Board Gets Advice from County Electeds

Countywide elected officials recommend how to allocate surplus revenues; also, board gets briefed on community corrections, sets public hearings for 2 taxes, puts parks millage renewal on ballot

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (June 4, 2014): The board’s meeting featured a discussion of how to allocate a budget surplus – prompted by recommendations from the five countywide “electeds.” The elected officials hope to partner with the county board as it sets priorities for the $3.9 million surplus from 2013. The county’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year.

Kent Martinez-Kratz, Bob Tetens, Catherine McClary, Brian Mackie, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Commissioner Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1); Bob Tetens, director of parks & recreation; county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie; and county treasurer Catherine McClary. (Photos by the writer.)

The board, comprised of elected officials representing nine districts, is responsible for budget decisions. The five positions that are elected by voters countywide – the sheriff, prosecuting attorney, treasurer, clerk/register of deeds and water resources commissioner – head up county departments but must have their budgets approved by the board.

The board is developing a process that will guide budget decisions regarding how to manage budget surpluses or shortfalls, including $3.9 million surplus from 2013 and about $600,000 in higher-than-budgeted property tax revenues in 2014. The county administrator, Verna McDaniel, is recommending that the $3.9 million be kept as general fund reserves. Some county commissioners would rather spend at least a portion of the surplus.

The recommendation from the electeds is to allocate a to-be-determined percentage of any surplus to these five areas: (1) unfunded liabilities for the pension fund; (2) unfunded liabilities for the retiree health care fund; (3) the county’s housing fund, which was eliminated in 2012; (4) the delinquent tax fund reserves, specifically for internal advances on county projects to save bonding costs; and (5) the capital reserve fund or unearmarked reserve fund.

Commissioners made no decision on these recommendations, other than to thank the electeds for their input.

In other budget-related action, the board gave final approval to put a 10-year parks & recreation millage renewal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot. Commissioners also set public hearings for two millages that are levied annually in December without voter approval – for support of indigent veterans and their families; and to fund economic development and agricultural activities. Those hearings, to solicit public input, will be held at the board’s July 9 meeting.

The board also gave final approval to set the county’s general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills – unchanged from the current rate. This is an annual process that includes a public hearing, which was also held on June 4. One person spoke.

A final vote was also taken to create a new committee that will explore funding options for road repair. This follows the board’s rejection – at its meeting on May 21, 2014 – of a proposal to levy a countywide tax for this purpose. No committee members have been appointed yet.

The board was also briefed on work by the community corrections unit, which is part of the sheriff’s department. It provides services that include jail diversion and alternative sentencing options to the Washtenaw County Trial Court, pre-trial services, drug testing, and electronic monitoring. The use of electronic monitoring has increased dramatically, from an average number of cases between 25-30 at any given time in FY 2012-2013, to between 85-115 cases in FY 2013-14.

During public commentary, commissioners heard from David Schonberger, an Ann Arbor resident who thanked the board for passing a resolution last month to oppose oil exploration and drilling in the county. He urged them to use it as a starting point for more action. Specifically, he advocated that the board fund a robust public education campaign and establish an advisory committee to work with Scio Township and the city of Ann Arbor on this issue.

Budget Process

At its Nov. 20, 2013 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners approved a four-year general fund budget for 2014-2017. As part of that process, the board adopted a set of budget policies, which were revised at that meeting to address a process for allocating any revenue surpluses – beyond the amounts that are contributed to the county’s fund balance.

Here are the relevant policy sections:

11. The Board of Commissioners commits to long-term budget flexibility and sustainability, and an adequate level of cash flow with its attention to fund balance. A healthy fund balance is an essential ingredient and the following was considered to determine an appropriate level as a target: an appropriate level to fund at least 60 days of operations, to help offset negative cash flow (primarily from the seven month delay in property tax collections after incurred expenses), and to assist buffering any unexpected downturns. Therefore, the Board shall plan future budgets to meet the goal of a Reserve for Subsequent Years representing at least 20.0% of General Fund expenditures, net of indirect costs.

12. Any annual surplus or deficit will have options for use recommended by the County Administrator in alignment with the community outcomes and processes as outlined by the adopted Community Impact Resolution 13-TBD, presented to the Board of Commissioner for consideration and confirmed by Board action and authorization in July of each calendar year.

