Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Oct. 2, 2013): The county board’s major agenda item was the presentation of a proposed four-year general fund budget, for the years 2014-2017.
The $103,005,127 million budget for 2014 – which represents a slight decrease from the 2013 expenditures of $103,218,903 – includes putting a net total of 8.47 full-time-equivalent jobs on “hold vacant” status, as well as the net reduction of a 0.3 FTE position.
County administrator Verna McDaniel had previously indicated that the county would need to find $3.9 million in structural savings in 2014. On Oct. 2, she reported that $4.13 million in operating cost reductions had been identified. The proposal assumes a 1% annual increase in property tax revenues over the four-year period.
Commissioners asked a wide range of questions, and debated the merits of a four-year budget. Questions focused on the general fund reserves, changes in employment policy related to the federal Affordable Care Act, support for nonprofits, potential bonding for pension and retiree health care obligations, and proposed staff reductions.
Ultimately, the board voted to postpone initial action on the budget until its Oct. 16 meeting. A public hearing on the budget is also set for Oct. 16.
Two other items on the Oct. 2 agenda related to the Washtenaw County road commission: (1) the appointment of Barb Fuller to fill a vacant road commissioner seat; and (2) the creation of a new subcommittee to look at possible changes to the road commission. The vote on Fuller’s appointment was postponed, when Dan Smith (R-District 2) raised questions about whether the previous road commissioner, Ken Schwartz, had officially resigned. The appointment will likely be made on Oct. 16.
The subcommittee item drew some controversy following a proposal by Conan Smith (D-District 9) to amend the resolution, adding a $10,000 budget for possible research costs. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) objected, arguing that amending in $10,000 late in the meeting “doesn’t look good and isn’t needed.” He also noted that another recently appointed committee – to develop recommendations for the county’s Platt Road property – did not receive funding. The board eventually voted to create the road commission subcommittee with the $10,000 budget and in-kind support as needed, over dissent from LaBarre and Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).
Final approvals were given to a micro loan program for small businesses, and to a new way to pay off debt incurred from bonding, typically for public works projects in local municipalities. In other action, the board gave initial approval to an increase in the tax that supports services for indigent veterans, with a final vote set for Oct. 16. Also scheduled for Oct. 16 are four public hearing on the following topics: (1) the proposed 2014-2017 budget; (2) an increase to the Act 88 tax for economic development and agriculture; (3) a proposed ordinance that would allow the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog; and (4) a proposed brownfield plan by the Chelsea Milling Co., makers of Jiffy Mix.
During public commentary, the board heard from a representative of the Michigan Association of Counties, which represents 81 of the 83 counties in Michigan – but not Washtenaw County. The board eliminated annual MAC dues from its budget for 2012 and 2013. Some commissioners are interested in rejoining the organization.
But public commentary was dominated by supporters of Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground” law, responding to plans by Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) to bring forward a resolution urging the state legislature to repeal that law. That resolution was not on the Oct. 2 agenda. Many of the speakers were from outside of Washtenaw County, and wore sidearms to the meeting.
The board also spent about 30 minutes debating how to handle its agenda briefings. In the current approach, briefings take place a half-hour prior to the board’s bi-monthly working sessions – and almost two weeks before the subsequent board meeting. As a result, very few agenda items are ready when the briefing occurs. Over dissent by Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6), the board voted to eliminate those briefings. Instead, agenda packets will be emailed to commissioners a week prior to their board meetings. Rabhi, the current board chair, indicated his intent to include public input into the agenda-setting process in some way.
The Oct. 2 meeting coincided with the birthday of Alicia Ping (R-District 2), and commissioners helped her celebrate by singing a somewhat subdued rendition of “Happy Birthday” just before a break in the proceedings.
During the Oct. 2 meeting, Washtenaw County administrator Verna McDaniel and the county’s finance staff presented a four-year general fund budget to county commissioners, for the years 2014-2017. The $103,005,127 million budget for 2014 was on the agenda for initial approval. It represents a slight decrease from the 2013 expenditures of $103,218,903.
The proposal calls for putting a net total of 8.47 full-time-equivalent jobs on “hold vacant” status, as well as the net reduction of a 0.3 FTE position.
The recommended budgets for the following years are $103,977,306 in 2015, $105,052,579 in 2016, and $106,590,681 in 2017. The budgets are based on an estimated 1% annual increase in property tax revenues. [.pdf of draft budget summary]
McDaniel had previously indicated that the county would need to find $3.9 million in structural savings in 2014. On Oct. 2, she reported that $4.13 million in operating cost reductions had been identified. Those include: (1) $2.89 million in proposed departmental reductions; (2) $688,000 in estimated increased revenues from fees and services, (3) $450,000 in reductions to county infrastructure allocations, and (4) $100,000 in cuts to “outside agency” allocations.
Among the recommended departmental reductions, $819,000 is estimated to come from putting eight positions in the sheriff’s office on hold-vacant status. Another $1.1 million is expected to come from health insurance premium-sharing.
The outside agency reductions include decreasing the annual amount for mandated animal control services – paid to the Humane Society of Huron Valley – from $500,000 to $470,000. According to the county’s financial staff, the $30,000 difference will be made up from revenues contributed to HSHV by other local government units in the county.
Another $30,000 in cuts comes from the allocation to the Barrier Busters program – from $120,000 in 2013 to $90,000 in 2014. The budget calls for cutting that allocation to $50,000 in each of the following three years.
This year, the county is supporting the Delonis Center homeless shelter in Ann Arbor with $51,230 from the general fund budget. In 2014, that amount will increase to $160,000, then subsequently increase to $200,000 in each of the following three years. The county is counting the $40,000 difference between the 2014 budget and the 2015-2017 budgets as a “savings” in 2014 because the county, prior to 2012, had supported the center at $200,000 annually.
There are also several proposed changes to the county’s budget policies. Highlights include:
- preparing the budget in four-year cycles, rather than the previous two-year periods.
- increasing the amount of a professional services contract that triggers the need for board notification from $25,000 to $50,000.
- adding a provision to give commissioners a seven-day period in which to review any contract over $150,000.
- increasing the target of the general fund’s fund balance from 8% to 20% of general fund expenditures.
In her portion of the budget presentation, finance analyst Tina Gavalier reminded commissioners that the budget is based on a range of factors, including 10-year agreements with most of the county’s labor unions that the board approved earlier this year. Conversations are beginning for new contracts with bargaining units of the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) and Command Officers Association of Michigan (COAM), she said.
Current outstanding debt is just over $26 million. Assuming that the county doesn’t incur additional debt, that amount will fall below $5 million by 2023, Gavalier said, and will be paid off entirely by 2032.
