Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Sept. 18, 2013): With a third of the nine-member board absent, commissioners dispatched their business in one of the shortest sessions in recent memory, lasting only 45 minutes. The early adjournment elicited a round of applause from staff in attendance – the previous meeting on Sept. 4 had lasted about five hours.
Even so, a wide range of resolutions were passed – mostly with no discussion. The absence of three commissioners also led to non-votes on two items originally on the agenda, out of concern that there would not be sufficient support to pass them.
During the meeting, the board postponed a final vote on a countywide micro loan program for small business. Under the county board rules, a resolution requires votes from “a majority of the members elected and serving” in order to pass – that is, five votes. Supporters of the resolution weren’t certain they could achieve that number. A resolution regarding the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law had been pulled from the agenda earlier in the day for the same reason.
Opponents of the “Stand Your Ground” resolution – which called on the state legislature to repeal the law enacted in 2006 – had been expected to appear at the meeting in force, prompting county administration to add extra security. However, after the resolution was pulled, only a handful of people attended to speak against it, as did one supporter.
In another resolution that addressed a statewide issue, commissioners voted to direct staff to explore options – including possible legal action – to help set cleanup criteria in Michigan for the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. In part, the item relates to a 1,4 dioxane plume stemming from contaminants at the former Gelman Sciences plant, west of Ann Arbor.
Dan Smith (R-District 2) stated “present” during that vote, rather than voting for or against the resolution – because board rules do not allow for abstention. After the meeting, corporation counsel Curt Hedger told The Chronicle that he’d be looking at the board rules to determine how Smith’s vote will be recorded. Hedger pointed out that the resolution needed five votes to pass, which it garnered even without Smith’s vote.
Commissioners also gave initial approval for a new approach to paying off debt incurred from bonding – typically for public works projects in local municipalities. The proposal would allow local units of government to repay bonds early via the county’s delinquent tax revolving fund (DTRF), which is administered by the county treasurer. The intent is to reduce interest rate payments and the county’s debt burden. In a related resolution, commissioners gave initial approval to restructuring debt held by Bridgewater Township, using this new approach.
Several items that received initial approval at the board’s previous meeting on Sept. 4 were passed in a final vote on Sept. 18 with minimal discussion, including: (1) strengthening the county’s affirmative action plan, as well as other nondiscrimination in employment-related policies; (2) authorizing a range of grants administered by the county’s office of community & economic development, as well as a resolution that would give blanket approval in the future to nearly 30 annual entitlement grants received by the county; (3) adding three new full-time jobs for stewardship of the county nature preserves; (4) adding a new 10-bed treatment program for female teens in the county’s youth center that will create a net increase of 5.46 jobs; and (5) budgets for the county’s public health and community support & treatment service (CSTS) departments.
And after postponing action on Sept. 4, the board voted to create a 13-member community advisory group to look at options for the county-owned Platt Road site in Ann Arbor. The Sept. 18 resolution was much more general in its direction than the one that was debated on Sept. 4, stripping out most of the details related to a previous focus on affordable housing.
Also on Sept. 18 as an item of communication, Yousef Rabhi updated the board on plans to fill a vacancy on the county road commission, which will result from the recent appointment of current road commissioner Ken Schwartz as Superior Township supervisor. Applications for the road commissioner job are being accepted until Sept. 25, with the county board likely making an appointment at its Oct. 2 meeting.
1,4 Dioxane Cleanup
A resolution on the Sept. 18 agenda gave direction to the county staff to explore options – including possible legal action – to help set cleanup criteria for the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in Michigan.
In addition to its broader implications, the resolution is meant to address the 1,4 dioxane plume stemming from contaminants at the former Gelman Sciences plant in Scio Township, which is now closed. [.pdf of county resolution]
In contrast, the resolution passed by county commissioners includes passage that:
…directs the County Administrator, Corporation Counsel and other appropriate county staff to work in collaboration with the County Water Resources Commissioner to explore other actions available to the County, including but not limited to legal action, meeting with and petitioning the MDEQ and EPA to aid in setting appropriate cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane in Michigan, including the Pall-Gelman plume and without site specific criteria for the Pall-Gelman plume and to cooperate with other local units of government to ensure protection of public health and the environment; …
The history of Gelman Sciences and its 1,4-dioxane contamination goes back 40 years. The company was based in Scio Township and later acquired by Pall Corp. The Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s current 1,4-dioxane generic residential drinking water cleanup criterion was set at 85 parts per billion (ppb). But an EPA criterion set in 2010 was for 3.5 ppb.
The MDEQ was supposed to re-evaluate its own standards by December 2012, based on the EPA’s 2010 toxicological review. It missed that deadline, and is anticipated to miss a new deadline set for December 2013.
There was no board discussion on this item.
