County Board Debates, OKs Act 88 Tax Hike

Also: Recommendations for animal control services approved

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Oct. 3, 2012): A sometimes heated debate over whether to raise a tax for economic development resulted in narrow approval by the board. It was a 6-5 vote on the increase to 0.06 mills, up from 0.05 mills. As an example, the 20% hike means that taxes for economic development will increase from $5 to $6 for each $100,000 of a property’s taxable value. The issue had been previously discussed at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting, but postponed until Oct. 3.

Janis Bobrin

Janis Bobrin, Washtenaw County’s water resources commissioner, attended the Oct. 3, 2012 county board meeting to present environmental excellence awards. She received a standing ovation from commissioners. She is not running for re-election, and will leave office later this year after more than two decades in that position. (Photos by the writer.)

The board is authorized to levy the tax under Act 88 of 1913 – and it does not require a voter referendum. Voting against the increase were commissioners Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Dan Smith and Rob Turner. They cited several objections, including the timing of a tax increase while many taxpayers are struggling because of the economy, and the unlikelihood that the tax will be lowered in the future, when economic conditions improve. Peterson also felt that the Act 88 funds aren’t being used for their original purpose – to leverage matching dollars for economic development – and instead are being diverted to support county operations.” It was never meant to be a piggy bank for county government,” he said.

The final vote to levy the increased tax passed 8-3, with Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater and Dan Smith voting against it. Alicia Ping has in the past also voted against the Act 88 tax, but supported it this time – though she voted against the amendment to increase the rate. She hoped commissioners would consider reallocating some funding for the western side of the county, pointing out that there are economic development needs there too, including a lack of decent Internet access.

Far less contentious was an initial vote to move control over administering the county’s 5% accommodation tax from the county treasurer’s office to the finance director. Two members of the Washtenaw County Hotel/Motel Association spoke in support of changing the accommodation ordinance in this way. The vote by commissioners was unanimous, though Dan Smith noted that this is the second time this year that the ordinance has been revised, and he hoped it would be the last. He also expressed some concern that all hoteliers aren’t being treated equitably. A final vote and public hearing on the change is set for Oct. 17.

Commissioners also approved a set of recommendations to guide county administrator Verna McDaniel in her negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for animal control services. The current contract with HSHV ends on Dec. 31. An accompanying report from a policy task force was discussed only briefly – in part because the final version had been sent to commissioners only that day and there had been little time to digest it, and in part because some commissioners wanted to adjourn so that they could watch the first presidential debate, which began at 9 p.m. The board plans to continue discussion of the issue at a future date.

During the meeting, board chair Conan Smith told commissioners that a caucus would be held immediately prior to the next board meeting – on Nov. 7, at 5:30 p.m. – to discuss appointments to various county boards, commissions and committees. Such appointment caucuses are open to the public. [A listing of all vacancies is found on this website. An online application to apply for an opening can be found here.] The news prompted Ronnie Peterson to criticize the process, which he felt was not sufficiently transparent.

Economic/Agricultural Development Tax

On the agenda was a resolution to authorize levying the Act 88 tax to support agriculture and economic development, as well as an amendment that would raise the rate to 0.06 mills, an increase from the current 0.05 mills. A public hearing was also held on this item.

The board was on track to approve the tax last month at the 0.05 mill rate. But after a public hearing, board chair Conan Smith proposed an amendment to raise the rate to 0.06 mills – an idea he’d informally floated at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting. Some commissioners objected to making a change after the public hearing, which led the board to postpone action until Oct. 3, when another public hearing was scheduled.

Smith’s proposal also gave the office of community and economic development (OCED) the authority to distribute the millage funds.

The millage is authorized under the state’s Act 88 of 1913, and has been levied by the board since 2009. That year, it was levied at 0.04 mills. It was raised to 0.043 in 2010 and 0.05 in 2011. Because the Michigan statute that authorizes this millage predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, the board can levy it without a voter referendum.

