County Board Postpones Spending Proposals

Commissioner Conan Smith advocates to tap general fund reserves for social services; board also wrangles over trial court software, leases

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Aug. 7, 2013): A packed agenda and lengthy debate on several items led to a meeting lasting over five hours, with some issues postponed until September.

Alicia Ping, Conan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Commissioners Alicia Ping (R-District 3) and Conan Smith (D-District 9). Smith brought forward a proposal to allocate money from the general fund’s reserves to pay for previously cut social service programs, but the proposal didn’t win support from Ping or most other commissioners on Aug. 7. (Photos by the writer.)

Following an unexpected proposal from the floor and considerable discussion, commissioners gave initial approval to authorize a $654,670 increase in 2013 general fund revenues and expenses, bringing the total general fund budget to 103,218,903. [.pdf of 2013 budget adjustment chart]

Despite the better-than-anticipated revenue picture, the administration is still projecting a deficit of $3.9 million for next year’s 2014 budget.

Generally, mid-year budget adjustments are recommended by staff and are typically dispatched with minimal discussion. However, a proposed amendment by Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9) would have transferred money from the general fund’s unearmarked reserves to restore over $1 million in funding to programs that had been previously cut. He argued that restoring this funding was possible in light of $2.3 million in higher-than-expected property tax revenues this year.

Several commissioners expressed general support for Smith’s intent, but cautioned against acting quickly and not giving sufficient strategic thought to these allocations. They had seen the proposal for the first time that night. Smith argued that he had asked for the budget adjustment resolution to be pulled from the agenda prior to the meeting, because he had wanted more time for discussion. Chastising other commissioners for not taking action to spend the unanticipated revenues, Smith noted that the board had identified human services as a priority, but was instead funding things like software and facilities. He told commissioners it was “one of the worst nights I’ve ever had on this board.”

The board voted down his proposal, but then postponed a final vote on the overall budget adjustments until its Sept. 4 meeting. Several commissioners indicated an interest in working with Smith to address some of his concerns before then.

The 2013 budget was also a highlight during a second-quarter update by the county’s financial staff, who reported that they’re now expecting a $245,814 general fund surplus for the year. In addition, the 2013 general fund budget is not expected to need a previously planned use of $2.8 million from the fund balance. [.pdf of 2Q budget presentation]

In other business, commissioners held a lengthy debate over a resolution for a new case management software system for the Washtenaw County Trial Court that’s estimated to cost $2.3 million. An original resolution had outlined funding sources for the project. However, prior to the meeting some commissioners expressed concern about the use of capital reserves to help fund the purchase, so an alternative resolution was brought forward at the meeting that did not include the references to funding sources.

However, Dan Smith (R-District 2) objected to passing a resolution that approved the purchase but did not include a funding plan. Alicia Ping (R-District 3) was concerned that there had been no clear source of funding identified for the system’s annual licensing fee, estimated at $188,933.

An amendment to that alternative resolution – made after considerable discussion and procedural maneuverings – stated that the board approved the selection of this software system, and directed the county administrator to develop a maintenance and implementation plan, and to identify funding sources by the time of the board’s Sept. 4 meeting. That amendment was not enough to win support from D. Smith and Ping, however.

The resolution received initial approval on Aug. 7, but did not garner sufficient votes for final approval. It will be considered again on Sept. 4.

The board also debated – and ultimately approved – two long-term leases: (1) the 10-year lease of a county-owned Head Start building at 1661 Leforge Ave. in Ypsilanti to the Washtenaw Intermediate School District; and (2) a 9-year lease with Dahlmann Apartments Ltd. for space in the City Center Building at 220 E. Huron in Ann Arbor.

Other action included approval to back up to $3.3 million in bonds to pay for five drain-related and “green infrastructure” projects in Ann Arbor, and authorization to amend a contract between Washtenaw County, Lyndon Township and Sylvan Township related to a sewer system in those townships.

Several grants were accepted during the meeting: (1) about $2.5 million in federal workforce development funding; (2) a $665,704 federal grant to pay for two outreach workers with the Washtenaw Health Plan (WHP), who will focus on increasing children’s participation in federal Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as children’s Medicaid; and (3) a $20,000 capacity-building grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation for work on the Washtenaw food policy council.

Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, was on hand with several representatives of the United Association (UA) Union of Plumbers, Pipefitters, Sprinkler Fitters, Steamfitters, and Service Technicians. The UA is holding its 60th annual training program in Washtenaw County from Aug. 10-16. It’s the 24th year that UA has held its training program here. More than 2,500 participants will generate an estimated $5 million into the local economy, Kerr said: “The UA leaves this community in much better condition than when they came at the beginning of the week.”

2013 Budget Adjustments & Update

The Aug. 7 agenda included a resolution from the county administrator to authorize a $654,670 increase in 2013 general fund revenues and expenses, bringing the total general fund budget to 103,218,903. This type of budget adjustment is not unusual during the year, and is typically dispatched with minimal discussion. [.pdf of 2013 budget adjustment chart] Board approval is required for budget changes greater than $100,000 or a variance of more than 10%, whichever is less.

The county’s finance staff cited several factors related to the adjustments, including the fact that property tax revenues are $2.3 million higher than anticipated when the budget was approved in December 2012. The county is also receiving $205,344 more in state funding than was originally budgeted, from state liquor tax revenues.

On the expense side, $551,998 was earmarked to help pay for the trial court’s new records management software system. Those funds come from a refund to the court by the state of Michigan. There will also be an increase of $102,672 in expenses due to a higher substance abuse allocation mandated by Public Act 2 of 1986, and related to the higher liquor tax revenues that the county received. Those funds will go to the county’s designated substance abuse coordinating agency.

County administrator Verna McDaniel also noted that the 2013 general fund budget is not expected to need a previously planned use of $2.8 million from the fund balance.

During a second-quarter budget update for 2013, the county’s financial staff reported that the county is now expecting a $245,814 general fund surplus for the year. [.pdf of 2Q budget presentation] Tina Gavalier, a financial analyst with the county, told commissioners that about half of the projected revenue surplus should not be viewed as structural, and instead comes from one-time occurrences. At this point, the fund balance at the end of 2013 is expected to reach $17.033 million, or 16.6% of general fund expenditures.

2013 Budget Adjustments: Ways & Means – Conan Smith Amendment

The item was first discussed at the board’s ways & means committee meeting, which immediately precedes the regular board meeting. Conan Smith (D-District 9) noted that the county would not need to use its fund balance as had been previously anticipated for 2013. So he wanted instead to use roughly $1.45 million of the fund balance to return funding to departments that had been previously cut, and that had tapped their own fund balances in the 2013 budget cycle.

Felicia Brabec, Verna McDaniel, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Commissioner Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), chair of the board’s ways & means committee, and county administrator Verna McDaniel.

He felt that restoring this funding was possible in light of $2.3 million in higher-than-expected property tax revenues. The programs he proposed funding were the sheriff’s office community corrections grants ($152,772), public and environmental health ($625,060) and workforce development ($650,000). His proposal, presented from the floor, had been seen by county staff for the first time just a few hours before the meeting started, according to several staff members.

Smith argued that these units deliver direct services to residents and rely on those fund balances. Public health, for example, sometimes needs its fund balance for emergencies, he said. He characterized his proposal as reimbursing the fund balances for these departments.

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) asked why the board should do this now, rather than wait and incorporate these suggestions into the upcoming budget that’s being developed for 2014. Smith replied that the adjustments he’s proposing aren’t structural – he’s simply looking at 2013 and the surplus revenue that the county is receiving this year. He said his goal is to ensure that these departments don’t draw down their reserves, but instead use money that’s available through tax revenue that the county is getting in 2013. He noted that the office of community & economic development (OCED) was planning to use $650,000 from its fund balance to pay for an upcoming department move out of the Annex building. Restoring money to OCED will allow it to keep those reserves for future needs, including direct services to residents, he said.