Outcome: Five commissioners voted in support of this resolution, so the resolution passed. When his name was called in the roll-call vote, Dan Smith (R-District 2) responded by saying “Present.” Three commissioners – Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) – were absent.
Responding to queries from The Chronicle after the meeting, Pete Simms of the county clerk’s office – who is responsible for recording votes and keeping the board’s official minutes – indicated that he would need to consult with corporation counsel Curtis Hedger about how to record Smith’s response. Hedger told The Chronicle that he would be looking into the question.
The board rules – adopted on Jan. 2, 2013 – state, in relevant part:
Every member who shall be present, including the Chair, when a motion is last stated by the Chair, and no other, shall vote for or against the motion unless the member has a conflict of interest, in which case the member shall not vote.
Dan Smith has been an advocate for allowing board members to abstain on certain votes. He was successful in adding a new rule in February 2012 that stated: “Commissioners may abstain from voting on resolutions that express support or opposition and otherwise take no action.” The question of abstaining from votes has related primarily to resolutions on state or federal issues, over which the county board has no control.
However, the composition of the board changed in the November 2012 elections, which also reflected redistricting that decreased the number of commissioners on the board from 11 to 9. And on Jan. 2, 2013, Conan Smith proposed an amendment to delete the rule that allowed commissioners to abstain. After debating the issue, the board voted 5-4 in favor of Conan Smith’s amendment – so abstaining from a vote is no longer allowed.
New Approach to Bond Debt
A proposal for a new way to pay off debt incurred from bonding – typically for public works projects in local municipalities – was on the Sept. 18 agenda for initial approval. The proposal would allow local units of government to repay bonds early via the county’s delinquent tax revolving fund (DTRF), which is administered by the county treasurer. The intent is to reduce interest rate payments while posing no financial risk to the county, according to a staff memo.
The maximum amount of the advance would be $1 million, with a term of 10 years or less. The action would require approval by both the treasurer and the board of commissioners. Several other criteria for using a DTRF advance are proposed:
- The approval of an advance would be considered only for the county’s own indebtedness, and would result in a reduction in the County’s bonded indebtedness.
- The local unit receiving the benefit agrees to contribute at least 10% of the outstanding principal amount of the debt toward the reduction of the bonded debt and to amend its contractual agreement with the county to include a new payment schedule and new interest rate(s).
- A refunding bond analysis must be performed to examine the potential for savings by selling refunding bonds.
- The estimated cost of issuance for a refunding bond is 25% or greater than the estimated interest savings from the refunding bond sale.
- The local unit has a bond rating in the top two tiers of a standard rating service, or if the local unit is too small to warrant a rating, a review of the most recent audit of the local unit shows that they are not experiencing fiscal stress.
- The interest rate of the advance will be determined by the county treasurer and will exceed the rate of return received by the county treasurer in her/his pooled accounts.
- The amended contract with the local unit will provide a process by which the county treasurer can adjust the interest rate.
In a related resolution, commissioners were asked to give initial approval to restructuring debt held by Bridgewater Township. The township owes $585,000 on $1.095 million in bonds issued in 2004 to fund a sewer system. County treasurer Catherine McClary has agreed to lend the township money to pay off the bonds. The township will repay the treasurer’s office at a lower interest rate than it was paying for the bond debt, which was averaging 4.1%. The rate will provide a greater rate of return than the treasurer is currently getting on investments, according to a staff memo.
The amount of the advance from the treasurer’s office is $430,000, loaned to Bridgewater Township over nine years at a starting interest rate of 2%. The township will use an additional $172,000 to pay down the existing principal on its bond debt. The transaction will cost about $6,000 in legal fees, which the township will pay. [.pdf of staff memo on Bridgewater Township debt]
New Approach to Bond Debt: Board Discussion
Deliberations were brief. Regarding the broad policy resolution, Dan Smith (R-District 2) noted that every year, the county’s auditor tells the board that an audit means something very specific. So Smith proposed amending out the phrase “the most recent audit” and substituting in the phrase “recent financial reports.” It was considered a friendly amendment.
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) thanked everyone involved in developing this proposal. It’s a very creative way of reducing the county’s debt as well as the debt load for other local units of government.
He thanked the officials of Bridgewater Township for their leadership, as well as county treasurer Catherine McClary, public works director Dan Myers, and water resources commissioner Evan Pratt. Rabhi noted that this proposal was reviewed at length at the board of public works, on which he serves.
Alicia Ping (R-District 3) also thanked staff and officials for their work. She noted that sometimes the out-county townships don’t feel that they get a lot of attention or service from the county. “This is one way that the county is able to step up and help out,” Ping said.
Outcome: Both resolutions were unanimously given initial approval, to be considered for a final vote on Oct. 2.
