County Moves Closer to New Labor Deal

Commissioners likely to vote on new contract at March 20 meeting; federal funding cuts also affect Washtenaw County budget

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 6, 2013): Following a brief public portion of their meeting, commissioners held a two-hour closed session to discuss a new contract with the county’s labor unions, which has been negotiated over the past few weeks.

Ronnie Peterson, Yousef Rabhi, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Washtenaw County commissioners Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), who serves as board chair, talk before the board’s March 6, 2013 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

This was the third consecutive meeting that’s included a lengthy closed session on this topic, as the administration has been conducting accelerated negotiations with its union to reach a new contract before March 27. That’s the date when Michigan’s right-to-work legislation – enacted late last year – takes effect. At the board’s Feb. 20, 2013 meeting, commissioners gave final approval to a resolution opposing the legislation, with a clause that directed the county administration to renegotiate union contracts.

Several union leaders attended the March 6 meeting. However, they did not formally address the board, and left before commissioners ended the closed session.

The board took no action after emerging from the closed session. The new long-term agreements are expected to be brought forward for a vote at the board’s March 20 meeting, and would also need to be ratified by union membership.

A new union contract is likely to have a significant impact on the county’s budget, which will be the focus of a board retreat on Thursday, March 7. Board chair Yousef Rabhi briefed commissioners on the agenda for that retreat. The discussion will focus on six key areas: (1) labor force sustainability/internal equity; (2) environmental impact and mobility in Washtenaw County; (3) economic development; (4) human services/safety net; (5) mandated service provision/resources; and (6) long-term fiscal stability.

Also impacting county operations are automatic sequestration-related federal budget cuts that were activated on March 1. Rabhi read aloud a letter from the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development, which alerted the county to an anticipated 5% reduction in HUD funding during the current fiscal year for programs supporting low-income housing and emergency assistance to the homeless, among others. The full impact of federal cuts across all county departments – including public health and the office of community & economic development – is not yet known, according to the county’s finance director.

The light agenda on March 6 included three items related to public health: (1) a move toward setting a $75 fee for the county’s training course to certify drinking water operators; (2) giving initial approval to the county public health department’s plan of organization, as mandated by the state of Michigan; and (3) making two appointments to the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) board.

Rabhi also reported that the county’s new food policy council, on which he serves, might make a funding request soon to hire a staff member, who would help carry out the council’s work. The council was formed in 2012 to support the local food economy.

Budget Retreat

Yousef Rabhi gave commissioners a brief overview of the agenda for their budget retreat. The session is scheduled for Thursday, March 7 starting at 6 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main in Ann Arbor. It is open to the public, but will not be recorded for broadcast.

Caryette Fenner, AFSCME Local 2733, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Caryette Fenner, president of AFSCME Local 2733, attended the county board’s March 6 meeting. She leads the largest union representing county employees.

Rabhi said he has invited other county elected officials to attend. The “electeds” include sheriff Jerry Clayton; county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie; water resources commissioner Evan Pratt; treasurer Catherine McClary; clerk/register of deeds Larry Kestenbaum; and judges of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, including chief judge Donald Shelton.

The retreat will include small group breakouts focused on six broad topics that commissioners had raised during budget preparation discussions earlier this year. Those topics are: (1) labor force sustainability/internal equity; (2) environmental impact and mobility in Washtenaw County; (3) economic development; (4) human services/safety net; (5) mandated service provision/resources; and (6) long-term fiscal stability.

The group will then reconvene to debrief about the breakout work, and identify issues that require more information-gathering. They’ll also begin to set priorities for allocating resources in the 2014-2015 budget, and discuss how to engage citizens in this budget process.

The retreat is expected to last about three hours.

Fees for Water Quality Training

Commissioners were asked to give initial approval to setting a $75 fee for the county’s training course to certify drinking water operators.

Entities with drinking water supplies or places that use certain water treatment processes – like factories or schools – are required by the state to have certified operators. Until the end of 2013, the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) reimbursed local health departments that offered these training courses, paying $75 for each certified operator who attended. Those funds will no longer be provided. The Washtenaw County public health department plans to continue offering the courses, but now needs to charge for this service.

If given final approval, the new fee would take effect on April 1, 2013. A final vote is expected on March 20.

There was no discussion on this item. Dick Fleece, the county’s health officer, attended the meeting but did not formally address the board.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously gave initial approval to the training fee.

Public Health Plan

On the agenda was a resolution giving initial approval to the county public health department’s plan of organization, as mandated by the state of Michigan. [.pdf plan of organization]

Dick Fleece, Jennifer Brassow, Washtenaw County public health department, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Washtenaw County health officer Dick Fleece and Jennifer Brassow, finance administrator for the public health department.

State law requires that the county submit a plan of organization every three years to the Michigan Department of Public Health. The 103-page document outlines the county health departments legal responsibilities and authority; the department’s organization, vision, mission and values statement; community partnerships; services, locations and hours of operation; reporting and evaluation procedures; and procedures for approving the county’s health officer and medical director. In Washtenaw County, the health officer Dick Fleece, who attended the March 6 meeting. Alice Penrose serves as medical director.

Approval of the health plan is part of the state’s accreditation process for public health departments, which was put in place in 2004.

There was no discussion on this item. A final vote is expected on March 20.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to give initial approval to the public health plan of organization.

WCHO Appointments

Dennis McDougal and Jeanette Spencer were nominated to serve on the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) board for terms ending March 31, 2016.

The Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) is a partnership between Washtenaw County and the University of Michigan Health System. Each institution appoints six members to the board. The partnership focuses on providing services to children and adults with mental or emotional health disorders, substance abuse problems or developmental disabilities.

