Thursday, August 30, 2012

Parks Millage, Health Care Millage, Law Enforcement Millage

This week I had a County Commission meeting and my first budget hearing. Because the Commission meeting was very long, I will report on that and save the budget meeting stuff until next week and combine it with other budget committees. Sorry this is a little late in getting out.

For the Board, this is the last week that we can put issues on the November ballot. So, it was a busy night. We had two millage requests on the agenda - the Health Care millage passed by the Human Services committee and the Parks Millage defeated by the Finance Committee but brought as a personal agenda item. The third one was a Law Enforcement millage that Commissioner Schafer requested. The Board voted 10 - 4 to allow this to be added to the agenda (resolutions that are late and haven't gone through committee need 2/3 to get on the agenda). During public comment we heard from people both for and against the health care and parks millages. Mostly against the parks millage.

Commissioner Rebecca Bahar Cook lead off by offering a Parks Millage of .52 mills for four years to support regional parks that are county parks or municipal parks contracted to be operated by the county. After hearing in public comment that this millage would only go towards Lansing parks (which was incorrect), I offered an amendment to specify that it was for all regional county parks and local parks that can be considered regional. The language specified that the parks "may include, but not limited to Hawk Island, Lake Lansing North, Lake Lansing South Burchfield, River Trail, and others." I said that this would show some of the options that this money can be used for. Commissioner Vickers said that the language should say "shall" because he believed that this was just an effort to trick the voters then use the money for Lansing. I said that was not true and didn't get to the point of the amendment at all. Commissioner Gerbner said that this new language has no reason to be there because it doesn't say whether or not we are actually going to use the money to support these parks. The amendment failed on a failed 6-8 vote.

We then got into debate on the issue in general. Commissioner Bahar-Cook argued that when looking at mandated versus non-mandated services that the county has to pay for, parks come up first for cuts as non-mandated. She said that parks are important to residents. The River Trail is a good example of a regional park, and Ingham County citizens want expansion of the River Trail through Holt to Mason. Also, segments may go through Meridian and Haslett. The millage could be used for that. She also reminded Commissioners that our Board priorities have included the expansion of recreation for citizens in the past, before having to be scaled back to only maintenance. Finally, she mentioned that there are significant cuts in the proposed budget for this year. 57 beds cut if we close a jail post, sheriff's detective and deputies, Friend of the Court positions, district court positions, prosecutor office positions, county parks employees and others. Creating a parks millage could free up $1.3 million to reinstate these cuts, and the Parks Board could look at the other $1.9 million left in millage to enhance parks across the county. Lastly, she reminded Commissioners that asking for money first then coming up with a plan has precedent. We did this with the Juvenile Justice money.

Commissioner Dougan said that passing this millage would be a disservice to the months that went into creating the budget. He also said that there has been no discussion about the millage and that the Board meeting was the most comprehensive scope of a budget for this proposal. He also said that the budget shift proposed means that this would be a general fund tax increase. Commissioner Tennis said that the Governor has been asking for regionalism and has been basing revenue sharing on it. This millage would help to show regionalism. Locals are being cut, and more and more we need to backfill those cuts.

Commissioner Grebner argued that the language is not great. he refuted the argument that this would be a general tax increase because we have many other millages that take things out of the county general fund and instead are dedicated funds towards specific services - 911, buses, CADL, and a few others. Spinning off parks to a specific millage is not new and not a bad idea. It would create better service and unburden the county. But, he argued that this proposal does not have the details in place that we need in order to do do a millage for parks. He said that there was no written proposal offered and only a rumor that the City of Lansing has requested this. There has been no contact with other municipalities; no contact with the county parks board; no attempt to strategize this; no formal presentation of an idea. Other millages have been talked about and worked out in committee, and this is not properly vetted. Finally, he argued that if passed this would result in wild scramble to get a hold of the money and it is better to figure this out and have a scheme to offer a countywide trail system with attached parks operated by county. He said that this should be on the ballot a year from now.

Commissioner Vickers argued that the process is bad and there is no transparency. He said that it is true that people use the River Trail but don't pay taxes in Lansing, but that the 1/2% of non-resident income tax should cover this. He said that the average Lansing taxpayer pays six different taxes for parks - Zoo, local parks, city income tax, property tax, county tax, and being asked for county millage.