McDaniel reviewed the board’s budget priorities, which she said helped guide development of the budget. She noted that the largest source of revenue comes from property taxes, accounting for 62% of the budget. Looking ahead, the major assumption is that property taxes will stabilize, with 1% increase in the growth of taxable value each year from 2014 through 2017. Projections include personal property tax revenue of $5.5 million in 2014, although there’s some uncertainty beyond that, because the tax will be phased out through 2022. As part of that change, a statewide voter referendum is slated for August 2014 to ask voters to authorize replacement funds from other state revenue sources. It’s unclear what will happen if that voter referendum fails.
McDaniel said the budget also assumes that the state will maintain the incentive program that replaced state-revenue sharing, for $5.5 million annually. This approach requires the county to “jump through hoops” to get the funding, she said, but the county has managed to meet the state’s requirements. Under the previous state revenue-sharing approach, the county received about $6.8 million annually.
On the expenditure side, the largest item is personnel, at 67% of expenditures. Assumptions in the upcoming budget take into account terms of the labor agreements, McDaniel said, and include a 6% annual increase for fringe benefits. She highlighted the fact that the budget results in a net reduction of 0.3 FTE, plus 8.4 positions on hold-vacant status. It was difficult, but the budget accomplished the goal of “not devastating staff with these reductions,” McDaniel said.
A public hearing on the budget is set for Oct. 16, with final board approval likely on Nov. 20.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Fund Balance
Conan Smith (D-District 9) referred to the budget policies, which states a revised target of increasing the general fund reserves from 8% to 20% of the general fund budget. He noted that in reality, the reserves are currently at about 16%. He clarified with the finance staff that “reserves” and “fund balance” are used interchangeably, and refer to the same figure. Smith suggested using a consistent term throughout the budget documents, to avoid confusion.
McDaniel pointed out that the beginning fund balance on Jan. 1, 2014 is expected to be $16.457 million. By the end of 2017, that balance is projected to stand at $17.91 million.
C. Smith wondered why the administration is recommending a target of 20%. McDaniel replied that there are two reasons. One is for cash flow purposes. The county gets its largest amount of property taxes in July and August, after the summer taxes are levied in July. So for the first half of the year, the administration uses the general fund reserves to help pay its bills, without borrowing from the reserves of other county departments. That kind of internal borrowing is not a good practice, she said.
C. Smith asked where the additional funds would come from, in order to build up the reserves to 20%. McDaniel said that any budget surpluses would be used for that purpose.
Dan Smith (R-District 2) highlighted a budget summary chart, which showed that a line item for “other revenue” increased significantly from 2016 to 2017. [.pdf of budget summary chart. The line item is $1.879 million in 2016, and $2.327 million in 2017 – or about a $450,000 increase.] Tina Gavalier explained that it reflects a planned use of fund balance (reserves) in 2017.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Discretionary Authorization
Conan Smith asked about some changes to the budget policies related to the county administrator’s ability to authorize contracts for goods, services, new construction or renovation. Currently, for amounts over $100,000, the administrator must notify the board in writing of the proposed contract. If no commissioner objects within seven business days, the administrator can sign the contract. The proposed policy change clarifies that the $100,000 relates to the total contract amount per year, and adds that the same process must be followed for multi-year contracts over $150,000.
In addition, the proposed policy calls for changing the trigger for board notification on professional services contracts from those that exceed $25,000 to contracts that exceed $50,000. C. Smith asked for an explanation of that, too.
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, explained that these were his recommendations. It’s been about 10 years since these policies were put in place, and there’s some uncertainty about when the board notification requirement should be triggered. Regarding the change for professional services contracts, Hedger said there aren’t many of these that come through. He said he could live with keeping it at $25,000 if that’s what commissioners would prefer.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Affordable Care Act
Conan Smith asked about a new item in the budget policy:
16. To be in compliance with federal health care reform and the Affordable Care Act effective 1-1-14, the Board of Commissioners reaffirms Resolution #13-TBD that part time employees are not permitted to work more than 25 hours per week. Any part time employee hired, shall not work more than 25 hours per week.
Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, responded. She explained that the county has two types of part-time employees – those with benefits, and those without. If you’re a part-time employee working between 50% to 79% of a full-time job, you’re in a position with benefits and can buy health insurance through the county at a reduced cost. If you are working less than 50%, the county doesn’t offer health insurance. People in about 30-35 part-time positions have access to benefits – those in the 50-79% range, she said.
The Affordable Care Act requires the county to offer health insurance to anyone who works 30 hours or more per week during a specified period. It doesn’t mean that the employee has to buy the health insurance, Heidt explained, but the county must offer it. This will affect primarily the parks & recreation staff, sheriff’s office, the water resources commissioner, and the community support & treatment services (CSTS) unit – units that use more part-time employees.
Heidt said the administration plans to bring forward a resolution to the board setting this policy, possibly in November. The intent is to remind departments about the potential liability of employees who work for more than 30 hours per week.
In response to another query from C. Smith, Heidt clarified that the nine county commissioners are considered part-time employees with benefits, and they would continue to have access to health insurance offered by the county.
C. Smith asked the staff to provide information about the potential financial impact of this change. He asked the administration to reconsider whether the policy needed to be part of the budget resolution.
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) said he had serious concerns about this item, and didn’t know whether he could support it. He asked whether the county was following its living wage ordinance. When Heidt replied that temporary workers are exempt from the living wage ordinance, Rabhi indicated that he disagreed with that policy. He said he understands the budgetary impact, but felt it’s the right thing to do.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Coordinated Funding, Nonprofit Support
Conan Smith asked for clarification about the amount budgeted for coordinated funding. By way of background, “coordinated funding” refers to an approach for supporting local human services nonprofits, by coordinating the allocation of funds from five partners: Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, United Way of Washtenaw County, Washtenaw Urban County, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The program, administered by the county’s office of community & economic development (OCED), began as a two-year pilot project. In November 2012 it was extended for an additional year.
Tina Gavalier of the county’s finance staff told C. Smith that the proposed budget calls for $1.015 million to coordinated funding each year. That’s the same amount as the current allocation. In addition, a resolution will be brought to the board on Oct. 16 to extend the coordinated funding program another two years.
In other question related to the OCED budget, Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) noted that the department’s budget is slated to be $14.716 million in 2014, but drops over the years to $12.588 million by 2017. He wondered if that reflected the county’s priorities, or whether it was due to projected decreases in federal and state funding.
Verna McDaniel indicated that the decrease was attributed to federal and state cuts, not a decrease in general fund support.
Dan Smith pointed to the funding for the Delonis Center homeless shelter. He noted that it was presented as a savings in 2014, when in fact the line item increases from $51,230 this year to $160,000 in 2014. It seemed to him that the amount for the Delonis Center was increasing 110%.
McDaniel said that prior to the 2012-2013 budget cycle, the county was supporting the center at $200,000 annually. That amount was cut dramatically for 2012 and 2013 – to $25,000 each year – with an agreement that funding would be reinstated in 2014. The center subsequently got another $26,000 in 2012 and 2013, when the board voted to eliminate its dues to the Michigan Association of Counties, and shifted those funds to the Delonis Center instead.
