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Posted on Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 5:54 a.m.

Washtenaw County weighs $125K cost of membership in SEMCOG

By Ryan J. Stanton

What is Washtenaw County getting for the $125,000 a year it pays to be a member of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments?

That's a question county commissioners are asking as they consider whether to pull out of SEMCOG, a regional planning body covering seven counties in Southeast Michigan.

A two-year budget presented by the county's administration last month recommends eliminating the $125,000 annual payment to SEMCOG, as well as another $10,000 the county contributes to have SEMCOG act as the region's water quality management agency.


Paul Tait

SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait appeared before commissioners during a budget working session Thursday night to urge them to reconsider walking away.

Tait argued it's important for the county to have a seat at the table in regional planning discussions.

Multiple commissioners seemed to agree with Tait, and none of them expressed any strong interest in following the county administration's recommendation.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, said it strikes him as troubling that the county is talking about canceling its membership in the region's planning body at a time when there's a strong push for regional collaboration.

"We're walking away from the main table, the table where everybody else sits," he said. "I don't know how you leave a coordinated body when everybody's talking about more coordination."

Tait relayed a three-page letter outlining the benefits of membership in SEMCOG, estimating the cost to the county of services provided would be about $1.36 million if SEMCOG were not providing them. That includes forecasts of population, households and jobs for county planning and budgeting, employment data for economic analysis, construction data to track development, transportation data and joint purchasing of aerial photography.

Tait also stressed that SEMCOG has been working on the county's behalf on implementation of an Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail service.

"In terms of the Ann Arbor to Detroit, we have been taking the lead with the Michigan Department of Transportation to get that service up and running," Tait said. "We're doing it on a shoestring, in terms of there's no dedicated funding for this."

However, continued delays in getting the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit service going led county officials last year to begin questioning SEMCOG's effectiveness.

Tait said progress is being made and the Federal Rail Administration just recently approved the cars and engines for the service.

"We just got word this morning actually that we won't have to do some additional, very burdensome, environmental assessment," he told commissioners, predicting there could be demonstration trains up and running by Jan. 1.

"That is the kind of thing that needs a leading champion," he said. "We have been providing that."

Tait said none of the other six counties that pay dues to SEMCOG have indicated any intention of canceling their membership.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, spoke in favor of maintaining membership in SEMCOG. He's one of the county's appointed delegates.

"I think one of the values of SEMCOG that I can speak to is the value of being part of a regional conversation and being at the same table with folks from the city of Detroit, folks from Macomb County, folks from Oakland County," he said. "And whereas we might not agree all the time on everything, a lot of times we can come around the SEMCOG table, and we can have the kind of conversations that are productive and can actually get us somewhere."


Yousef Rabhi

Rabhi agreed the county could derive a lot more benefit from SEMCOG, but he said that has more to do with the level of commissioner involvement.

"SEMCOG provides services that we can and should be using," he said. "If we do in fact choose to stay with SEMCOG, then I think it behooves us to look into what additional services we can work with SEMCOG on. I know that they provide different training and government efficiency programs, and they invited me to a grant management workshop."

He acknowledged finding money in the county's budget to maintain membership in SEMCOG is going to be a challenge, but he said that's why commissioners are at the table.

Commissioner Alicia Ping, R-Saline, is another one of the county's appointed delegates to SEMCOG. She said she's not sure how cancellation of the membership would impact the county, but she suggested maybe it's worth a try for a year or two to find out.

"And then we could rejoin," she said. "You know, there are other communities in our county that are still members of SEMCOG, so it's not like the whole county is going to go without."

Tait said SEMCOG is providing economic development and strategic planning services benefiting Washtenaw County, including work related to Aerotropolis, a county-backed initiative to unify seven communities and two counties around the development of a commercial hub that capitalizes on the 60,000 acres between Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports.

Tait also specifically cited technical support being provided by SEMCOG for corridor work on Washtenaw Avenue.

SEMCOG also is helping to make the county more competitive for state and federal transportation grants, Tait said.

Additionally, SEMCOG is handling preparation of county stormwater permits and assisting in compliance with air pollution standards.

SEMCOG membership also provides a forum for Washtenaw County to demonstrate its leadership and best practices, contributing to the progress of the region, Tait said.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's e-mail newsletters.



Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 3:33 a.m.

Another layer of useless government that provides nothing but a gathering place for useless members of government to toot their own horns and put fancy names on their campaign resumes.


Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 9:23 p.m.

Pull out and then join back up when you have the money. That's what prudent people do when they are broke.

Vivienne Armentrout

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 3:21 p.m.

SEMCOG is a planning organization. The dues pay for many lower-level staffers who labor away collecting statistics and producing reports. They are supported by dues from local governments in the SE Michigan region and serve a quasi-governmental role in this collection and analysis of data. They also promote regional cooperation. I have not seen reports of how much the county is paying in dues <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> to the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. County commissioner Conan Smith is the executive director of this organization. I'm not sure how the activities of the Alliance and SEMCOG overlap and to what extent they are competitors. But under Mr. Smith's direction as chair of the BOC, the county has joined the Alliance and also co-sponsors its energy office. I felt that calls for dropping SEMCOG over the single issue of the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail (by Conan Smith and Jeff Irwin) were inappropriate. Most of the failure to launch can be attributed to the lack of Federal funds. Even if SEMCOG managed it poorly, that one issue should not be a determining factor.


Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 2:07 p.m.

I've been in this area for nearly 20 years. It seems like the same things that are being &quot;talked&quot; about now are the same things that were being &quot;talked&quot; about then. There comes a point in time where you have to throw in the towel and find a new way to drive and handle changes. A private business would not exist year after year just by spinning and talking about things without getting something done. Why should this be any different?


Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 11:18 a.m.

So, exactly why does it cost any money to be a member of SEMCOG?


Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 11:48 a.m.

And what are those &quot;valuable services&quot; exactly?


Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 11:38 a.m.

Why you ask Dog? Mr. Tait and the rest of the bureaucracy at SEMCOG need paychecks, health care, pensions and offices in return for the valuable services they provide us.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 10:44 a.m.

I have heard of examples where SEMCOG has provided poor leadership on issues, so perhaps *threatening* to pull out is a good negotiating tactic and an opportunity to get their attention so they get their house in order. However *actually* pulling out would be a huge mistake as Commissioner Peterson notes. We do need to participate in the regional planning discussions and we ought to be part of the push for regional collaboration since this is a key way to gain efficiencies in government operations. As noted in SEMCOG's letter, it is more cost efficient to do some required things at the regional level versus the county level. Whether we like it or not, we are always going to be part of the Detroit region and need effective representation of our own interests when regional decisions are being made by SEMCOG and the other regional units of government.

Basic Bob

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 : 10:16 a.m.

With the population center of Washtenaw County being so close to Wayne County, we need to remain attached to the regional economy. As the population and economy of Michigan contract, this is even more important. Membership in SEMCOG is crucial to maintaining this connection, and we benefit from the services they provide. Don't be shortsighted. We are already well on the way to paying for this membership now that we don't have to pay for any more of commissioner Judge's junkets.