In response to a question from Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5), county administrator Verna McDaniel said she didn’t know how Smith had arrived at the figure of $625,060 for public and environmental health. She reported that about $604,000 in structural reductions had been made in public and environmental health for the 2012 and 2013 budgets. If Smith’s changes are approved, she said, it would actually add $625,060 to the projected 2014 deficit of $3.9 million.

Sizemore wondered why the board would give money back to departments, when the county is facing a deficit and might have to make cuts within the next few months. “Why are we in a hurry about doing this tonight?” he asked.

McDaniel pointed out that if Smith’s amendment were approved, the money would be taken from unearmarked reserves in the county’s fund balance. She reminded commissioners that the original cuts had been structural.

Finance director Kelly Belknap stated that the sheriff’s office had decided to use fund balance for the 2012 and 2013 budget, but the $604,000 in structural reductions for public and environmental health had been a cut in the general fund appropriation to that department, not the department’s fund balance. The department had planned to use about $152,000 from its fund balance as part of the 2012-2013 budget. She also was unaware of how Smith had come up with the $625,060 figure.

Smith argued that when the board approved the current budget, it included a decrease in the fund balance for public and environmental health from $1.9 million to $1.3 million. He felt that was a good decision, because it reflected his own values of using reserves to provide services rather than cutting those services. But now that the county has additional revenue, he said, the county should restore the department’s fund balance.

McDaniel pointed out that Smith’s action would result in spending down the county’s unearmarked reserves in its fund balance. At this point, she said, the county won’t need to tap its fund balance for 2013, although the year isn’t over yet. But she noted that whatever is spent beyond what’s already in the budget – including Smith’s proposal to return money to these departments – will come out of the general fund reserves.

That’s right, Smith replied. But he noted that when the board passed the original budget, it intended to spend money from the county’s unearmarked reserves. “We’re just doing what we budgeted,” he said. And actually, they’d be spending less of the reserves than they had originally planned, he argued.

Belknap pointed out that the 2012 and 2013 budgets were developed in the summer of 2011. At the end of 2012, the fund balance for public and environmental health had actually grown to $2.051 million. She noted that part of that increase reflected the fact that the public health and environmental health departments had merged. For 2013, the projected use of that department’s fund balance is almost $143,000, she noted.

Dick Fleece, the county’s public health director, reported that there was an unusually high number of retirements at the end of 2011, and those positions were kept unfilled. That saved money for the department without reducing direct services, he said. Fleece added that the upcoming budget for 2014 will include the use of about $243,000 in the department’s fund balance. Smith expressed skepticism that having fewer employees doesn’t impact service delivery.

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

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6).

Smith then suggested reducing his proposed $625,060 return to public and environmental health to $386,000. That would cover the department’s previous use of fund balance and proposed use for the coming year, he said.

This change was considered a friendly amendment.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) weighed in, saying that Smith’s overall proposal was new information to him. For the 2012 and 2013 budgets, the county had made about $17 million in cuts, he noted. Other departments didn’t use their fund balances to meet their targeted budgets, he said, so Smith’s proposal would be returning money to departments that didn’t make structural cuts, but used their fund balances instead. If the money is going to be reallocated now, shouldn’t the entire county operation be considered? Rabhi asked.

LaBarre agreed with Smith’s intent, but said he wasn’t able to follow all of the process from the board table in terms of the broader implications of this action. “I’m thoroughly confused,” he said, and he asked Smith to talk about how this decision hits into the county operations as a whole, and how it fits with the county’s budget principles.

Smith replied that the board’s previous set of budget principles prioritized human services and public safety. His proposal addresses those units that dipped into their fund balances, he said. The county received surplus revenues, so reallocating those revenues is aligned with the county’s values, Smith argued.

Smith said his original hope was that the board wouldn’t take up the budget adjustment item that night. He suggested tabling the item and having a broader discussion of how to allocate the $2.4 million surplus. [The property tax surplus, according to county finance staff, is $2.3 million. An additional $100,000 in revenue surplus comes from fees and other sources.] LaBarre indicated support for that approach.

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, said that procedurally the budget adjustments resolution could be adjourned to a date certain.

LaBarre moved to adjourn the item until the board’s Sept. 4 meeting.

Sizemore wanted to move it back even later, saying the board needed more time. Rabhi expressed concern that the delay would affect the staff’s ability to do county business. He felt the board should act on the budget adjustments that night.

Outcome on motion to adjourn the budget adjustments to Sept. 4: The motion failed on a 4-5 vote, with dissent from Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1), Alicia Ping (R-District 3), Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5).

Dan Smith (R-District 2) then called the question to end debate and force a vote on Conan Smith’s amendment to the budget adjustments resolution.

Outcome on calling the question: The motion passed on a 6-3 vote, over dissent from Brabec, Sizemore and C. Smith.

The board then immediately voted on C. Smith’s amendment to the budget adjustments.

Outcome on C. Smith’s amendment: The amendment failed on a 3-6 vote, with support only from C. Smith, D. Smith and Peterson.

2013 Budget Adjustments: Ways & Means – Dan Smith Amendment

Saying “since this was so much fun, I think we should do it again,” Dan Smith proposed an amendment to strike $551,998 in the expenditure column. That amount was an adjustment that the administration had proposed to pay for the trial court software. Since the board hadn’t yet decided how to fund that software purchase, D. Smith didn’t think the budget adjustment should include that amount. The motion was supported by Conan Smith.

County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that the $551,998 check had already arrived from the state as a refund to the trial court. It’s been recorded as revenue, so if there’s no expenditure line, “the budget won’t balance,” she said.

Alicia Ping wondered why the money couldn’t be put into the general fund’s fund balance, rather than being returned to the trial court.

Tina Gavalier, a financial analyst with the county, noted that the $551,998 had been deposited into the county’s tech fund, earmarked for the trial court’s software system. Approving the proposed budget adjustment would not mean that the board is approving the expenditure for the trial court software, she said. That action would require a separate vote.

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

From left: Commissioners Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1), Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7).

C. Smith suggested putting the amount into the “other revenues and reimbursements” line on the revenues side, and in the general fund’s unearmarked reserves line on the expenditures side – as adjustments to the 2013 budget. He proposed amending D. Smith’s amendment to that effect. D. Smith agreed with the proposal, calling it a technical adjustment.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. expressed frustration: “Why in the heck are we even messing with this? It’s the court’s money.” The trial court will eventually need that money for its software system, he noted. And if the county board doesn’t authorize the expenditure of that amount, it won’t matter what line item it’s in.

He noted that the meeting looked like it would last past midnight. “We’re having a lot of communications on things that we should have settled before we got in this room,” Sizemore said. “It seems like we do more talking in this room than we do outside this room to get some stuff done.” Chief judge Donald Shelton was the person who contacted the state to get a refund for the software system, he noted, so he felt that it was the court’s money. Sizemore said the board was “spinning its wheels.”

Ronnie Peterson asked several clarificational questions, noting that he trusted C. Smith and that Smith “always gets his way at the end of the day.” C. Smith replied: “Not tonight.”

Felicia Brabec wondered how D. Smith’s proposed adjustment would impact the county’s lump sum agreement with the trial court. “That would be open for discussion,” replied Kelly Belknap, the county’s finance director. Brabec clarified with Belknap that the $551,998 had originally been paid to the state out of the trial court’s lump sum budget. So the amount that was refunded by the state was still considered part of the trial court’s lump sum budget.

Dan Dwyer, the trial court administrator, stressed that the $551,998 is part of the trial court’s budget. “I certainly didn’t come prepared to talk about what might happen under some crazy scenarios,” he added. Until he talked to Shelton, Dwyer didn’t feel like he could answer any questions other than to say the money is part of the trial court’s budget. “I’m not certain the board has the authority to remove that money out of my budget.” But the court won’t be spending it on anything other than a new case management system, he said.