But rather than reinstitute the full $200,000 in 2014, McDaniel said she asked again for a $40,000 cut in order to fund Barrier Busters. The Delonis Center administration agreed to that, she said, and that’s why it’s reflected as a savings.
D. Smith asked whether the agreement that McDaniel referred to was something the board had voted on. McDaniel indicated that it was negotiated between the county and the center, like similar negotiations with other nonprofits that receive county support.
D. Smith pointed out that the county isn’t mandated to provide funding to the homeless shelter. In contrast, the board has stated that public safety and justice is a priority, he said, but there’s a proposed $25,000 reduction in the prosecuting attorney’s office. That’s a mandated service, he noted.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Retiree Benefits, Bonding
Conan Smith asked the administration to describe the budget impact of closing the county’s defined benefit plan for retirees. [The county, as part of negotiating new labor contracts earlier this year, is closing its Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System (WCERS) and Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association (VEBA) plans to employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014.]
County administrator Verna McDaniel replied that she had originally expected the cost to be much higher. However, now the estimate is about $2 million annually.
C. Smith noted that Oakland County recently made a major bond issuance to cover its unfunded pension and retiree health care obligations. The bond market is strong, he said, and pursuing the bonding strategy that the Washtenaw County board previously discussed would have a dramatic impact on the availability of funds for other programs and services. “I still want to do it,” he said.
[By way of background, the bond initiative, publicly proposed in May 2013, was intended to cover unfunded pension and retiree healthcare obligations for WCERS and VEBA. The original maximum amount for the bonds had been estimated at up to $345 million. But updated actuarial data resulted in a lower estimate of about $295 million. However, on July 3, McDaniel and board chair Yousef Rabhi issued a joint statement announcing a decision hold off on any bond-related action. No date has been set to reschedule action, if any, on the proposal. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "County to Push Back Vote on Bond Proposal."]
Dan Smith pointed out that there’s very little mention in the proposed budget of the county’s unfunded liabilities, which the board had spent considerable time discussing earlier this year. How the county decides to handle that will affect the budget, he noted, and he wondered what the projections are for contributions needed from the general fund reserves.
McDaniel replied by saying “that’s anybody’s guess, I presume.” The answer will be clearer when the county gets its actuarial report from Buck Consultants next year, she added. The market has not been kind, she said, but with a five-year “smoothing” approach, the year 2008 – when the market plummeted – will fall off from those smoothing calculations next year. That should be helpful to stabilize the county’s contributions to its unfunded liabilities, she said.
McDaniel also pointed out that she had recommended bonding for the full amount of those liabilities, noting that the board had decided not to pursue that approach.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Staff Reductions, Hold Vacant Status
Andy LaBarre said it’s good that the proposed budget reductions don’t decimate the staff. But at some point, he wanted the administration to explain how they were able to arrive at only eliminating a net 0.3 FTE, when the original projections for staff cuts had been significantly higher.
Dan Smith said it was very disturbing that there were 8 FTE positions on hold vacant status in the sheriff’s office. He asked county administrator Verna McDaniel to elaborate. She reported that she had asked for a much higher reduction from the sheriff Jerry Clayton, but compromised on a proposed reduction of $819,000. The sheriff’s office accounts for more of the general fund budget than any other department in the county, she added. The sheriff has been a team player, McDaniel said, but he’s very concerned about the serviceability levels. She said she understands that concern.
D. Smith also asked about the proposed reduction in contract deputies, from 81 to 79. McDaniel explained that the number of contract deputy positions depends on whether other municipalities contract with the sheriff’s office for those services. It’s separate from the 8 FTEs that will be put on hold vacant status.
Conan Smith noted that last year, there also had been 8 FTE positions put on hold vacant status in the sheriff’s department. He clarified with McDaniel that the proposed 8 FTEs in the new budget would be in addition to those previous 8 FTEs. So the sheriff’s office would be down 16 FTEs compared to two years ago. McDaniel said that a lot of new positions were created when the jail expanded, but there wasn’t sufficient funding to fill them all.
D. Smith told McDaniel that the hold vacant approach is confusing. “If we’re going to reduce the position, we should reduce the position – eliminate it and be done with it. We seem to have no trouble creating new positions at some point later when we want to.” McDaniel replied that departments want to be able to move quickly to fill positions if funding becomes available. D. Smith noted that the board meets twice a month during most of the year, so it wouldn’t be a problem to get approval very quickly. He pointed out that the county supposedly has a hiring freeze, yet departments can fill positions that are on hold vacant status without board approval.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Four-Year Budget
Dan Smith asked about the 1% annual revenue increase, and wondered how that was calculated. Verna McDaniel explained that it was made in consultation with the equalization department – which oversees tax assessments – as well as the treasurer, clerk and finance staff. She characterized it as a very conservative estimate.
D. Smith described the economy as still very volatile. Being off even a fraction of a percentage would have a real impact on the budget. He didn’t think the county could accurately project out four years, especially given recent history. “We’ve been through unprecedented times,” he said, and it’s concerning to make projections so far out.
D. Smith said he continued to be leery of a four-year budget. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t tie the hands of future commissioners because the budget must be approved each year. However, a four-year budget makes a lot of explicit commitments, and that’s very concerning to him.
Some people point to Oakland County, which uses a three-year budget cycle, D. Smith said. But that county has a different form of government, he noted, with a county executive who’s elected and who has equal authority with the commissioners. In Washtenaw County, the appointed county administrator doesn’t have veto authority over the board. He didn’t think Oakland County provided a good comparison.
D. Smith also thought that a four-year budget put a burden on countywide elected officials, who are asked to prepare a four-year budget when in some cases they’ve only been in office a very short time. He gave the example of Evan Pratt, the new water resources commissioner who took office in January 2013.
D. Smith suggested working toward a four-year budget incrementally, by first adopting a two-year budget with an additional two years as projections. He also suggested shifting the four-year period to give the countywide elected officials a year in office before needing to develop their budgets. [Countywide officials – the sheriff, clerk, treasurer, prosecuting attorney and water resources commissioner – are elected to four-year terms by all residents of the county. The most recent election occurred in 2012. County commissioners are elected to two-year terms by the residents in their districts.]
Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) said he didn’t support a four-year budget. There are some challenging years ahead, he said, and adjustments will be necessary.
Conan Smith weighed in, saying he loved the four-year budget process, but he’s uncomfortable about adopting a four-year budget. If a four-year budget is adopted, there would be a strong tendency to stick with it, he said. So if the board adopts a four-year budget, he wanted to feel really good about the investments that the county will be making.
Yousef Rabhi called the four-year budget a “game-changer.” Government in the past has been very short-sighted, he said, and this is an opportunity to change that. “We have the opportunity to lead, and I think we should take that opportunity with the four-year budget,” he said. Rabhi added that he appreciated the concerns expressed by other commissioners, and thought there’s more work to do in determining the community outcomes that the board wants to see. He asked the administration to be explicit about how the outcomes that the board determines will be incorporated into the budget.
