Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (3)

Posted September 19, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: politics

We have just witnessed a classic power grab, using dubious methods to dislodge a responsible administrator. Will the City of Ann Arbor ever be the same? Probably not, if the makers of these events are successful.

Ann Arbor City Administrator Tom Crawford

The news hit the community like a bomb. With almost no warning (the July 20 agenda item was posted just the day before) and certainly no foreshadowing, suddenly we learned that our respected and trusted City Administrator was being terminated. Evidently the action was preceded by a couple of closed Council Sessions (these are confidential and secret and do not appear on the City’s calendar). The July 20 meeting provided little information except that he had been accused of insensitive and inappropriate speech toward employees. The report (dated June 29) from an attorney who had been contracted to investigate, Jennifer B. Salvatore, was subsequently released in redacted form after a vote from Council. This news story summarizes some of the report.

Citizens reacted with shock. Of all the City officials we have known for years and rely on, Mr. Crawford stands out. I personally did not agree with him on all counts (he tended to value tax base over other values) but I could always know that his work and conclusions were based on solid fact and knowledge. At a subsequent meeting, public comment was a flood of objection (though not universal).

Councilmembers hastened to explain. Here are three posts with discussion.

Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, 4th Ward

Elizabeth Nelson did not support the move. In a blog post  (An Irresponsible Termination) that contained an extensive analysis together with a comprehensive list of source material, she concludes:

A majority of Council would like the community to believe that the decision to terminate Mr. Crawford’s employment was supported by facts, consistent with recommendations, and dictated by city policy. None of that is true. A majority of Council introduced the idea of termination, based on disputed reports from five people. A majority of Council intentionally ignored other available information and rejected specific recommendations to seek out more information.

Remarkably, the justification for their decision contradicts the investigation report and introduces new, wholly unsupported suggestions of policy violation. The example offered as evidence of “past practice” is a 2019 incident involving a city employee and the then City Administrator. Investigation into the then City Administrator stands in stark contrast to what was offered to Council this week: in 2019, the 112 page report included written documentation, five times as many witnesses, as well as two years of past job performance appraisals of the then City administrator. The tiny scope of the Crawford investigation and the comparatively enormous consequence of the resulting Council decision do not come close to conforming to past practice.

Note: while it is true that a numerical majority did vote to remove Mr. Crawford, CM Nelson’s use of the word here is an oblique reference to the current majority of Council members who support Mayor Taylor and ousted incumbents in the fall 2020 election to seize power.

Councilmember Erica Briggs, 5th Ward

Erica Briggs, who supported the termination, wrote an explanatory post. CM Briggs expresses some regret but insists that Mr. Crawford is disqualified because he does not seem able to administer DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) matters. Her main focus is on the complaints by the employees. City Administrator Investigation contains some interesting context, especially this history:

Ann Arbor’s current City Administrator is Tom Crawford. He was hired as Administrator in September 2020. He served previously as Chief Financial Officer for the City since 2004. In May 2021, some City employees approached Mayor Taylor regarding statements made by Administrator Crawford that they found insensitive and offensive. They did not bring these concerns to the HR Director because the HR Director reports to the City Administrator. In response, Mayor Taylor sought the advice of City Attorney Stephen Postema and a meeting was held in late May between Mayor Christopher Taylor, Pro Tem Julie Grand, Mr. Postema, and Mr. Crawford. Following this meeting, Mr. Crawford authorized an outside independent investigation by Human Resources (HR) Attorney Jen Salvatore to examine concerns about his behavior brought to the Mayor’s attention. Council was notified of this investigation on June 1st. Council was urged to not jump to any conclusions until the investigation had been completed.

Councilmember Lisa Disch, 1st Ward

Lisa Disch, who voted for the termination, sent not just one but two letters to constituents explaining her position. She clearly had some reservations and used the word “struggled” at two different points. CM Disch is fairly new to City politics and this was a hefty decision for a new CM to make. She concludes:

I struggled with the question whether this pattern of remarks rises to the level that warrants concluding Mr. Crawford’s employment. Council received a memo by Human Resources director Tom Guajardo advising Council that to be consistent with past practice in cases like these, separation would be the proper course of action. I cast my vote based on that advice as well as on my own assessment of the import of Mr. Crawford’s remarks.