Platt Road Advisory Committee
After postponing action at its Sept. 4, 2013 meeting, commissioners considered a new resolution on Sept. 18 to create a 13-member advisory group to look at options for the county-owned Platt Road site in Ann Arbor, where the old juvenile center was located.
The original resolution brought forward on Sept. 4 was developed with guidance from commissioner Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who represents the district where the property is located. It called for a nine-member committee with the following composition:
- 2 county commissioners
- 1 Ann Arbor city councilmember
- 2 residents from the adjacent neighborhood
- The executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission [Jennifer L. Hall]
- The director of Washtenaw County parks & recreation [Bob Tetens]
- The director of the Washtenaw County office of community and economic development [Mary Jo Callan]
- The Washtenaw County infrastructure management director [Greg Dill]
During deliberations on Sept. 4, the committee structure was amended to include four additional Washtenaw County residents, including at least one with real estate experience.
The idea of an advisory committee to help with the dispensation of this property – at 2260 and 2270 Platt Road – was first discussed at the board’s July 10, 2013 meeting. It was included in an overall strategic space plan for county facilities, which proposed demolishing the former juvenile center and exploring redevelopment of the site for affordable housing, alternative energy solutions, and county offices. Details of how the advisory committee would be appointed, as well as the committee’s formal mission, was an item to be worked out for a board vote at a later date.
On Sept. 4, a debate on the advisory committee proposal lasted about an hour, with concerns raised about the resolution’s focus on affordable housing. A staff memo listed several elements that would be explored, including: (1) affordable rental housing by the Ann Arbor housing commission; (2) an affordable housing green demonstration pilot project; (3) connection to the adjacent County Farm Park; (4) ReImagine Washtenaw Avenue design principles; and (5) other identified community priorities, such as geothermal, solar panels or community gardens.
According to that staff memo, this visioning work will be funded by $100,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, with funds to support the development of affordable housing. The money was part of a $3 million federal grant awarded to the county in 2011 and administered by the county’s office of community & economic development (OCED).
On Sept. 4, several commissioners expressed interest in exploring a broader set of options, beyond affordable housing – including the possible sale of the property. Ultimately, the item was postponed. Board chair Yousef Rabhi had directed Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director, to work with commissioners and staff to bring forward an alternative resolution on Sept. 18.
However, when the Sept. 18 agenda was posted online, the resolution remained unchanged, aside from the amendment made on Sept. 4.
A couple of hours prior to the start of the Sept. 18 meeting, LaBarre emailed commissioners and The Chronicle with a substitute resolution that he brought forward during the meeting. It was much more general in its direction, stripping out most of the details related to the affordable housing focus. In addition to the composition of the community advisory committee (CAC), the new resolution’s main directive was stated this way:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Commissioners directs the CAC to provide recommendations to the Board of Commissioners relative to disposition, including an alternatives analysis; and preferred methods of community engagement for the Board of Commissioners to undertake during the disposition process;
The resolution also set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2013 for the committee to deliver its analysis and recommendations to the board. [.pdf of substitute resolution]
Platt Road Advisory Committee: Board Discussion
There was scant comment on this item. Conan Smith (D-District 9) thanked LaBarre for the new resolution, saying that it reflected the concerns that had been raised on Sept. 4.
Outcome: The resolution passed unanimously.
The appointments to this committee have not yet been made. In conversation with The Chronicle after the Sept. 18 meeting, LaBarre and Rabhi indicated that they were in the process of identifying possible participants. It’s unclear whether the appointments will be made by Rabhi, as board chair, or whether he will nominate members to be confirmed by the board as a whole. The resolution indicates that the appointments will be made directly by the board chair. This differs from the typical appointment process, which entails nominations by the chair, followed by a confirmation vote of the board.
Commissioners were asked to give final approval to reaffirm and update the county’s affirmative action plan, as well as other nondiscrimination in employment-related policies. [.pdf of staff memo and policies] The primary change adds a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
During public commentary on Sept. 4 – when an initial vote was taken – community activist Jim Toy and Jason Morgan, a board member of the Jim Toy Community Center, had spoken in support of the changes. No one from the public addressed the issue during the Sept. 18 meeting.
The resolution’s three resolved clauses state:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners reaffirms its intent to prohibit discrimination in Washtenaw County against any person in recruitment, certification, appointment, retention, promotion, training and discipline on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, age, handicap, veteran status, marital status, height, weight, religion and political belief.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners shall strive to promote a workforce that welcomes and honors all persons and that provides equal opportunity in employment.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners directs the Human Resources / Labor Relations Director to update the Affirmative Action Plan, as well as policies Prohibiting Discrimination in Employment, Sexual Harassment, and the County’s Statement of Equal Employment Opportunity to reflect the Boards commitment and reaffirmation described herein.