The budget is a living document, Rabhi said. It evolves over time, and the board has the opportunity every year – and at any time – to change it, based on priorities and outcomes. He supports the concept of a four-year budget, which he said has the potential to be transformative and ground-breaking.
2014-2017 Budget: Board Discussion – Postponement
Dan Smith moved to postpone the initial vote on the budget until Oct. 16.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to postpone an initial vote on the budget until Oct. 16.
Two items on the Oct. 2 agenda related to the Washtenaw County road commission: (1) the appointment of Barb Fuller to fill a vacant road commissioner seat; and (2) the creation of a new subcommittee to look at possible changes to the road commission.
Currently, the road commission – overseen by three road commissioners – is a semi-autonomous entity that handles the maintenance of about 1,650 miles of roads in the county that are outside of cities and villages, including about 770 miles of gravel roads. Road commissioners are appointed by the county board of commissioners, an elected body, but decisions made by the road commission do not require authorization by the county board.
In the past, county commissioners have discussed the possibility of expanding the three-member road commission, in part because its small size creates potential for violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act. Two members who happen to run into each other socially and wind up discussing policy issues would constitute a meeting that hadn’t been property noticed to the public under the OMA. And some commissioners would like to explore consolidating the road commission with overall county operations.
Road Commission: Board Discussion – Appointment
Barb Fuller was nominated by board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) to fill a seat vacated by Ken Schwartz when he took over as supervisor for Superior Township on Oct. 1. The position is for the remainder of a six-year term, through Dec. 31, 2018.
Fuller, who lives in Manchester, previously served as deputy supervisor in Pittsfield Township from 2008-2012. She provides organizational management and consulting services, and has served in a variety of leadership roles for groups including the Washtenaw Community College Foundation Women’s Council and the Montessori School Board.
In her cover letter, Fuller cited her experience with funding and road-related issues while serving as Pittsfield Township’s deputy supervisor. Among her references were current road commissioner Doug Fuller and state Rep. David Rutledge (D-District 54), a former road commissioner. She is not related to Doug Fuller. [.pdf of Barbara Fuller's application materials]
Only two people applied for the vacancy. The other applicant was Lisa Solomon, an Ann Arbor resident and business analyst with the University of Michigan Parking & Transportation Services, with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from UM.
Fuller would be the first woman to serve on the road commission since Pam Byrnes was appointed in 2000. Byrnes had been the first woman ever to serve on the road commission, but resigned before the end of her six-year term, when she was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2004.
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.
During deliberations, Dan Smith (R-District 2) asked whether Yousef Rabhi had received a letter of resignation from Schwartz. When it was determined that Rabhi hadn’t received an official letter of resignation, Smith moved to postpone action on the appointment until Oct. 16. Smith said Schwartz can’t hold incompatible offices, and he needs to choose which office he’ll hold.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. reported that Schwartz hadn’t attended the most recent road commission meeting.
Outcome: The vote on the postponement was 6-3, over dissent from Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7).
The following night, at the Oct. 3 board working session, Rabhi showed The Chronicle a copy of the resignation letter he had subsequently received from Schwartz. Schwartz had previously sent the letter to Doug Fuller, chair of the road commission, and to the county clerk’s office.
Road Commission: Board Discussion – Subcommittee
In a separate resolution, the county board was asked to create a new seven-member subcommittee to “explore partnerships and organizational interactions with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.” Members nominated by Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) for this subcommittee include four county commissioners – Alicia Ping (R-District 3), Conan Smith (D-District 9), Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) – and three township supervisors: Mandy Grewal of Pittsfield Township, Ken Schwartz of Superior Township and Pat Kelly of Dexter Township. The resolution states that the subcommittee will be chaired by the county board’s vice chair. That position is currently held by Ping.
Rabhi proposed an amendment, which was considered friendly, to formally add a road commissioner to the committee as a liaison. He said he’d received that request from current road commissioners.
This resolution was considered late in the evening, at about 10:30 p.m. Conan Smith proposed an amendment that would give the subcommittee a $10,000 budget for possible research or travel costs to bring in experts on the issue. The proposal seemed to take several commissioners by surprise. He said that given the two statutory issues that would likely be considered – the size of the road commission board, and the road commission’s operational status – it would be helpful to have resources available to do this work. He proposed coming to the county board later with an allocation plan about how that money would be spent.
C. Smith noted that the issue of whether the road commission should become part of the county’s operations – rather than a separate entity – has huge implications for the county. The subcommittee might need time from the county finance staff, or perhaps a consultant. He said the $10,000 budget doesn’t mean it has to be spent, but knowing that it’s available might mean the subcommittee thinks more seriously about the work that needs to be done.
Rabhi suggested amending C. Smith’s amendment to add “or in-kind,” which could include staff time.
Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) said the committee definitely needed to be limited in its scope. His understanding is that Washtenaw County is one of only a few communities in the state that’s considering expanding its road commission. He didn’t think the entire amount should be spent, but there should be flexibility to bring people in as needed. He trusted the commissioners on the subcommittee, and didn’t think it would be wasteful. He thought that the Michigan Association of Counties could be helpful in this effort. Peterson suggested keeping the $10,000 and adding in-kind staff support beyond that amount.
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, pointed out that there were now three motions in play – C. Smith’s original amendment, and two proposed amendments to that by Rabhi and Peterson. He suggested first considering Peterson’s amendment to Smith’s amendment.
Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) objected. “The amendment to the amendment is ridiculous, as is the underlying amendment,” he said. “You don’t need $10,000 to discuss this.” He pointed out that the board had previously debated setting up an advisory committee for the county’s Platt Road site, and there was no budget attached to that. He said he understands the intent and that it’s a complex issue, but “just throwing this on here at almost 10:30 at night doesn’t look good and isn’t needed.”
Rabhi said he appreciated LaBarre’s concerns, and that it was inconsistent to allocate funds to one committee and not another.
Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) said the road commission subcommittee “feels a little bit different” than the Platt Road committee or other citizen advisory groups. It will be looking at a major potential shift in how the county does business, she said, that has huge financial impacts. The people serving on that committee aren’t experts, so it made sense to her to spend some money, if needed, on getting expert advice.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5), who serves as the county board’s liaison to the road commission, said he’s already starting to gather information on this issue. The subcommittee might need a little “pocket money,” but he can’t see the need to spend more than $2,000 or so.
Alicia Ping echoed Brabec’s comments regarding the magnitude of the work. Not to minimize the Platt Road committee, she said, but the decision about the road commission “could change the face of the county.”
LaBarre replied that aside from other issues, C. Smith’s proposal looked like it’s adding pocket money “halfway through the process.” He wasn’t comfortable with that.
Dan Smith (R-District 2) called the question, a parliamentary move to force a vote. A voice vote on calling the question passed unanimously.
Outcome on Peterson’s amendment to C. Smith’s amendment, adding in-kind staff time to the proposed $10,000 budget: The amendment was approved on a voice vote, but was not unanimous.