The rate of 0.06 mills would generate about $838,578 and cost $6 for each $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. It would generate about $145,483 more than the rate of 0.05 mills. The millage proceeds were proposed to be allocated to the following local entities in 2013, with generally the same amounts that the groups received this year: Ann Arbor SPARK ($200,000), SPARK East ($50,000), the county’s dept. of community & economic development ($140, 331), Eastern Leaders Group ($100,000), promotion of heritage tourism ($65,264), Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP – $15,000), Washtenaw 4-H ($82,500), Washtenaw County 4-H Youth Show ($15,000), and MSU Extension, to support economic development in the local food system ($15,000).

Smith proposed that the additional funds from the increase would be used for the Detroit Region Aerotropolis ($50,000), with any remaining balance – about $95,000 – be allocated to the office of community & economic development, for activities related to those authorized by Act 88. It’s likely that the amount would include additional staff for that office.

Economic/Agricultural Development Tax: Public Hearing/Commentary

Shawn Letwin of Webster Township spoke briefly during the first opportunity for public commentary. He noted that when the increase has been discussed, some people have talked about the fact that incomes in the county are increasing. He said that his income has increased about 300% – because he was downsized three times and made only $10,000 last year, compared to about $30,000 this year. There just isn’t the money now for a tax increase, he said. Letwin told commissioners that he has about $200,000 in debt and will have to finance about $68,000 for his child’s college education. He couldn’t afford the tax increase, and hoped the board would be prudent in their decision.

Two people spoke during the official public hearing on the Act 88 tax. Thomas Partridge said he endorsed the tax but didn’t think the board had leveled with the community. These kinds of taxes are relics of the 18th century, he said. Special interest millages like Act 88 should be replaced by progressive business and personal income taxes, he said. Partridge wanted the board to explain how this tax would contribute to the advancement of agriculture, economic development and tourism. The county needs a prominent site for an agricultural, industrial and scientific fair, he said, as well as a convention center and a large indoor/outdoor theater.

Matt Shane introduced himself as MSU extension director for the district that includes Washtenaw County. He described highlights of how Act 88 revenues benefit the MSU Extension and the 4-H programs that it operates, including some that focus on entrepreneurship and consumer horticulture. 4-H has impacted about 4,500 youth between the ages of 5-19, he said.

Economic/Agricultural Development Tax: Board Discussion – Amendment

The discussion began with a brief overview by Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, who reviewed what had happened at the Sept. 19 meeting. Now, he said, the board first would be considering Conan Smith’s amendment to raise the millage rate from 0.05 mills to 0.06 mills. After they deliberated and voted on that amendment, they would then vote on the resolution to levy the Act 88 millage.

Dan Smith noted that the proposal calls for a 20% increase from the current rate, and he wouldn’t support it.

Ronnie Peterson said there’s no question that the real estate market has taken a hit, especially on the county’s east side, where tax and mortgage foreclosures are high. He described his stance toward economic development as aggressive, saying that Act 88 revenues are appropriate to support the services they’ve funded in the past. But he wondered what the rationale is for raising the rate – when would the board see a plan? He felt the increase should be justified before the board acts on it.

Conan Smith

Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Conan Smith reviewed how he had introduced the proposed increase at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting, and had passed out a memo to commissioners the next night, at their working session. [.pdf of Smith's Act 88 memo] [Peterson had been absent from that working session.]

Smith said the intent is to maintain current funding levels in the face of declining property values, and to provide additional support to the Detroit Region Aerotropolis. The aerotropolis, which includes Willow Run airport, is currently funded through the county’s general fund. The change would free up general fund money for other uses. Finally, Smith said there’s currently inadequate staff – 1.5 full-time-equivalent positions – to manage the county’s economic development activities. Additional staffing would allow the county to use its economic development funds more efficiently, he said.

Peterson then spoke at length about his concerns, noting that he was one of the people who originally supported the Act 88 millage. He gave credit to Bob Guenzel, the county administrator at the time, as well as former board chair Jeff Irwin and former commissioner Ken Schwartz, who first identified Act 88 as a potential way to raise revenues without seeking voter approval.

It was the first time that the county had been aggressive in addressing economic development needs, Peterson said. The tax was intended to providing matching funds for grants and partners in the community that were doing this work. The need was especially great on the county’s east side. But the millage proceeds were not intended to subsidize county operations, Peterson said. If that’s what the board wants, they should go to the voters and ask. ”It was never meant to be a piggy bank for county government,” Peterson said. He wondered if the proposed tax increase was a way to protect key employees or managers – and if that’s the case, the board should know, he said.