An Irregular Proceeding

There are many unusual and irregular aspects to the way this sentence was rolled out. One of them is the haste with which it was executed. You might have thought Mr. Crawford was guilty of assault, combined with embezzlement, from the haste in which he was removed from his position of trust and responsibility. The July 20 resolution (item DC 7b) dictated “That the City Attorney work to establish the details of the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as the City Administrator by the first Council meeting in August”. (This was exactly two weeks from the date of the resolution.) Crawford was to be terminated by September 1.

The secrecy with which the process was accomplished was pronounced. At some unknown time in May, evidently a small group of employees approached Mayor Christopher Taylor with some complaints. According to the account by CM Briggs (see above), “a meeting was held in late May between Mayor Christopher Taylor, Pro Tem Julie Grand, Mr. Postema, and Mr. Crawford.” The investigator already had a contract in hand when she began her investigation on June 1. She completed her report on June 29. Council held closed (secret) meetings on July 6 and July 12. Mr. Crawford responded to their concerns with a memo (July 13) in which he expressed remorse for his verbal carelessness, gave himself a five-day suspension, and suggested a plan of study to enhance his DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) skills and practice. Sample: Complete the city’s DEI certificate program. The two remaining sessions are Inclusive Leadership and Tips for Talking about Taboo Topics. It was to no avail.

But at least some Councilmembers were concerned about the secrecy and item DC-7 (introduced by CM Ramlawi and CM Griswold) on the July 20 agenda called for release of a redacted version of the Salvatore report to the public, with the stated goal of transparency. It passed, but not without addition (DC 7b) of the call to terminate the City Administrator.

Investigator Jennifer B. Salvatore

There were many procedural irregularities which would have been questioned strongly if any legal proceedings had been involved. (Mr. Crawford was not represented by an attorney, and he did not contest the decision. He brought in an attorney only to negotiate a separation agreement.)

Ralph McKee, a retired attorney with experience in litigation, wrote to Council with  a detailed analysis of the investigation and the sparse explanation given in an “agenda response memo” by HR Director Tom Guajardo. Mr. McKee has generously given us permission to attach his analysis. I recommend that if you have an interest and time, you read McKee’s statement in whole. But this is not a bad summary:

The investigation conducted by attorney Jennifer Salvatore was incomplete, and her investigative report is incomplete, imprecise, internally inconsistent, and logically flawed. It leaves numerous ambiguities and other flaws that undermine its factual conclusions.

Tom Guajardo, Human Resources Director

McKee contrasts this report with the Stark report, which was prepared in 2019 as an investigation of allegations against the former Human Resources Director, Robyn Wilkerson. Like this incident, the issue was about speech attributed to Ms. Wilkerson. It resulted in her resignation and the management of this situation was implicated (informally and by rumor) in the eventual termination of the former Administrator, Howard Lazarus.  This article in the Ann Arbor News contains many of the details. It also identifies the new Human Resources Director, Tom Guajardo, who began work for the City of Ann Arbor on January 25, 2021.

The Wilkerson case has been used as the antecedent for the judgment of Crawford. But there were significant differences in the investigation and report. In the previous case, there were actual text messages that had been retained. There were 25 witnesses, who were known to the investigator but who were identified only by number.  In contrast, the Salvatore report was based only on comments by 5 employees, and there was no textual evidence. McKee comments (excerpted)

The report, unlike many of this type (such as the Stark report) unfortunately does not identify which witnesses made which complaints and/or other statements.  (I am not suggesting that the witnesses interviewed should be identified by name or position, only, as is typical, by number).  So it is impossible to tell, for example, whether one witness made, say, 5 of the complaints, and the other witnesses one each, or whether one of the witnesses made all of the complaints deemed most serious by Salvatore and/or the agenda response memo. 

… Salvatore uses ambiguous terms like “multiple” and “several”, instead of, say, “3” or, better, “witnesses, 1, 2  and 5”.  This results in some pretty confusing possibilities on key points.  First, “several” typically means 3 or more.  Salvatore notes that “several” witnesses (so, 3 or more) said that they didn’t think they could work with Crawford after the complaints (interestingly, the context suggests that either Salvatore discussed other complaints with each of the complaining witnesses or they discussed them with each other), and “several” thought Crawford “meant well”, suggesting that they could still work with him. 

