April snow, 2016
First Ward, City Council
Coffee wakes some of us up
I hold office hours 7:30 to 9 am on most Mondays at the Northside Grill.
The folks at the Northside put up with political talk early in the morning. If you see me there, please wave, and if you have time, please, join me for coffee and a chat.
Caucus is held at 3:30 pm on the Sunday prior to each Council meeting.
The City Council holds a caucus meeting each Sunday prior to a Council meeting. This meeting is an opportunity for members of Council to discuss agenda items -- and pending issues -- with each other in public view. Members of the public are welcome to attend to bring issues to the attention of Council members.
I'm watching the drifting snow. It's April 2, not April 1, so I cannot even pretend this is a joke.
Weather changes are always hard on my body (so are time changes). I get migraines from flickering lights, angles of sunlight, and suddenly changing air pressure. (Not so much from food, although I gave up red wine decades ago.) For some, migraines disappear with maturity. Not so for the sufferers in my family. My father continued to get them into his 80s. Oh, so many good times to look forward to.
When I have a migraine, for some reason, I make things more complex. A simple meal of leftovers will turn into some fantastic creation, because I cannot think of easy things to do. A knitted baby hat will grow horns and complex color patterns, because I just cannot go round and round in circles without doing something weird. Some research links migraine to creativity; some link it to increased risk of heart disease. Since my father lived until he was 97, I choose to think about the ‘creativity’ link.
My spouse finds this humorous. And when he suggests that I’m making things too complicated in my desire to understand and explain them, I remind him of Hildegard von Bingen. Not that I’m seeing religious visions.
This may explain why I tried to write my treatise on local taxes, below.
On Wednesday, April 6th, the City will launch its second Deer Impact Survey, using its A2OpenCityHall utility. In order to take the survey, you will need to be willing to accept cookies (and I don’t mean chocolate chip cookies), provide your (general) location, and your name. You may always request that your survey responses be anonymous. The utility seeks this information to limit the number of times any individual can respond, and to provide general location information – so the responses can be filtered.
All surveys through A2OpenCityHall are ‘opt-in.’ As is the practice, this survey will be open to all. Those who live outside Ann Arbor will be recorded as living outside the City. Equally, those who live in the First Ward may have a different viewpoint on deer management and deer impact than those who live in the Fourth Ward. Any different viewpoints will be important.
The survey closes on April 29.
The City worked with the UM Survey Research Center (SRC) to develop this survey. SRC provided an expert review of the questions in the survey in order to minimize bias. They also pretested questions via a focus group. On their advice, the City has mailed a postcard to 2,500 randomly selected residents (500 in each ward) inviting them to take the online survey. The dates of the survey have been shared on a number of social media sites.
The quality of information collected through a survey instrument is partially a factor of the quality of the survey (does it ask the right questions in the right way?) and partially a factor of who participates. Your participation is vital for this survey to have meaning.
More information about Ann Arbor’s Deer Management Program is available at www.a2gov.org/deermanagement.
Please send me your questions and comments – firstname.lastname@example.org.
TAXES, DA*!@D TAXES, AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT
It’s tax season, and there are taxes. Some of those taxes will be on ballots for your approval. After all, in Michigan, the voters impose taxes on themselves in nearly every circumstance. This is my tax primer, for your pleasure.
Everyone needs a list of definitions sometimes. According to Michigan property tax law, these terms have the following meanings:
Assessed value—The assessed value is determined by a property’s market value. Set by the assessor, the assessed value when multiplied by two will give an approximate market value of the property. The assessor is constitutionally required to set the assessed value at 50% of the usual selling price or true cash value of the property.
State Equalized Value (SEV)—SEV is the assessed value that has been adjusted following county and state equalization. The County Board of Commissioners and the Michigan State Tax Commission must review local assessments and adjust (equalize) them if they are above or below the constitutional 50% level of assessment.
Taxable value—A property’s taxable value is the value used for determining the property owner’s tax liability. Multiplying the taxable value by the local millage rate will determine your tax liability. Taxable value increases from year to year by the rate of inflation or 5%, whichever is lower. Transfers of ownership and improvements to the property will increase the taxable value more than the rate of inflation but never more than the assessed value.