Conan Smith replied that the board hasn’t empowered the county administration to add jobs yet. The current resolution would only authorize an increased levy to create additional funding. If that’s approved, then the board would eventually have to amend the budget and approve any additional jobs.

Peterson objected to not having more details before they vote. There wasn’t a plan for the use of proceeds, he said. He cited several other taxes that would be coming before county residents, including a possible transportation tax and renewal for parks and recreation. It’s ridiculous to ask his constituents to pay more, Peterson said.

Rob Turner also expressed concern about raising the amount. He understood that property values were declining and that meant fewer revenues would be collected if the rate stays the same. But he felt that when property values start increasing again, the rate won’t be decreased. “It’ll be a tax increase forever,” he said.

Saying he respected everyone’s opinions, Yousef Rabhi spoke in favor of the increase. It’s a troubled economy, but how should they help rebuild it? By investing, he said. Funding organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK, the Eastern Leaders Group and others is helping create a stronger economy, he said, and it shows.

Rabhi noted that although other commissioners refer to a 20% increase, that’s really just a $1 increase for a home with a taxable value of $100,000 – from $5 to $6 annually. What’s more, they’re well below the half-mill limit that the county is allowed to levy under Act 88, he said.

Rabhi also disputed Turner’s point about the difficulty of lowering taxes. In fact, everyone loves lowering taxes, Rabhi said – it’s more difficult to raise taxes, and requires the board to take leadership. It’s the right thing to do at the right time, and he hoped commissioners would support the increase.

Leah Gunn said she’d been involved with the Eastern Leaders Group, at Peterson’s invitation, and knew they did a wonderful job. She felt the Act 88 increase was very small and reasonable. She’d be willing to pay more, even though much of the funding is going to the east side of the county. [Gunn is one of four Ann Arbor commissioners.]

Alicia Ping, Wes Prater

County commissioners Alicia Ping and Wes Prater.

Alicia Ping – who represents District 3, covering southern and southwest parts of the county – wondered when the board would talk about how the Act 88 funds are allocated for economic development in other parts of the county, not just the eastern side. There are needs in the west, too, she said – some people can only get dial-up Internet access, for example. That means they can’t work from home if they need to use the Internet, and have to go to somewhere else to get it. “You can’t do business without that sort of access,” she said. Ping indicated support for an approach that didn’t simply fund the same organizations year after year. It’s important to look at the whole county, she said, not just Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

Felicia Brabec said she agreed with many of the comments made, especially by Gunn and Rabhi. To her, this feels like a solid plan for economic growth. She shared Ping’s view about the need for strategic planning countywide, and felt that additional staff would help with that effort. It would help in being more tactical to address the county’s needs.

Peterson repeated his point that the Act 88 funds weren’t meant to support jobs within the county organization. Responding to the contention that the increase is small, he said that if your home is in foreclosure, “every dime counts.” He also noted that no elected officials in his district, or any constituents, had asked him to support the increase.

Barbara Bergman called the question. This parliamentary move – designed to end discussion and force a vote on the item – requires a two-thirds majority to pass. That equates to eight votes on the 11-member board.

Wes Prater objected, saying he hadn’t had the opportunity to speak yet. Hedger clarified that the board rule allowing each commissioner to speak before a vote is taken applies only to committee meetings, not the regular board meeting. The question had been called properly, and a vote on it could proceed.

Often calling the question is approved on a voice vote. However, because there seemed to be division on the board, the clerk took a roll-call vote.

Outcome on calling the question: The motion failed on a 5-6 vote. Voting against it were Felicia Brabec, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Dan Smith and Rob Turner.

The discussion resumed, and Prater took his speaking turn. He was bothered that they’re using an act that’s nearly 100 years old, and that had been dormant until recently. Somebody “found” it, he said, so the county started levying this tax. If commissioners want this money for economic development, they should put it on the ballot for voters to decide, he argued. “If it’s good stuff, they’ll approve it,” he said.

