spice” and sold legally as K2, Yucatan Fire and other brand names – as well as other synthetic drugs. The “carrot-and-stick” approach will encourage businesses to remove the products voluntarily, Fleece said, and highlight that decision with a decal that stores can use to indicate compliance. But if businesses don’t comply, the county has the authority to issue a public health order against them and, if necessary, get a court injunction to force compliance.

While commissioners acknowledged that synthetic drugs are dangerous – effects can include hallucinations, aggression, paranoia, and seizures – there were some questions for Fleece about why the county is targeting these particular products, which are sold legally. Fleece indicated that there’s heightened concern among residents and coverage of the issue in nearly every media outlet nationally. Some commissioners expressed skepticism about the approach, indicating a preference for a broader educational campaign about the dangers of legal and illegal substances.

Other public health items on the June 6 agenda included hiring Alice Penrose as the county’s new medical director, and approving the application for a state grant to pay for water quality monitoring at five local beaches. The board also appointed 15 members to the new Washtenaw Food Policy Council, and approved the application for federal funding of a summer meal program for low-income children.

Commissioners also voted to schedule a special working session on June 14 to discuss a four-party public transit agreement that’s intended to set the stage for a possible countywide transit authority. A new transit authority – tentatively called The Washtenaw Ride – would expand the governance and service area of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Some commissioners intend to bring forward amendments to the agreement, which the board is expected to vote on at its regular July 11 meeting. If the county board does amend the four-party agreement, it would need to be reconsidered by the other three entities involved, which have already approved it: the city councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the AATA board.

During the time allotted for communications, commissioners discussed the decision by the state not to reimburse local communities for emergency expenses related to the March 15 tornado touchdown near Dexter. Also, Verna McDaniel highlighted the state’s approval of a $1 million grant to fund brownfield cleanup at the former Georgetown Mall in Ann Arbor, for a residential project called Packard Square. The board had approved the grant application a year ago, following a contentious discussion about the project.

Other actions during the June 6 meeting included: (1) authorizing a grant agreement for up to $60,000 in emergency housing assistance for residents facing eviction from Camp Take Notice; (2) taking a final vote to set the 2012 county general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills; and (3) giving final approval for re-funding of previously-issued bonds, a move that’s expected to save $889,000 over the life of the bond repayments.

Program to Fight Synthetic Drugs

Dick Fleece, the county’s public health officer, briefed the county board about a program to eliminate the sale of synthetic marijuana – known as “spice” and sold legally as K2, Yucatan Fire and other brand names – as well as other synthetic drugs. The program was being launched by the Washtenaw County public health department, and did not require any action by the board.

County administrator Verna McDaniel introduced the briefing by telling commissioners that a group of county officials had met earlier in the day to develop a response for what’s perceived as a dangerous public health threat. The group included McDaniel, Fleece, other public health officials, sheriff Jerry Clayton, county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie, and county corporation counsel Curtis Hedger. McDaniel reported that the county had been receiving emails from concerned parents – about 20 or so – as well as calls to the county’s help desk. They are trying to be proactive in their response, she said.

Fleece began by saying he wouldn’t focus on details of the health effects – commissioners could read about that in a packet of materials that was handed out at the meeting. Instead, he wanted to describe the coordinated approach that’s being put in place to respond to these very dangerous products.

County officials had decided to respond with a carrot-and-stick approach, he said. The plan entails asking businesses to voluntarily stop selling these products – and if they agree, they’ll be given a decal indicating that they are part of this program. If they refuse, Fleece said he has the authority to issue a public health order that would direct the businesses to remove these products from their shelves, but he hoped those orders would be “few and far between.” If the businesses don’t comply with the order, they can be taken to court, he said. It will take a community effort to apply pressure, making businesses realize that they’re doing harm and that it’s not worth whatever profit they’re making.

Fleece told commissioners that his department planned to issue a press release with additional details about the program later in the week. The press release was subsequently issued on Friday, June 8. [.pdf of press release] [.pdf of public health noticeA website also is set up with details of the program.

Synthetic Drugs: Board Discussion

Rob Turner asked how people would find out about this program. Fleece replied that in addition to the press release, information would be posted on the county’s website, and businesses would be able to sign up online to participate.