Almost all of local governmental costs are covered by property taxes. The greater the property values, the more the revenue – but that revenue is restricted by the Headlee Amendment. One of the interesting aspects of this is that – the longer you own your home, the lower your taxable value. For instance, assume the City has assessed my home at $200,000, with a State Equalized Value of $100,000. But I bought my house 30 years ago for $58,000, so the taxable value is less than the SEV – it’s $70,000. Taxes on my property are, therefore, less than the taxes on my neighbor’s home. Because she bought her home for $200,000 in 2015, her SEV is also $100,000, but her taxable value is $100,000.
To get a sense of where your property tax dollars go, here’s a chart that shows the current millage rates. (For the acronym-challenged, PRE-Property refers to Principal Residence Property Tax; non PRE-Property refers to property taxes levied against other properties. I had to look it up.)
What’s the impact of this on our tax bills? Local property taxes (the ones that go to Ann Arbor’s government) make up 26.3% of all property taxes – or 16.44 mills. While my neighbor may pay $1,644 annually for City services, I would pay $1,150.
When I calculate these numbers, all I can think about is how little I pay for all the services I get from the City. If you look at your updated tax documents, note the difference between SEV and Taxable value. Which gets us to the discussion of millages.
SCHOOLS, TRANSPORTATION AND MILLAGES
On May 3rd, voters will be asked to increase their property taxes by 1.5 mills – to help Washtenaw County school districts pay for services offered to those with special needs. The millage – which would last for 10 years – would provide about $22 million annually, divided among the school districts in the county, and would increase property taxes. Because providing these services is mandated by the State of Michigan, but funding for the services is dependent upon voter support, the impact on local school budgets if this millage fails will be significant.
Special Education millages are placed on the ballot by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. The millage rate is currently 3.8761 mills; this increase would bring the rate up to 5.3761.
This year we (the voters) will be asked to approve millages to pay for street and sidewalk maintenance and to improve transportation services. Since there are different items on different ballots, I want to highlight what I think it’s all about.
To start with, we all know our streets and roads – not just in Ann Arbor, but everywhere in the state – are in bad shape. In the ‘70s, when I moved here, our roads and streets were wonderful and the envy of many others. Not so much now. Why? Well, you might be surprised to learn that Michigan is dead last (50th out of 50) in funding for street and road maintenance. And – despite rhetoric – the promised increase in funding from the state has not yet been seen by local governments. Local governments have to make decisions about how to provide street maintenance. New services – if the voters want them – also require funding. And that funding comes from property taxes.
Street and Sidewalk millage
On the agenda for Monday, April 4th are two separate approaches to the street and sidewalk millage. Each approach would allow the current street and sidewalk millage to expire and would establish a new millage (at the same rate). The difference between the two approaches is the definition of what types of work can be paid for out of the millage. The City of Ann Arbor’s voters have approved a street millage for decades. This 2 mill millage was increased in 2012 to include 0.125 mills for sidewalks. The sidewalk millage was restricted to maintaining existing sidewalks. This millage is expiring in 2016.
Many residents have requested that the City connect sidewalks to schools, shopping, and other destinations. The recently completed Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force report included recommendations that, among other changes, the City establish a dense pedestrian network – by building and connecting more pedestrian walkways. Finding the funding for such changes remains a challenge. The City staff have requested that expenditures from the millage be allowed for more than routine maintenance – they would like to expand the role of the millage to help fund new sidewalks. Currently, there is no mechanism (other than charging adjacent property owners) to cover the costs of new sidewalks. Some members of City Council want to limit expenditures for sidewalks to repairing or replacing current sidewalks. In both cases, however, the proposed millage amount does not change.
The City has imposed this tax on itself for 28 years. And during that time, the funding from the state for roads, streets and bridges has consistently decreased as a part of the budget.