Non-Discrimination Policy: Board Discussion
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) made a minor amendment, which was accepted as friendly, to add in the word “sex” in the list of categories that cannot be discriminated against. He said it had been inadvertently edited out in the initial resolution.
Outcome: Changes to the non-discrimination policy were given final approval in a unanimous vote.
Change to Grant Approval Process
On the Sept. 18 was resolution that gives blanket approval in the future to nearly 30 annual entitlement grants received by the county totaling an estimated $8.8 million, beginning in 2014. Currently, each of those grants requires separate annual approval by the board. The item – one of several resolutions related to the office of community & economic development, which administers these grants – had been given initial approval on Sept. 4, 2013.
According to a staff memo, the entitlement grants are awarded on a reoccurring basis based on pre-existing state or federal allocation formulas. They require board approval as individual items, which “ends up consuming a significant portion of Board and staff time throughout a given year, as formula grants are on a variety of different fiscal years, and are awarded at several different points throughout the year. Furthermore, the piecemeal nature of the resolutions does not provide a holistic overview of the continuum of services provided to the community by OCED,” the memo states. [.pdf of staff memo regarding blanket grant approval]
There are several categories of grants that will continue to require a board vote, even with this blanket approval. Those categories include:
- competitive grants;
- grants that are not based on pre-established federal or state funding formulas or entitlement formulas;
- new grants, or ones that have not been previously awarded to or administered by OCED;
- grants that would require a county general fund appropriation in excess of the amount approved by the county board in the budget;
- grants that would require a change in OCED position control;
- grants more than $100,000 or 10% more than the anticipated amount, whichever is greater.
There was no discussion on this item.
Outcome: Commissioners gave final approval to authorize blanket approval for entitlement grants.
Federal & State Grants: Office of Community & Economic Development
Several items on the Sept. 18 agenda related to funding for programs managed by the county’s office of community & economic development, totaling nearly $2 million. They had been given initial approval on Sept. 4:
- $88,263 from the federal dislocated worker training (DWT) national emergency grant [.pdf of staff memo for DWT grant]
- $16,277 in federal funding for the Michigan Works! Service Center Operations [.pdf of staff memo for Michigan Works funding]
- $50,000 in federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) employer-based training foundation funding [.pdf of staff memo for TAA funding]
- $287,860 in federal Dept. of Energy weatherization funding [.pdf of staff memo for weatherization funds]
- $274,792 in federal Emergency Solutions Grant funding. The total program budget is $412,188, which includes $137,396 of in-kind matching contributions. The program supports the Housing Access for Washtenaw County (HAWC) partnership between Salvation Army, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County and the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Washtenaw County. [.pdf of ESG staff memo]
- $516,156 in federal Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds [.pdf of CSBG staff memo]
- $21,828 in discretionary funds from the federal Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) to provide free income-tax preparation for low-income residents [.pdf of discretionary CSBG staff memo]
- $703,214 in federal funding for a senior nutrition program, with a total budget of $873,372. Additional funding comes from a USDA reimbursement of $100,001 and in-kind contributions of $70,157. [.pdf of senior nutrition memo]
There was no discussion on any of these items.
Outcome: All resolutions related to these grants were given final approval.
Staff for Natural Areas Stewardship
Final approval authorizing three new full-time jobs for stewardship of Washtenaw County’s nature preserves was on the Sept. 18 agenda.
The positions include: (1) a park laborer with a salary range of $31,507 to $41,766; (2) a park associate/principle planner with a salary range of $40,253 to $61,195; and (3) a stewardship coordinator, with a salary range of $43,373 to $56,586.
The additional jobs reflect a change approved by the county board nearly a year ago. At their Sept. 19, 2012 meeting, commissioners voted to amend the Natural Areas Ordinance No. 128, which established the county’s natural areas preservation program in 2000. The change removed a previous restriction that only 7% of millage funds could be used for management or stewardship. The goal was to use $600,000 per year for management and stewardship. Of that, roughly $240,000 would be used for ongoing stewardship activities, and $360,000 would remain to be invested in a dedicated reserve for long-term land stewardship.
According to a staff memo, the county’s parks system manages more than 4,500 acres of land in 13 parks and 22 preserves. In addition to the 556 acres of property already “actively” managed in the nature preserves, the staff also have active stewardship responsibilities for another 372 acres of prime natural areas within the county parks system. Overall, staff has identified 1,868 acres – or roughly 42% of the system’s current total acreage – as core conservation areas.
Funding for these new positions would be paid for entirely from the countywide natural areas millage, which was initially approved by voters in 2000 and renewed in 2010. The current 0.2409 mill tax raises roughly $3.5 million in annual revenues, and runs through 2021.
There was no discussion among commissioners about this item.
Outcome: Final approval was given to create these stewardship jobs.