Saying he’s supportive of Act 88, Rob Turner did not think an increase was appropriate. In fact, taxes aren’t easy to roll back after they’ve been raised, he said. Some commissioners argue that it’s only a one-dollar increase, but things add up. He compared it to his own family’s phone bill, which started out modestly but over the years has grown because so many things have been added to it. “At some time, you have to stop,” he said. It’s not wise to go above 0.05 mills.

Yousef Rabhi clarified with the administration that the allocations for the Act 88 proceeds aren’t limited to the amounts and organizations that are currently designated to receive the funding. The board has the authority to change that, he said. But this amendment is simply raising the amount of the millage, he said. If someone isn’t happy with supporting Ann Arbor SPARK, then they can lobby against funding it. The point isn’t to steal people’s money, he said. By way of analogy, Rabhi said he can spend a dollar on soda at the corner store. But if everyone pools their dollars, then it’s possible to create jobs and build the community. “Together, we can do more than as individuals,” he said – that’s the point.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he planned to support the increase. Responding to Ping’s comments, he said that commissioners work hard on the east side of the county. [Sizemore, who represents District 5, lives in Ypsilanti Township.] He said one of his goals is to expand the Act 88-funded efforts countywide. But it’s the byproducts of the Act 88 funding that are really important, he added. For example, Kalitta Air has invested millions in expanding at the Willow Run airport, he said, and the Wolfpack – a conservancy group co-founded by attorney and former Clinton advisor Paul Dimond and retired Ford executive Ray Pittman – is interested in supporting the proposed recreation center in downtown Ypsilanti, near the Huron River.

Ronnie Peterson

County commissioner Ronnie Peterson.

Sizemore described Ypsilanti as a jewel that just needed more polishing. He noted that University of Michigan faculty who are helping design the rec center were surprised when they visited the city. Downtown Ypsilanti can be transformed like Dexter, he said, but people just need to get working on it. [The village of Dexter had been highlighted earlier in the meeting as a recipient of the county's overall environmental excellence award.]

Sizemore characterized the work of Ann Arbor SPARK as “trickle down” regarding job creation, but the community also needs a “trickle up” approach. He felt he’d be “beaten up for it,” but he was supporting the millage increase, though he wasn’t happy with the way in which it had been brought forward.

Prater pointed out that the Ann Arbor District Library has a $65 million bond proposal on the ballot that could mean new taxes, raising money for a new downtown library. And there could be another millage soon for countywide transportation, he noted. Commissioners need to take a hard look at what’s happening and stop this foolishness, he said. They need to start acting like they’re concerned for the taxpaying public. The increase isn’t a lot of money, but it’s the principle, Prater concluded.

Peterson reiterated that he was fine with the 0.05 mill rate, but didn’t want to raise it. His concern is that they’re steering away from its original purpose. He said he totally disagreed with Sizemore – saying this tax increase isn’t about Ypsilanti. The city of Ypsilanti had been doing just fine before Sizemore decided to visit, Petersen said.

Peterson contended that the tax increase is designed to fund an internal program within county government, and he objected to that. If commissioners want more revenue for county operations, they should ask the voters. This is why people don’t trust elected officials, he said. If the board wants to create an economic development department, commissioners should sit around the table and talk about that.

Barbara Bergman called the question. This time, support for that action was unanimous and the clerk called the role for a vote on the amendment.

Outcome on amendment: The amendment to increase the tax passed on a 6-5 vote, with dissent from Dan Smith, Ronnie Peterson, Rob Turner, Wes Prater and Alicia Ping.

Economic/Agricultural Development Tax: Board Discussion – Main Resolution

Dan Smith noted that he’s heard the term “economic development” used during the board’s deliberations, but in fact, Act 88 of 1913 doesn’t mention it. The act’s title is “Advertisement of Agricultural Advantages,” he said, with a subtitle that states: ”Advertisement of state or county agricultural, industrial, trade or tourist advantages; tax levy or appropriation by board of supervisors.” While economic development is being used as a catchall phrase in these discussions, it’s actually a distortion of the original act, he said.

Dan Smith

Washtenaw County commissioner Dan Smith.