Turner described it as an important effort, noting that when he served on the Chelsea school board, he had learned of the problem. At the time, it was primarily happening in Canada, he said, but “now, it’s here.” He was glad the county is taking a proactive approach.

Dick Fleece

Dick Fleece, the county's public health officer, briefed commissioners on a program to combat synthetic drugs in Washtenaw County.

Felicia Brabec asked about the consequence of receiving a public health order. Fleece said if the business doesn’t comply, the county could go to court and get an injunction that would force the business to stop selling the products. Brabec said she had recently attended a county symposium on the dangers of prescription drug use, and she thanked Fleece for his department’s efforts.

Wes Prater asked about plans for follow-up, noting that some businesses might abuse the program by signing up and getting the decal, even though they’d continue to sell the products. Fleece replied that they’ll have a way for the public to report such abuses.

While commissioners acknowledged that synthetic drugs are dangerous – effects can include hallucinations, aggression, paranoia, and seizures – there were some questions for Fleece about why the county is targeting these particular products, which are sold legally. Fleece indicated that there’s heightened concern among residents and coverage of the issue in nearly every media outlet nationally.

Alicia Ping asked if there had been specific problems related to synthetic drugs in Washtenaw County. Therese Doud, prevention coordinator for the county’s public health department, said there hadn’t been a lot of reported cases to date, but she indicated that the use of these drugs is assumed to be higher than just the reported cases, based on national trends. There haven’t been a lot of cases in local hospital emergency rooms, but the county wants to be proactive, Doud said. Fleece noted that nationwide, 11% of high school seniors have reported using synthetic drugs.

Ping noted that lots of legal products – like glue or aerosol cans – can be used in dangerous ways, and yet they aren’t being outlawed. Will the county be providing a broader effort to educate parents and others about these dangers? Doud replied that they’ll take a look at that. Other communities, such as Macomb County, have helpful informational websites, Doud said.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. picked up that issue, asking if there are other products that the county should be discussing in conjunction with synthetic drugs. Fleece replied that almost everything relates to public health, so the county has to prioritize its efforts. This issue of synthetic drugs is front and center now, he said, so that’s why they’re strategizing about it.

Sizemore asked if the county had formed an advisory committee of local businesses to help with the effort. No, Fleece said, at this point they haven’t tried to create a broader coalition. The issue only came to prominence recently, Fleece added, and the county wanted to take action ahead of anticipated state legislation. Sizemore suggested that the board should schedule a working session on the issue.

Yousef Rabhi said it was fascinating to watch the recent heightened concern about these products, given that they’ve been available for years. He noted that the legalization of natural marijuana would obviate the need for synthetic versions. The state’s continuing efforts to constrain the use of medical marijuana – even though voters overwhelmingly approved the legalization of that drug for medical purposes – should be part of the discussion, he said.

Dan Smith asked Fleece to elaborate on the public health directive, and how it relates to both legal and illegal substances that might be abused. What’s the reason for focusing on synthetic drugs? Fleece said the directive is focused on K2 and other synthetic drugs primarily in response to concerns from citizens. It isn’t focused on illegal drugs like marijuana or heroin. The synthetic drugs are legal now, but pose serious health consequences that can be addressed by this directive, Fleece said. If businesses voluntarily stop selling these products, the county wants to applaud that, he said, and publicize that decision. If not, the county will declare it as an imminent health threat and go to court.

Dan Smith, Alicia Ping

Commissioners Dan Smith and Alicia Ping.

Ping advocated for putting a priority on education rather than enforcement, alerting people to the dangers of these and other products – legal and illegal – that can be used in harmful ways. She noted that the state is expected to take action against synthetic drugs, and she felt the county was rushing to do something that it didn’t need to do.

Dan Smith also expressed concern about spending county funds on prosecuting something that’s legal. The prosecutor’s office already has a lot of work to do, he noted, and he didn’t like the idea of spending even more money on attorney fees.

Prater argued that the county needed to act now, because the danger is immediate.

Conan Smith asked Fleece to explain how resources would be allocated for this program. Fleece replied that they don’t know what the demand will be, but it’s expected that a lot of merchants will remove the products voluntarily. There will be a few stragglers, but he didn’t expect there would be many cases where the county would need to take a business to court. He hoped it would be more of a public education campaign, and businesses will take care of the problem on their own.

