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Posted on Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 5:57 a.m.

Road tax for Washtenaw County? Commissioners say discussion needed on transit, organizational issues first

By Amy Biolchini


A Washtenaw County Road Commission employee fills potholes.

Lon Horwedel | file photo

Unsatisfied with the conditions of local roads, Washtenaw County leaders feel compelled to develop a long-term solution.

Though a countywide road tax is the first option that’s been floated publicly among the Board of Commissioners, any new funding mechanism developed to pay for road repairs will come with an extensive conversation regarding the structure of county governing bodies, including the Road Commission, as well as the county’s goals for improving its transit system as a whole.

“If we want to fix the roads, we ought to talk about the mechanism to pay for them,” said Commissioner Andy LaBarre, D-Ann Arbor. “I don’t think the state and federal formulas and methods are working to the degree that we’d like them to. There needs to be more of a discussion on what we do at the local level.”


Conan Smith

Andrew Kuhn | For

One thing is certain: Discussions of the future of Washtenaw County roads are sure to bring a magnifying glass to the operations of the Washtenaw County Road Commission and its managing board, as well to the future of the county’s transportation system as a whole.

“We should look at ways that we can create a more resilient transportation system,” said Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor. “I like the idea of finding some kind of funding for roads.”

A major proponent to furthering system-wide solutions on the Board of Commissioners, Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, says the county’s transportation system needs to be a dynamic set of options.

“Our transportation system needs to change to meet the needs of a different kind of user,” Smith said. “We’ve focused on transportation too long as roads as primary and public transit as secondary.”

The time may be nigh for commissioners to take action on road and transportation issues because of several coinciding factors, Smith said.

After the retirement of Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, the next person to take her place could play a key role, Smith said.

“(WATS) is the planning body that would coordinate all this stuff,” Smith said. “If we got an excellent leader in there that understands the potential … that’s a big role they can play.”

Smith also pointed to the recent creation of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority -- which includes the city of Detroit and Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

All of the members of the RTA board have been appointed and seated. The body will begin meetings soon.

“There’s opportunity there to think about transportation differently,” Smith said.

The third pressing factor is the time limits on Public Acts 14 and 15 of 2012, which allow Michigan counties to dissolve their road commissions. The laws sunset within the next several years.

The Road Commission

The Road Commission is responsible for the care and maintenance of all roads in Washtenaw County that are not under the jurisdiction of a city. It is funded through state and federal funding streams, and often utilizes grant dollars for projects for which it has to apply in a competitive system.


Washtenaw County Road Commission employees fill potholes on Ann Arbor-Saline Road in Pittsfield Township.

Lon Horwedel | file photo

There is no funding mechanism for the Road Commission’s activities that comes specifically from Washtenaw County as an entity.

“There’s not much of an opportunity to change the road commissioners’ priorities at this point,” Smith said.

Raising any money locally -- through a millage or other means -- would not come without additional oversight from the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said both Conan Smith and Commissioner Dan Smith, R-Northfield Township.

“Bringing (the Road Commission) under the office of the county opens up options for revenue for the road commission that are otherwise closed. I am not likely to vote for a new road tax under the current structure,” Conan Smith said.

The next 20 years will see a dynamic transformation in the transportation field, Conan Smith said, noting that he sees it as vitally important to making sure there’s a public, governing body well-structured to handle those changes and challenges.

“The question becomes, how is (the Road Commission) best structured to take this to the future?” Conan Smith said. “That’s why I’m interested in bringing in that under the county’s umbrella. We need integrated planning and to have the Road Commission participate. It’s not absent, it’s just a less fruitful conversation right now.”

Dan Smith said he has “… no pressing desire to absorb the road commission board, but if that’s the way other commissioners are going to do it to fix the roads, then let’s do it.”

“I don’t get the feeling that we’re going to take the hit of raising revenue without having the oversight and control of how that revenue is being used,” Dan Smith said. “For myself, I feel that it’s probably inevitable that we absorb the road commission. I want to find a way to do that in a way that doesn’t break the way things are working now.”

Road Commissioner Ken Schwartz, a former county board member, said he fears that move would run the risk of politicizing road repair decisions.


Ken Schwartz

Ryan J. Stanton | file photo

Eliminating the Road Commission board would pit the rural parts of the county against the urban parts of the county, Schwartz said.

Road commissions across the state of Michigan pool resources for liabilities, insurance and to fund lawsuits, said Roy Townsend, managing director of the Road Commission.