D. Smith then called the question on C. Smith’s main amendment, as amended. The voice vote on calling the question passed unanimously.
Outcome on C. Smith’s amended amendment to add a $10,000 budget and in-kind staff support: The amendment passed on a voice vote, but was not unanimous.
Sizemore suggested an amendment putting a timeframe on the committee’s work – of reporting back to the board no later than March 31, 2014.
Outcome on Sizemore’s amendment: It passed unanimously on a voice vote.
Rabhi said he would support the resolution, as amended. He hoped that the board would in the future apply more consistency to how it funds this type of committee. He said his earlier comments weren’t intended to denigrate C. Smith’s amendment.
Ping clarified with Rabhi that the $25 per meeting per diem would not apply to these committee meetings.
Outcome on the overall resolution, as amended: It passed over dissent from Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) and Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).
Veterans Relief Millage
A resolution to levy an 0.0333 mill tax for indigent veterans services was on the Oct. 2 agenda for initial approval.
The current rate, approved by the board last year and levied in December 2012, is 0.0286 mills – or 1/35th of a mill. It generated $390,340 this year. 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.
According to a staff memo, the additional revenue is needed to address rising claims, the anticipated release of current active duty soldiers, the increased cost of living reflected in claims, continued increases to demand, and an increased workload due to the Washtenaw County Veterans Treatment Court.
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.
The county board had held a public hearing on this tax proposal at its Sept. 18 meeting, but no one spoke.
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.”
Veterans Relief Millage: Board Discussion
Dan Smith (R-District 2) asked for the administration to elaborate on the need for a 16.7% increase in the millage rate, which would result in about an 18% increase in overall revenues.
Michael Smith, the department’s director – and no relation to either commissioner Dan Smith or Conan Smith – noted that the increase would bring in about $73,000 more in revenues next year, compared to 2013. Last year, the department spent all of the millage revenues, he said, and dipped into its fund balance for an additional $47,000. Projections show the need for the department to again tap its fund balance this year for about $40,000, he said.
M. Smith highlighted trends outlined in the staff memo, which point to an increased demand for services. The population of veterans in Washtenaw County has increased by about 1,000 or so, he said, with additional increases to come. With that increased veterans population likely will come an increased demand for services. He reviewed additional details of the services that will be needed, including reimbursement for burial services and relief for those in need. At this time last year, the department had spent about $78,000 for relief to indigent veterans and their families, including rent, utilities and food. This year, that amount has reached over $160,000.
Dan Smith thanked Michael Smith for the additional information, but said he remained concerned about the “legal machinations” that are involved to authorize the county to levy this millage. He indicated that he might have more to say on this issue during deliberations for the Act 88 millage – another pre-Headlee tax that the county levies to pay for economic development and agricultural-related initiatives.
By way of background, Public Act 214 was enacted in 1899. In part, it states that, “each county shall annually levy, a tax not exceeding 1/10th of a mill on each dollar, to be levied and collected as provided by law… for the purpose of creating a fund for the relief of honorably discharged indigent members of the army, navy, air force, marine corps, coast guard and women’s auxiliaries of all wars or military expeditions … and the indigent spouses, minor children and parents of each such indigent or deceased member.” During emergencies, a county may levy up to 2/10ths of a mill. Most counties in Michigan do not levy this tax.
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) asked how many times have veterans been turned away, because the department doesn’t have sufficient funding? He wondered if $300 per burial – the amount of reimbursement that’s mandated by the state – was enough to cover costs. “My heart tells me that we need to take care of the veterans who served our country,” Rabhi said. He indicated that he’d be willing to increase the millage even more, if additional funding is needed.
M. Smith replied that no one is turned away, and that’s why the fund balance is used. But looking ahead, he expects more revenues will be needed.
Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) expressed concern about the number of hours that the department of veterans affairs was open – it operates on a four-day work week, with extended hours on those days. He wondered if staffing was adequate to provide the services.
M. Smith reminded commissioners that when former commissioner Jeff Irwin was chair of the county board, Irwin had advocated for a “green workplace” initiative. It resulted in many county departments, including the department of veterans affairs, instituting a flex work schedule in 2008. For four days, Monday through Thursday, the department is open from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., M. Smith said. This approach had been approved by the county administration, he noted.
As far as staffing, the department lost some staff at the end of 2011 due to retirements, M. Smith said, but most of those positions have been filled, except for a front desk worker. He expects to hire someone for that job soon. [The recommended 2014 budget calls for a reduction in that department of a 0.47 full-time equivalent position – a veterans affairs coordinator.]
Peterson noted that prior to using this particular millage, the department had been funded through the county’s general fund. He said he supported using the millage to augment that funding, but now support for the department has been shifted entirely to the millage. He said he’s bothered by that. Peterson indicated interest in looking at whether more funding should be provided to keep the office open five days, while keeping the extended hours.
Peterson requested a report from the county administrator that shows funding for the department over the past 10 years, as well as an indication about levels of service provided during that period. He also wanted to know what it would take in terms of funding to bring the department up to a five-day work schedule, with extended hours. Four days a week is unacceptable, he said.
Alicia Ping (R-District 3) commended the department, noting that the relationships that the staff creates with veterans and the services they provide are extremely valuable.
Outcome: Initial approval of the veterans relief millage increase was approved unanimously. A final vote is expected on Oct. 16.
For 2013-2014, WISD will provide services to the Washtenaw County children’s services department, as well as the juvenile detention and daybreak residential programs. WISD has been providing summer school sessions for the county since 2004.
The estimated cost for the 2013-2014 year is $531,347. State funding will pick up most of those costs, with the county responsible for an estimated $146,116. Half of that $146,116 will be eligible for reimbursement from the state Child Care Fund, leaving a net cost to the county of $73,058. The program will include four full-time-equivalent teaching positions and one FTE school social worker.
In addition to the current school year, the county board was asked to authorize renewal of the contract for a second year in 2014-2015.
WISD Contract: Board Discussion
Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) wanted to clarify an item related to financial arrangements of this contract. He referred to Section 6 in the contract:
Section 6. In the event that the actual revenues of the Contractor in the Contractor’s fiscal year for providing services under this contract from the Michigan Department of Education, and/or the United States Department of Education, do not equal or exceed the Contractor’s actual expenditures for providing the services in the Contractor’s fiscal year, Washtenaw County shall reimburse the Contractor for any such deficiency.
The deficiency shall be paid by Washtenaw County within 30 days from the date that Washtenaw County receives written notice from the Contractor of the calculation and amount of the deficiency. The parties recognize that the lag in student count for funding through the Michigan Department of Education may result in a reimbursable deficiency for the Contractor’s 2013-14 fiscal year.
LaBarre asked if the county would be on the hook for additional unknown costs, in the event of a budget overrun. Lisa Greco, director of children’s services for the county, responded that the contract amount is based on student “count day,” using the same formula that the state’s public schools use to calculate per-student funding. So the amounts in the WISD contract are based on projections of the expected number of students in the county’s program, she said. The county would be responsible for any shortfall between the amount it receives based on count day, and the actual cost of staffing.