Conan Smith noted that there’s sensitivity to the problem of synthetic drugs, but also a concern about its strategic importance when weighed against other public health issues. He encouraged Fleece to connect with commissioners individually, and to ”use your powers appropriately on our behalf.”

Prater pointed out that gas stations and convenience stores were the places most likely to sell these products, and the businesses are just interested in making money. It would be wrong for the county simply to do nothing, he said.

Outcome: The board was not asked to take any action. The measures outlined by Dick Fleece are within his authority to implement.

County Medical Director

In another item related to public health, commissioners were asked to authorize the hiring of Alice Penrose as the county’s public health medical director, effective July 30 at a salary of $130,000. The position is currently vacant, and those state-mandated services are being provided under contract with the Oakland County medical director, Pamela Hackert. Both Penrose and Hackert attended the board’s June 6 meeting.

Under the Michigan Public Health Code (Public Act 368 of 1978), Medicare services provided by the county – including immunizations and the maternal infant health program – require that a licensed medical doctor on staff bill Medicare, via the state, for reimbursement.

Alice Penrose

Alice Penrose will be Washtenaw County's new medical director, effective July 30.

Penrose is a licensed physician in the State of Michigan, with a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health. She is board certified in preventive medicine and internal medicine. She most recently has served as a primary care practitioner at the Packard Health clinic in Ann Arbor. [.pdf of Alice Penrose's résumé]

The previous medical director, Monique Reeves, had been appointed by the board just a year ago at the June 1, 2011 board meeting, with a salary of $125,000. Reeves tendered her resignation in a letter dated March 15, 2012 and effective April 13. In the letter, which did not indicate her reason for resigning, Reeves states: ”It was my distinct privilege to serve the citizens of Washtenaw County during my brief tenure. Although it was my sincerest hope that things would have worked out differently, I believe that an amicable parting of the ways is the best course of action at this juncture.” [.pdf of resignation letter]

Responding to a query from The Chronicle after the meeting, county administrator Verna McDaniel said the decision by Reeves to resign had been a “sad loss for us.” She described Reeves as a visionary, and drew an analogy to speed limits, saying that the public health department had a 45 mile an hour speed limit, while Reeves needed to drive at 80 miles an hour.

County Medical Director: Board Discussion

Dan Smith noted that the county has been contracting out for the medical director’s work. How’s that going? he asked.

Dick Fleece, the county’s public health officer, introduced Pamela Hackert, Oakland County’s medical director. Fleece noted that Hackert has served on an as-needed basis, to fulfill the state requirement. She isn’t working on a full-time basis, so there is outreach work that isn’t being done, he said, but it’s been a good interim solution.

Smith asked what the cost of the contract is with Hackert, compared to having a full-time medical director. Fleece replied that he didn’t have that detail in hand, but the contract with Hackert was cheaper. However, he added, the county needs a full-time medical director. He introduced Alice Penrose, who also was attending the meeting.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to approve the hiring of Alice Penrose as medical director, effective July 30, 2012.

Public Beach Water Quality

A third item related to public health was a resolution that asked that the board approve an application for a Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s water quality monitoring grant for $7,654. It requires at least a 25% local match, which will be provided primarily as an in-kind contribution of county staff time. The total project budget is $11,147. The state funding runs from May 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014. The monitoring program previously has been paid for with general fund dollars.

Results from the monitoring will be posted on the MDEQ’s beach water monitoring website.

Public Beach Water Quality: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec asked which beaches are being monitored. The question was fielded by Dick Fleece, the county’s public health director. The five beaches are located at Bruin Lake, Half Moon Lake, Independence Lake, Silver Lake and Sugarloaf Lake.

Brabec asked if other beaches are eligible. Fleece replied that this program has been sampling water at local beaches for over 35 years, but it’s not a mandated program. The county is relying on the grant to be able to do the monitoring, he said. Brabec called it a wonderful public health service.

Outcome: Commissioners approved the water quality monitoring grant application.

Countywide Transit

In an item added to the agenda during the June 6 meeting, commissioners were asked to schedule a special working session for Thursday, June 14 to discuss a four-party public transit agreement that’s intended to set the stage for a possible countywide transit authority. A new transit authority – tentatively called The Washtenaw Ride – would expand the governance and service area of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

The effort is spearheaded by the AATA. Yousef Rabhi – who chairs the board’s working sessions – noted that AATA had originally hoped the board would act on the agreement at its June 6 meeting. However, Rabhi said, there was some hesitancy among commissioners to do that. They wanted a robust discussion about the agreement, but didn’t want to wait until their next regular meeting on July 11. [During the summer, the county board holds its regular meetings only once a month.]