Ping wondered why the board was even discussing this. “If it’s their money, it’s their money,” she said. Belknap explained that technical adjustments like this are required for auditing purposes. The money might be part of the lump sum agreement, she said, but these adjustments are still needed to account for the money, because the trial court budget is part of the overall general fund.

At this point Andy LaBarre called the question to end debate and force a vote on C. Smith’s amendment to D. Smith’s amendment, which would move $551,998 into the line item for unearmarked reserves.

Outcome on calling the question: It passed, over dissent from Sizemore.

Outcome on C. Smith’s amendment to D. Smith’s amendment: It failed on a 4-5 vote, with support only from C. Smith, D. Smith, Ping and Rabhi.

The board then considered Dan Smith’s original amendment, to strike the $551,998 from the expenditure side. Verna McDaniel pointed out that since Conan Smith’s amendment was rejected, then passing D. Smith’s amendment would create an unbalanced budget.

D. Smith disputed whether it would create an unbalanced budget, saying his intent is to not make the expenditure. “Our budget would be equally unbalanced if I got out my checkbook tonight and wrote a check to Washtenaw County government,” he said. The county regularly receives additional revenue that it doesn’t anticipate, and eventually accounts for that. He contended that his amendment simply removes the amount as an expenditure. The budget will eventually be reconciled, he noted.

Rabhi called the question on D. Smith’s amendment.

Outcome on calling the question: It passed on an 8-1 vote, over dissent from Martinez-Kratz.

Outcome on D. Smith’s amendment: It failed on a 3-6 vote, with support only from D. Smith, C. Smith and Ping.

At the end of the ways & means committee meeting, the board took a vote on giving initial approval to the 2013 budget adjustments.

Outcome on 2013 budget adjustments (initial approval): The resolution passed on a 6-3 vote, over dissent from D. Smith, C. Smith and Ping.

2013 Budget Adjustments: Regular Board Meeting

When the board considered the 2013 budget adjustments for a final vote at the regular board meeting – which immediately followed the ways & means committee meeting – Conan Smith spoke at length, chastising the other commissioners for not taking action to spend the unanticipated revenues.

“I’m sitting over here and I’m having one of the worst nights I’ve ever had on this board,” he began. The county has taken in almost $3 million in new revenues, he noted, but the only expenditure the board considered that night was on software. And last month, they voted to spend $5 million on facilities. “But the human services? The things that the people need? We’re not going to lift a finger for,” Smith said.

He noted that the board has talked about building the general fund’s fund balance, but not about using the surplus to help people who are struggling. Smith said he’s been on the board for 8.5 years, and there has never been a growing budget until now. “I’ve always had to lead cut budgets, that were real cut budgets because we didn’t have the money coming in,” he said. “And this year it’s different.” The tax base grew, but the board isn’t going to use that money to help people, he said. “I just can’t accept that today. I just can’t believe it.”

Smith talked about cuts that had been made for the 2013 budget, including community corrections grants, public health and programs for the elderly and homeless. He said he spent two years as chair on the workforce development and community action boards. “I had to walk them through cutting $750,000 out of workforce development that goes to help people find employment,” he said.

The county board had the opportunity to restore funding to these programs that night, Smith said, “to actually help real people. When somebody’s heat is getting shut off in December of 2013, or if someone loses their job and comes to the county for services, he said, “remember the vote we took at ways & means tonight.” Until that vote, he said, he had believed that commissioners held human services as a high priority.

He then proposed an amendment, this time increasing the proposed spending to $1.743 million. His amendment proposed allocating funds from the general fund reserves into community corrections ($152,000); public and environmental health ($386,000); workforce development ($754,000); programs for the elderly, people facing homeless and those in need of utility assistance ($252,000); and housing programs ($199,000).

Other commissioners again expressed general support for Smith’s sentiments, but – as they had earlier in the evening – cautioned against acting quickly and not giving sufficient strategic thought to these allocations, which they had seen for the first time that night.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. agreed with Smith in concept, but said each commissioner has their own priorities. His priority is to coordinate youth programs within the county, because right now, services are being duplicated, Sizemore said. Instead of just voting on Smith’s proposal, the board needs to look at all the county’s programs, he added.

Felicia Brabec told Smith she was struggling with this issue. She agreed that human services are crucial, but the board has also been talking about the importance of being strategic in how to support those services. Are these the best programs to which the board should restore funding? Brabec supported the idea of allocating more resources, “but I don’t want to do it in a rushed way.”

Andy LaBarre, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) and Jason Morgan, director of government relations at Washtenaw Community College.

Andy LaBarre asked Smith why there’s a need to make these funding decisions now, instead of in the broader budget context for the coming year. LaBarre said Smith had made one of the most compelling verbal arguments he’s heard in person for funding these programs. “It genuinely made me feel somewhat rotten for not doing it earlier,” he said. But if the board makes that decision now, LaBarre added, “I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for perhaps problems in just a few months.”

Smith replied that this action relates to the 2013 budget, not the 2014 budget that’s being developed. “We have needs today,” he said. It’s the immediate human need that Smith said he wanted to address – people who are homeless, who are jobless, and who could be helped by county services.

Smith said he respects the need to budget strategically. “If there’s anybody at the board who’s been fierce about that, it’s me,” Smith said. At ways & means, he had asked to restore the reserves for three departments, Smith noted, “but I couldn’t get that vote. So I want to make it real. This is what we’re talking about – people’s lives.”

In response to a question from Ronnie Peterson, county administrator Verna McDaniel said that Smith’s proposal would result in variances that would impact the 2013 budget by making transfers from the general fund’s unearmarked reserves.

Peterson indicated that he shared Smith’s concerns, but wanted more time to discuss it in the context of the 2014 budget.

Yousef Rabhi said he agreed with Smith’s intent. When the county gets additional revenues, the tendency is to spend it all, he noted. But the decision needs to be made within the overall budget process for 2014 through 2017, he said. Rabhi understood the immediacy of the needs, but “as responsible stewards, we need to make sure that we’re doing this in a responsible way.” The county is more effective in the community if it’s a sustainable organization over the long-term, he said. If the board restores funding for these programs now, “we’re opening a Pandora’s Box,” Rabhi said, with the possibility that everyone comes back and asks for more money.

Public safety has also been identified as a budget priority, Rabhi noted, so the decision needs to be made in a broader context. What’s more, the year isn’t over, and a lot of things could happen that might change the current 2013 budget projection. He didn’t want to go down the road of funding “pet projects” for each commissioner. “We’re a more planful organization than that,” Rabhi said.

Smith had made a compelling argument, Rabhi added, but it’s not appropriate given the short timeframe and the fact that other commissioners haven’t been engaged in the decision.

Brabec felt it would be a smarter strategic decision to consider the organization as a whole, and not be reactive. She wondered if Smith would be open to that.

Smith replied that he’d asked for this item to be pulled from the agenda before the meeting, “so we wouldn’t have to have this conversation, and you all decided not to do that.” He noted that LaBarre had made a motion to table the item until Sept. 4, but that motion was voted down at the ways & means committee. “I’m not the one saying ‘Don’t think about this.’ I was the one saying ‘Let’s think about this.’”

Rather than putting aside money to help the county’s cash flow or improve its bond rating, Smith said he wanted a conversation about how to allocate the surplus revenues. He wanted that conversation now, and didn’t want to wait until January to have it.

In response to a question from Peterson, Smith said he’s proposing to use money from the general fund’s fund balance. That balance stands at about $16 million. “Where the money comes from doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “It’s the impact on the community that matters.”

Peterson clarified with Smith that the previous reductions to these programs had resulted from cuts due to reductions in federal and state funding, as well as cuts to help balance the general fund budget.

Brabec noted that at any point, the board could decide to use the fund balance to support county programs. The decision didn’t have to be made that night. The decision isn’t tied to the budget adjustment resolution, she said.

The board then proceeded to vote.

Outcome on C. Smith’s amendment to the budget adjustments: The vote was 2-7, with support only from C. Smith and Peterson.