The organization is in transition following the sudden death of Patrick Barrie, the former WCHO executive director who died in late 2012. WCHO also recently relocated its offices to the county-owned 705 Zeeb Road building in Scio Township. The group’s offices were previously located at 555 Towner in Ypsilanti.

Yousef Rabhi, the county board’s chair, reported that these were the only two applicants for these positions. There was no other discussion on this item.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the two WCHO appointments.

Communications & Commentary

During the evening there were multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. No one spoke during the two opportunities for public commentary. Several Skyline High School students attended the meeting as part of a class assignment, and were asked by commissioners to introduce themselves. They appeared to do so only somewhat reluctantly.

Communications & Commentary: Sequestration

Yousef Rabhi read aloud a letter he’d received this week from the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) regarding the impact of automatic sequestration-related federal budget cuts that were activated on March 1. Based on HUD’s initial analysis, the letter stated that it’s likely the formula funding for HUD programs in fiscal 2013 will be lowered by 5%, “which may affect your workforce and planning for this year, possibly beyond.” Programs that are affected include the community development block grant (CDBG), HOME, housing assistance for persons with AIDS, and emergency grants for the homeless. More details about the cuts will be forthcoming.

Rabhi said that sequestration is obviously having a direct impact on this community. He noted that earlier in the day, he participated in a “welfare simulation” with the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice, led by the Dispute Resolution Center. He calling it an extremely eye-opening experience, reminding participants how hard it is for people just to get the money they need for food and other basic necessities. Now, as the government is cutting back even more, Rabhi said, “it’s going to get even worse.” He asked commissioners to keep that in mind as they move forward.

Responding to a query from The Chronicle during a break in the meeting, Kelly Belknap – the county’s finance director – said the overall impact of sequestration cuts isn’t yet known. Many county programs receive federal grants, either directly or as pass-through funding from the state. Department heads continue to assess the impact, but haven’t yet received detailed information about the level of cuts. The county’s public health department and the office of community & economic development are among the units that run programs supported by federal funding.

Communications & Commentary: Food Policy Council

Yousef Rabhi gave an update on the county’s food policy council, which had met earlier in the day.

By way of background, the county board had created the council at its March 21, 2012 meeting. Most of its members – including Rabhi – were appointed on June 6, 2012, when the county board also approved the council’s bylaws. [.pdf of food policy council bylaws]

Dan Smith, Kent Martinez-Kratz , Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Washtenaw County commissioners Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).

The food 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.

Other food council members 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); Patti Smith (human services); Jenna Bacolor (Washtenaw County public health); Nicole Chardoul (Waste management); Gretchen Hofing (nutrition); Tim Redmond (food manufacturer and distributor); Michaelle Rehmann (economic development); and Kenny Siler (rural agriculture).

At the county board’s March 6 meeting, Rabhi reported that the council is talking about its purpose and vision, and at some point soon will be bringing a proposal to the board for funding to hire someone to support the effort.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson expressed some concern, indicating that he’d like to discuss this proposal before it’s brought forward as a formal resolution. He wondered what amount would be requested.

Rabhi replied that the council is applying for a grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, and the county would be asked to provide matching funds. He said the amount wasn’t yet determined. Peterson clarified with Rabhi that at this point, the county had not allocated any money for the council.

Saying he wasn’t necessarily against it, Peterson wanted to have a broader discussion – possibly at a working session – to develop a process for funding projects that other commissioners might want to bring forward. Rabhi supported that suggestion.

The March 6 county board agenda also included written minutes from the food policy council’s action team meeting on Feb. 12, 2013. [.pdf of food council minutes]

Communications & Commentary: Road Commission

Commissioner Dan Smith highlighted the recent meeting of the Washtenaw County road commission, noting that the meeting minutes were included as part of the March 6 agenda. [.pdf of minutes for Feb. 5, 2013 road commission meeting] He pointed out that the commission had passed an order of determination for the Leland Acres subdivision in Northfield Township, which Smith represents as part of District 2. Owners have petitioned the road commission to repair following roads in the subdivision: Leland Drive, Trudy Lane, Avon Lane, Avon Court, Tipperary Circle, and Glengarry Court.

Smith said the process started about two years ago, and he knew the road commission had already put in a lot of work on this. He thanked the commission, saying that residents were looking forward to getting their roads back in good shape.

Present: Felicia Brabec, Andy LaBarre, Kent Martinez-Kratz, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 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.

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  1. March 7, 2013 at 2:26 pm | permalink

    Thank you for your report on the Food Policy Council.

    I am a strong proponent of local food and support for local food production. I also respect several of the members of this council. But I am confused as to its function. In particular, how does this overlap or complement FSEP? It seems that the policy goals are very similar. What types of steps might be taken to achieve the goals of this new body that are different from what FSEP does? (FSEP is also supported by Washtenaw County.)

    These questions need to be answered before a full-time staff member is added to support the service. FSEP recently hired a new executive director. Could that person advise the council?

    (I served for several months on the FSEP advisory committee, before I ran for Council in 2008. I have occasionally donated to them. Otherwise I have no involvement with them.)

  2. By Roger Kuhlman
    March 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm | permalink

    I think it is shameful that the Washtenaw Board of Commissioners is trying to deny its government employees the right to freely choose if they want to voluntarily join a Union and pay its Union fees or not. I had this funny idea that free choice was central to the workings of democratic governance.

  3. By Tom Whitaker
    March 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm | permalink

    Considering the rapid and undemocratic way ‘right-to-get-union-pay- and-benefits-but-not-pay-union-dues’ was rammed through, it’s rather ironic that proponents would be upset that the language of the law allowed for this work-around.

    Perhaps if they’d taken a more deliberate and democratic approach, they could have crafted a stronger bill. You reap what you sow.