Wes Prater asked the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, to respond to Smith’s comment. Hedger noted that the act was passed nearly 100 years ago, and that while it doesn’t mention economic development directly, it does refer to trade and industry. He thought that it does cover economic development.

Indicating that she had been especially persuaded by Yousef Rabhi’s “passionate” speech, Alicia Ping told her fellow commissioners: “Don’t fall over, but I think I’m going to vote yes on this.” [Previously, Ping had voted against levying the Act 88 millage.] She doesn’t agree with everything it involves, but hoped that the funds could be reallocated in the future to benefit other parts of the county. The resolution would pass regardless of how she voted, Ping acknowledged, but she hoped that other commissioners would remember that she voted yes, the next time they decide how to spend the proceeds.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. agreed with Ping, saying they needed more people working on economic development, and more ideas. They needed to spread out the funding so that a larger part of the county benefits. ”The whole dang county needs help, to be honest with you,” he concluded.

Barbara Bergman again called the question, and received unanimous support to move ahead with the vote on the main resolution.

Outcome on main resolution: The resolution passed on an 8-3 vote, with dissent from Dan Smith, Ronnie Peterson and Wes Prater.

Accommodation Ordinance

The board was asked to consider initial approval of a change to Washtenaw County’s accommodation ordinance that would shift control for administering and enforcing the accommodation tax from the county treasurer to the county finance director.

The ordinance amendment also would shift a 0.7 full-time equivalent accounting job from the treasurer’s office to the county finance department, and amend the accommodation tax policy to clarify that the tax is only assessed against the actual price of a hotel, motel or other rental – not against other amenities that the business might charge its customers, such as Internet access or an extra cot in the room. [.pdf of ordinance amendment] [.pdf of amended accommodation ordinance] [.pdf of amended accommodation policy]

According to a staff memo, the changes are being recommended by the county’s accommodation ordinance commission (AOC), as well as the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti convention and visitors bureaus, which receive funding from the 5% tax. In 2011, revenues from the tax reached nearly $4 million, and are allocated on a 75%/25% split to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti CVBs.

This is the second recent change to the accommodation tax ordinance. At its Aug. 1, 2012 meeting, the board amended the ordinance to exempt cottages and bed & breakfasts with fewer than 14 rooms, as well as individuals who occasionally lease out rooms. These types of establishments account for less than 1% of the total tax collected in Washtenaw County, according to a staff memo accompanying the resolution. Several owners of bed & breakfasts spoke to the board in favor of that amendment at the Aug. 1 meeting, citing concerns over the increased frequency of audits and general attitude of the treasurer’s staff, which they felt was unnecessarily contentious.

Accommodation Tax Ordinance: Public Commentary

Two representatives of the Washtenaw County Hotel/Motel Association addressed the board about the ordinance changes. Joe Sefcovic, general manager of the Holiday Inn on Plymouth Road, is president of the association. He thanked commissioners for bringing forward the ordinance change, and urged them to support it.

John Staples began by telling the board that he’d worked at Weber’s Inn since 1943 – but then laughed and said he’d meant to say he’d worked there for 43 years. [Staples is general manager at Weber's.] He said he’s treasurer of the hotel/motel association, and has been involved in that organization since its inception. Ever since the accommodation tax was first instituted, it has never been collected on anything except room revenue, he said. Staples supported the proposed ordinance changes.

Accommodation Tax Ordinance: Board Discussion

Dan Smith noted that this is the second accommodation ordinance change in less than a year. It sounded like the AOC had taken its time and evaluated this proposal, but he hoped there wouldn’t be more changes anytime soon. Smith said his other concern is that the ordinance isn’t treating all hoteliers the same. There are full-service hotels/motels on the one hand, but also a la carte establishments that charge extra for things like Internet access, a rollaway bed and breakfast. He said he understood the intent of the ordinance, but wasn’t sure it resulted in equitable treatment.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously gave initial approval to the accommodation ordinance amendments. A final vote is expected on Oct. 17. The board also set a public hearing for that meeting, to seek input on the proposed changes.