C. Smith then moved to postpone the final vote on the overall budget adjustments until the board’s Sept. 4 meeting.

Outcome on the motion to postpone: The board voted unanimously to postpone final action on the 2013 budget adjustments until Sept. 4.

Trial Court Software

Commissioners were asked to approve the selection of a new case management software system for the Washtenaw County Trial Court that’s estimated to cost $2.3 million. The Tyler Odyssey Case Records Management System would replace an outdated software system that hasn’t been supported by the previous vendor since 2005, according to a staff memo.

The board’s original resolution included a funding proposal for this system, from the following sources: (1) a $551,998 refund from the state related to an unfinished pilot project; (2) $200,000 from an anticipated 2013 surplus in the trial court budget; (3) $700,000 from the county’s IT fund balance; and (4) $899,463 from the county’s capital reserves, to be repaid with any trial court surplus starting in 2014.

However, prior to the meeting some commissioners expressed concern about the use of capital reserves, so an alternative resolution was brought forward at the meeting that did not include the references to funding sources.

A lengthy memo from court administrator Dan Dwyer described the history of the current software and listed its shortcomings, including an inability to compute or apply late fees on unpaid accounts, and the fact that it does not support electronic filing or online access to case information by the public. [.pdf of Dwyer's memo] The trial court was involved in a pilot project with the state of Michigan to develop a new records management system – but that project was not completed and the trial court pulled out of it in February 2013. The trial court subsequently received a refund from the state for money that the court had spent on that pilot project.

A request for proposals (RFP) was issued in April 2013, and four proposals were received. Tyler Technology’s Odyssey case management system was selected based on a range of criteria, according to Dwyer, including the firm’s stability, experience, and its approach to implementation and project management. The firm’s annual maintenance cost of $188,933 was the lowest of the two qualified bidders.

The trial court is an entity that includes the 22nd Circuit Court, court clerk services, juvenile court, Friend of the Court, and probate court. It also includes, as of July 1, a new specialized business court. The trial court’s chief judge is Donald Shelton.

Trial Court Software: Board Discussion – Ways & Means

The item was first considered during the board’s ways & means committee meeting, which immediately precedes the regular board meeting. Dan Smith (R-District 2) said he didn’t see the point of voting on the item if no funding source is identified. He suggested holding the item until funding details are worked out.

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

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), who chairs the board of commissioners.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) replied that the intent is to recognize the court’s request and need, and acknowledge that the system from Tyler Technology was the one selected. However, the funding mechanism needs to be revisited to find the best way to fund it, he said.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) echoed D. Smith’s concern about approving the item without a plan for funding. She noted that there had been some plans brought forward in the past about improving roads, but the board didn’t act on those plans because there was no funding identified. She indicated that the board should be consistent in its approach.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) told commissioners that he bore some responsibility for extracting the mention of funding from the resolution. He said he’d raised some of his concerns “admittedly late in the game.” Rather than derail the whole project, he said, the revised resolution is intended to provide another month to work out the funding details. He felt confident that the county staff will be able to produce a funding alternative within that time.

Greg Dill, the county’s director of infrastructure management, said that if commissioners approved the resolution, he’d consult with county administrator Verna McDaniel and finance director Kelly Belknap to come up with appropriate funding options. He said the staff can continue to work with the vendor as well, developing timelines and implementation. C. Smith urged commissioners to support it, and not to vote against it “because of my last-minute machinations on it.”

Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) didn’t have a problem either way – voting that night, or waiting – but he wanted to make sure the current resolution wouldn’t create a problem for the trial court. Sizemore observed that chief judge Don Shelton seems to feel strongly about the project.

Dan Dwyer, the trial court administrator, said Tyler Technology can deliver the system in a short timeframe, but court officials would appreciate the board taking an initial step on this project. Rabhi noted that if the board wanted to, it could vote on the original resolution, which included a funding proposal. It might not be the best funding mechanism, he added, and that’s why it was extracted from the resolution. “I understand the weird dynamic here,” Rabhi said.

C. Smith suggested that the resolution could be amended to state that the board approves the selection of Tyler, and directs staff to come up with a project plan and budget to be presented on Sept. 4.

Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) joked that he didn’t want to be held in contempt of court. “I don’t want Judge Shelton calling me tonight,” he said, alluding to a previous meeting when the board’s consideration of eliminating the trial court’s lump sum agreement had resulted in Shelton calling some commissioners during and after the meeting.

But Peterson pointed out that this was a rare approach – to approve a project but not its funding. He was concerned about it setting a precedent, and noted that the actual costs would likely be more than the $2.3 million mentioned in the resolution. Dill replied that he would bring back an itemized list of costs for the “total cost of ownership,” including the costs for the software, implementation, and annual licensing fees. The $2.3 million amount doesn’t include the licensing cost, he said.

Peterson noted that the project will include ongoing legacy costs, which the board can’t control. Dill pointed out that any software would include an annual fee. Peterson said it was a budgeting issue, and that although he would vote for it that night, the issue would re-emerge when the board discussed the trial court’s budget later this year. “If you think this discussion is something, wait ’til the budget,” Peterson said. Saying he trusted Judge Shelton, Peterson noted that the question is how to keep the county afloat and fiscally sound, and he wanted to know what the county’s responsibilities are for this or any other agreement.

Dan Smith proposed tabling the item, which would allow the board to take it off the table later in the meeting after language for an amendment has been developed.

Outcome on the tabling motion: On a voice vote, commissioners tabled the item until later in the meeting.

Later in the ways & means meeting, the board considered whether to take the resolution back up off the table.

Outcome on taking the trial court software resolution off the table: It passed on a 5-3 vote, over dissent from D. Smith, C. Smith and Ping. Rabhi was out of the room when the vote was taken.

Rabhi returned to the room, saying he and C. Smith had crafted language for an amendment to the resolution, to resolve some of Ping’s concerns. The final resolved clauses would be amended to this language:

Be it resolved that the Washtenaw County board of commissioners approves the selection of the Odyssey case management system from Tyler Technology;

Be it further resolved that the Washtenaw County board of commissioners directs the county administrator to develop a project implementation, operations and maintenance plan and to identify funding options available to the board of commissioners to pay for the Tyler Technology Odyssey case management system, to be presented at the 9/4/13 ways & means committee and board of commissioner meetings.

The intent is to put an action item in the resolution, Rabhi said. The original resolution stated that the board approved the purchase “in concept,” he noted. The amended resolution would provide more concrete direction to the staff.

Ping asked whether the $2.31 million mentioned in the resolution includes the annual licensing costs. No, Dill replied. He clarified that the amount for annual licensing is about $188,000.

IT manager Andy Brush reported that the $188,000 is already included in the $1.5 million annual IT maintenance budget for all software countywide. Every department contributes to that maintenance fund, as part of the cost allocation plan (CAP). Brush also noted that the court’s new case management system will include the ability for customers to do e-filing, which will generate revenue for the county. He characterized the $188,000 cost as a conservative estimate, since it will be offset by new revenue – an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 per year.

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

Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).

Ping said she remained concern that the board would be approving a project without a funding plan in place, and that the cost doesn’t include an increase of $188,000 in expenditures each year. She wondered whether that $188,000 would be paid for out of the court’s lump sum budget. “I’m not trying to get all up in the court’s business,” Ping said. But the board is worried about an upcoming budget deficit, and hasn’t yet figured out how to cover its pension and retiree health care liabilities. “It’s a little difficult to swallow, when I’m worrying about public safety out in the west side of the county,” she added. [Ping represents District 3, which includes portions of south and western Washtenaw.]

Ping wanted the funding strategy to include the annual licensing and maintenance costs, so that the board would clearly know how that would be paid.

Brush pointed out that the county hasn’t paid licensing or maintenance costs for the trial court’s current system for eight years, because the previous vendor went out of business. Dill told the board that his staff would bring back a funding strategy for this project.