At this point, I weighed in. I reminded Commissioner Vickers that the voters of Lansing approved all of the taxes he mentioned and that the voters should be able to support the services that they want. It is for the voters to decide if they are over-taxed or not. One of the things that I want to see is a reduction or elimination of parks fees for county residents (which were implemented about 11 years ago). I am hopeful that a millage like this can result in an elimination of parks fees for residents. I also reminded commissioners that this is not just for Lansing and the river trail and that only one county park is in Lansing. Burchfield is out-county, Lake Lansing North and South are in Meridian. I agreed that this is rushed and I wish we had it earlier, but the election is November 7th and the need seems to be now. Had the millage been placed on the ballot, I would expect and hope that we would have a plan to provide to the voters in the next month or so that they could consider by November 6th.

Other Cmmissioners weighed in as well. Commissioner Grebner reminded us that the population base is in Lansing which is why we built a park there, and that services are provided where the population is. And said that a regional park system should be focused in the metropolitan area, where the people are. Commissioner Tsernoglou said she supports a parks millage but has tremendous concerns about proposal. What happens with other budget decisions if we don't have a plan for this. What do we do with other budget pieces? We can't assume it will pass in November so how do we create a budget with this hanging out there. She wants to see a plan worked on for next year. Commissioner DeLeon would vote for this if the County Commission commits to having a plan by December agreeing to not assess the millage. Commissioner McGrain said that we are at a crisis point. Parks are the easy thing to cut, yet they are highly valued. He also expressed concern, though, that without a plan now this could be a feeding frenzy. Commissioner Celentino said that he agrees with supporting regional parks, but said that we have a reputation for being thorough and that he is more comfortable for this to go through the committee process. He then moved to have it sent back to the County Services. His motion passed 11-3, with the Democrats all supporting it and the Republicans opposing it.

We next considered a resolution to put on the November ballot a request for .52 mills for health services for low income uninsured families and adults living in Ingham County not covered by the Affordable Care Act. Commissioner Tennis briefed other commissioners on the discussions that we had in committee. He specified that this will help reimbursement rates for doctors so the folks without insurance have a place to go. Very few doctors accept Medicaid because the reimbursement rates are too low. People are having a harder time getting health care from their employer or on their own. The federal government have been giving Disproportionate Share Hospital payments, and these payments are declining. The Ingham Health Plan (IHP) is a great program, and it is critical to maintain it. The Affordable Care Act doesn't cover everybody, and several thousand Ingham County residents still won't have health insurance. How can we pay for those people? We pay for them one way or another. Either we provide programs like the Ingham Health Plan and fund it so that there is prevention, or we pay for them in crisis response via emergency rooms with higher costs and worse health outcomes.

I raised the same concerns that I raised previously in committee. I said that there is massive confusion with health care in Michigan. I think that people believe that we have national health care coming, which is exactly what someone in public comment said. This is not true, but people think it is. I am concerned that this misinformation will result in the millage failing at the polls and I don't want this to negatively impact the IHP. I said that I have been presented focus group information which shows that this is, in fact, the best time to put this to the voters. If people can be given the factual information, a majority could support it. I don’t know that this will be able to be done, but I am ready to give the advocates a chance to convince the voters. We will have more voters at the polls this November than any other election because it is a presidential election. We should have the most people possible deciding on what is best for the working lower-income residents of this county and not wait until a lower turnout August election or a lower turnout gubernatorial election.

Commissioner DeLeon said that she is not on the Human Services committee and was originally inclined to vote against putting anything on the ballot. She previously did social work, though, and determined medicaid eligibility for the Deptartment of Social Services. Public comments convinced her that this is what a governmental body can do for the people when it sees the need. Commissioner McGrain commented that even after Health Care reform, 10,000 people are uninsured in Ingham County. There is definitely confusion out there about whether it is affordable health care or universal health care. People need the benefit and more will need it down the road. Commissioners Koenig and Celentino also indicated support for the Ingham Health Plan and that this is what sets Ingham County apart from others. The motion to put this resolution on the ballot passed 11-3, with the Democrats voting for it and the Republicans opposing it.

The Regional Licensed Law Enforcement millage was up next. Commissioner Schafer, who introduced this as a late agenda item that night, indicated that he asked for this to be put on the docket because he wanted to show the hypocrisy of commissioners if they allowed a parks millage to go to a vote of the people, but didn't allow a public service millage to go to a vote of the people. This was introduced a few years ago but it did not get enough votes to make it to the ballot. With the parks millage resolution being referred to committee, though, he no longer wanted the public safety millage to be before the Board and moved that it be referred to the Law Enforcement Committee. That motion passed unanimously.

That's it. It was a late night. Next up, I will discuss the budget. But that will wait until next week!

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