The intense focus on roads also makes the road commission board more efficient, Townsend said, citing the approximate 400 resolutions the board passed in 2012.

“They need to establish that they could deliver services more efficiently,” Schwartz said.

As the customers of the Road Commission, the townships have been happy with the way the Road Commission has handled their money, Townsend said.

“We’re a road agency, not a transit agency,” Schwartz said, noting that it would likely add to countywide confusion regarding transit issues. “We know who our customers are, we have good relationships and we know funding mechanisms.

Should the Board of Commissioners have two public hearings and then decide to consolidate the road commission, it would be the “biggest mistake the county could make,” Schwartz said.

“Given the constraints of the system that they operate in … they’re doing all they can,” LaBarre said. “They’re doing it with a system that’s not working.”

Board Chairman Rabhi said he would not be taking a position on the elimination of the road commission.

“If this is a conversation that commissioners want to have, I would facilitate it,” Rabhi said.

Dan Smith said the townships like the arrangement with the Road Commission.

“I certainly don’t want to break something that (the townships) are very satisfied with,” Dan Smith said. “How that happens, I don’t know.”

In 2010, there was talk of expanding the road commission from three to five members, but there was no action taken to do so.

The three county Road Commission board members are paid base salaries of $10,500 per year -- a figure that hasn’t increased in at least 10 years, Schwartz said. They do not receive per diem payments, benefits or retirement savings.

Though the road commissioners are allowed to be reimbursed for their mileage, only Commissioner Fred Veigel requests that his mileage be reimbursed because he lives on the east side of the county, Schwartz said.

Altogether, the Road Commission board costs about $35,000 per year, Schwartz said, noting that amount wouldn’t fund the reconstruction of a gravel road.

Road tax

Washtenaw County officials have considered implementing a tax levy for road work in the past.

In August of 2011, the Road Commission sought a 0.6 mill countywide tax that would have garnered $8.9 million for road repairs.

Had the Board of Commissioners approved the tax, it could have been implemented without voter approval because of state law.

An poll conduct at that time found that 61 percent of the 304 respondents supported the new tax, while 36 percent were against it.

But in December 2011, the Board of Commissioners unanimously rejected the road commission’s proposal.

At that point in time, Commissioner Conan Smith was supportive of raising county taxes in the future once the local economy became more stable.

A countywide road tax would still be a tough sell now, Schwartz said, especially since within the city of Ann Arbor, residents pay a 2 mill tax for their own road improvements already.

The county would likely have to cut a check to the city of Ann Arbor for any additional millage raised within its limits, Schwartz said.

Future talks

Rabhi said talks at the state level regarding finding new road funding solutions have not been progressing, and that the county needs to take charge.

“I don’t think we need to wait for Lansing,” Dan Smith said. “It’s time for us to take the bull by the horns here in Washtenaw County. If that means dealing with transit issues, then so be it.”

The funding aspect should take a holistic view to transportation, Rabhi said, mentioning bike lanes, pedestrian access and alternative modes of transportation.

“There’s an interest from a substantial minority in having this conversation,” Conan Smith said. “If the conversation isn’t very carefully framed, and lead in an inclusive way, I think it runs the risk of failing.”

Conan Smith said his preference would be to pursue creating a task force to bring all stakeholders together in the conversation.

“I would be in favor of involving the Road Commission in these discussions,” Dan Smith said. “I’m not looking to lose the expertise and experience from road commissioners. Now is the time for the public to provide input … We’re all floating ideas.”

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.


martini man

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 2:45 p.m.

Organizational issues etc first ??? Wow it's good to know they will discuss things before raising taxes. But in the end it always translates into tax increases . I guess it's about time that the real working folks of Washtenaw County started paying their fair share. I am sure the politicians in all their frugal wisdom have finally decided to quit letting us slide. Ann Arbor is a shining example of well used tax money, so we should all feel at ease. Maybe the county can hire a few dozen "experts" for several million dollars, to study the situation. Can't afford any boondoggles or else the tax increase will be even larger. ( eye roll )

Alan Goldsmith

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 2:01 p.m.

And speaking of Bob Ficano's good buddy Conan Smith...I thought you would have snagged yet another public service, high salary gig by now, with all your pandering and kiss kissing up to the Governor and Wayne County by now. W can we expect your departure from local County government? Any date set yet? You certainly aren't representing my Ann Arbor district any longer.