Outcome: Initial approval of the WISD contract passed unanimously. A final vote is expected on Oct. 16.
Stand Your Ground Law
The Oct. 2 meeting began with public commentary, dominated by supporters of Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
In early September, board chair Yousef Rabhi had announced his intent to bring forward a resolution urging the state legislature to repeal the law, similar to a resolution passed by the Ann Arbor city council on Aug. 8, 2013.
The resolution had originally been on the county board’s Sept. 18 agenda, but was pulled from the agenda before the meeting when it became uncertain that it would win sufficient support to pass, given the anticipated absence of some commissioners.
Even so, several Stand Your Ground supporters attended the board’s Sept. 18, 2013 meeting and spoke against the proposed resolution. And although the resolution was not on the Oct. 2 agenda, supporters of the law again turned out to address the board. Of those who attended the Oct. 2 meeting, 13 people spoke to the board on this issue during public commentary. Only one person spoke in support of repealing the law.
Many of the Stand Your Ground supporters who addressed the board were from outside of Washtenaw County, including residents of Oakland, Macomb and Eaton counties, and several of them wore sidearms. Some were affiliated with Michigan Open Carry Inc., an advocacy group based in Lansing that has been urging people to attend the Washtenaw County board meetings to protest the proposed resolution.
Here are some highlights of that commentary.
Phillip Hofmeister, president of Michigan Open Carry Inc., told commissioners that Stand Your Ground laws have received a lot of attention since the George Zimmerman trial, but that trial “had absolutely nothing to do with Stand Your Ground,” he said. The only thing that the law says is that if you’re in danger, you can use deadly force if necessary to protect yourself or someone else, Hofmeister said. It’s not much of a departure from common law, he said.
Four of the Stand Your Ground supporters were from Washtenaw County. Gordon Schott of Ann Arbor told commissioners that people have an inherent right to self defense, and the Stand Your Ground law enables them to do that. Many of his friends and people in the community that he’s talked to feel the same way. He felt that there was no empirical data to support a repeal. Criminals are starting to realize that they’re not the only ones walking around with guns, he said, and Michigan is safer as a result.
Several other Stand Your Ground supporters who lived outside of Washtenaw County spoke, including one man who expressed disappointment that more people from Washtenaw County weren’t there to advocate for the law. Thomas Partridge, an Ann Arbor resident who had spoken on a different issue earlier in the public commentary session, stood up and tried to address the board again while one of the Stand Your Ground supporters was speaking. Partridge didn’t think that they should be allowed a turn unless they lived in Washtenaw County. Felicia Brabec, chair of the board’s ways & means committee, indicated that Partridge should sit down.
Public commentary continued, with four more residents from outside of Washtenaw County speaking in support of Stand Your Ground. One man addressed the board by saying “Good evening, city council.” Each speaker received a round of applause after their remarks.
Then, Kevin Sharp took the podium. He started by saying he hadn’t planned to speak, but was glad he had come to the meeting. He noted that he’s a long-time resident of Washtenaw County – a comment that resulted in a round of applause from Stand Your Ground supporters. But Sharp then said he felt that the Trayvon Martin case was “an absolute travesty – I think it’s an embarrassment to this country.” He thought the case had a great deal to do with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and he supported any attempt to repeal the similar law in Michigan. The crowd did not applaud Sharp when he finished his statement.
Mary Percell, another Washtenaw County resident, gave an emotional commentary in support of Stand Your Ground. A year ago, there was an attempted break-in at her home. She did not have a gun at the time, she said, and she had felt very threatened. Since then, she and her husband educated themselves, because they wanted to be able to defend themselves. When they went to the class to learn how to use their guns, the instructors stressed safety first, she said. “I don’t want to kill anybody, but I want to be able to stand there and defend myself in my home.” It had taken the police a half hour to arrive, she said, and it might have been possible for the intruder to break in and do harm to her family. She asked commissioners to consider this kind of situation before they vote.
Stand Your Ground Law: Board Response
Several commissioners responded to the commentary. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) thanked everyone who had spoken on this issue. “I come down on a different side of the equation on this one than most of you do,” he said, adding that he appreciated the time that people took to give their views, including those who had come a far way. He hoped the community kept this in mind when the board talks about social services or funding for other community priorities, and that people turned out for those issues too.
LaBarre noted that he and other commissioners had received about 30 emails on the Stand Your Ground repeal. He pointed out that this resolution would be non-binding, and it wouldn’t be applicable specifically to Washtenaw County. It’s a common misperception that a repeal would somehow apply only to Washtenaw County, he said. The law is a statewide law that would require repeal by the state legislature, not the county.
Conan Smith (D-District 9) also said he supported the repeal of Stand Your Ground. Responding to a question raised during public commentary, he noted that it’s not the board’s policy to include the names of commissioners who put forward resolutions. However, he thought that commissioners who had a hand in developing this resolution – including himself – would be happy to own up to it. “It’s not a secrecy thing,” he said.
Smith felt that one reason why Stand Your Ground deserves a hard look is that there’s been a very difference in how the law is applied based on race. Prior to Stand Your Ground, Michigan residents still had a strong right to defend themselves in their homes, he said. Stand Your Ground extended the privilege of self defense in your home to apply to your self defense wherever you go. There might not be anything inherently wrong with that, he added, but what’s happening is that the courts are applying that law in a way that correlates directly with race. You have to be careful about how a law is applied. Triple the number of African Americans are found guilty when using a Stand Your Ground defense compared to whites, Smith said. That’s his major reason in asking for a repeal.
Alicia Ping (R-District 3) also thanked the people who spoke about Stand Your Ground, saying that like the majority of speakers, she also is a supporter of the law. It’s disappointing that the resolution was put forward, she said. The county board is a legislative body, not a lobbying arm, Ping said.
Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) thanked the speakers but said he supported the repeal. He’d gotten feedback on both sides of the issue, and called it a healthy dialogue.
Update after initial publication: The resolution regarding a repeal of Stand Your Ground has been placed on the board’s Oct. 16 agenda.
Micro Loan Program
After postponing action at their Sept. 18 meeting, commissioners were asked to take a final approval to a new countywide micro loan program for small businesses.
Initial approval had been given on Sept. 4, and the item had been on the Sept. 18 agenda for final approval. However, at that Sept. 18 meeting only six of the nine commissioners were present, and supporters of the program didn’t think there were sufficient votes to pass the measure at that time so a final vote was postponed.
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. A resolution regarding the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law had been pulled from the Sept. 18 agenda for the same reason. That resolution did not appear on the Oct. 2 agenda, and it’s unclear when it will be brought forward again.
Dan Smith (R-District 2) had cast the only dissenting vote against the micro loan program when the initial vote was taken on Sept. 4. 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.
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."]
