Standing-room-only audience asks county to reconsider planned cuts to human services programs
Wearing stickers that read "Protect Our Safety Net," dozens of members of the public filled a standing-room-only board room Wednesday as the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners deliberated on a list of millions of dollars in proposed budget cuts.
For more than an hour, speakers from various community organizations, one by one, took the podium to offer emotional pleas to reconsider proposed cuts to human services programs funded by the county.
As part of new budget reduction measures, County Administrator Bob Guenzel is recommending the county eliminate $731,000 in annual allocations for human service programs, some of which help fund child abuse prevention, eviction prevention, domestic violence help and support services for the homeless.
Supporters of Food Gatherers showed up with more than 1,100 paper plates collected during a recent "empty plate campaign." People at food pantries, shelters, senior housing sites and after school programs wrote messages on them about what the county's human service programs mean to them.
"We're seeing accelerating demand and now is not the time to cut funding," said Eileen Spring, president and CEO of Food Gatherers. "People are in pretty desperate need right now and it's not going to go away in the next six months."
Tonight's meeting marked the first time commissioners heard Guenzel's final recommendations for the second phase of cuts aimed at addressing a $30 million structural deficit in the county's 2010-2011 budget cycle. No final decisions were made.
A budget review is scheduled for Oct. 7, with a public hearing on the budget Oct. 22. The board is expected to adopt the budget Nov. 18.
Earlier this summer, county officials identified $14.4 million worth of cuts to be made in 2010 and 2011, including the elimination of 25.75 full-time jobs. But that was only the first of two rounds of cuts.
Now Guenzel is making recommendations to address an additional $5.6 million shortfall in 2010 and a $16.4 million shortfall in 2011. The solutions he presented tonight include $6.18 million in cuts in 2010 and $7.12 million in 2011, with the assumption that savings found in labor costs over the next two years will balance the remaining deficit.
Guenzel is assuming $3.5 million in labor savings in 2010 and $5 million in 2011, but acknowledged negotiations are ongoing with the county's labor unions.
If those labor savings are not confirmed by Oct. 16, Guenzel said the board should move forward on an alternate budget plan with further reductions in general fund support for non-mandated programs like the MSU Extension, Head Start, PORT and JPORT, and Juvenile Detention.
County officials acknowledge the cuts they must make will be painful and important services are being affected. Anywhere between 21 and 88 county jobs could be lost in the second phase of cuts, depending on certain factors, under Guenzel's plan.
Mental health services are tested the most, with $2.4 million worth of cuts proposed.
That includes the elimination of up to 73 full-time jobs, though about 66 of those could stay depending on whether the Washtenaw Community Health Organization continues to contract with Community Support and Treatment Services for vocational services.
About $1.7 million in cuts to basic county services are identified in Guenzel's plan, including a $1.25 million to trial court, $47,000 by eliminating one senior assistant prosecutor, $150,000 in the clerk's office, and $260,000 in the treasurer's office.
Five countywide elected officials last week called on the county board to consider going to voters with a human services millage to maintain funding for non-mandated programs that seem to be competing for dollars with basic county services. That request was made in the form of a letter co-signed by the county sheriff, prosecutor, clerk/register of deeds, water resources commissioner and treasurer.
Guenzel said tonight he has met with the elected officials and thinks it's a definite possibility.
Ryan Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.
Photo caption: An overflow audience listens to budget discussions Wednesday night at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. The board set up two closed circuit TVs in an adjoining lobby to handle the overflow crowd. Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com