Alan Goldsmith

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 1:57 p.m.

So this county tax would mean I don't have to pay my supplemental City of Ann Arbor road tax? And the RTA tax means I don't have to pay my AATA millage? Don't trust Conan 'selling out the County to the RTA interests' Smith for a second when it comes to taxes or public transportation.


Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 5 a.m.

Just exclude Ann Arbor from being double taxed, rather than "cut a check to Ann Arbor". It just seems that we make the tasks and services of government so complicated. Leadership should be concentrating on why the materials and quality of our roads are not holding up before they start increasing taxes. Maybe there are inferior materials being used. Maybe there's a quality issue in workmanship. Lets get an independent audit going. It seems leadership loves to contract studies for all kinds of issues but not this one. Why?


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 10:51 p.m.

Smith also pointed to the recent creation of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority -- which includes the city of Detroit and Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties. All of the members of the RTA board have been appointed and seated. The body will begin meetings soon. "There's opportunity there to think about transportation differently," Smith said. Mr. Smith fix the roads first before you attempt to come up with a wasteful of pipe dreams!

Linda Peck

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 10:41 p.m.

This just makes me angry. We pay enough taxes. Stop stealing money from us taxpayers, City and County Government, for whatever your latest little fad is and fix the roads. Stop dunning us!

Dog Guy

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 6:31 p.m.

Any "road tax" will be diverted to mass transit proposals and evaporate without a trace . . . and some politicians will have rich and grateful friends.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 10:48 p.m.

Must talking about Conan Smith?


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 5:11 p.m.

NO WAY!!!! You guys don't use the funds given to manage the roads properly as it is. How about you make BETTER use of those funds... You can start by STOPPING misappropriation of them to pay bonuses to management...ESPECIALLY when their financial performance have been BEYOND evidenced by the poor budget usage.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 4:47 p.m.

I thought this article was about road repairs and maintenance and how to get this under control? Now Conan Smith is on his bandwagon on get the RTA off on going, you can not have a good transit system in place without having GOOD ROADS, maybe he want a rail system in place like Disneyland, just what we need.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 4:21 p.m.

Meanwhile, the AATA is running on fumes. The recent audit (story on this at shows over 50% decrease on their cash assets just this last year. They'll have some problems when the RTA takes over October 1. My last post, has some historical treatment of the problem. I think some at the AATA are also hoping for a bonanza from the Governor's transportation changes, but I don't think what I'm seeing from the discussion by the BOC is on the same page.

Roger Kuhlman

Tue, Mar 26, 2013 : 5:50 a.m.

AATA should be looking at how to best scale back service to the most profitable routes and cutting costs. It is outrageous that such a poorly managed government business should be making all these plans to expand new costly transportation options within Ann Arbor. Federal, State, and Local governments are definitely not running flush with money they can burn on idealistic but financially foolish transportation schemes of a 'better' tomorrow.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 4:13 p.m.

Wow, if there is any topic in our current civic discussion more confusing than transportation, I'd hate to see it. I've been following it for several years and need to update my transportation page and blog posts, but the changes are dizzying at times. This current discussion bypasses entirely the status of the Governor's proposal to remake transportation policy. Here is a line-by-line summary of his budget proposals. One of the significant features is that he would divert state funding from general grants to localities (which benefit county road commissions and can be used for rural, local roads) to commercial corridors. This could have huge impact on the way Washtenaw County's roads are improved and maintained. Have the commissioners considered how to fold that in? I don't know how the county can "take charge", as suggested, since whatever is done at the state will pre-empt most local decisions. Of course, part of the Governor's problem with his plan is that it requires new taxes and there is little enthusiasm for that. Here is one article on that subject. Under our constitution, up to 10% of transportation funds can be used for transit and other alternative transportation. Perhaps Cmrs. (Conan) Smith and Rabhi are seeking funds for the RTA? It seems to be implied here. There are two different themes in the article: the need to fix our roads and to "think forward", i.e. more money for transit. But I doubt the BOC will find unanimity on which of those priorities will come first.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 9:11 p.m.