Quoting from the Salvatore report, “While Mr. Crawford denied outright several of the most troubling allegations (i.e., he denied the comment about hiring minorities; the comment about the African American employee; and the use of the term “the blacks”), I do not find Mr. Crawford’s denials in this regard credible, particularly where multiple individuals either heard the comments or heard about the comments at the time.”  But McKee comments

These conclusory comments, particularly re the “most troubling” allegations, are not well supported by Salvatore’s earlier imprecise descriptions of the actual interviews, and Crawford’s denials are pretty strong as to those particular allegations. 

Again, reading the McKee analysis in full is highly recommended. These excerpts miss many important points made in the full analysis.

According to Salvatore’s own description, she interviewed five (only) employees from remote locations via Zoom. She did not record the interviews, but took notes. She does not indicate that she transcribed the interview (which would be a verbatim account), but merely that she “took notes”. As most habitual note-takers will acknowledge, written notes can be taken in a sort of personal shorthand which necessarily are filtered through the note-taker’s own language usage, thus are subject to introduced overtones. This is particularly concerning since she was grouping conclusions from these different individual interviews.

Salvatore’s analysis and conclusions about the veracity of the complaints were startling. While Mr. Crawford denied outright some of the allegations and sought to give explanatory context to some of the others, she chose to dismiss his denials. None of the individuals who reported the comments had any discernible motive to lie about them.” This is a remarkable statement, considering that he was a top manager in the organization and many employees have general gripes and dissatisfaction with management in most organizations. As the longtime financial manager, Mr. Crawford could have made numerous decisions over the years that would cause dissatisfaction. Considering the weight and potential impact of the testimony, she should have sought some additional information.

Finance Department conflicts

Before taking on the role of Administrator, Tom Crawford spent many years as the City of Ann Arbor’s Finance Director (sometimes alluded to as the CFO, in imitation of corporate titles). McKee points out that the Stark report documents serious friction between Finance and Human Resources regarding a payroll system. Since we don’t know who the complainants are, we don’t know what managerial decisions may have affected them at some point. And we learned later that a number of high-ranked employees were considered to be underpaid. As we noted earlier, budgets and fiscal responsibility were a major focus of Mr. Crawford’s administration. The Administrator’s budget passed in May included eliminating some positions and placed limitations on the expanding Sustainability department. In 2020, with the pandemic that had just hit Ann Arbor and the rest of the state, Crawford proposed salary freezes, salary cuts, and held out the possibility of voluntary furloughs. Top officials did take temporary salary cuts, including the Administrator himself. These uncertainties and possible salary reductions would have been sure to cause resentment.

And then, in case her dismissal of any motivation on the part of the employees was not sufficient, Salvatore then makes the startling allegation that Crawford had “memory issues“. Really? Was there a diagnosis offered by a mental health professional? Were there examples that could document this condition?

One can only imagine the course of events if Mr. Crawford had thought to obtain legal counsel. But as it was, he accepted his fate and negotiated a settlement, after which he resigned gracefully with this letter: Crawford Resignation Letter. In the letter, he does not admit to any specific offense but acknowledges that “I have not always been at my absolute best, which I now understand created hurt, distrust and anxiety amongst some staff” and apologizes to those who were affected.

Bypassing Human Resources Director

One of the many irregularities in this process was that the standard accepted means of bringing complaints about behavior (in this case, mostly comments about race issues) within an organization is to take them to the Human Resources department. HR departments generally moderate and investigate such complaints and attempt to determine their veracity and to suggest a course of action, whether it is remedial training, compensation for damages, or termination in extreme cases. In this case, the “investigator” (Salvatore) appeared to play the role of HR, with a series of judgments as to which provision of the HR policies were or were not violated. She also suggested remedial action. More DEI training, a separate DEI administrator (this had already been decided by Council), and

the City should consider incorporating into Mr. Crawford’s annual performance evaluation process a robust 360 review soliciting feedback from Mr. Crawford’s direct reports on his management style and leadership around DEI issues in order to better understand if there are further and additional concerns in this area beyond the issues that have been the subject of this investigation.