Rabhi said that a compromise was to schedule a special working session on the issue. He hoped they could talk through all the issues at that point, so “come prepared for a lengthy discussion,” he said. The board could then vote on the four-party agreement and articles of incorporation at its July 11 meeting.

Verna McDaniel, Yousef Rabhi

From left: Washtenaw County administrator Verna McDaniel and commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who'll be chairing the June 14 working session on the four-party transit agreement.

The other three entities in the agreement – the AATA board, and the city councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – have authorized the accord.

The process of ratifying the four-party agreement has been somewhat complex. The Ypsilanti city council had initially approved the agreement on May 15, 2012, but amended it in a way that required the Ann Arbor city council, which had approved an earlier version on March 5, to reconsider the amended version. The Ann Arbor council did that on June 4, 2012, but Ann Arbor did not accept all of the Ypsilanti amendments. So the agreement went back to Ypsilanti city council, and on June 5, Ypsilanti councilmembers voted to match the amended agreement that was approved by the Ann Arbor city council the previous day. That version, now approved by both bodies, provides for different treatment of a 1% municipal service charge by each city.

Under the agreement approved by both councils, Ann Arbor will extract a 1% municipal service charge before forwarding its transit millage revenues to a possible new transportation authority to be formed under Act 196 of 1986. Ypsilanti will not assess the charge, and will forward the full amount of its millage revenues to the Act 196 authority. The service charge would be roughly $90,000 for Ann Arbor, and about $3,000 for Ypsilanti – based on the revenues raised by the respective transit millages in those cities.

The fourth party in the four-party agreement – the AATA board – had approved the accord on May 16, 2012, but may now review and revote its approval in light of the amendments made by the two city councils.

At the county board’s June 6 meeting, Rabhi said he hoped that the board could reach a consensus on the agreement at the working session, even though a formal vote wouldn’t take place until July 11. He suggested that commissioners take a straw poll on any amendments they’d like to offer, so that the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city councils would have the opportunity to respond before the board’s July 11 vote. None of the other commissioners voiced objections to that approach. At least one commissioner has indicated to The Chronicle an intention to bring forward specific changes to the agreement.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to schedule the special working session on June 14. It starts at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main in Ann Arbor.

Funds for Camp Take Notice Residents

Commissioners took up a resolution authorizing a grant agreement for up to $60,000 in emergency housing assistance for residents facing eviction from Camp Take Notice, a homeless encampment on state-owned land in Scio Township. The funds will come from the Salvation Army of Michigan, to be provided to the county’s Barrier Busters Unmet Needs Fund. No general fund dollars will be used.

According to a staff memo, residents living in Camp Take Notice have been told by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation – which owns the land off of Wagner Road, where the camp is located – that they’ll need to leave by June 22. Several community groups – including the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, the county’s office of community and economic development, the county sheriff’s office, and local nonprofits serving the homeless – are working with state agencies to help identify housing and support services for these individuals. Staff of the county’s Community Support & Treatment Services Project Outreach Team (PORT) are also involved.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) is providing $270,000 in housing subsidies for the 50-70 people who are currently staying at Camp Take Notice. The $60,000 in funds from the Salvation Army will be used for emergency transitional housing in motels, and for security deposits when more permanent housing is found. The MSHDA funds will be managed by Michigan Ability Partners (MAP) and the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, and those agencies will help find permanent housing for Camp Take Notice residents. The office of community and economic development will manage the $60,000 in funds for Barrier Busters, which helps coordinate efforts of local human services agencies.

Funds for Camp Take Notice Residents: Board Discussion

Yousef Rabhi called it a very positive item, and noted that there had been a rally recently to oppose the eviction. But if the eviction goes through, he said, these funds will help.

Outcome: The board approved the grant agreement for Camp Take Notice residents.

Food Policy Council

Commissioners were asked to appoint 15 members to a new Washtenaw Food Policy Council, and to pass amended bylaws. The board of commissioners had given final approval to create the council at its March 21, 2012 meeting.