Animal Control Services

At their Oct. 3 meeting, commissioners considered a resolution outlining a general set of recommendations for animal control services, put forward by a policy task force that’s been meeting since May. It was an item brought forward during the meeting by Barbara Bergman, and had not been part of the published agenda. [.pdf of Bergman's resolution] The commissioners also received a more detailed report from the task force. [.pdf of policy task force report]

Barbara Bergman

County commissioner Barbara Bergman.

The recommendations are intended to work in concert with a directive already passed by the board at its Sept. 19 meeting. At that meeting, commissioners approved a resolution also brought forward by Bergman that directed county administrator Verna McDaniel to begin negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley toward a new contract for animal control services. The resolution also stated that if McDaniel doesn’t believe sufficient progress is being made by Oct. 30, then she’s authorized to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to seek bids from other organizations.

The issue of how to handle animal control services – including state-mandated services as well as non-mandated services – dates back to budget cuts proposed in 2011. The county now has a contract with HSHV through the end of 2012. Early this year, the board formed a policy task force and a separate work group, led by Sheriff Jerry Clayton, to analyze costs for services that HSHV now provides. For the most recent Chronicle coverage of this effort, see: “Task Force: Negotiate with Humane Society.”

At the board’s Sept. 19 meeting, much of the debate centered on the fact that formal recommendations from the task force hadn’t yet been presented to the board. Those recommendations are intended to guide negotiations with HSHV, and to serve as the foundation for a possible RFP. There were also questions over how much flexibility McDaniel would have in her negotiations. The current 2013 budget has allocated $250,000 for animal control services. This year, the county is paying $415,000 to HSHV, down from $500,000 in 2011. Commissioners expect that the final amount negotiated for 2013 will be higher than the budgeted $250,000 – and if that’s the case, the board will need to amend the budget.

The service recommendations described in the Oct. 3 resolution include: (1) licensing all dogs at the point of adoption or recovery; (2) holding all stray animals for only the minimum number of days required by state law; (3) providing animal cruelty investigations; (4) holding animals for bite quarantine or other court-mandated reasons for the minimum time required by state law; (5) specifying by contract the required holding period, medical attention and basic humane care for animals; (6) posting information on the county website regarding animals that are available for adoption or recovery; (7) supporting county policies for registration and licensing of animals; and (8) establishing a monthly report for the county board of commissioners regarding animal control operating metrics.

HSHV board vice president Mark Heusel attended the Oct. 3 meeting, but did not formally address the board.

Animal Control Services: Board Discussion

Barbara Bergman began by thanking everyone who’d worked on this project. The recommendations warrant further discussion, she said, but not that night – the first presidential debate was being held later in the evening, and people wanted to get home to watch it, she said. But county administrator Verna McDaniel needed more than “fluff” to begin negotiations, Bergman said. The recommendations are intended to provide guidelines for those talks.

Mark Heusel, Yousef Rabhi

From left: Mark Heusel of the Humane Society of Huron Valley board talks with county commissioner Yousef Rabhi before the Oct. 3, 2012 county board.

When some commissioners started asking about items in the task force report, Bergman reminded them that the motion on the floor related to her resolution of recommendations – not the report. Rob Turner asked a question about process: Is this just a starting point for a fuller discussion about animal control policy?

Conan Smith replied that the board will need to take a series of steps. The first thing is for McDaniel to negotiate with HSHV, based on the set of recommendations that the board would be voting on that night.

Dan Smith made a series of comparisons intended to put the cost of animal services in context. The HSHV has estimated that the total cost of housing an animal is $53.13 per day, he noted. If you do a search, you can find hotel rooms in the Ann Arbor area for $50 a night. Or multiplying that amount by 30 days, you can find a pretty nice apartment in the area for $1,500 per month, he said. And if you use it as a monthly mortgage payment, that would get you a $333,860 house based on 4% interest and a standard 30-year mortgage.

Turner pointed out that this task force report was sent to commissioners at a late date. What’s more, some of the information is incorrect, he said, and as a task force member, he wanted to go over it and make sure it accurately reflects the group’s work. He agreed with Bergman that it wasn’t the right time to discuss the report. They need more time to review it before bringing back questions and comments.

Leah Gunn noted that the resolution before the board gave direction to McDaniel. Time is of the essence, she said. The county needs to find out whether it can negotiate a deal with HSHV. If not, the county needs to take other steps, she said.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the recommendations related to animal control services.

