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By Melinda Baird, melindathesuntimesnews@gmail.com

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners narrowly approved ballot language for a proposed “Community Mental Health and Public Safety Preservation” millage just shy of midnight during its July 12 meeting.  The final ballot language passed 5 to 4 following multiple amendments, one of which reduced the duration of the millage from ten to eight years while another delayed tax collection one year.

If approved by voters on November 7, the millage is estimated to raise $15.4 million its first year.  38% ($5.8 million in year one) of the generated revenue would be distributed to Washtenaw County Community Mental Health to help mitigate mental health crises and improve treatment of people with mental health needs.  An equal 38% would go to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office “to ensure continued operations and increase collaboration with the mental health community.”

The remaining 24% ($3.7 million in year one) would be divided among the seven jurisdictions in the county that maintain their own police force in an amount proportional to their 2016 population values.  This money would be returned to the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline, Chelsea and Milan as well as Pittsfield and Northfield townships in the form of a partial rebate because the Sheriff’s Office is not the primary law enforcement provider in these communities.

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Commissioners Andy LaBarre, Michele Deatrick, Conan Smith, Felicia Brabeck and Jason Morgan voted in favor of the millage proposal, claiming the state has forced their hands.  A mounting mental health crisis combined with, and arguable caused by, cuts in state funding for mental health services has placed the burden for crisis intervention squarely on the backs of underfunded and inadequately resourced law enforcement.

Further, previous statements made by County Administrator Greg Dill indicate the current system by which WCSO is compensated for providing law enforcement services to contracting townships is unsustainable beyond the proposed contractual agreement ending 2021.

“Certainly nobody here wants to raise taxes, but if the state and federal government aren’t going to do their job, somebody has to do their job for them,” Morgan said.  “As a local unit of government who has a community of people crying out for help, we have a responsibility and the authority to give voters the opportunity to choose whether they want to help their fellow citizens deal with this mental health crisis or not.”

Several people who work with vulnerable populations within Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti voiced their support prior to the vote.  Given more than half of the Washtenaw County Jail inmates have at least one psychiatric diagnosis, the money could provide a stronger, more cooperative effort between county law enforcement and its mental health department, some said.  It could also fund more restorative justice programs and potentially help interrupt what some allege is a school-to-prison pipeline.

One Ann Arbor resident spoke of his friend who lost her battle with substance abuse.  “With chemical addiction,” he said, “there’s all these boulders you’re trying to push up hill.  And by getting this millage to the ballot, you’re helping relieve some of those boulders.  It’s a wonderful thing.”

But it’s the 24% no-strings-attached rebate for some that, in large part, caused four commissioners to stop short of supporting the proposal.  Commissioners Kent Martinez-Kratz, Alicia Ping, Ruth Ann Jamnick and Ricky Jefferson voted against the millage.

“If this millage is approved, my townships become donor communities to Ann Arbor,” Martinez-Kratz said prior to the vote.  “Ann Arbor will collect millions and millions of dollars off this millage for their pet projects.”  Ann Arbor City Council recently passed a resolution of intent indicating how the funds would be used if the millage is passed.  The resolution prioritizes pedestrian safety, affordable housing and climate change initiatives.

Referring to an amendment passed by majority vote to base the rebate on population value instead of taxable value, Martinez-Kratz further called the rebate “a redistribution of wealth from the townships to the city.”  A rebate based on taxable value, while still problematic, would at least directly return a portion of money back to the taxpayer’s local government, while a rebate based on population value would disproportionately benefit urban areas.

Ping agreed with Martinez-Kratz, saying the proposed financial construct is particularly detrimental to “out-county” taxpayers, who won’t see returns equal to what they are taxed.  “It’s not good when you collect one way then reallocate another way,” she said.

Commissioners in favor of the population-based formula stressed the money would be dispersed equitably, albeit not equally.

In fact, the city of Ypsilanti would see the highest spike in returned funds as a result of this amendment.

“To me, it’s a gesture by this board to stand by what we’re trying to do with our equity policy.  This is an area that is in desperate need.  I, as a resident of the Ypsilanti area, appreciate the increase,” said Jefferson.

In response, Ping countered that “my communities would like a little gesture, too.”

Using 2016 population data, Ann Arbor would receive roughly $2.3 million the first year; Pittsfield Township $737,600; Ypsilanti City $403,400; Saline $175,600; Northfield Township $164,600; Chelsea $99,500; and Milan $75,900.  There are no restrictions specified in the ballot language for the use of this money, which, some pointed out, may not be legal.  And, unlike the county road millage passed last year, the money doesn’t go directly back to the jurisdiction from where it came.

Dexter, Lyndon and Northfield township officials spoke in opposition to the millage during public comment, arguing the proposal is flawed on many levels.  Dexter Township Supervisor Harley Rider said he clearly recognizes the mental health needs across the county and would personally champion a clean, straight mental health millage without the 24% giveaway.

Co-founder Tad Wysor of Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition (WeROC), thinks the millage proposal – including its 24% component – is a fair and equitable way of bringing critical services to marginalized populations.  “The whole county is stronger when we are all stronger.”

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