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A Note From the Chair of the Board of Commissioners

The Chair of the Board's Perspective on the Board of Commissioners' Retreat

Commissioner Conan Smith

Over the last several years, the economic downturn has created an environment that anyone in public service finds frustrating.  Needs are high.  Resources are low.  Priorities are unclear, and solutions often seem beyond any individual’s reach.  Here in Washtenaw County, however, we have a long tradition of excellence, and there is an inspiring refusal to step away from the challenge laid out in 1998 for us to create a “World Class Community” even in the face of this new reality.  In keeping with that spirit, the Board of Commissioners is working to craft a 2012-13 budget that empowers our staff and partners to find solutions – invent them if need be – to the highest priority issues facing our community and our organization. 

The Board is approaching the budget this year with a more deliberate process, providing greater clarity regarding those priorities and the changes we seek through the investment of public funds.  Building off of work initiated by Rolland Sizemore when he was chair of the Board, the Board has been engaged in a series of retreats and discussions centered on defining our strategic priorities and providing a framework to help guide the Planning Advisory Team, led by County Administrator Verna McDaniel, as they prepare the Administrator’s Recommended Budget for 2012 and 2013.  That conversation culminates this month with a proposal to the Ways & Means committee to establish a set of decision principles for budget allocations. 

This has been a fascinating and gratifying process.  With four new commissioners and daunting fiscal challenge in front of us, the Board could have easily factionalized.  Instead, we have coalesced around a set of values and principles that will ensure both our camaraderie throughout this stressful time and give clear high-level direction to the budget team.  To be sure, we will disagree at various points about how our goals are achieved and how policy gets implemented, but we have a strong foundation of understanding and common interests on which to build.

The bedrock of that understanding is a recognition that the County exists to secure a decent quality of life for our residents, especially those who are most vulnerable in this ongoing economic crisis.  While we operate within a complex network of mandates, incentives and community priorities, each of our programs should be attuned to this fundamental outcome. 

Although we are not done yet with the prioritization process, six guiding principles have emerged so far that provide a good sense of the direction of the conversation.  The Board has chosen to articulate these as “desired impacts” – the changes to our community and organization that we hope to create over the long-term with the restructuring of county government that begins this year.

Three of those impacts relate to the kinds of services we provide – in other words, what we do:

    • Residents Feel Safe and Secure
      The Board is prioritizing programs that provide both physical safety and more general feelings of security.  Specifically in our conversations we elevated public safety and mental health services, reflecting the different ways that the Board approaches the question of individual security.  Programs that dynamically and creatively bridge physical safety and emotional security will likely find better favor with the Board.
    • Children and Families Do Not Want for Basic Needs
      Broadly writ, human services are one of our top tier priorities.  Providing enough to eat, a safe place to live, and access to health care remains a core function of the Board.  There is a special emphasis on programs that protect children and give them a good start in life, knowing the long-term pay-off for investment in nutrition, early childhood education and the like.
    • Economic Opportunity Increases for All Residents
      While economic development has not been a central focus of the County, the Board recognizes that we must play a role in creating a welcoming environment for job creation.  This means giving greater consideration to the regulatory environment that supports existing small businesses as well as the community development activities that make Washtenaw a top choice for new companies. 

The remaining impacts articulate our priorities around how our work is done, recognizing that the very nature of county business across the state is changing.

    • Services are Delivered Optimally by the “Right” Provider
      As budgets shrink and the demand for services increases, maximizing the opportunity for partnership with private and public entities is essential to maintaining the effectiveness of our programs.  We simply cannot do all the things we used to, so through our “outside agency” allocations and contracts, we will strive for efficiencies that free up funds and develop partnerships that help deliver the services we can no longer do best ourselves.
    • Impacts and Outcomes Drive Investment
      Through its investments in the 2012-13 budget, the Board is supporting a theory of change that is both logical and measurable.  We are articulating the community impacts we feel are most important and defining the outcomes that our service area groups should target over the near term.  The Board is seeking greater accountability from our departments and partners through metrics-based reporting and systems analysis that helps balance our attention to root causes and immediate needs.
    • Structural Reforms Result in Us Living Within Our Means for the Long Term
      As Verna has mentioned in previous posts, this economic situation we are in demands structural reforms that lead to greater institutional fiscal security.  While Washtenaw is in a stronger position than most thanks to vibrant communities and well-managed finances, the external forces driving our revenue streams are beyond our control.  So, to minimize the need to take the organization through yet another round of agonizing cuts in 2014, we seek true and lasting reforms today.  This undoubtedly means significant changes to the composition and compensation of our workforce, given that 2/3 of our investments are in people.  Know that the Board is approaching restructuring with great sensitivity and respect for our staff who have helped make this community such a wonderful place to live.

As the budget develops over the coming months, I challenge you to actively engage in the process through departmental program development, by working actively with labor and management on personnel issues and by communicating openly and honestly about your ideas, concerns and interests with all of us.  The Board holds our staff in high regard, and we are counting on your professionalism, creativity and intellect to help us re-envision county government and show the state and the nation what excellent public service can be.

The Board of Commissioners will consider adoption of the 2012/2013 Strategic Priorities and Budget Decision Principles at the March 16, 2011 Ways and Means Meeting.

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