Future discussions about this issue will likely prove contentious. In an email sent to the board and HSHV representatives on Oct. 2, Gunn outlined her position this way:

Since the Board has instructed the County Administrator to negotiate with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, I would suggest that we vote to accept the report as prepared by Conan, and then vote on the resolution presented by Barbara. Her resolution is more succinct, is in resolution format, and contains language saying that we (the BOC) authorize the “purchase of the listed services” to be provided by a vendor. These are the minimum required by law. As part of this process, Verna has already suggested that she talk with those jurisdictions which have animal control ordinances. I would leave this in her good hands.

The other parts of the report are merely for reference, and I simply do not agree with the numbers that were provided to the Sheriff’s Dept. We are still in the dark about exactly how many dogs are our responsibility. I emphasize the we are NOT responsible for people’s pet dogs. If someone owns a dog, that is their responsibility, not that of the taxpayers’ of Washtenaw County.

As long as one child in Washtenaw County goes to bed hungry, I am not much interested in dogs.

Environmental Awards

Four environmental excellence awards were given out by the Washtenaw County commissioners at their Oct. 3 meeting. The awards ”honor local businesses and non-profit organizations who provide exceptional leadership in environmental protection during National Pollution Prevention Week.” The winners were chosen by the county’s environmental health division and the office of the water resources commissioner.

The University of Michigan’s Radrick Farms Golf Course received the 2012 Excellence in Water Quality Protection Award for its “innovative water and energy conservation measures, environmental stewardship programs, and stormwater management systems.” The 2012 Excellence in Waste Reduction and Recycling Award was given to Wylie Elementary School of Dexter, for its “extensive recycling program, purchasing of recycled products, and educating their students in waste reduction and conservation ethics.” And The Trenton Corp. of Ann Arbor received the 2012 Excellence in Pollution Prevention Award for “reducing the use of toxic substances and preventing pollution before it is produced.”

The overall winner, covering all three categories, was the village of Dexter. Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner, gave the award, which was accepted by village manager Donna Dettling.

After the presentations, Bobrin received a standing ovation from the board and audience. She had noted that this will be her last time presenting the awards – she did not run for re-election, and will leave office later this year.

Misc. Communications

During the evening there were multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. Here are some highlights.

Misc. Communications: Appointments Caucus

Board chair Conan Smith announced that there are a number of appointments to be made to various county boards, commissions and committees, so there will be an appointments caucus on Wednesday, Nov. 7 starting at 5:30 p.m. in the conference room of the county administration building. [The building, where board meetings are held, is located at 220 N. Main in Ann Arbor. The caucus meetings are open to the public.]

Commissioners will meet in caucus to review applications, he said. For the appointments on which there’s consensus, those names will be brought forward to the board at its meeting that same evening. The rest would be considered at the board’s Dec. 5 meeting. He noted that in November, there will be only one meeting of the board.

A listing of all vacancies, as well as an online application to apply for an opening, can be found on the county’s website.

Wes Prater noted that there are two vacancies on the veterans affairs committee. He wondered if those vacancies have been posted. Pete Simms of the county clerk’s office reported that he’d spoken with Michael Smith, director of the county department of veterans affairs, and that the positions would be posted in the Washtenaw Legal News. He also confirmed that all of the VFW posts in the county would be contacted.

Ronnie Peterson then asked where exactly the caucus would be held. When Smith repeated the location, Peterson replied that it’s important for citizens to know the appointments process. Smith explained that as board chair, he is responsible for making nominations to the board for their approval, but before he does, he solicits feedback from commissioners. It’s not a necessary part of the process, he said – that is, the caucus isn’t required. The required public part happens at the board meetings, when nominations are put forward and commissioners vote on them.

Peterson contended that he didn’t know that appointment caucuses were being held. Why are some people appointed and others aren’t? It’s important to do this work in the public eye, he said. Peterson was sure that some commissioners already had lined up votes for the candidates they wanted to appoint, but he said he doesn’t do those kind of deals.