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) has been leading the budget process for the board, as chair of its ways & means committee. On May 21, 2014, she presented a timeline for budget work in 2014. [.pdf of budget calendar resolution] Highlights are:

  • July 24, 2013: Board approved budget priorities. (That document was subsequently amended on Aug. 7, 2013.)
  • May 7, 2014: Board authorized county administrator to seek consultant for work on budget priorities. The review and selection process for that consultant is underway.
  • June 5, 2014: Budget discussion on the board’s working session agenda, to discuss the status of any general fund surplus or shortfall.
  • July 9, 2014: County administrator presents recommendation for using surplus or addressing shortfall, based on board priorities. Board to take initial vote on recommendation.
  • Aug. 6, 2014: Final vote set for surplus/shortfall recommendation.

The county had a 2013 general fund surplus of $3.9 million. County administrator Verna McDaniel has recommended to keep that amount in the general fund’s unearmarked reserves, to meet the county’s goal of having reserves that total 20% of the general fund budget.

On May 21, Conan Smith (D-District 9) had expressed frustration at the approach, because the county administrator has already recommended to keep that amount in the general fund’s unearmarked reserves. He thought the process was “turning out to be little more than a rubber stamp of a decision that’s already been proposed by the administration.” Brabec stressed that commissioners will be discussing and making the final decision – which might differ from the administration’s recommendation.

Budget Process: Advice from “The Electeds”

On June 4, board vice chair Alicia Ping (R-District 3) was leading the board meeting in the absence of chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8). She noted that there were “special guests” at the meeting who would be making a presentation to the board – three of the five countywide elected officials: Sheriff Jerry Clayton, treasurer Catherine McClary, and prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie. Clerk/register of deeds Larry Kestenbaum and water resources commissioner Evan Pratt did not attend, but supported the written recommendation that was presented to the board. [.pdf of recommendation] These five positions are informally known as “the electeds.”

Alicia Ping, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) is vice chair of the county board.

Clayton referred to Ping’s introduction, joking that if they are viewed as guests then they should come to more meetings. He said the recommendation speaks for itself, but they wanted to frame it for the board. They understood that the board has the final authority and decision-making for the county budget, and for how revenues are spent. “We respect that,” Clayton said. But the five countywide-elected officials are part of the county leadership too, he added, and are responsible to all 340,000 residents that elected them into office. So they thought it was important to lend their perspective as the board undertakes its new budget process.

The countywide electeds are asking the board to factor in some set-asides for items that will continue to be a challenge, Clayton said. There are no recommendations regarding amounts or percentages, he noted – that determination is up to the board. “We plan on staying available and engaged in the process as you think about the budget,” he said. “We want to be seen as partners, as part of an overall collaborative effort – not as obstacles or as a group that’s trying to get in the way of the process, but quite frankly trying to enhance the process.”

McClary stressed that the recommendation is supported by all five countywide elected officials, and is presented in the spirit of partnership. She noted that several years ago, she had served on the county board, and for part of that time she served with Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6). One of the most important things for the board to assert was its ability to set policy through its budget. “That is your primary responsibility and authority as a board of commissioners,” she said.

The board had taken a momentous step last year when they adopted a four-year budget, McClary continued, “and we want to commend you for that.” But a four-year budget requires being very conservative about revenue estimates. For example, the budget had projected a 1% increase in revenues this year, but the actually increase is about 2% – or about $600,000 more in property tax revenues than budgeted.

In addition, the county recently refinanced some bonds, saving more than $2 million, McClary noted. That amount had previously been budgeted for debt service. [.pdf of press release about bond re-funding] [.pdf of May 28, 2014 bond prospectus]

So knowing that there will likely be unanticipated increases in tax revenues over the next four years, the five electeds are asking that the board consider developing and adopting a formula by which to allocate that money. For example, McClary said the county has “severe” unfunded liabilities for its pension fund – a defined benefit plan called the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System (WCERS) – and for its Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association (VEBA) retiree health care fund. The county is working on a 27-year amortization to achieve 100% funding, but any money that’s put into the funds today will be compounded over that 27-year period, she noted.