A proposal to increase the Act 88 tax to 0.07 mills will be presented on Oct. 16. A public hearing on that increase will also be held on Oct. 16. That increase is built in to the county administration’s four-year budget proposal, which was presented on Oct. 2.
The county has identified economic development as one of its main budget priorities.
Outcome: The micro loan program was given final approval on an 8-1 vote, over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2).
New Debt Policy
Commissioners were asked to give final approval to a new way to pay off debt incurred from bonding, typically for public works projects in local municipalities. Initial approval had been given on Sept. 18.
The change will 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 recent financial reports 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 voted to restructure 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 loan 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]
Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners unanimously gave final approval to both the debt policy and the debt restructuring for Bridgewater Township.
Public Hearings at Oct. 16 Meeting
Washtenaw County commissioners were asked to set four public hearings for Oct. 16 to get input on items they’ll be considering at upcoming meetings.
Three of the hearings to take place on Oct. 16 relate to:
- An increase to the Act 88 millage from 0.06 mills to 0.07 mills. The millage would be levied in December 2013 and would raise an estimated $972,635.
- The proposed 2014-2017 budget, which was presented by county administrator Verna McDaniel on Oct. 2. The board is required to approve the $103 million general fund budget for 2014 by the end of this year. [.pdf of draft 2014-2017 budget]
- A proposed ordinance that would allow the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog, and to establish that the county treasurer’s office would be the bureau for administering these infractions. The public hearing on Oct. 16 would also cover proposed licensing fee changes.
The fourth hearing, also on Oct. 16, is for a proposed brownfield plan by the Chelsea Milling Co., makers of Jiffy Mix. The plan relates to a renovation of an abandoned warehouse at 140 Buchanan in Chelsea. The company plans to invest more than $4 million in the project. If the project is given brownfield status, it would allow the company to be reimbursed for up to $376,805 in eligible activities through tax increment financing (TIF). The total amount to be captured through TIF over 16 years is $580,677, which includes fees paid to the county brownfield program administration and the county’s local site revolving remediation fund.
Dan Smith (R-District 2) said he continues to be concerned about the lack of an overall policy regarding the creation of TIF districts.
Outcome on setting the public hearings for Oct. 16: All hearings were unanimously approved, with the exception of the public hearing for Chelsea Milling’s brownfield plan, which was approved over dissent by Dan Smith (R-District 2).
A resolution on the Oct. 2 agenda would eliminate the agenda briefings that take place almost two weeks prior to the board meetings. Currently, those briefings – which occur prior to the bi-monthly working sessions – happen so far in advance that very few agenda items are ready, and some commissioners have expressed frustration at the process.
The agenda briefings have had a history of controversy, mostly because of objections raised over the years by Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6). Several years ago, they were held the week prior to each board meeting. Those briefings were attended by most commissioners, and were open to the public. However, they were held in a small conference room at the county administration building, and unlike the regular board meetings and work sessions, the agenda briefings were not recorded for broadcast. Peterson found this objectionable, and did not attend those briefings.
In large part due to his urging, the board revised its approach and moved the briefings to the half hour prior to the board’s working sessions, which are held on the first and third Thursdays of each month from September through May, and once a month in the summer. There are generally very few items on the agenda at that time, and minimal discussion among commissioners. Based on a review of Chronicle notes and minutes kept by the county clerk’s staff, Peterson has attended five of the 15 briefings/working sessions held so far this year.
The original resolution brought forward on Oct. 2 contained four resolved clauses:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hereby amends rule XI, E(4), to eliminate the Administrative Agenda Briefing from the Report of the Administrator;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Commissioners hereby directs the administrative staff to prepare and email a complete agenda packet, including supporting documents to all commissioners no later than noon two Tuesdays prior to a Board of Commissioners meeting
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that all questions and concerns should be communicated to the appropriate Chair no later than noon on the Wednesday prior to the Board of Commissioners meeting
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Working Session meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m., effective October 17, 2013.
Agenda Briefings: Board Discussion
Ronnie Peterson asked how commissioners would be informed of upcoming agenda items, if briefings are eliminated. Yousef Rabhi replied that the administration will prepare a packet and email it to commissioners the week before the board meeting, and that as board chair, he and Felicia Brabec – chair of the board’s ways & means committee – would be available if other commissioners have feedback. The official agenda packet will be printed and provided to commissioners on the Friday prior to the Wednesday board meeting.
Peterson wanted to know where the public discussion would take place to develop the agenda for the board meeting? It appears that there won’t be any public discussion, he said, and he felt the dialogue to develop the agenda should take place in a public setting. He said it’s challenging for him to attend the 6 p.m. agenda briefings, but the briefings still should take place.
Peterson said the commissioners had come out of back rooms and now discuss the agenda publicly, and he appreciated that. It didn’t matter if only one commissioner showed up for the briefing, he said – it was still a public process. Commissioners elect the chair and vice chair to perform certain duties, he said, but it’s up to the entire board – as well as the public – to help set the agenda.
Conan Smith said he bore some responsibility for this change, because he had challenged Rabhi about the process of creating an agenda two weeks before the board meetings. “I felt the timing was off,” he said. He said he hadn’t considered the public dialogue piece, and he understood Peterson’s concerns. C. Smith thought it was a “decent solution” to start with email, then figure out how to engage the public.
Rabhi stressed his commitment to transparency, and suggested possibly posting a draft agenda online and distributing it to the media. The intention is not to hide anything, he said.
Dan Smith expressed concern about the email aspect of this proposal, and the potential for Open Meeting Act violations. He’d hate to even start heading down that path, with the potential that people will hit “Reply All” in order to give their feedback, thereby starting an email thread that could be considered deliberations. He proposed striking the second resolved clause, which mentions emailing the agenda packet:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Commissioners hereby directs the administrative staff to prepare and email a complete agenda packet, including supporting documents to all commissioners no later than noon two Tuesdays prior to a Board of Commissioners meeting
C. Smith supported that amendment.
There was then some confusion about which resolved clause was intended for removal. In response to a query from Brabec, D. Smith said his intent was to eliminate the third resolved clause:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that all questions and concerns should be communicated to the appropriate Chair no later than noon on the Wednesday prior to the Board of Commissioners meeting
Outcome: On a voice vote, commissioners removed the third resolved clause.
However, in announcing the outcome of the vote, Rabhi stated [erroneously] that they had just eliminated the third resolved clause from the bottom.
Andy LaBarre said the briefings have evolved into a Q&A session that pushes back the start of the working sessions. Whatever they do, he suggested that it remains a true briefing and that commissioners can follow-up later with questions and concerns individually, so that the working sessions can stay on schedule.
Peterson then expounded on the importance of the board having a public dialogue. It’s the most economically challenging time he’s experienced on the board, with the issue of unfunded retiree liabilities still unresolved. He said it was strange that commissioners wanted quicker meetings, while they faced a four-year budget with a projected deficit. “You don’t need less meetings, you need more meetings,” he said. It’s not the administration’s agenda – it’s the board agenda, Peterson contended.