@empedocles: 1) the county-wide transit authority was largely pushed by AATA, 2) the County didn't "pull back," all municipalities except the City of Ypsilanti "opted out," 3) Washtenaw didn't "join" the RTA, the legislation automatically included the county.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

You are right about the confusion surrounding transportation issues. Just last year the county proposed a county-wide authority then pulled back at the last minute. Also, Washtenaw County joined the RTA to the great disappointment of the city of Ann Arbor. The Governor is trying to create funding for transportation, but until a bill is signed into law the County Board would only be guessing what structure is the best. It is so disappointing that the comments display a wide range of incorrect information about basic transportation and taxation law in Michigan. Until the public is educated and a good proposal brought forth, no tax would be supported. Nor should it be.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 3:55 p.m.

The residents of western Washtenaw County not in in cities/villages get next to nothing for our county tax dollars. Our gravel roads are poorly maintained and Enbridge is making them worse, with little accountability. There is NO WAY anyone I know is my township will vote for any tax for roads without a transparent plan for an equitable distribution of funds. As I have repeatedly posted, my daily drive into Livingston County on county roads is proof positive that the Washtenaw County Road commission is inept and inefficient.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:59 p.m.

I can't support new taxes for the road commission who essentially gave Enbridge a free pass to violate the seasonal weight restrictions on our County roadways. Perhaps our county needs an emergency common sense manager.

Basic Bob

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

That free pass cost over $1 million.

Basic Bob

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:54 p.m.

Commissioners Conan Smith, Rabhi, and LaBarre represent residents of the city of Ann Arbor, who do not depend on the services of the county road commission. For these three to have any comment on the operations of road commission, or to consider absorbing the road commission into their responsibilities is a blow to the face of those who actually depend on the road commission. These gentlemen only desire to divert money from the road commission to fund city projects. While the road commission appointments are viewed by some as political plum jobs, they aren't very big plums at $875 per month.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

That's over $200 a do little to no legitimate work.... So yes sir....those are indeed PLUM jobs.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:33 p.m.

Why is it that whenever we talk about raising taxes to fix the roads, we end up with a portion of that funding being diverted to "bike lanes, pedestrian access and alternative modes of transportation?"


Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 7:06 p.m.

@Kyle, I disagree with your statement. While I can't quantify the exact number who are aware, I have encountered a great many bikers who don't realize they must also follow traffic rules. E.g., stopping at stop signs, yielding the right of way, and even using lights when riding at night/in the rain...

Kyle Mattson

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 12:56 p.m.

What type of safety class are you picturing Judy? Reason I ask is that it seems most who get to the point of being a daily commuter by bike are aware of most safety actions by the time they get to that level of cycling. Using your thoughts I could see an all-online bike registration process where you first take a quick online class w/ instruction videos followed by a test. Is that sort of what you're picturing?


Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 12:46 p.m.

I agree, I feel bikers should have to 1) take a safety class and 2) pay a fee to use the "bike lanes" and roads if they use them. I support user fees.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

Dear elected officials and county brain trusts: While you are trying to figure out how to pay for ten year contracts, new trucks, new hires and other perks perhaps not known to the general public, could you maybe actually do some work with the money and equipment you have? Our Saline Twp gravel road is awaiting the attention you could give now without "new" revenue. You already have big shiny orange trucks, graders, employees, supervisors with pickups, orange barrels, engineers, etc. Passing by the house with empty dump trucks and road graders with the blade up gives this taxpayer great pause in supporting ANY new county tax.

Tom Todd

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 3:47 p.m.

I know quite a few in the private sector who are making very large sums of money.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

The recent issue of the heavy truck traffic from Enbridge's pipeline construction project destroying many of the roads in the Northwest part of Washtenaw County highlights another issue not being addressed in this discussion among the Commissioners. How does a millage on homes benefit us when much of the interstate and intra state heavy truck traffic crossing our county benefits the average home owner little or not at all? A properly built road could last a hundred years if there was no heavy truck traffic on it. I suggest we should instead be thinking of ways within current Michigan law, to tax trucks transiting our roads, and taking away the huge subsidy we give them today. Why should car drivers and home owners subsidize this activity? If the true cost of trucks traveling on roads was charged to them, more heavy traffic would move on to railroads, which is a more cost efficient way of moving heavy freight. Local deliveries can then be made by trucks fully taxed for the damage they do, so the buyer of the goods they transport pay directly the true cost of those goods without hidden taxpayer subsidies. Throwing more money into a broken system is not wise. We should first figure out our goals, the resources needed and the best funding mechanisms which tie the costs tightly to those that benefit from the public road infrastructure!


Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 12:41 p.m.