In addition to allocating a percentage of any surplus to unfunded WCERS and VEBA liabilities, other recommendations for allocating surplus revenues are:

  • Adding to the county’s delinquent tax fund reserves, specifically for internal advances on county projects to save bonding costs.
  • Restoring the county’s housing fund. (The fund had received about $110,000 annually, but was eliminated in 2012 as the county made cuts to prevent a budget deficit.)
  • Increasing the budgeted amount for the capital reserve fund or unearmarked reserve fund.

By having a plan and assigning percentages to different priorities, McClary noted, the board can strategically allocate surplus funds. She pointed out that the Ann Arbor city council had done something similar at its June 2 meeting – by voting to set aside 50% of the net proceeds from the possible sale of development rights on the Library Lane lot, and put those proceeds into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

McClary said she’d also been surprised by Ping’s description of the electeds as “guests,” calling it exceedingly polite. She again stressed that the five electeds hoped to be partners with the board, giving “on-the-ground information about what it’s like to run a department and to provide services to citizens in this county.”

Budget Process: Board Discussion

Conan Smith (D-District 9) responded to the presentation by quipping, “Thanks, roommates!” He asked McClary to explain the recommendation about adding to the delinquent tax fund reserves for internal advances.

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

Conan Smith (D-District 9).

McClary replied that it’s a topic somewhat separate from any decision to allocate surplus revenues to it. She said the issue can be explored in more detail at a July 10 working session, when she and Evan Pratt – the county’s water resources commissioner – will be making a presentation.

McClary then described the proposal, which she had also mentioned in a presentation to the board at its March 19, 2014 meeting. The idea is for the county to internally fund some of its projects – for drains, roads, public works, parks – instead of bonding. The amount for internal advances would be small – in the $400,000 range or less. She noted that when the county issues bonds, it has to pay a bond attorney and financial advisor, in addition to other costs associated with a bond issue. About half of the money goes toward fees and interest payments, not for the project itself. “We believe we can save the taxpayers quite a bit of money,” she said, by taking care of these financing needs internally, which she called “self-funding.”

When she first became treasurer, McClary noted, there was about $20 million in the delinquent tax revolving fund, and delinquent taxes were about $15 million. So it would have been possible to self-fund some projects then, but the county administration at that time didn’t take that approach. Rather, any excess money above $4 million was moved to the capital projects fund – that’s how the county has been paying debt service for various projects over the last 20 years, she said.

In the past, the county board had authorized keeping up to $4 million in the delinquent tax revolving fund as reserves. Now, McClary is recommending to increase that amount incrementally so that there will be more money for self-funding. She said she already self-funds a small amount of projects, including drain projects from the office of the water resources commissioner.

As another example, McClary said she has discussed using the fund to help the road commission purchase trucks – as the commission typically need about $1 million for five trucks each year. Right now, the road commission is financing those purchases at an interest rate over 3%. McClary said her investment portfolio is earning half a percent. If the road commission agreed to a 2% interest rate in a self-funding arrangement, they’d save money and the general fund would earn more. “That’s the type of thing we want to talk with you about,” she said.

McClary noted that the four-year budget included very conservative estimates on property tax revenues, so there will likely be excess revenues. She told the board that this particular group of commissioners has been very policy-oriented, and meticulous about planning. “We’re thinking this would be a great partnership,” she said.

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

County administrator Verna McDaniel.

Conan Smith agreed, saying the anticipated excess revenues provide a great opportunity to make strategic, systemic investments. It’s an opportunity that the county hasn’t had in many years, he said, and the advice from electeds is appreciated.

Other commissioners also thanked the group for these recommendations. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) asked about the recommendation to put a percentage of excess revenues toward unfunded liabilities in the WCERS pension fund. The recommendation includes a statement that WCERS is “now less than 60% funded, a level defined as below acceptable norms.” He asked McClary to elaborate, saying that it drew a bit of a red flag for him.

McClary said she thought the recent bond rating prospectus had mentioned that the pension funding was low. But it had also mentioned the management of the county and the strategic role that the board of commissioners is playing, she said. Board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) had gone with the administration to meet with the Standard & Poor’s staff prior to the bond issue, McClary said. She noted that she had participated in that meeting via conference call, and reported that Rabhi had conveyed in a very emphatic way the strategic approach that the board is taking. She pointed out that the county was successful in securing a triple-A rating.