Members appointed with one-year terms are: Bill Alt (faith-based organization); Amanda Edmonds (urban agriculture); Dena Jaffee (food service); Liz Dahl MacGregor (citizen); Nicole Miller (emergency food system); Lindsey Scalera (education); Dayle Wright (health care); and Patti Smith (human services).

Members appointed to two-year terms are: Jenna Bacolor (Washtenaw County public health); Nicole Chardoul (Waste management); Gretchen Hofing (nutrition); Tim Redmond (food manufacturer and distributor); Michaelle Rehmann (economic development); Kenny Siler (rural agriculture). County commissioner Yousef Rabhi had previously been appointed by the board to a two-year term.

The Washtenaw Food Policy Council aims to 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.

A separate item related to approval of bylaws for the council [.pdf of food policy council bylaws].

Board chair Conan Smith clarified that the original bylaws did not clearly indicate what entity would be responsible for making these appointments. The amended bylaws clarify that the county board is responsible for appointing the policy council members. This time, the appointments will be people who are already serving, he said, “to avoid bad blood.”

Rabhi noted that all of the people who are being appointed have submitted résumés to the county and are very experienced. He fully supported their appointments.

Outcome: The board unanimously voted to appoint members of the Washtenaw Food Policy Council and to amend the bylaws.

Millage Rate

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to set the 2012 county general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills – unchanged from the current rate.

Several other county millages are levied separately: emergency communications (0.2000 mills), the Huron Clinton Metroparks Authority (0.2146 mills), two for county parks and recreation (0.2353 mills and 0.236 mills) and for the natural areas preservation program (0.2409 mills). That brings the total county millage rate to 5.6768 mills, a rate that’s also unchanged from 2011.

This is an annual procedural action, and not a vote to levy new taxes. With a few minor exceptions, the county board does not have authority to levy taxes independently. Millage increases, new millages or an action to reset a millage at its original rate (known as a Headlee override) would require voter approval.

Initial approval had been given at the county board’s May 16, 2012 meeting. At that meeting, commissioner Wes Prater expressed concern that the county parks & recreation department was building up a fund balance that is higher than necessary, and suggested that perhaps the entire millage for parks & rec did not need to be levied. Several commissioners defended the use of millage proceeds, noting that several large capital projects are on the horizon, including a possible recreation center in downtown Ypsilanti.

Millage Rate: Public Hearing

Only one person – Thomas Partridge – spoke at a public hearing on the millage rate, and cited the need for additional revenues. He criticized the county’s “casting off” of the Head Start program. There are feral dogs and cats that are abandoned and that cause a grave danger to the public because of potential bites and rabies. The county can’t house the homeless who are virtually on the doorsteps of local governments, he said. Partridge advocated for tax reforms and for placing a Headlee override on the ballot.

Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners voted to set the 2012 county general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills.

Summer Food Grant

Washtenaw County commissioners were asked to authorize the application for a $108,364 federal grant – available through reimbursements from the Michigan Dept. of Education – to fund a summer food program for children of low-income families. The program will be supplemented with $37,386 in additional federal Community Services Block Grant funding.

The program will serve about 13,000 breakfasts, 37,000 lunches, and 21,000 snacks to children at 12 sites throughout the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area, including schools, recreation centers, community centers, or other community-based organizations. It will be administered by the office of community and economic development, a joint county/city of Ann Arbor unit. The county has administered this program for more than two decades, according to a staff memo.

Summer Food Grant: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec noted that there is a big jump in the number of meals this year compared to last year. In 2011, the program served 8,180 breakfasts, 16,229 lunches, and 8,000 snacks. Does that reflect an increase in need? she asked.

Susan Sweet Scott, the county’s human services manager, explained that the numbers for this year are estimates, and are probably optimistic. Because the program is funded on a reimbursement basis, she said, there’s no concern about the county’s ability to cover the costs, regardless of how many meals are served.

Outcome: Commissioners approved the application for the summer food grant.

Bond Re-Funding

A resolution giving final approval for the re-funding of bonds previously issued by Washtenaw County was on the June 6 agenda. The action – advised by the county’s bond counsel, John Axe of Axe & Ecklund of Grosse Pointe Farms – consolidates two previous bond issues and is expected to save $889,000 over the life of the bond repayments. Initial approval was given at the board’s May 16, 2012 meeting.