County Road millage
For the past two years, the County has imposed a millage (0.5 mills) on all properties in order to address serious budgetary shortfalls for road maintenance. Initially, the County believed this millage would be a stop-gap until the State of Michigan found a way to increase funding for roads and bridges. This additional funding has not yet materialized. The County may choose to place a 4-year millage (0.5 mills) on the ballot to raise $7.2 million per year – money that would be dedicated to improving the condition of roads, maintaining existing roads in good condition, and expanding the non-motorized trail system. A portion of this millage would be dedicated to spending in Ann Arbor (and each of the other municipalities). Ann Arbor would continue to use the funds raised by this millage for specific improvements to local streets.
In 2014/15, the City used these funds to resurface Ellsworth Road (State to Platt) — $600,000 (2 miles); Eisenhower (Ann Arbor-Saline to Boardwalk) — $580,000 (1.4 miles); State Street (Eisenhower to I-94) — $350,000 (0.3 miles); Packard (State to Stadium) — $360,000 (0.9 miles); Newport (Miller to Sunset) — $200,000 (0.6 miles); Huron River Drive (city limits to Bird Road) — $120,000 (0.7 miles); Huron Parkway (Plymouth to Hubbard) — $280,000 (0.5 miles). In 2015/16, the City will resurface Dexter Avenue (city limits to Maple Road) — $640,000; Pauline Boulevard (Maple to Stadium) — $370,000; Huron River Drive (Bird Road to Main) — $650,000; Pontiac Trail (John A. Woods to Skydale) $590,000; and Dhu Varren Road (Pontiac Trail to railroad) — $300,000. In the event the 4-year millage is placed on the ballot and then approved by voters, the extent of the street improvements during the next four years is not yet final.
While the State of Michigan has allocated an additional $1.2 billion for road and bridge maintenance, MDOT has indicated that they will focus these dollars on highway and freeway improvements. These improvements are needed, but the local government need is also significant.
Regional Transit Authority millage
Right now, I don’t know whether a millage will be placed on a ballot to establish a millage for the Regional Transit Authority. The RTA’s goals include improved bus transit across County lines and improved rail service. Currently, estimates for this millage range from 1 mill to 1.1 mills. If the millage is placed on a ballot, the voters in Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and McComb counties will determine whether to approve the millage.
I’ve tried to provide some estimates – based on that proverbial $200,000 house with an SEV of $100,000 and a Taxable value of $100,000.
Special education 1.5 mills
$150 annual increase
Streets and sidewalks 2.125 mills
(same rate as currently levied) No increase
County roads .5 mills
(same rate as currently levied) No increase
Regional Transit Authority 1 mill*
* the rate is still under discussion
$100 annual increase
There isn’t much news on trains, or train stations, for that matter. Of interest (to me, at least) is that the proposed train between Traverse City and Ann Arbor is still under consideration.
THE CITY ADMINISTRATOR
Someone asked me why all the candidates for City Administrator were white males. The answer is that nearly every one the search committee saw was male, and nearly everyone was white. The committee selected four candidates who – we think – have the capacity, experience, and skills to step into this role. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) indicates that, as of 2012, 95.5% of all managers are white, and 80.2% are male.
On Thursday, April 14, the City of Ann Arbor will host a public reception for community members to meet the candidates who would like to become Ann Arbor's new city administrator. The event will take place 5:30–7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14, 2016, in the first floor lobby of the Ann Arbor Justice Center, 301 E. Huron St. (adjacent to Larcom City Hall).
Information on the candidates:
Thomas Couch is currently the county manager for Bulloch County, Georgia, since 2004. He previously served as assistant to the county manager for special projects in Henry County, Georgia; county administrator for Coffee County, Georgia; and city manager for Glennville, Georgia. Couch earned a master's of public administration degree from Georgia State University and an undergraduate degree from Eastern Michigan University.