I agree with Stephen about commuters into and out of the Ann Arbor area andheaby truck traffic . What I am not happy about is many of these commuters & trucks who use Washtenaw County roads live or come from outside of Washtenaw County, so why not make the business pay to help keep up the roads. I like the idea of a use tax so the people using the roads are the ones being taxed, but I do not know how this can me done.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 3:07 p.m.

@beardown: many of the goods passing through our county and are not sold or used here and just break down our roads.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

"when much of the interstate and intra state heavy truck traffic crossing our county benefits the average home owner little or not at all" So shipping goods made in Michigan (beer, cars, etc) doesn't benefit Michiganders? And you keep mentioning a properly built road. Maybe the bean counters should focus more on properly maintained roads instead of building the perfect road and booting all trucks (you know, the ones we need for commerce) off of it.

Jimmy McNulty

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

999 paper cuts


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 1:02 p.m.

Agree with Narnia -- no more taxes from any government period. No increase in gas tax or registration fees, etc. etc. The citizens are being taxed to death.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:49 p.m.

What is completely lacking in this discussion is a recognition of the big picture issues impacting our local major access roads. Ann Arbor and adjacent areas are rapidly growing jobs and home prices drop steeply the further away the commute to Ann Arbor. As a result the number of daily commuters into and out of the Ann Arbor area are growing rapidly and our major roads are very congested at rush hour. What are we going to do in response? If we do nothing we risk the economic engine driving our success. Who wants to build or keep a business in a place where it's a hassle to get to and from work? Future job growth and even the existing level of jobs may be at risk if we do nothing to come up with a strategy to solve this growing problem.

Roger Kuhlman

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 9 p.m.

Who really wants to populate all of Washtenaw County with suburban and ex-urban sprawl. Endless economic growth is a cancer that will make our area in the future increasingly unlivable and an enviromental disaster place. Time to put limits on growth!

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

@beardown and @basicbob: We are in complete agreement that many of the roads in Michigan are poorly built and use inferior construction materials. In the past I have made extensive comments on that subject!

Basic Bob

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:38 p.m.

@Stephen Lange Ranzini, The county roads nearest to my house were paved in the 1990's and early 2000's. New homeowners paid for the upgrade from gravel through 10-year special assessments. Now, 15 years later, it has become a major cut-through from I-94 to other parts of the community. This is evidenced by the traffic lights which have been installed by the county. Although trucks are allowed to use one of these roads, you won't see any. It serves no purpose other than to connect commuters to the main road network. The pavement is failing in the oldest segment of the road. Could it be because of the poor design, materials, and maintenance? Because this road completely paid by homeowners has not even lasted 20 years with no heavy trucks.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 2:36 p.m.

"A properly built road" Theres the crux. Find me a properly built road in Michigan. All we have are hastily slapped together asphalt roads in which construction is more worried about the time it takes to build than the quality. Look at the new bridge on Stadium. The asphalt section is already buckling and its only a couple months old. I would gladly pay more for roads if they actually build quality roads. Slapping down garbage asphalt roads that last five years and then half arse repairing them is not the answer. But it's cheaper and cheaper always seems to win when it comes to repairing our roads.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 1:15 p.m.

@Tom Todd: A properly built road could last a hundred years if there was no heavy truck traffic on it. Trucks tear up our roads and are responsible for 99% of the maintenance costs of our roads, but trucking firms pay only a fraction of the costs they impose on us. Why should a business that doesn't use trucks subsidize those that are heavy users of trucks?? Why should a home owner subsidize them either? Neither should be forced to subsidize the trucking industry!

Tom Todd

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:57 p.m.

Businesses got a 2 billion dollar freebie,they can fix the roads

Tom Todd

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:30 p.m.

not concerned when I don't see plow trucks, more upset when potholes go unfilled, we take better care of the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 11:06 a.m.

When the current county taxes passed - roads were part of the sales campaign to pass them. Now that the county commissioners know that roads are important, they are doing what they did with the jail, telling people "oh, you don't want to pay for this? Then you lose that and the existing taxes will pay for this." That way the commission gets more money to spend on "PET" projects and the tax payers have to fork over more money for what the taxes included originally. Of course they need more money - they are raising county employee salaries by 30+ percent over the next decade. Plus benefits + medical + allowances + the money never paid back for travel and per diem. Wayne County is only a few years ahead of Washtenaw on the road to county government failure.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 10:28 a.m.

More county taxes? Absolutely not.


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 8:02 p.m.

nobama just approved higher taxes for funding the US government. So at this point? We are being taxed to death.