In 2004, the county board had approved a bond sale of $6.365 million to fund energy efficiency improvements in county facilities. Chevron Energy Solutions was hired to oversee that effort, which is known as the Chevron project. About $4.69 million in principle is owed on that bond. [Commissioners were last updated on this project at their June 2010 working session.]

In 2005, the board approved a bond sale of $11.475 million to re-fund a 1999 bond issued for projects that included capital improvements for the juvenile detention center, buildings at 110 N. Fourth and 200 N. Main, and the environmental services building on Zeeb Road. About $7.835 million in principle is still owed on that bond issue.

Because of current low interest rates, Axe has advised the county board to authorize the sale of a single re-funding bond issue not to exceed $12.35 million. The re-funding bonds will be called the County of Washtenaw Capital Improvement Re-funding Bond Series 2012.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board approved the re-funding of bonds, as well as a separate resolution authorizing continued disclosure on the re-funding bond issue, as required by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC).

Project LIFT

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to apply for a $1,348,853 federal grant from the U.S. Dept. of Labor to fund Project LIFT, a jobs training and service program for juvenile ex-offenders run by the county sheriff’s office. The program aims to serve 100 youth. [.pdf of program description] The grant application had received initial approval at the board’s May 16, 2012 meeting.

A staff memo notes that while Washtenaw County “has the best employment rates compared to its neighbors, it also has the highest rate of criminal recidivism in the state, with 80% of released prisoners being re-imprisoned 2-3 years later. In addition, many at-risk youth reside in communities that serve as a revolving door for offenders returning to society from our jails and prisons. With community-based reintegration in Washtenaw County still in its infancy, there is a need to engage youth before they are introduced to the criminal justice system as adults, within their own communities, that will deter them from criminal behavior.”

According to the staff report, the sheriff’s community action team estimates there are 12-13 gangs active in Washtenaw County, with 9-10 gangs active in one neighborhood alone. The largest gang has an estimated 25 members.

Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners gave final approval to apply for the Project LIFT grant.

Communications & Public Commentary

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

Communications: Dexter Area Tornado

Felicia Brabec noted that the county had received a letter from the state denying a request for emergency assistance related to the March 15, 2012 tornado touchdown in the Dexter area. She asked for an update.

The letter had been sent by Thomas Sands, deputy state director of emergency management and homeland security. [.pdf of letter from Thomas Sands] It was in response to a request sent to Gov. Rick Snyder in April by board chair Conan Smith, asking for the state to reimburse local municipalities for costs incurred as a result of the devastation. Local governments had itemized about $1 million in costs, but the total – primarily in damages to residences – is estimated at over $9 million. [.pdf of Smith's letter to Snyder] [.pdf summarizing tornado-related expenses]

Smith told Brabec that this means there won’t be any reimbursement from the state, “so it’s money out of our pocket.” The county’s share of those costs is less than $200,000. Smith noted that the board had previously allocated up to $500,000 for tornado relief – they had voted unanimously to do that at their March 21 meeting, using funds from capital reserves to pay for overtime costs for staff and costs for dumpsters to haul away debris, among other things.

Rob Turner, who’s been acting as point person for the response – because he represents District 1, which includes the Dexter area – said he’d provide a final report with updated numbers to the board. He noted that residents are very appreciative of the county’s efforts.

Ronnie Peterson said he was pleased with the county’s response, but he wondered if there was a policy regarding how the county responds to emergencies – whether it’s a tornado or an ice storm or something else. At any time, such an emergency could hit any community, he noted.

Conan Smith noted that at the beginning of each year, the board chair signs a comprehensive emergency management plan prepared by the county’s emergency management division, which is led by Marc Breckenridge. Breckenridge and his team had coordinated the response to the Dexter tornado touchdown.

Peterson said he was proud of the county’s response, and it’s unfortunate that the state didn’t perceive it as an emergency. But he said it was important to revisit the county’s emergency protocol.

Turner agreed, saying it’s important for local governments to know what kind of help the county can provide. He said he’d been glad to serve as a point person for the tornado response, but something more formal and comprehensive would help  make it easier for local communities to get what they need.

Wes Prater suggested that Breckenridge give a presentation to the board about what’s already in place. It would be good for the board to review and understand, he said.