Commissioners were asked to give final approval to the 2013-14 budget for the community support and treatment service (CSTS) department, from Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014. The $34.96 million budget includes $29.598 million in revenue from the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), which contracts with CSTS to provide services for people who are mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Other revenue comes from the Haarer bequest ($165,192), a contract with the county sheriff’s office ($246,846), smaller contracts with other entities, and fee-for-service billing. [.pdf of CSTS budget]
The budget calls for putting six full-time positions and two part-time jobs on “hold vacant” status. Those positions are currently unfilled.
The resolution also authorized county administrator Verna McDaniel to approve a service agreement with the WCHO, which is a separate nonprofit that’s a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan Health System.
Initial approval was given on Sept. 4, and there was no discussion about this item on Sept. 18.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the CSTS 2013-14 budget.
Public Health Budget
The Sept. 18 agenda included a resolution giving final approval to the public health department’s $10.796 million budget for 2013-14, from Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014. The budget includes $3.553 million in an appropriation from the county’s general fund, and $243,226 from the department’s fund balance. [.pdf of staff memo regarding public health budget]
As part of the budget, the public health department is proposing a net increase of 1.5 full-time equivalent positions. That results from eliminating 4.5 FTEs and creating 6 new positions. In addition, 5 positions will be put on “hold vacant” status, effective Oct. 1.
The resolution also included a proposed fee schedule for vaccines and clinic visits. [.pdf of proposed fee schedule] The minimum fee is proposed to be raised from $30 to $40.
There was no discussion of this item. Initial approval had been given on Sept. 4.
Outcome: The board unanimously gave final approval to the public health budget and fee schedule.
Trial Court Child Care Fund
The board was asked to give final approval to 2013-2014 state child care fund expenditures of $9,425,785 for the trial court’s juvenile division and county dept. of human services. About half of that amount ($4,712,892) will be eligible for reimbursement from the state. [.pdf of budget summary]
According to a staff memo, the child care fund is a joint effort between state and county governments to fund programs that serve neglected, abused and delinquent youth. Part of this year’s funding will support a new 10-bed treatment program that will be housed in the county’s youth center facility, opening in November of 2013. From the staff memo:
The treatment program in its initial phase will exclusively provide treatment services to females aged 12-17 using an integrated therapeutic treatment model. The program will offer a short-term 90 day option as well as a 6 to 9 month long-term treatment option. The second phase of treatment programming will expand services to males aged 12-17.
The new program is expected to generate revenue from out-of-county treatment referrals.
The expenditures will result in a net increase of 5.46 jobs. A total of 10.46 full-time equivalent positions will be created, and 5 FTEs will be eliminated.
Commissioners did not discuss this item, which had been given initial approval on Sept. 4.
Outcome: The board gave final approval to the trial court child care fund.
Stand Your Ground Repeal
A resolution urging the state legislature to repeal Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground” law was part of the Sept. 18 online agenda that had been posted on the county’s website on Friday, Sept. 13. But in a phone conversation with The Chronicle on the morning of Sept. 18, board chair Yousef Rabhi confirmed that he had decided to pull the resolution from the Sept. 18 meeting agenda.
Rabhi expected that at least two commissioners on the 9-member board – Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) – would be absent. [It turned out that Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) also did not attend the meeting.] And Rabhi expected that three other commissioners would vote against the resolution. Because of that, it would likely only garner four votes in support. Under the county board rules, a resolution requires votes from “a majority of the members elected and serving” in order to pass. With an anticipated 4-3 vote, it would fall short of achieving the 5-vote majority needed.
The resolution urged state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder to repeal Public Act 309 of 2006 and Public Act 319 of 1990, and “to adopt common-sense gun regulations such as improved background checks, strengthened gun-free zones, and limits on the sale of high-capacity magazines.” [.pdf of proposed resolution originally on the Sept. 18 agenda]
It was similar to a resolution passed by the Ann Arbor city council on Aug. 8, 2013. Activists have been calling for the repeal in the wake of a Florida verdict in the Trayvon Martin case that was handed down in mid-July. Three people had spoken at the county board’s Sept. 4 meeting, urging commissioners to take action.
However, opponents rallied after hearing about the proposed resolution. Michigan Open Carry Inc., an advocacy group based in Lansing, encouraged people who live near Ann Arbor to attend the Sept. 18 meeting and protest the resolution. A post on the group’s Facebook page stated: “We understand the County Building does not contain a court, but we have not verified this. If it is indeed not a court, open or concealed carry would be lawful and the county building would be covered under preemption.” There is no court in the building where county commissioners hold their meetings, at 220 N. Main St. in downtown Ann Arbor.
There were reports that buses would be transporting protesters to the meeting, and the county administration ordered extra security. Two sheriff’s deputies were on hand before the start of the meeting, as was an Ann Arbor police officer, whose patrol car was parked in front of the county administration building.