Paul Fetherston is currently the assistant city manager for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, since 2014. He has also served as deputy city manager for Boulder, Colorado, chief administrative officer for the Town of Canton, Connecticut, and town manager for Town of Newington, Connecticut. Fetherston earned a juris doctor degree from Western New England University School of Law and an undergraduate degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Howard Lazarus is currently the director of public works for the City of Austin, Texas, since 2008. He has also served as acting/interim assistant city manager for Austin for 10 months, in 2010, and was the director of engineering for the City of Newark, New Jersey. Lazarus earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Christian Sigman is currently the county administrator for Hamilton County, Ohio, since 2006. Previously, Sigman served as the assistant county administrator, and was also the budget director for the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, and director of strategic budgeting for the District of Columbia government. Sigman earned a master's of public administration degree from Indiana University, where he also obtained an undergraduate degree.
Interviews with the candidates with staff will take place on April 15. On Saturday, April 16, the candidates will participate in public interviews with City Council at Larcom City Hall, Council chambers, second floor. The April 16 interview schedule and any additional details will be posted on the city website, www.a2gov.org, as available.
If you take the opportunity to meet the candidates, please let me know what you think.
The Council will review the results of the interviews on Monday, April 18, and may recommend offering the position to a candidate at the Council meeting that night. If the recommendation is not clear (if there are really high quality candidates and the Council has difficulty selecting one) there will be a special Council meeting on Wednesday, April 20th.
State Representative Jeff Irwin will be hosting a Town Hall meeting on 1,4 dioxane on Monday, April 18th at 6 pm. Council meets that same night at 7 pm; this is the night the Council will see the proposed budget for the first time. If you can, please attend the Town Hall at Eberwhite Elementary School.
With both construction season and event season starting, there are a number of street closures already in the works.
Geddes Avenue: March 14 through November 1, 2016. Geddes Avenue will be closed to through traffic between Washtenaw and Huron Parkway for road reconstruction and utility work. Local residential access will be maintained.
Between Washtenaw and Huron Parkway, eastbound through traffic will be detoured at Washtenaw to Huron Parkway. Westbound through traffic will be detoured at Huron Parkway to Washtenaw. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic should avoid using Geddes Avenue due to uneven terrain, construction vehicles, and deep utility trenches.
Please see the detour map (PDF) for alternative routes
Barton Drive: The entrance to M14 headed east will remain open, as will the exit from M14 headed west, through the summer. Traffic under the M14 Bridge will be reduced to one-way. A temporary stop light has been installed. Temporary road closures on Maple, Miller, Newport and Beechwood will also occur during the summer. For more information, a link to MDOT.
Street closures for events
Saturday, April 2, from 9 am to 7 pm, Monroe Street will be closed between Tappan and State Street for the Monroe Street Fair. (On the diag, starting at noon, the annual Hash Bash will offer many political speakers.)
Sunday, April 3 from 6:30 am to 1:30 pm, streets will be closed for the Ann Arbor Marathon. So many streets that they are difficult to list. However, here’s a map.
After the marathon, head over to Main Street for FestiFools. From 4 pm to 5 pm, the streets will be filled with fools.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016 from 8 to 9 p.m. the following streets will be closed for the Michigan Takes Back the Night special event:
• Thompson St from Madison to William
• William St from Thompson St to South Fourth Ave
• South Fourth Ave from William to East Liberty
• East Liberty St from South Fourth Ave to South State St
• South State St from Liberty to the Michigan Union
Sunday, April 10, 2016 from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m. the following streets will be closed for the Big House 5K:
• State Street from near the Stadium Bridge to North University
• Monroe Street from State to Tappan
• Tappan from Monroe Street to South University
• South University from State to East University
• East University from South University to Fletcher
• North University from State Street to the Bus Shelters
• Fletcher Street from North University to East Washington Street
• East Washington Street from Fletcher to Thayer
• Thayer from East Washington to North University
• Madison from State to Division
• Division from Madison to Hoover
• Hoover from State Street to Greene and Keech (finish inside the Big House)
On the Agenda
CITY COUNCIL MEETS ON MONDAY, APRIL 4 AT 7 PM. Planning Commission meets until April 5th. Each meeting is in the Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall.
As part of its adopted rules (December, 2015) the Council waived the budgetary ceiling for which items could be placed in the consent agenda. The expected outcome was that the staff would not be required to remain until the early morning hours only to have the Council approve without comment or question an infrastructure item, and that Council meetings would be easier to complete in a timely manner – with a focus of Council attention on those items that are particularly important or controversial. These staff-sponsored items don’t deal with development; Council members also continue to introduce their own items on the agenda.