Rabhi reminded commissioners that a funding proposal had been presented with this original resolution, but some commissioners had wanted to see an alternative proposal that reduced the impact on the general fund. He said anyone who’s interested in being part of that discussion should contact Dill.

D. Smith said he appreciated the effort to address concerns via the amendment that Rabhi put forward, but he pointed out that there is still no funding strategy identified. So the resolution is either meaningless, he said, or it implicitly funds this project without any funding specified. “Neither of those alternatives are very palatable to me,” he said. D. Smith preferred voting on the item when funding has been identified, which is the board’s typical approach.

D. Smith called the question on Rabhi’s amendment.

Outcome on calling the question: It passed with unanimous support.

Outcome on Rabhi’s amendment: It passed on an 8-1 vote, over dissent from Martinez-Kratz.

Outcome on trial court software resolution at ways & means committee: The board voted 7-2 to give initial approval to the trial court software resolution, as amended. Dissenting were D. Smith and Ping.

The board also was asked to approve adding the resolution to the regular board meeting agenda that same night, when a final vote could be taken.

Outcome on moving the resolution to the board meeting: It passed on a 6-3 vote, over dissent from D. Smith, C. Smith and Ping.

Trial Court Software: Board Discussion – Board Meeting

When the item came up at the board meeting, the positions discussed earlier in the evening were restated. Alicia Ping again advocated for postponement. Yousef Rabhi reiterated that a funding plan had been presented, but staff is being asked to find a different way to pay for it.

Dan Smith noted that the board had previously postponed action on another item related to the trial court. [At its June 5, 2013 meeting, the board gave initial approval to issue a notice of intent to eliminate a lump-sum budgeting approach for Washtenaw County’s court system. On July 10, 2013, the board voted to postpone a final vote until Oct. 16, 2013.]

D. Smith noted that the software system is a huge expenditure, and over the next four weeks the board can get answers to its questions about funding. He moved to postpone the item until Sept. 4.

Outcome on postponement: On a 4-5 vote, the motion to postpone failed, with support only from D. Smith, C. Smith, Ping and Martinez-Kratz.

Ping again pointed out that the current resolution does not include a funding plan. What’s more, the funding plan that was in the original resolution didn’t address the annual licensing costs, she noted. “I think those are important things, so I’ll be voting no on this tonight.”

At least six votes were needed in order for the resolution to pass. That’s because the resolution had been forwarded for a final vote on the same night that an initial vote was taken.

Outcome on final approval for the trial court software system: The board voted 5-4 to give final approval to the resolution, but failed to achieve the necessary six-vote majority. Dissenting were Ping, D. Smith, C. Smith and Martinez-Kratz.

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, clarified that the resolution automatically will be put on the Sept. 4, 2013 agenda for final approval, unless that board calls a special meeting to deal with it. There was no indication from the board that a special meeting would be called.

Budget Priorities

Felicia Brabec brought forward a resolution to amend the budget priorities resolution that the board had passed on July 24, 2013. [.pdf of budget priorities resolution] It’s not a content change, she said, but it simply adds four words to the first resolved clause, to reflect the outcome of the discussion on July 24.

The amended section states [italics denote added text]:

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hereby adopts four ordered priorities to guide the development of the upcoming budget, which are as follows: (1) ensure community safety net through health and human services inclusive of public safety, (2) increase economic opportunity and workforce development, (3) ensure mobility and civic infrastructure for Washtenaw County residents, and (4) reduce environmental impact.

Dan Smith said he appreciated this amendment, but said he disagreed with the priorities. It would be simpler if public safety and justice were made the top priority, with the other priorities reordered after that.

Alicia Ping agreed with D. Smith, saying “these priorities aren’t my priorities.” However, she said that she realized the board would act on the priorities that the board sets, and she would work with the board on a budget that reflects these priorities.

Outcome: The board voted 7-2 to approve the amended budget priorities, over dissent from Ping and Sizemore.

Leasing Agreements

Commissioners took action on two leases at their Aug. 7 meeting: (1) leasing space for county operations in the privately owned City Center building in downtown Ann Arbor; and (2) leasing the county-owned Head Start building in Ypsilanti to the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

Leasing Agreements: City Center

At its July 10, 2013 meeting, the board had approved a broad strategic plan for county facilities. Part of that plan called for relocating the office of community and economic Development (OCED), office of infrastructure management, and the public defender’s office out of their current space in the county Annex building at 110 N. Fourth Ave.

The lease at City Center, owned by Dahlmann Apartments. Ltd., is for office space on the fifth and second floors of the City Center for the public defender and office of infrastructure management. The City Center building is located at 220 E. Huron in Ann Arbor.

The county will pay $333,037 for the first year, with 3% increases each year after that. The term of the lease is nine years and five months, starting Sept. 1, 2013. [.pdf of lease agreement]

Leasing Agreements: City Center – Board Discussion

Dan Smith (R-District 2) said he was happy to see an early termination option in the lease agreement, which would allow the parties to end the agreement after five years, on Aug. 31, 2018. He’s concerned that the county continues to lease facilities, but has talked with Greg Dill, director of infrastructure management, about these concerns. D. Smith said he understands that county-owned space is scattered around the county and isn’t suitable for this particular need. He hopes to move away from leasing, in general.

City Center, Dahlman, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

The City Center building on the southwest corner of Huron and Fifth.

Dill reported that since 2008, the county has reduced its operations by about 85,000 square feet of space, and most of those reductions were in space that the county had been leasing.

Dill pointed out that the county does not own a facility with 20,000 square feet that would meet the needs of the departments that are being displaced from the Annex. For example, the public defender’s office needs to be near the courthouse in downtown Ann Arbor. For the infrastructure management office, its partnership with the city of Ann Arbor means that the office needs to be near the computer server in downtown Ann Arbor. There’s more flexibility for the office of community & economic development, he noted, which will be relocated elsewhere.

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) asked whether the rate was competitive at City Center. Dill replied that the staff was still negotiating the financial agreement, so he couldn’t provide all the details. But he described it as a very favorable lease, with flexibility in terms of the length of the agreement, and a generous build-out allowance of $450,000. It’s the very best option for the county, he said.

Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) asked why the move was necessary. Dill explained that changes are being made to accommodate the county’s Community Support and Treatment Services (CSTS) unit, which provides contract services to the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO). The WCHO will pay for moving the entire Adult MI program staff into the Annex; repurposing vacated space at 2140 Ellsworth for Youth and Family Services; and relocating all “service delivery” units to the 1st floor of the Towner II building at 555 Towner Street in Ypsilanti.

Most of the clients served by CSTS operations that are moving into the Annex live within 3-5 miles of downtown Ann Arbor. “We’re putting the services where the need is, instead of having services scattered throughout the county,” Dill said.

Peterson wondered if sufficient parking was available for clients. Dill said the plan has made allowances for parking. He noted that most of the clients downtown wouldn’t need parking, but that plans for staff parking have been made.

Peterson pressed the issue of parking for clients, saying that many of them were in financial difficulty and shouldn’t have to worry about parking when they come to get county services. That’s why he liked the Ellsworth facility, which was easily accessible. Dill replied that the Ellsworth location will be filled to its capacity with appropriate operations, and noted that most of the CSTS services in the Annex will be for clients who walk there. Peterson expressed some skepticism that people would walk to the building, and said they definitely shouldn’t have to pay for parking.

Peterson also wondered if the lease with CSTS would be parallel with the lease at the City Center, for the same duration. Dill replied that the agreement with CSTS was still “an open-ended conversation.” When he noted that CSTS is a county department, Peterson said “that’s beside the point.” CSTS, like other county units, will be paying rent on the space – even if that space is owned by the county. If CSTS decides it needs more space at some point and moves out of the Annex, the county still has financial obligations related to that building. Government is shrinking, Peterson noted, and shouldn’t keep paying for space it doesn’t need or can’t afford.