Having heard about the decision to pull the resolution off the agenda – the county administration posted a notice on its website earlier in the day – only a few opponents showed up to the meeting.
Stand Your Ground Repeal: Public Commentary
A resident from Manchester told commissioners that research by John Lott and others shows that when there are more responsible gun owners, there is a decrease in crime. Just the mere presence of a weapon can be a deterrent, he said, adding that he speaks from first-hand experience in Detroit. The resolution proposed by county commissioners isn’t in the best interest of the public, he said, and he urged them to vote against it.
George Lawrence of Whitmore Lake asked when the resolution would be brought back for a vote. Alicia Ping (R-District 3), who was chairing the ways & means committee meeting, indicated that it’s unclear when that will happen. “Don’t bring it back,” Lawrence told the board.
Robert Dick disputed some of the claims made in the resolution. It states that “Stand Your Ground” laws increase murder rates, but he pointed to a substantial decrease in murders since 2006, when the Michigan law was enacted. He provided a handout to commissioners with an analysis relevant to the issue, saying that after they read it, they might not be as happy to have their names associated with the resolution.
A resident of Lodi Township disputed the resolution’s assertion that Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground” law puts an unreasonable burden on prosecutors. He said that if Michigan repeals the law, the criminal justice system will operate on the “duty to retreat” legal doctrine, which he argued violates civil and constitutional rights. “Duty to retreat” also imperils citizens, he said, because it mandates that a citizen give ground to an attacker, “elevating the criminal’s rights above the victim’s rights.” It also denies the victim’s rights to be or remain in any legal location, he said. Therefore, the “duty to retreat” doctrine violates a citizen’s 14th Amendment rights to life, liberty and equal protection under the law.
“Duty to retreat” also requires citizens to tell police, prosecutors and juries why the fear of imminent death, great bodily harm or sexual assault was honest and reasonable, which violates a citizen’s 5th Amendment right to remain silent, he said. It also assumes a citizen is guilty until proven innocent, which violates the 4th Amendment right to due process. He argued that “duty to retreat” endangers citizens, if they have to pause and evaluate possible escape routes rather than focusing on how to survive an attack. If the victim does survive the attack, they’ll find themselves attacked later by the prosecutor. “Duty to retreat” adds insult to injury, he said, but Michigan corrected that injustice with a “stand your ground” law. He urged commissioners not to cede the public square to violent criminals, nor to ask Michigan to violate its citizens’ rights.
Judy Bonnell-Wenzel of Ann Arbor was the only person who spoke in support of the resolution on Sept. 18. By and large, she said, it’s the color of your skin that makes people think they should be afraid of you. Unfortunately in America, “there’s something in the air” that needs to be eradicated from our collective psyche, she said, “and that is racism.”
Stand Your Ground Repeal: Commissioner Follow-Up
Every agenda includes a slot for commissioner follow-up to public commentary. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) thanked Judy Bonnell-Wenzel for coming to the meeting and speaking out. He said she’s a constituent of his and someone he’s known for several years, who is active in a lot of causes that he believes in.
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) also thanked Bonnell-Wenzel as well as all the other residents who’d come to the meeting. It’s always good to hear from citizens on any issue, he said. Rabhi clarified that the “Stand Your Ground” resolution had been removed from the agenda and therefore wouldn’t be debated during the meeting.
It’s unclear when the item will be brought forward again. Initially, Rabhi had indicated that he would put the resolution on the Oct. 2 agenda. However, that night the board will be presented with a draft budget for 2014-2017, which is expected to be the focus of the meeting.
Micro Loan Program for Small Business
The Sept. 18 agenda included a resolution on a new countywide micro loan program for small businesses. The item had received initial approval on Sept. 4, 2013, and was on the agenda for a final vote on Sept. 18.
The resolution would authorize the county’s office of community & economic development to contract with the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development to manage this program. CEED already handles a smaller micro loan program focused on the eastern side of the county. [.pdf of CEED micro loan proposal]
Micro loans would range from $500 to $50,000, for businesses that can’t get conventional financing. CEED has a $5 million borrowing capacity from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and expects to make $300,000 in micro loans in the next two years in Washtenaw County. The county would provide $45,000 out of revenues from levying the Act 88 millage. Of that amount, $35,000 would be used to seed a loan loss reserve fund and $10,000 would be designated for initial operating costs.
To be eligible for a micro loan, businesses must be based in Washtenaw County and have been turned down by two financial institutions for loans over $20,000. Other requirements include: (1) a business plan for businesses that are less than 3 years old; (2) a marketing plan for businesses that are 3 years or older; (3) two years of financial statements and tax returns; and (4) a personal financial statement.