The Government Finance Officers Association is the premier organization for assessing standards, McClary noted. LaBarre’s question would be a good one to ask of the county’s actuaries when they present to the board in July, she added. “They have indicated that anything under 60% is getting into territory that becomes problematic,” she said.

LaBarre clarified with McClary that the term “below acceptable norms” didn’t come from an audit or official statement from the actuaries.

Budget Process: Working Session

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) gave an update on the hiring of a consultant for helping the board on budget-related work. By way of background, at the board’s March 19, 2014 meeting, commissioners authorized county administrator Verna McDaniel to hire a contract employee who will support budget-related work this year for the county board and administration. As county administrator, McDaniel has discretion to spend up to $50,000 on professional services contracts.

Two candidates were selected for interviews, but one of them subsequently withdrew, Brabec said. The remaining candidate will be interviewed on June 5, she added.

Also on June 5, the board would be holding a budget discussion at its working session, including how to use the 2013 budget surplus. Responding to a query from Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6), Brabec said that no decisions would be made at the working session, “but we wanted to start to have that conversation.” At some point, the board will develop a document with guidelines that will direct their decisions about allocating any surplus.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Public Hearings for Millages

The board was asked to set public hearings for its July 9 meeting to get input on two millages that Washtenaw county levies without voter approval: (1) for support of indigent veterans and their families; and (2) to fund economic development and agricultural activities.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., Andy LaBarre, Greg Dill, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), standing, talk with Greg Dill, the county’s director of infrastructure management.

No increase is proposed for the economic development millage, levied under Act 88. The proposal is to levy 0.07 mills in December 2014, raising an estimated $1,022,276 in property tax revenues. In previous years, the resolution setting this millage has outlined how the revenues would be allocated. The largest allocations have gone to the county’s office of community & economic development, and to the nonprofit Ann Arbor SPARK.

However, at its Nov. 6, 2013 meeting, the board adopted a new policy for allocating Act 88 revenues, drafted by Conan Smith (D-District 9). [.pdf of Act 88 policy] The policy included creating an Act 88 advisory committee to make recommendations to the board and prepare an annual report that assesses how Act 88 expenditures have contributed toward progress of goals adopted by the board. The policy allows the committee to distribute up to 10% of annual Act 88 revenues without seeking board approval. The policy also allocates up to 30% of revenues to the county office of community & economic development, which administers Act 88 funding.

For support of indigent veterans, 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, Public Act 214 of 1899 – predates the state’s Headlee Amendment. The county first began levying this millage in 2008, and collects the tax in December. Services are administered through the county’s department of veterans affairs.

Since 2008, the county board has slightly increased the rate that it levies each year. In 2012, the rate was 0.0286 mills – or 1/35th of a mill. It was raised to a rate of 1/30th of a mill in December 2013, to fund services in 2014.

The current proposal is to levy 1/27th of a mill in December 2014, which is expected to raise about $540,887 in revenues for use in 2015.

In previous years, the board has taken action in the fall to levy these millages. When queried by The Chronicle about the earlier timeline this year, finance director Kelly Belknap said the required documentation for these millages must be submitted by Sept. 30. “Prior to submitting the required documentation the Commissioners must first approve the levy. So it is just about timing and getting the documents submitted within the required timeframe,” she said.

Outcome: Without discussion, the public hearings for these millages were set for July 9.

Parks & Recreation Millage

The agenda included a resolution giving final approval to put a 10-year parks & recreation operations millage renewal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot.

Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Washtnenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5). Sizemore also serves on the county parks & recreation commission.

The parks & recreation operations millage was first authorized by voters in November 1976 at 0.25 mills for a 10-year period and has been renewed three times. Because of the state’s Headlee amendment, the rate that’s actually levied has been rolled back and is now 0.2353 mills. The current millage expires in December 2016.

If renewed again, it would generate an estimated $3.2 million annually. That’s about half of the parks & recreation annual operating expenses of $6.7 million. Other revenue sources are admission/gate/membership fees charged seasonally at facilities including the Meri Lou Murray recreation center, the water/spray parks, and the Pierce Lake golf course. Funding is also received from state and federal grants as well as private donations. [.pdf of staff memo]

The county parks system receives most of its funding from two countywide millages. In addition to the operations millage, another millage pays for capital improvements and park development. It was also originally levied at 0.25 mills, but has been rolled back to 0.2367 mills.