Peterson noted that the Annex was originally intended for administrative offices, not for the delivery of services. He expressed concern that certain county departments previously had vacated the Ellsworth and Towner facilities, which the county had bonded for. The county needs revenue in order to pay its obligations on bonds for facilities, he said, and it can’t do that if those facilities are vacant. The county departments that moved “stuck us with a debt,” he said, and taxpayers don’t want their money going to pay for buildings that are empty.

If a county department pays rent, it should pay it back to the county first, Peterson argued. “We’ve got a lot of vacant space – let’s fill our buildings up first.”

Conan Smith (D-District 9) agreed with Peterson, that the leases with CSTS and City Center should match in duration. Regarding parking, Smith noted that the county owns a parking lot at Main Street and Ann Street that is leased to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and that the county plans to renegotiate that agreement. Dill indicated that he’s had a preliminary discussion with DDA executive director Susan Pollay. Smith suggested integrating into that negotiation some kind of voucher program at the Fourth & Washington parking structure, which is a gated facility and only a block away from the Annex.

Annex building, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

The Washtenaw County Annex building at 110 N. Fourth Ave.

C. Smith also suggested making capital improvements in county facilities – in energy efficiency, for example – so that it would decrease the cost of operations. Dill noted that since 2008, the county has reduced its operating budget by over $15 million, and has cut the headcount for infrastructure management by 17 full-time equivalent positions. Dill said the staff will continue to look for ways to decrease costs. But he noted that CSTS had added 39 new employees, and the space is needed to accommodate that.

C. Smith clarified that he was looking for savings across the entire county operation, not just in Dill’s department. In terms of policy, Smith said that when the county makes an investment, it should leverage county taxpayer dollars first. So when looking for space, the first priority should be using county-owned facilities. The second priority should be using space owned by other government entities – the city of Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, or the state of Michigan, for example. Only after that should the county consider leasing space from the private sector. Dill replied that this approach is already part of the county’s operating strategy.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) clarified that the $333,037 rent includes utilities. He said he wasn’t happy about leasing spaces, but liked the idea of a five-year out clause.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) said he felt the board was on the same page about this issue. He praised Dill’s efforts, and noted that renting is a good intermediate step but not a long-term solution.

In response to a query from Rabhi, Dill explained that every department is assessed a fee as part of the cost allocation plan (CAP), which covers internal services like utilities, maintenance, and administrative costs, for example. All of that is already built into the budget, so no additional charges will be needed to accommodate the CSTS move, he said. The goal is to create as little strain on the general fund as possible.

In terms of a specific lease with CSTS, Dill indicated that he could work with the administration on that. Although leases are common for non-county departments who use county-owned space, he said it’s not typical to do a contract with a county department. That’s his hesitancy, Dill said. Rabhi encouraged him to explore that option.

Peterson said it’s nothing unusual to ask for a lease, noting that if CSTS had to find facilities elsewhere from a private landlord, the unit would need to sign a lease. He wanted to revisit the policy about how departments pay for their space. “We do not have the ability to give anything away, other than services to the public,” he said.

Peterson further questioned the $5 million of funding for the strategic space plan, and seemed surprised at the amount. [The plan had been approved unanimously by the board at its July 10, 2013 meeting, and had included a discussion in which Peterson had participated.] On Aug. 7, Peterson indicated a desire to revisit that $5 million budget allocation, which included $2.2 million from the county’s capital reserves. The county is facing a budget deficit in 2014, he noted, and nothing is untouchable.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) thanked Dill for his team’s hard work. She pointed out that the Dahlmanns pay a lot of taxes to this community. “They’re not some conglomerate out of New York City,” she said.

C. Smith clarified with Dill that although CSTS is a county department, it is funded by the WCHO. Dill indicated that an agreement about the space is being worked out with WCHO. Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1) agreed that it’s important to secure an agreement with the WCHO.

Leasing Agreements: Head Start

The board was asked to approve a 10-year lease of a county-owned Head Start building at 1661 Leforge Ave. in Ypsilanti to the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. [.pdf of lease agreement] The WISD is taking over management of the Head Start program from the county, which has administered it for over four decades. After considerable debate, the board made the decision in late 2011 to relinquish the Head Start program.

The county took out bonds to pay for the construction of the $2.29 million Head Start facility in 2002. Ten years remain on the bond repayment for a total of $1.66 million.

WISD will begin making payments in 2014. Annual payments vary, beginning with $166,862 by Oct. 1, 2014. [.pdf of rent payment schedule] After the final payment, the county would deed the Head Start building and surrounding 11-acre property to the WISD. During the term of the lease, WISD will pay for utilities and basic maintenance, but the county will be liable for structural issues with the building, including roof repairs, broken windows, and other repairs – unless the repairs are caused by WISD action.

Leasing Agreements: Head Start – Board Discussion

Conan Smith noted that only $25,000 remains in the county’s Head Start fund, yet the county will be making the next annual bond payment of about $142,176 for the Head Start building. County administrator Verna McDaniel said that amount had already been budgeted from the county’s capital reserves in anticipation of this transition.

Dan Smith noted that this is the second item on the Aug. 7 agenda involving the WISD. [The other item involved a Medicaid outreach program.] He was pleased to see the county working more closely with that organization.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved both lease agreements related to City Center and Head Start.

Bonding for Ann Arbor Drain, Rain Garden Projects

Backing for up to $3.3 million in bonds to pay for five drain-related projects in Ann Arbor was on the Aug. 7 agenda for approval, in five separate resolutions.

Evan Pratt, John Axe, Washtenaw County water resources commissioner, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Evan Pratt, Washtenaw County water resources commissioner, and John Axe, an attorney who provides bond counsel services to the county.

The projects will be managed by the county’s office of the water resources commissioner, Evan Pratt. Three projects relate to stormwater control along the Allen Creek, with the goal of reduced flooding downstream and decreased e. coli and phosphorous entering the Huron River. They include: (1) up to $435,000 for stormwater control along South Fourth Avenue between Huron and Liberty streets; (2) up to $1.155 million for stormwater control along Madison Avenue between South Seventh and Main streets; and (3) up to $575,000 for stormwater control along South Forest from South University to an area north of Hill Street.

The county board also was asked to approve bonding for up to $465,000 to design and build rain gardens in Ann Arbor, and up to $700,000 to plant trees throughout the city. No specific locations were identified for these projects, which are part of the Huron River Green Infrastructure District initiative.

All five projects have been approved to be funded through the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Clean Water Revolving Funds low-interest loan program.

Bonding for Ann Arbor Drain Projects: Board Discussion

Dan Smith (R-District 2) thanked water resources commissioner Evan Pratt for his work on these projects. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) also thanked Pratt, pointing out that these projects are located in Ann Arbor and are crucial in addressing one of the county board’s priorities on environmental protection.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) noted that this is one of the first green infrastructure projects that the board has approved. He asked Pratt to talk about the intent of the green infrastructure program and how it works. Pratt described it as an extension of past projects, focused more on the city of Ann Arbor. He highlighted the fact that all but one of these projects on the Aug. 7 agenda include 50% loan forgiveness from the MDEQ’s Clean Water Revolving Fund. He said that more than 105 rain gardens have been built over three years, and he expects another 40 rain gardens to be installed this year. All of those have an incremental benefit on the county’s water quality mandate, he said, but the rain gardens also help with flooding issues.

The green infrastructure drain district allows these kinds of projects to be done outside of the city’s boundaries as well, Pratt explained. C. Smith described investments in green infrastructure as one of the best kinds of environmental investments the county can make. Physical infrastructure is so expensive, while planting trees and building rain gardens is gentler on the planet and serves a great purpose, he said.

Pratt explained that it’s a permanent benefit, because rain gardens allow water to soak into the ground so that it doesn’t cause flooding further downstream. Green infrastructure is state-of-the-art in his industry, Pratt added, and he encouraged commissioners to drive around and see what the rain gardens look like. Plants were just put in for rain gardens on the north side of Miller Avenue, he reported. Street drainage is one of the most polluted kinds of runoff, and the rain gardens help filter that. It’s more visible to the public than the “invisible” underground pipes, Pratt noted, so it will be important to maintain those areas.