The county is allowed to levy up to 0.5 mills under Public Act 88 of 1913, but currently levies a small percentage of that – 0.06 mills, which will bring in $696,000 this year. It’s used for programs run by the county’s office of community & economic development, and to fund the county’s MSU extension office. Act 88 does not require voter approval. It was originally authorized by the county in 2009 at a rate of 0.04 mills, and was increased to 0.043 mills in 2010 and 0.05 in 2011.
Last year, Conan Smith (D-District 9) of Ann Arbor proposed increasing the rate to 0.06 mills and after a heated debate, the board approved the increase on a 6-5 vote. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Board Debates, OKs Act 88 Tax Hike."] Increasing this tax was one of several revenue options that the county commissioners discussed at their Aug. 8, 2013 working session, as part of a broader strategy to address a projected $3.9 million budget deficit in 2014. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Board Eyes Slate of Revenue Options."]
The county has identified economic development as one of its main budget priorities.
Micro Loan Program for Small Business: Board Discussion
Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) made a motion to postpone the item until the board’s Oct. 2 meeting.
He did not state a reason during the meeting and there was no discussion on the item.
Outcome: Commissioners voted to postpone a final vote on the micro loan program until Oct. 2.
When queried after the meeting by The Chronicle, LaBarre indicated that with three commissioners absent – Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) – it was unclear whether there were sufficient votes to pass the measure. Under the county board rules, a resolution requires votes from “a majority of the members elected and serving” in order to pass – that is, five votes. The resolution regarding the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law had been pulled from the agenda for the same reason.
When an initial vote was taken on Sept. 4, Dan Smith (R-District 2) had cast the only dissenting vote against this program. He objects to using taxpayer dollars for a program where funds are allocated without the opportunity for input at public meetings, and believes there are other avenues that small businesses can use for financing.
Hearing for Indigent Veterans Services Tax Hike
No one spoke at a public hearing held on Sept. 18 to get input on a proposed increase to the Washtenaw County tax that supports services for indigent veterans and their families.
The current rate, approved by the board last year and levied in December 2012, is 0.0286 mills – or 1/35th of a mill. The new proposed rate of 1/30th of a mill would be levied in December 2013 to fund services in 2014. It’s expected to generate $463,160 in revenues.
The county is authorized to collect up to 1/10th of a mill without seeking voter approval. That’s because the state legislation that enables the county to levy this type of tax – the Veterans Relief Fund Act – predates the state’s Headlee Amendment. The county first began levying this millage in 2008. Services are administered through the county’s department of veterans affairs.
Increasing this tax was one of several revenue options that the county commissioners discussed at their Aug. 8, 2013 working session, as part of a broader strategy to address a nearly $4 million projected budget deficit in 2014. See Chronicle coverage: “County Board Eyes Slate of Revenue Options.”
The board will likely take an initial vote on this tax increase at its Oct. 2 meeting.
There was one appointment on the Sept. 18 agenda: April Baranek, representing Washtenaw County on the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office (SEMREO) Community Alliance for a term ending Dec. 31, 2014.
Conan Smith (D-District 9) thanked board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) for making the nomination. He described the alliance as a collaboration of six local units of government that work together on energy financing for local government projects and for community energy-efficiency projects. It took a long time to create the alliance, he said. The bylaws had to be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office and authorized by the governor’s office, which happened over the summer. He felt that the alliance would do great work.
Outcome: The appointment of April Baranek was approved unanimously.
By way of background, this alliance dates back to 2010. The county board voted initially to join the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office (SEMREO) – a separate entity from the SEMREO Community Alliance – at its March 17, 2010 meeting. At the time, SEMREO was a division of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a Ferndale-based nonprofit that’s led by Conan Smith. Smith abstained from the March 17, 2010 vote, following conflict-of-interest concerns raised by other commissioners. SEMREO later split off from the Michigan Suburbs Alliance as a separate organization, but Smith serves on its board of directors.
Washtenaw County became involved in the SEMREO Community Alliance in 2011. On Aug. 3, 2011, the county board voted to join the SEMREO Community Alliance and approved the original interlocal agreement. The alliance was created in order to pursue certain grant funding that’s not available to municipalities directly. It includes six partners: Washtenaw County, and the cities of Lathrup Village (in Oakland County); Sterling Heights and Roseville (in Macomb County); and Lincoln Park and Southgate (in Wayne County). [.pdf of original interlocal agreement] Smith was absent from the Aug. 3, 2011 meeting when the Washtenaw County board voted to join the alliance.
At the county board’s Feb. 6, 2013 meeting, Smith was also absent for the vote to amend the SEMREO Community Alliance interlocal agreement, arriving at the meeting after the vote had been taken. However, he asked the board if he could record affirmative votes for all items that he had missed – which included the SEMREO Community Alliance item. None of the other commissioners objected.