Communications: Packard Square

County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that she had received a letter from state Sen. Rebekah Warren, congratulating the county on the cleanup of the Packard Square development at the former Georgetown Mall in Ann Arbor. [Warren is married to county board chair Conan Smith.] On May 11, the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality issued a press release announcing that the state had awarded a $1 million brownfield redevelopment grant for the project.

McDaniel reminded commissioners that they had approved the brownfield plan and grant application last year, which she said will allow the site to be redeveloped. It’s been a long time coming, she added, and any time there’s the opportunity to clean up a contaminated site, they should take it.

By way of background, the board approved the brownfield plan and grant application at its May 18, 2011 meeting, after a contentious discussion. The developers, The Harbor Cos., had asked the board to approve a $1 million loan application to the MDEQ, as well as a request to authorize designation of the county’s full faith and credit as a guarantee for any loan that might be awarded, up to $1 million. The loan request spurred a board discussion about the need to develop a broader public-private investment policy.

The Harbor Cos. later decided not to apply for the MDEQ loan. Some commissioners – notably Leah Gunn – weren’t sure such a broader policy was necessary. Ultimately no further action was taken on developing a policy.

Since then, the board has approved several other brownfield plans, including plans for (1) Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw in Ann Arbor; (2) Ford Motor Co’s Rawsonville plant in Ypsilanti Township; and (3) the LaFontaine Chevrolet redevelopment project in Dexter.

As part of their packet of communications for the June 6, 2012 meeting, commissioners also received the 2011 annual report of the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Program. [.pdf of 2011 brownfield report] It was not discussed at the meeting.

Communications: Public Commentary – Ypsilanti Township

Hal Wolfe of McKinley Street  in Ypsilanti Township addressed the board on several issues. He noted that he’s been involved in his neighborhood watch group, and that there are a lot of mental health facilities in the area. One of them is so small that it falls below the level of scrutiny, he said. Yet there are all sorts of incidents there, and it’s tearing his neighborhood apart. Police come regularly, and there’s even been a case of physical assault, he said. It’s becoming exceedingly difficult to live on his street. Wolfe said he’s been trying to find out how these facilities are funded by the county, and he’s meeting with township supervisor Brenda Stumbo to address the issue, too.

Wolfe also expressed concern about the increase in rental housing. Some tenants are good, but some aren’t. He’d hate to see his street turn into a blighted urban slum, but he wasn’t sure what the county’s role would be in addressing that.

Finally, Wolfe raised the issue of towing. He knew that negotiations were ongoing with the county sheriff’s office to renew a towing contract. He reported that he had been towed and had to pay the lion’s share of $500 to Budget Towing – he wasn’t sure it had been legal. Wolfe planned to meet with county officials about it, and he argued that there should be a more equitable rate structure.

By way of background, commissioners have previously heard complaints about the towing contract. Billy Salamey – who’s the owner of Budget Towing, Stadium Towing and Glen Ann Towing – had addressed commissioners at their Feb. 1, 2012 meeting, responding to accusations made by one of his competitors that he had submitted a fraudulent bid. A request for proposals (RFP) had been issued for the contract in June of 2011.

At the June 6 meeting, board chair Conan Smith responded to Wolfe by pointing out that housing issues are handled by the county’s office of community & economic development – he noted that its director, Mary Jo Callan, was in the room. Smith said that Callan could give Wolfe the assistance he needed.

Ronnie Peterson also responded, saying the situation in the eastern part of the county warranted discussion. [Peterson represents District 6, which covers Ypsilanti and part of Ypsilanti Township.] That part of the county shouldn’t be a dumping ground, he said. While he supports residential mental health programs, there shouldn’t be a saturation in particular neighborhoods. He didn’t want Wolfe to feel ignored, and said he was taking an interest in the situation. Peterson also expressed concern that because the real estate market was so depressed, some people in the more affluent parts of the county were taking advantage of that to buy houses for rental property.

Communications: Public Commentary – Thomas Partridge

In addition to the public hearing noted above, Thomas Partridge spoke during two other opportunities for public commentary. He reported that he is a Democratic candidate for state representative in District 53, representing Ann Arbor. [The district is now represented by Democrat Jeff Irwin, who is seeking re-election. Irwin is a former county commissioner.] Partridge said he was there to advocate for the most vulnerable residents, especially those who are in need of shelter, countywide transportation, affordable health care and free education.

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

Absent: Barbara Bergman.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, July 11, 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. [Check Chronicle calendar listing to 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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