John Axe, a Grosse Pointe Farms attorney who has served as the county’s bond counsel for several decades, was on hand at the meeting but did not formally address the board.

Outcome: All drain-related projects were unanimously approved.

Food Policy Grant

Commissioners were asked to accept a $20,000 capacity-building grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation for work on the Washtenaw food policy council.

The grant will pay for training of food council members, a “foodshed mapping” project, and development of an educational and public outreach effort. The grant will be administered by a staff member of the county’s public health department, who has a seat on the council. The department will provide a $15,571 in-kind match for the grant.

The food policy council was created by the county board on March 21, 2012. Most of its members were appointed on June 6, 2012, when the county board also approved the council’s bylaws. [.pdf of food policy council bylaws] The council aims to support local small and mid-sized farmers by fostering policies that encourage local food purchasing and production. Council activities might include: recommending policy changes at the local, state and national levels; providing a forum for discussing food issues; encouraging coordination among different sectors of the local food system; evaluating, educating, and influencing policy; and launching or supporting programs and services that address local food needs.

County board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), who also serves on the food policy council, had informed the board on March 6, 2013 that the county would be applying for this grant. At that meeting, commissioner Ronnie Peterson had expressed interest in having a broader discussion to develop a process for seeking funds for projects that other commissioners might want to bring forward. That discussion has not yet occurred.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board approved receipt of the food policy grant.

Staff Increase for County Clerk

An increase in staff for the Washtenaw County clerk/register of deeds office – primarily to handle an increase in processing passports and concealed pistol license applications – was on the Aug. 7 agenda for final approval.

The change involves creating a full-time administrative coordinator position from a job that’s currently part-time (a 0.64 full-time equivalent position). The total cost for that full-time position is estimated at $56,902 – or an additional $15,631 in general fund support. It’s expected that a decrease in the need for temporary workers will help offset the payroll increase, as will a projected surplus in license and permit revenue. According to a staff memo, that revenue is expected to exceed projections by at least $33,824.

Until mid-2008, the office had 5 full-time employees (FTEs) in the elections and administration division, which handles passport applications and concealed pistol licenses (CPL). The economic downturn and subsequent restructuring dropped staffing levels to 3.64 FTE positions.

CPL applications increased 140% between 2009 to 2012, to an average 2,091 applications per year compared to 870 in 2009. This year is expected to set a record for CPL applications. For the first quarter of 2013 there were 1,168 applications, compared to 540 in the first quarter of 2012. [.pdf of application data from 2004-2013] [.pdf of approved licenses from 2008-2013]

If the total number of applications in 2013 reaches projections of at least 3,225, that will generate revenue of $83,824 to the general fund – above the original 2013 budget amount of $50,000.

In addition, on Aug. 7 commissioners gave final approval to shift support for one full-time position in the clerk/register of deeds office back into the general fund, at a cost of $56,117. That position – a records management specialist – is currently funded by revenues from the office’s “automation fund.” Until 2008, that position was paid for out of the general fund.

The automation fund pays for digitizing the county’s land records from 1824 through 1958, which are currently available only on paper. The goal is to relocate the paper records and clear out space in the lower level of 200 N. Main Street, as part of the county’s “space plan.” Digitization will also allow the public to search quickly and retrieve county records electronically, which will generate usage revenues for the general fund. Revenues for online usage increased from about $220,000 in 2010 to about $323,000 in 2012.

According to a staff memo, the number of documents recorded by the county clerk/register of deeds office has increased from fewer than 53,000 documents in 2008 to more than 85,000 documents expected in 2013. Revenues from the office to the general fund have grown from $2.248 million in 2011 to $3.198 million in 2012. Those revenues are expected to continue growing as the local real estate market recovers.

The staffing request had received initial approval at the board’s July 10, 2013 meeting. At that time, commissioner Dan Smith (R-District 2) had pointed out that this is the third time in 2013 that the board has been asked to approve an increase in staffing. In isolation, each increase makes sense, he said. But as the headcount changes over time, it’s troubling. County clerk Larry Kestenbaum responded, saying: “This doesn’t change headcount at all.”

There was no discussion on this item at the Aug. 7 meeting.

Outcome: The changes in the clerk’s staff were unanimously given final approval.

Grant for Medicaid Outreach

Commissioners were asked to authorize receipt of a $665,704 grant to pay for two outreach workers with the Washtenaw Health Plan (WHP), who will focus on increasing children’s participation in federal Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as children’s Medicaid.

The grant covers a two-year period, from July 15, 2013 through July 14, 2015. It will fund a county public health and WHP program called Coverage Counts: Connecting Teens, Immigrant and Homeless Families to Insurance. The program will operate in Washtenaw and Livingston counties. According to a staff memo, 5,000 children are currently eligible for Medicaid and 5,100 parents will become eligible for enrollment under Medicaid expansion.

The grant program will include collaboration with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) and the Livingston Educational Services Agency (LESA), as well as the Livingston public health department and the Livingston Health Plan.

The two grant-funded positions will have a salary range of $36,820 to $52,404.

Grant for Medicaid Outreach: Board Discussion

Dan Smith (R-District 2) pointed out that the county is once again hiring staff. He understood the positions are supported with grant funding, but that source might go away. The county has already seen that happen in other cases, he noted, and it puts pressure on the board to retain the employees even without grant funding. It also requires the county to pay for more space as its employment grows. Each hire has an impact, he said, noting that he has no objection to any single hire. “But taken as a whole, it continues to be concerning as our headcount slowly inches up … over months that turn into years.”

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) asked for clarification about when the employees would be hired. Ellen Rabinowitz, executive director of the Washtenaw Health Plan, reported that the county has already been awarded the grant, and was awaiting board approval in order to receive it. The jobs would be posted after the board takes action, she said, and the positions probably wouldn’t be filled until mid-September.

Outcome: The board unanimously voted to accept receipt of this grant.

Employment Services Grants

Two federal grants related to the county’s employment services were on the Aug. 7 agenda: (1) a $2.094 million grant from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Adult, Dislocated Worker and Youth Programs; and (2) a $436,063 grant from the federal Employment Services Program. Both programs are administered by the county’s office of community & economic development.

The WIA grant last year had been significantly higher, at $2.548 million, but was cut this year due to federal sequestration. Through this program last year, the county served 235 adults, 297 dislocated workers, and 372 youth. With reduced funding, this year the program is expected to provide training services to 105 adults, 155 dislocated Workers, and 295 youth, along with new enrollees.

The grant from the Employment Services Program has also been cut, from $470,755 last year. According to a staff memo, this grant pays for job search assistance, assessment, job referral and job placement services; re-employment services to unemployment insurance claimants; and recruitment services to employers. Last year, there were about 225 daily visits to the Michigan Works Service Center for these services.

Employment Services Grants: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) asked about the 225 daily visits to the Michigan Works Service Center, which is located in Ypsilanti. She wondered how that compares to other communities. Mary Jo Callan, OCED director, reported that some service centers in more populous communities – like Detroit, Wayne County and Oakland County – see over 1,000 visits per day. For Washtenaw County, the numbers translate into about 11,000 unduplicated residents each year. Most people come back multiple times, she explained, and some people never officially enroll in the program. Washtenaw Community College provides the bulk of those services, she said, and WCC staff are embedded in the Ypsilanti office.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5).