In addition, a third millage – levied at 0.25 mills but rolled back to 0.2409 mills – funds natural areas preservation, bringing in about $3 million annually. It was first approved by voters in 2000, and renewed for another 10 years in 2010.

The county’s parks & recreation department is overseen by a separate entity – the parks & recreation commission – whose members are appointed by the county board. The county board has the authority to put a parks millage proposal on the ballot, but does not authorize expenditure of the funds. That responsibility rests with the parks & recreation commission. The group meets monthly at the parks & recreation office at County Farm Park, and its meetings are open to the public.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board gave final approval to put the parks & recreation operations millage renewal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot.

General Operating Millage

The June 4 meeting included a final vote to set the county’s 2014 general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills – unchanged from the current rate. This is an annual process that includes a public hearing, which was also held on June 4. One person – Thomas Partridge – spoke, advocating for more resources to provide services for the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Several other county millages are levied separately: emergency communications (0.2000 mills), the Huron Clinton Metroparks Authority (0.2146 mills), two for county parks and recreation (for operations at 0.2353 mills and capital improvements at 0.2367 mills) and for the natural areas preservation program (0.2409 mills). That brings the total county millage rate levied in July to 5.6768 mills, a rate that’s also unchanged from 2013. [.pdf of staff memo]

This is a mandatory procedural action, not a vote to levy new taxes. With a few minor exceptions, the county board does not have authority to levy taxes independently. Millage increases, new millages or an action to reset a millage at its original rate (known as a Headlee override) would require voter approval.

The rates will be included on the July tax bills for property owners in Washtenaw County.

Outcome: The millage rate was set by a unanimous vote, without discussion.

Community Corrections

A request to approve the application for a $421,900 state community corrections grant appeared on the June 4 agenda.

Judy Foy, Jerry Clayton, Renee Wilson, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Sheriff Jerry Clayton talks with Judy Foy, left, and Renee Wilson, director of community corrections. Foy serves on the community corrections advisory board.

The grant from the Michigan Dept. of Corrections is for the period from Oct. 1, 2014 through Sept. 30, 2015. This is part of a regular, annual grant process to fund services that include diversion and alternative sentencing options to the Washtenaw County Trial Court, pre-trial services, drug testing, electronic monitoring and “social education,” according to a staff memo. The total program of $1.18 million also includes $240,983 in county matching funds, $280,584 in estimated program revenue, and $239,554 in the use of fund balance. The community corrections program is part of the county sheriff’s office. [.pdf of staff memo] [.pdf of grant application]

This year’s program includes a new position – with a salary range between $31,912 and $43,674 – to help supervise a substantial increase in use of electronic monitoring by all Washtenaw County courts, for pretrial and sentenced offenders as an alternative to jail. According to the staff memo, the use of electronic monitoring increased 256% over the previous fiscal year. Average electronic monitoring cases for FY 2012-13 were between 25-30 at any given time, and increased to between 85-115 cases in FY 2013-14. Increased revenue from the electronic monitoring program and use of fund balance will be used to fund the increase in staffing.

The grant was submitted to the state in May.

Community Corrections: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) described community corrections as a “gem” that most residents aren’t aware of. She asked for more information about the increase in the number of people who are served through this program.

Renee Wilson, community corrections director, replied that there’s been a constant increase over the past two or three years, for a variety of reasons. Community corrections has established itself as a service for the courts and county prosecutor’s office that they have confidence in, she said, in terms of pre-trial supervision. Systemically, she added, the county is approaching the management of jail overcrowding better than in the past, diverting people who don’t need to be in jail during the pre-trial period by using community corrections.

Jerry Clayton, Felicia Brabec, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Sheriff Jerry Clayton and commissioner Felicia Brabec (D-District 4).

There’s also been an increase in drug testing. “We’ve pretty much become the sole provider of drug-testing services to all of Washtenaw County,” Wilson said. In past years, there were some private entities that provided those services, but the courts have moved to looking at community corrections for that service, she said.

The case load for electronic monitoring is another area that’s increased, Wilson noted. One factor is the increase in specialty courts throughout the county, which each have different requirements for services, including electronic monitoring. Also, the 14-A District Court no longer runs its own tether program, she noted, so that’s coming to community corrections as well.