Peterson agreed with D. Smith about the perils of email exchanges, noting that a local city council had been caught deliberating via email. Councilmembers had gotten their “knuckles rapped,” he said, and had deserved it. [The reference was to emails among Ann Arbor city councilmembers that were daylighted in 2009. The controversy played a role in the subsequent defeat of former Ward 3 councilmember Leigh Greden in the August 2009 Democratic primary.]
Peterson said that if he received emails from other commissioners that showed they were deliberating, he’d make it public. If the board isn’t receiving the information it needs to set the agenda, “you’re failing as the leader of the board, because that’s your responsibility,” he told Rabhi. Public business should be done in the public eye, he said, not by email or by sending notes to his house.
Rabhi replied, saying that when his leadership is called into question, he must respond. “There is no violation of the Open Meetings Act implied in this resolution,” he said. Rabhi pointed to the third resolved clause, which stated that “all questions and concerns should be communicated to the appropriate Chair.” When D. Smith pointed out that this resolved clause had just been eliminated by a vote of the board, Rabhi replied that he had included it when he wrote the resolution, because he wanted to ensure that the OMA would not be violated. “For that to even be implied is offensive,” Rabhi said. He added that he’s always been a chair who’s valued openness and public input.
It makes no sense to do an agenda briefing two weeks before the regular meeting, Rabhi said. Nothing is accomplished, there are very few questions and it’s not productive. Rabhi suggested he’d support returning to the previous way that briefings were handled, but he noted that “certain commissioners” had spoken out loudly against that. [Peterson had objected to the way those briefings were handled, because they weren't held in the boardroom and weren't televised.]
Rabhi noted that the board members who had attended a working session in early September had discussed revising the way that briefings were handled. That working session had been in the public eye, he noted. [Peterson had not attended it.] Based on that discussion, Rabhi said he’d brought forward this resolution. “I refute the accusations that this process would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. It is a transparent process, and I am open to making it more transparent, should folks feel that it needs to be more transparent.”
Conan Smith said he didn’t feel that Rabhi had ever tried to keep anyone out of the process. The agenda briefing doesn’t work now, he said, and he had confidence that whatever Rabhi proposed would include public engagement.
D. Smith called the question on the resolution, as amended.
There was then some confusion about which resolved clause had been amended out. Some commissioners thought they’d voted to eliminate the second resolved clause, while others thought they’d voted to eliminate the third clause. D. Smith said he intended to eliminate the third resolved clause, to prevent people from starting an email thread when they send communications to the chair. He had no problem with the initial email communication from staff.
LaBarre, noting the confusion, said that “perhaps we ought to figure out what it is we’ve done, before we go ahead and do it.”
Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, told commissioners that anyone who voted yes on the amendment could move for reconsideration. Alicia Ping then moved for reconsideration.
Outcome on reconsideration: The motion to reconsider the amendment was approved over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6).
The board then voted on an amendment to eliminate this resolved clause:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that all questions and concerns should be communicated to the appropriate Chair no later than noon on the Wednesday prior to the Board of Commissioners meeting
Outcome: The amendment to eliminate this resolved clause passed on a 5-4 vote, over dissent from Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5), Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7).
There was no additional discussion.
Outcome on the resolution, as amended: The resolution passed on an 8-1 vote, over dissent from Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6).
Co-op Month, Resolutions of Appreciation
A resolution on the Oct. 2 agenda recognized October as Co-op Month in Washtenaw County. [.pdf of co-op month resolution] Five members of the Inter-Cooperative Council (ICC), an Ann Arbor student residential cooperative, were on hand, as was Kevin Sharp of the People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor.
In addition to those two co-ops, the resolution also highlights other co-operatives in the county, including several credit unions, the Stone School Cooperative Nursery, Dexter Nursery Co-op, First United Methodist Cooperative Nursery, Ypsilanti Food Co-op, Student Buyer’s Association, Farm Bureau, Midwest Organic Farmers’ Co-op, Forest Hills Cooperative Housing, Arrowwood Hills Cooperative Housing, Pinelake Village Cooperative, and St. David’s Co-op Apartments.
In presenting the resolution, board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) noted that he used to live in the ICC when he attended the University of Michigan.
Two other resolutions were in appreciation of businesses that had received the 2013 Business Enterprise Award from the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce: DesignHub Inc., a creative services and marketing firm, and Flatout Inc., maker of Flatout bread.
Outcome: All resolutions passed unanimously.
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: Michigan Association of Counties
Three representatives from the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) attended the Oct. 2 meeting: Executive director Tim McGuire, deputy director Steve Currie, and legislative coordinator Deena Bosworth.
By way of background, in late 2011 the county board voted to cut membership to the organization, as part of a broad effort to eliminate a budget deficit in 2012 and 2013. Dues would be $26,230 annually. Some commissioners have indicated interest in restoring membership to MAC for the upcoming budget cycle.
On Oct. 2, Bosworth addressed the board during public commentary, telling commissioners that MAC represented 81 of Michigan’s 83 counties, but that in reality the organization represented all counties. That’s because the issues that MAC worked on – including tax policy and environmental issues – affected the entire state. She gave a brief update on some of the association’s advocacy efforts. She described MAC’s approach as pro-active. As an example, Bosworth pointed to the fact that big box retailers are appealing their tax assessments, hoping to lower their tax bills and in some cases the state tax tribunal is lowering the assessments dramatically. MAC is advocating on this issue on behalf of all counties.
Other issues include personal property tax legislation and state revenue sharing.
Communications & Commentary: Pension & Retiree Health Care Investments
Dan Smith reported that the board of the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System (WCERS), on which he serves, has started discussing the idea of private equity investing. He said the concept is “rather scary on its surface,” but it might be worthwhile to invest a small portion of the portfolio in this way. It also might provide the county with an opportunity to put some of that money into businesses in Washtenaw County, he said. The discussions are still in the very early stages, he added, and he wanted commissioners to know about it.
Communications & Commentary: Exchange Student
Board chair Yousef Rabhi asked a student who was attending the meeting to introduce herself. She told the board that she’s an exchange student from the country of Georgia, which she described as a small country near Russia, but one with a long history. She’s a senior at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. “I love my school!” she said, adding that she was attending the meeting for a government class. She said she didn’t mind that the meeting was long, because some day she plans to be the head of her government, so these kinds of deliberations are interesting to her. She expected to attend more county board meetings during the year.
Communications & Commentary: Misc. Public Commentary
Tom Partridge spoke during the evening’s two opportunities for public commentary. He told commissioners he was advocating for the county’s most vulnerable residents, who need affordable housing, health insurance, and public transportation. He said he’s a write-in candidate for Ann Arbor city council in Ward 5 on the Nov. 5 ballot, and is advocating for reforms in the city and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, as well as in the county and state. He called for all people to unite on these issues.
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, Oct. 16, 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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