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: Road Commission
Dan Smith (R-District 2) asked board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) for an update on the Washtenaw County road commission.
Rabhi reported that Ken Schwartz, a former county commissioner who currently serves as one of the three county road commissioners, has been appointed by the Superior Township’s board of trustees to replace former supervisor Bill McFarlane, who resigned recently because of health issues. The appointment was made at the township board’s Sept. 16, 2013 meeting.
According to a post on the township’s website, Schwartz’s term as supervisor begins Oct. 1 and ends at noon on Nov. 20, 2014. The elected office will be on the ballot for the August 2014 primary and the November 2014 general election.
Although the township notice indicates that trustees had interviewed three candidates – Schwartz, current trustee Alexander Williams, and Evert Van Raden – the decision to appoint Schwartz had been anticipated. In an email sent to county commissioners on Sept. 6, Rabhi wrote that he had directed staff to prepare a notice for the potentially vacant seat on the road commission, if Schwartz were appointed supervisor. [.pdf of Rabhi's email] That notice was posted on the county’s website on Sept. 17.
Applications for the road commissioner job are being accepted until Sept. 25, 2013, with the county board likely making an appointment at its Oct. 2 meeting. The position would be for the remainder of a six-year term, through Dec. 31, 2018. Applications – including a letter of interest and resume, with a home address – should be sent to Peter Simms of the county clerk’s office, P.O. Box 8645, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48107. Applications can also be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or via fax to 734-222-6528.
In his Sept. 6 email, Rabhi indicated that several members of the community had already expressed interest in the road commissioner job, and that he had received one formal letter of interest. He wrote: “I urge you to keep an open mind and give each qualified candidate that applies full consideration.”
Other current road commissioners are Doug Fuller and Fred Veigel, who also is a member of the county’s parks & recreation commission. The salary for road commissioners, which is set by the county board, is $10,500 annually.
At the Sept. 18 county board meeting, Rabhi said he hoped to bring forward a nomination at the board’s Oct. 2 meeting.
Alicia Ping (R-District 3) asked whether the board was definitely going to fill the vacancy. Rabhi said he’d like to replace Schwartz, and didn’t think that would preclude the board from discussing whether to expand the number of road commissioners or absorb the road commission into the county operations. “But I’d like to view that as a separate process,” Rabhi said.
Dan Smith suggested talking about this more at length when the vacancy is actually in effect – after Oct. 1. However, he said, he’d be a little concerned about confirming someone to fill a partial term that’s more than three years, without more clarity about the board’s future direction regarding the road commission.
Conan Smith wondered what the process would be for commissioners to ask questions of the candidates. Rabhi suggested contacting the candidates directly.
Communications & Commentary: Hiring Freeze
During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Doug Smith reminded commissioners that at their Sept. 5, 2013 working session, he had urged the county to implement a hiring freeze until Jan. 1, 2014. He said he’d also asked commissioner Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) to put an item on the Sept. 18 agenda about that issue for discussion, “but she apparently has decided not to do that.” [Brabec was absent from the Sept. 18 meeting.]
Vacancies don’t need to be filled before Jan. 1, he said – it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. He has a friend who works for the county, who told him that her supervisor wants to fill all the vacancies in the department before Jan. 1 “because it would be unfair to the new employees to miss out on the pension plan.” Those supervisors should be looking out for the taxpayers well-being, Smith said.
By way of background, current employees participate in a defined benefit pension plan, which will be closed to new employees at the end of 2013. Employees hired starting Jan. 1, 2014 will be part of a defined contribution plan instead. The long-term liabilities of the county’s pension plan and retiree healthcare costs are a concern, and prompted efforts earlier this year to push for a major bond proposal that was ultimately dropped.
During his Sept. 18 public commentary, Smith also asked for an appeal to his most recent request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The response given to him by the county’s FOIA coordinator is illegible, he contended. “They need to stop playing games in giving me things that are illegible, that they know are illegible.”
Communications & Commentary: Budget Update
Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), who as chair of the board’s ways & means committee also serves on the county’s budget task force, was absent from the Sept. 18 meeting. Vice chair Alicia Ping (R-District 3) gave a budget update on Brabec’s behalf. The draft budget is in the final stages of preparation, and will be presented to the board on Oct. 2.
The board’s priority committee meetings are completed, with draft outcome statements related to five areas: heath and human services, economic opportunity, mobility and civic infrastructure, environmental impact, and internal labor force. [The work of those committees was reviewed at a board working session on Sept. 19, which will be covered in a separate Chronicle report.]
The administration will also a 2013 third-quarter budget update to the board in November.
Present: Andy LaBarre, Kent Martinez-Kratz, Alicia Ping, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith.
Absent: Felicia Brabec, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 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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