Courts are doing risk assessment for pre-trial offenders, Wilson explained. Court magistrates, prior to every arraignment, identify people who would be appropriate to release on bond, and determine what type of supervision would be appropriate for them. Some of those people are being referred to the electronic monitoring program, she said.

Brabec asked Wilson to talk about the number of jail beds saved by this approach. According to Wilson, from 2010 to 2013, the diversion efforts resulted in 91,375 jail bed days that weren’t used, saving the county $11,513,250. Wilson noted that these figures only included “successful completions” for all pre-trial and sentenced supervision programs. That is, the figures don’t include savings from people who were initially part of a program but who were then sent back to jail for whatever reason, she said.

Between 2012 and 2013 there was an increase in the estimated per-day cost of a jail bed per inmate. Prior to 2012, the cost was estimated at $85 per day, based on a study that the county had done in 2003. That figure was updated for 2013, based on internal cost studies done by the sheriff’s office. The current estimated per-day cost of a jail bed is $126.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the grant application.

Road Funding

Commissioners were asked to give final approval to create a new committee that will explore funding options for countywide road repair.

Lew Kidder, Scio Township, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Lew Kidder of Scio Township has been active in road funding issues.

Commissioners had given initial approval to the idea at their May 21, 2014 meeting, after rejecting a proposal to levy a 0.4-mill countywide road tax in December. The tax would have been levied under Act 283 of 1909, which does not require voter approval.

In arguing against levying the tax at this time, some commissioners cited the need to study funding options – including a possible Act 283 levy – before making a decision. The committee will consist of seven members: (1) a road commissioner or designee; (2) the road commission managing director or designee; (3) the county board’s road commission liaison; (4) one additional county commissioner; (5) a position representing townships; (6) a position representing incorporated municipalities; and (7) a member of the general public. Members will be appointed at a later date.

The county administrator will help provide administrative support to the committee. The resolution also states that the county road commission could present a road funding plan at the board’s annual meeting in the fall “as Act 283 of 1909 provides.”

For additional Chronicle coverage on road-related issues, see: “County Board Continues Weighing Road Tax,” “County Board Debates Expanded Road Commission,” “County Board Sets Hearing on Road Tax,” “County Considers Road Funding Options,” “No Major Change Likely for Road Commission” and “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.”

On June 4, there was no discussion on this item.

Outcome: The resolution passed on a 6-1 vote, over dissent from Conan Smith (D-District 9). Commissioners Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Dan Smith (R-District 2) were absent.

Board of Health

The June 4 board agenda included a resolution to create a board of health, an entity that would prove advice on public health issues for the county. Commissioners had given initial approval to the item at their May 21, 2014 meeting.

A description of the board’s duties is outlined in a staff memo that accompanied the resolution:

The purpose and role of a Washtenaw County Board of Health will be to identify public health problems and concerns in the community, establish health priorities, and advise the Board of Commissioners and the Health Department on issues and possible solutions. The Board of Health will serve as advocates and educators for public health services and policies. The Board of Health will provide oversight and guidance to the Health Department, and will recommend a program of basic health services to the Board of Commissioners.

The new Board of Health will have the authority to hear appeals and requests for variances from the local public health and environmental regulations established under the Public Health Code. The Board of Health will have the authority to hear appeals regarding the suspension or revocation of food service licenses.

The resolution creating the health board also dissolves an existing environmental health code appeals board and the hearing board for the Health Department Food Service Regulation. The duties of those boards would be absorbed by the new health board. [.pdf of staff memo]

The recommended size is 10 members, including one ex-officio representative from the county board of commissioners. According to the staff memo, appointments could represent “health service delivery (physicians, dentists, mental health practitioners, administrators); environmental health and conservation, land use planning, food service and nutrition, academia, K-12 education, philanthropy, social service delivery, legal services, and consumers of public health services.”

Members would be compensated for attending each meeting. The total cost for the health board, including in-kind staff support, is estimated at $19,000 annually. The board of health would be expected to convene for the first time in October 2014.

Ellen Rabinowitz, the county’s public health officer, attended the June 4 meeting but left when she was told that the item would be postponed.