Leah Gunn observed that notices about the appointments caucus meetings are posted and the meetings are open to the public and attended by the press. [Since late 2008, The Chronicle has attended most of those caucuses, which typically occur twice a year.] Gunn pointed out that some appointments require specific qualifications, which means that not everyone who applies is qualified. She described it as a fair, open process.

Peterson reiterated his complaints about making deals in back rooms. [Peterson periodically raises this issue. He objects to holding any meeting outside the main boardroom where proceedings are televised.]

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, Oct. 17, 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 event listings 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.

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The ChronicleAnd if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. October 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | permalink

    I’d like to see someone offer a cogent explanation of why supporting the Detroit Aerotropolis is helpful to Washtenaw County residents. As I understand it, this is an economic development zone based mostly in Wayne County, with a small overlap at our far eastern side and involving Willow Run Airport. I was a member of a very early committee dealing with zoning appeals related to this effort, so I understand that a part of the county that has been economically depressed might benefit from some development. But it seems a very minor potential effect.

    Perhaps there is a recent document that explains the benefit to Washtenaw County?

  2. By Tom Whitaker
    October 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    “As long as one child in Washtenaw County goes to bed hungry, I am not much interested in dogs.”

    The $50,000 blown on the Conan-tropolis or the $250,000 wasted on SPARK could have fed a lot of kids–and dogs, too for that matter.

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    October 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm | permalink

    “Yousef Rabhi spoke in favor of the increase. It’s a troubled economy, but how should they help rebuild it? By investing, he said. Funding organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK, the Eastern Leaders Group and others is helping create a stronger economy, he said, and it shows.”

    Congrats Mr. Rabhi, my County representative. You’ve bought into the Bob Ficano/Conan Smith wing of the Democratic Party. Get that didn’t take very long. Ann Arbor Spark? Welcome to the club.

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    October 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm | permalink

    “As long as one child in Washtenaw County goes to bed hungry, I am not much interested in dogs.”

    But Ann Arbor Spark…You’re fine with children going hungry so that group can continue to pay scores of political hacks six figure salaries with no accountability. The trade off with hungry children is worth it in your book Ms. Gunn? You’re making me ashamed to be a Democrat. Congrats.

  5. By Leah Gunn
    October 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm | permalink

    The Act 88 millage can be used only for certain programs – economic development and agricultural development. The money goes to Spark, Eastern Leaders, MSU Extension for 4-H, etc. It cannot be spent on human servics. However, by using this millage money for these programs, it frees up money in the general fund.

    My remarks about children and dogs was in the context of the county’s mandate from the state to provide some level of animal control. This is general fund money, and it is my position that we should provide the minimum that we legally can.

    I have always been a strong supporter of human services, and was an active participant in the establishment of the Coordinated Funding program, which is a collaboration of the county, the city of Ann Arbor, the United Way and the Community Foundation to provide services for those in need.

    I am proud of my work in this area.

  6. By Steve Bean
    October 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm | permalink

    @5: “However, by using this millage money for these programs, it frees up money in the general fund.”

    How does it free it up?

  7. By suswhit
    October 10, 2012 at 8:40 am | permalink

    “As long as one child in Washtenaw County goes to bed hungry, I am not much interested in dogs.”

    This is simply the worst kind of self-serving double speak. You can’t both care and not care about the least among us. You either care or you don’t. If you write off the animals and then still don’t have enough money to, you know, feed hungry children AND fund “economic development” how will you decide which of the hungry children are deserving? Only the ones who do well in school? Only the ones that have straight hair? Because there will always be competing interests. And once you’ve decided that writing off one group as meaningless is acceptable, morally superior even, you are on a dark and ugly path.

    How about “as long as there are unmet social needs in our community, I don’t care about handouts for our buddies”?

    I wish I could say I’m shocked by what passes for Democratic representation in Ann Arbor, but I can’t. What I am shocked by is the blatant arrogance of certain people.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    October 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    @Suswhit, they’re exempt from having to worry about issues like that once they say things like “The Act 88 millage can be used only for certain programs.” I mean, it’s Act 88, our hands are tied!

  9. By Rod Johnson
    October 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm | permalink

    Hmm, that was dickish of me. I apologize to Leah.

  10. By suswhit
    October 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm | permalink

    No more dickish than using hungry children for political gain.