Brabec also asked about the cut in WIA funding. Sequestration cuts had been anticipated, Callan replied, but are just starting to hit the county now. These grants were effective July 1, 2013. At the federal level, the funding was cut about 5%. But because Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped, less money was awarded to this state, Callan said. On average, all workforce development grants in Michigan took about a 17% cut compared to last year.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) asked about the services for youth. Callan explained that a large portion of grant funding is for youth ages 14-22. Services include tutoring, mentoring, skills training, internships and direct employment. Internships often lead to full-time employment at the same company, she noted. There’s also a new initiative called Career Connections, which Callan described as a “low-intensity mentoring program.” A recent networking event brought together about 40 youth and adult professionals from various fields, with Elizabeth Parkinson – marketing vice president for the Detroit Lions – as the keynote speaker. The county also funds B-Side of Youth‘s computer training program, which Callan said is similar to one that was described earlier in the evening by Tyrone Bridges. [Bridges' public commentary is reported later in this article.]

In response to another question from Ping, Callan said the programs are advertised in schools, including recommendations from school counselors. Outreach is also done through nonprofits that serve high-risk youth, social media, and peer-to-peer word of mouth.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) reported that he’s working with Callan and other county staff to develop a countywide youth-based program that would coordinate the county’s various initiatives. He expects to bring forward a proposal later this year.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved receipt of both grants.

Township Sewer Contract Amendment

The amendment of a contract between Washtenaw County, Lyndon Township and Sylvan Township was on the agenda for initial approval. [.pdf of original contract]

In February 2013, county commissioners voted to refinance debt for a sewer system in Lyndon and Sylvan townships, on the county’s west side. The resolution authorized the sale of refunding bonds that would be used to pay the remaining principal on existing bonds that were sold in 2004. That year, the county sold $5.115 million in bonds to help the townships pay for the sewer. Of that amount, $2.225 million remained to be repaid, prior to the refunding. The project built sewers at Cavanaugh, Sugar Loaf, Cassidy, Crooked, and Cedar Lakes. It’s funded through special assessments on property around those lakes and payments by the Sugar Loaf Lake State Park and Cassidy Lake State Corrections Facility.

In March 2013, the county received bids for the refunding, with the lowest bid from Hastings City Bank at an interest rate of 1.749838%. As a result of this refunding, only $695,000 in debt remains on this bond issue. Lyndon Township was able to cash reserves and redeemed all of their outstanding debt for this project.

The contract amendments given initial approval by county commissioners on Aug. 7 remove Lyndon Township from any responsibility for debt retirement and reduce the amount of debt for Sylvan Township. All other provisions of the contract remain in place until the bonds are paid off in 2022. Both township boards have previously approved these changes, according to a staff memo.

This sewer system is separate from a controversial water and wastewater treatment plant project in Sylvan Township. For more background on that project, see Chronicle coverage: “County Board OKs Sylvan Twp. Contract.”

Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners gave initial approval to the contract amendment. A final vote is expected on Sept. 4.

Historic District Commission Appointment

Yousef Rabhi nominated Terry Cwik, president of the Salem Area Historical Society, to serve on the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission. Cwik fills a position slotted for the general public, for a term ending Dec. 31, 2015.

There was no discussion on this item.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the appointment of Terry Cwik to the county HDC.

Communications & Commentary

During the evening there were multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. In addition to issues reported earlier in this article, here are some other highlights.

Communications & Commentary: UA (Plumbers & Pipefitters)

Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, was on hand with several representatives of the bureau as well as from the United Association (UA) Union of Plumbers, Pipefitters, Sprinkler Fitters, Steamfitters, and Service Technicians. The UA is holding its 60th annual training program in Washtenaw County from Aug. 10-16. She noted that it’s the 24th year that UA has held its training program at Washtenaw Community College.

Mary Kerr, Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

More than 2,500 participants will generate an estimated $5 million into the local economy, she said. There will be a community block party on Aug. 12 hosted by the bureau, held on Main Street starting at 6 p.m. That same day there will be a UA 5K run and pub crawl to benefit the Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial support to wounded veterans and their families. “The UA leaves this community in much better condition than when they came at the beginning of the week,” Kerr said. She introduced several representatives from WCC, UA Local 190, UA staff, and bureau board members.

Chris Haslinger, UA director of training, spoke to the board and characterized the relationship between the WCC and UA as a true partnership, including the creation of online classes and the ability to earn college credits by participating in the UA training program. He noted that this is a comprehensive year-round training program, not a one-week convention. There are also two locals – UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 190, and UA Sprinkler Fitters Local 704 – whose members live and work here.

This year, there are over 400 new students attending this program, Haslinger said, which is a record for UA. This year, there’s also a group from Australia who are participating, as well as representatives from the World Plumbing Council, with people from India, China and Australia.

Haslinger thanked the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti CVBs, the county commissioners and WCC for their year-round support. He received a round of applause at the end of his comments. The board subsequently passed a proclamation welcoming the UA and thanking the association for its contributions to the county. [.pdf of proclamation]

Several commissioners also spoke in appreciation of UA, the CVBs and WCC. Rolland Sizemore Jr. noted that he’s working with the CVBs to develop a guide for motorcycle riders in the county, which he thought would interest UA members. Ronnie Peterson, noting that he represents the Ypsilanti area, encouraged UA officials to give feedback about how the county can make their experience even better. He pointed out that he attended the first welcoming for the UA training program more than 20 years ago. Yousef Rabhi thanked the UA for its year-round commitment to Washtenaw County over so many years.

Communications & Commentary: Computer Program for Teens

During public commentary, Tyrone Bridges introduced himself as program director for a local nonprofit that teaches kids how to use and repair computers. Five teens who participate in the program also attended the meeting.

Tyrone Bridges, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Some of the teens who developed a program that teaches computer skills to senior citizens. They attended the Aug. 7 meeting of the county board of commissioners.

Bridges said the students had created an inter-generational program that’s been honored by the city of Ypsilanti. The program involves students teaching senior citizens how to use computers. But the students who developed the program don’t have jobs, he said. They volunteer every day during the summer, he noted, and are being kept out of trouble. “We’re begging the county to look into your heart and look into your budget to see if there’s some wiggle room” to help fund the program, Bridges said. He added that he’s tried to reach commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. “to make other things happen.”

Sizemore responded to the commentary, saying he wanted to make sure that Bridges and the computer program were part of a broader effort to help this county’s youth. Conan Smith recalled that several years ago, Bridges had approached the board for funding but didn’t have a 501(c)3 status. [At the board's Feb. 18, 2009 meeting, Bridges had told commissioners that he had applied for $6,500 community development block grant, and was told that he wasn’t eligible because his group hadn’t been audited.]

Bridges replied that his group had been a 501(c)3 nonprofit for 24 years, and had recently received funding from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. C. Smith replied that perhaps Bridges could talk with Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community & economic development, to see if there were opportunities for capacity-building grants through the coordinated funding program. “It’s modest enough that it should be fundable,” C. Smith said. He thanked Bridges and the teens for the work that they do, calling it innovative and creative. “You’re touching people’s lives in important ways.”

Communications & Commentary: Thomas Partridge

Thomas Partridge introduced himself as a Nov. 5, 2013 write-in candidate for the Ann Arbor city council seat in Ward 5. He noted that the meeting’s agenda lacked items related to pressing issues, like affordable housing, transit and health care. He told commissioners they were ignoring their responsibilities in very significant areas, saying that it was negligence to ignore the civil rights of residents.

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, Sept. 4, 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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One Comment

  1. By Curious
    August 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm | permalink

    I’m curious about these 2 grants:

    Several grants were accepted during the meeting: (1) about $2.5 million in federal workforce development funding; (2) a $665,704 federal grant to pay for two outreach workers with the Washtenaw Health Plan (WHP), who will focus on increasing children’s participation in federal Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as children’s Medicaid

    What exactly is federal workforce development? Is this like what SPARK does? Some hazy, nebulous definition of something with the word “workforce” in it so we all assume it’s to make jobs or train people to get jobs?

    And, is that $665,704 for two people for one year or 5 years, or just until it runs out or what? And what does increasing children’s participation mean? Making more people aware that children’s midicaid exists and should be used? Selling medicaid over existing insurance plans?