There was no discussion on this item, but Conan Smith (D-District 9) moved to postpone it until the board’s July 9 meeting. He did not give an explanation for the postponement.

Outcome: The item was postponed until the July 9 meeting.

Bonding for Malletts Creek Drain Project

The board was asked to authorize bonding for up to $650,000 to fund the Malletts Creek Springwater sub-drain project in Ann Arbor. Bond payments would be made through special assessments against the city of Ann Arbor. The project will include stormwater management improvements in the city’s Springwater subdivision. According to a staff memo, the financing will be made through the state revolving loan fund at 2.5% over 20 years. [.pdf of staff memo]

There was no discussion on this item.

Outcome: Commissioners granted initial approval for the bonding. A final vote is expected on July 9.


There were two resolutions of appreciation on the June 4 agenda.

Gloria Brooks, Arbor Hospice, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Gloria Brooks, CEO of the nonprofit Arbor Hospice.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) presented a resolution honoring Arbor Hospice on its 30th anniversary. It was founded in 1984 by Mary Lindquist, a registered nurse, to provide care for the terminally ill and their families.

The nonprofit’s CEO, Gloria Brooks, was on hand to accept a framed copy of the resolution. She thanked commissioners, saying it was “amazing to have a 30-year journey as we help families experience their end-of-life journey.” Arbor Hospice helps 50% of the residents of Washtenaw County, she said – it’s the largest provider in this county. She invited commissioners to a celebration on June 11.

Brooks received a round of applause from the board and staff.

Another resolution of appreciation honored Roy Wilbanks for his service to Washtenaw County and Eastern Michigan University. Wilbanks, a former EMU regent, did not attend the June 4 meeting.

Communications & Commentary

During the June 4 meeting 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: Oil Drilling

David Schonberger spoke during public commentary, introducing himself as a resident of Ann Arbor from the district represented by Andy LaBarre (D-District 7). He provided a handout to commissioners, in addition to his commentary. [.pdf of handout]

He thanked commissioners for passing a resolution at their May 21, 2014 meeting to oppose gas and oil drilling. He urged them to use it as a starting point for more action. Specifically, he advocated that the board fund a robust public education campaign and establish an advisory committee to work with Scio Township and the city of Ann Arbor on this issue. Schonberger noted that his research shows a gray area in relevant state laws, opening the door to “numerous creative ways to intervene and discourage that particular type of local economic development.”

Curtis Hedger, Conan Smith, Felicia Brabec, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger and commissioners Conan Smith (D-District 9) and Felicia Brabec (D-District 4).

Schonberger cited a 1990 summary judgment upheld by the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit Court in the case of West Bay Exploration Co. v AIG et. al. [West Bay is seeking a permit for oil exploration in Scio Township.] “This citizen action is a statement about documented violations of state law, reckless irresponsibility, intentional corporate misconduct, and gross negligence at facilities located in Michigan,” he said. He added that NIMBY is particularly justified in this matter, and that the risks of such proposed activities in Washtenaw County vastly exceed any potential benefits.

Responding to his commentary, Conan Smith (D-District 9) agreed that the county could be doing more to help people restrain gas and oil exploration here. Educating residents is one of the key ways to do that, within the structure of the current state law, he added. The county “may or may not have regulatory authority that we can leverage, but we can certainly help people to organize, and to use their own property rights to protect their interests and the interests in the environment,” Smith said.

As an example, Smith stated that it takes a majority of property owners to agree to lease their land in order for the exploration to happen. There are also clauses regarding environmental protection that can be incorporated into lease agreements. He reported that the environmental health code board of appeals has been discussing these issues, “and I’ll make sure we continue the conversation at that level.”

Communications & Commentary: VEBA, WCERS Special Meeting

County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that there will be a special joint meeting of the boards of the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System (WCERS) and the Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association (VEBA) retiree health care fund. It will take place on Thursday, June 12 at 1 p.m. in the county administration building’s boardroom, 220 N. Main St. The actuarial reports will be presented for those two plans.

Communications & Commentary: Misc. Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge spoke during both opportunities for public commentary. He urged the board to keep focused on the priorities of ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, expanding public transportation, and providing better access to health care and education. He also supported Democrat Mark Schauer for governor, so that these priorities can be addressed on a statewide level.

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

Absent: Dan Smith, Yousef Rabhi.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 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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