As winter ends, many people start to contact me to alert me to places where the paint on streets has worn off. Every year the City issues a contract to repaint (some of) the painting markings. On the agenda is a resolution to award a contract for pavement marking maintenance to P.K. Contracting.
The streets and sidewalk millage (see below) currently includes funding for the repair and replacement of sidewalks. On the agenda are two resolutions to award contracts for the ramp and sidewalk repair project (Doan Construction) and to trim slightly-raised sidewalk slabs to eliminate trip hazards (Sidewalks Plus USA).
City projects must be inspected to ensure quality work. On the agenda is a trio of Professional Services Agreements for these inspection services (Santec Consulting, Perimeter Engineering, OHM Advisors).
In my heart, I have no doubt that Council resolutions are making Council meetings more interesting.
The City and the DDA established the current parking agreement in 2011. Among other details, the DDA agreement requires that the City receive 17% of all parking revenues; this averages out to about $3 million per year, with the amount slowly increasing. Recently, the DDA has indicated a willingness to open this agreement; one result might be an increase in the revenue the City receives; another might be the transfer of parking enforcement to the DDA. Both ideas have been floated. On the agenda is a resolution that directs the City Administrator to open discussions with the DDA with a possible modification of the City/DDA parking agreement as the goal.
It isn’t common to have two variations of a potential Council action on the agenda, but it can be done. On the agenda are two pairs of resolutions – on part of each pair would put a ballot question regarding the street and sidewalk millage on the ballot; the other part would clarify how the revenue raised by the millage could be spent. The Council could have discussed the two proposals by using the mechanism of amending a resolution, but by publishing both versions, the community is able to see the differences between the proposals.
The staff have recommended ballot language and potential uses for the millage revenue that would expand the options to include using a portion of the funds for filling sidewalk gaps. This version of the ballot initiative, co-sponsored by Briere, Smith and Taylor, reflects that desire. At this time, there are no available funding sources for new sidewalks except to make adjacent property owners pay for the construction, although there is increased expectations that sidewalks will connect with other sidewalks and create a network for pedestrian users. The use resolution makes this need and expectation clear.
Not everyone agrees that the street and sidewalk millage ought to be used for new projects. Also on the agenda is a version of the ballot initiative proposes to continue the current limitation on the expenditure of funds, restricting them to repairing or replacing sidewalks – but not allowing the revenue to be used for any part of the construction of new sidewalks. This version of the ballot initiative, co-sponsored by Eaton and Lumm, reflects that expectation, which is made explicit in the use resolution.
Only one of these ballot initiatives will appear on the ballot. If you have comments, questions or suggestions, please weigh in.
There are always other items on the agenda, including street closures and easements. If you have questions or concerns about any item, please let me know.
The City Administrator will present the draft 2016-2017 budget on April 18th.
On April 19th, the Planning Commission will hold public hearings on the following:
Proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance (Chapter 55) and Off-Street Parking Ordinance (Chapter 59) of the Ann Arbor City Code to revise the premium floor area options in downtown zoning districts and supporting regulations to the planned project modifications and the off-street parking requirements. Amended sections include §5:10.19 (Downtown Zoning and Character Overlay Districts), §5:64 and §5:65 (Premiums), §5:68 and §5:70 (Planned Projects), and §5:169 (Special Parking District). The proposed amendments change the required conditions to acquire premium floor area; create a two-tiered program to acquire bonus floor area in the D1 and D2 districts; offer incentives for residential uses, workforce housing, energy efficiency and certifications; introduce building design requirements; allow design requirement modifications with planned projects; and, limit the maximum amount of private off-street parking. A complete draft of the proposed amendments is available at www.a2gov.org/premiums.
Proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance (Chapter 55) of the Ann Arbor City Code. Accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) are proposed to be a permitted use in part of the existing home (in the basement, attic or addition), as well as in an existing detached accessory structure such as a garage or carriage house located in the R1A, R1B, R1C, R1D, R1E (Single-Family Dwelling) or R2A (Two-Family Dwelling) Districts. To build an ADU, the minimum lot size would have to be 5,000 square feet for an ADU with a maximum size of 600 square feet. If a lot is 7,200 square feet or greater, the ADU could have a maximum size of 800 square feet. More information of the proposed amendments is available at www.a2gov.org/departments/planningdevelopment/planning/Pages/Accessory-Dwelling-Units.aspx.
As an important reminder, the Ann Arbor Art Fair will be held from THURSDAY, July 21 through SUNDAY, July 24. This change in the schedule will close streets downtown through Sunday night – but they ought to be open on Monday morning. For information, click here.
April 5, 7 pm.
The Planning Commission will hold public hearings, discuss, and potentially make recommendations on the following development proposals:
Kingsley Condominiums Proposed Conditional Rezoning and Planned Project Site Plan for City Council Approval – A proposal to rezone the property, located at 221 Felch Street, from M1 (Limited Industrial) toR4D (Multiple-Family Dwelling District) with conditions and a proposed site plan to demolish all existing structures except for the building at 214 West Kingsley and construct a 51-unit, 5-story building with covered and surface parking. A planned project modification is requested to reduce the west side setback. The site is 89,480 square feet and is in a 100-year floodplain. Ward 1. Staff Recommendation: Approval
Kingsley Parkside Site Plan for Planning Commission Approval - A proposal to develop a 3-unit, 5-story loft townhouse. The site is located at 213 West Kingsley Street and is 3,168 square feet and zoned D2/First Street Character District. Ward 1. Staff Recommendation: Approval
615 South Main Street Planned Project Site Plan for City Council Approval - A proposal to construct a 6-story, 229-unit apartment building with 6,200 square feet of retail. The development at 615 South Main Street includes the consolidation of 3 parcels into a 86,162-square foot site. The property is zoned D2, and a planned project modification is requested to increase the height to 75 feet. Ward 4. Staff Recommendation: Approval
Balfour Senior Living Site Plan for City Council Approval - A proposal to construct a 4-story senior living facility at 2830-2874 South Main Street, totaling 184,000 square feet with 154 rooms; 74 parking spaces are proposed below grade and 61 surface parking spaces. A landscape modification and wetland use permit have been submitted as part of this proposal. Ward 4. Staff Recommendation: Approval
April 14, 6:30 – 8:30
The City will host a reception for the public to meet candidates for City Administrator prior to any interviews. This reception will be held in the lobby of the Courts-Police facility, adjacent to City Hall.
Controlled Burns through May 27
The City of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation (NAP) will be conducting controlled ecological burns in local natural areas between Feb. 29 and May 27. Burns are only conducted on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., weather permitting. On the day of a controlled burn, signs will be posted around the park, and staff will be available onsite for questions. The fire will be under control at all times.
Where will we burn?
During the spring 2016 season, NAP has permits to burn at the following city-owned sites: Argo Nature Area, Bandemer Park, Barton Nature Area, Belize Park rain garden, Bird Hills Nature Area, Bluffs Nature Area, Briarcliff rain garden, Buhr Park wet meadows, Cedar Bend Nature Area, Dolph Nature Area, Glacier Highlands Park rain garden, Huron Hills Golf Course, Hunt Park rain garden, Kuebler Langford Nature Area, Marshall Nature Area, Miller Nature Area, Oakridge Nature Area, Olson Park, Ruthven Nature Area, Scarlett Mitchell Nature Area, South Pond Nature Area, Sugarbush Park and West Park.
Sometimes I hear about books and want to read them; sometimes I hear about them, feel obligated, but just have trouble getting started.
I’ve been really enjoying Street Smart: the rise of cities and the fall of cars, by Samuel Schwartz. It’s a first-person account of the changes in traffic management philosophy, and traffic engineering over the past 50 years. Well written, insightful, and with local application.
I’ve put off starting Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. I know there is valuable insight and possible ways to address the impact of frequent, recurring homelessness, but it’s also a grim subject. So it’s on the figurative shelf, waiting for a sunny day.