(The suggestion of a 360 review seems a sensible solution. These are often conducted in organizations. Anonymous comments on a person’s job performance and behavior are solicited from other employees in every relation to the person being evaluated. So supervisors, peers, and subordinates are invited by a (typically) outside consultant to submit frank evaluations, which are then summarized in such a way as to avoid identification of the commenters. This presumably gives a well-rounded perspective.)

Ms. Salvatore does not suggest termination, and the general tone of the conclusions appears to indicate that this is a fixable problem.

The new HR Director, meanwhile was left completely out of the loop. The justification given by CM Briggs is that They (the complainants) did not bring these concerns to the HR Director because the HR Director reports to the City Administrator.  This is disrespectful to both men. It assumes that Mr. Crawford would take punitive action, and that Tom Guajardo is incapable of managing this situation as any HR professional would.

A Last-Minute Intervention

As stated here, the Salvatore report did not suggest termination, and instead offered means by which the future behavior and performance of the Administrator could be ameliorated. There was no particular basis for the Council to fire him, based on this report. The last tool available was to bring in the Human Resources Director, who up to now had not been involved.

The agenda for July 20 included an item (DC-7) that would make the Salvatore Report public, with redactions, as well as Tom Crawford’s July 13 memo apologizing and promising to amend his own actions. The item was introduced by CM Ali Ramlawi and Kathy Griswold, in an effort to bring public transparency to what had so far been a secret discussion. But at the last minute, an amendment to this resolution, sponsored by Mayor Taylor and CM Erica Briggs, Jen Eyer and Linh Song, was offered.  It contained these phrases:

RESOLVED, That the City Attorney work to establish the details of the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as the City Administrator by the first Council meeting in August;

RESOLVED, That the City Attorney advise the City Council on relevant details and any necessary agreements concerning the conclusion of Mr. Crawford’s employment as City Administrator before the first meeting in August

The Agenda Response Memo

On Council agendas, it has been customary to include an “Agenda Response Memo” at the beginning of the agenda. This is usually issued by the Administrator in response to Council questions. Generally the answers to specific questions are prepared by appropriate staff, depending on the department to which the inquiry is directed.

At times this period is also used to introduce new staff or to have a staff answer questions in person, if the intent is to allow Council to seek information about a particular program.

In the case of the Crawford termination, an agenda memo appeared on the Council agenda only hours before the actual meeting. It proved to be critical in justifying the termination of Mr. Crawford. The authors were indicated as “John Fournier and Tom Guajardo”.

Note that the title indicates that this is a staff introduction.

A series of emails sent between officials on that very day laid the basis for a Human Resources contribution, which as noted had not been solicited to date. A FOIA initiated by former CM Jack Eaton is excerpted here: Email Thread 7.20.21

The July 20 email thread makes it clear that Mr. Guajardo, who up to now had been excluded from all consideration of this case, was not particularly aware of developments.

  • At 8:29 a.m. Mayor Taylor sent a request to staff: “Please provide information regarding HR policies and practices in the City concerning protected class inappropriate comments or conduct.”
  • Sara Higgins, the staff person who was responsible for arranging the agenda, replied “I will note this as a staff introduction request for agenda item DC-7.”
  • Higgins then emailed the HR director, “I will add you as the contact for this staff introduction request for agenda item DC-7 and I will also send you the meeting request with the Zoom link for the Council meeting.”
  • Guajardo replied, “Sara – Can someone please clue me in as to what DC-7 is? This would probably be good information to have if I am having to speak to it.” 

It is still not quite 9:00 a.m. But at 9:19, John Fournier, the Assistant City Administrator, writes to Higgins, Guajardo, and the City Attorney, Stephen Postema, as well as Margaret Radabaugh, an Assistant City Attorney.

  • Team,
    Let’s let Stephen take the lead on this one. If he sees utility in including Mr. Guajardo, then we will accommodate. But we will defer to him.
    TG, let’s talk about it at 10 am. (TG refers to Guajardo.)

So you will note that having included the HR Director in this discussion, he is now being backed out. At 9:20, Margaret Radabaugh writes to the group:

  • Tom,
    Stephen is going to talk to the Mayor and recommend that the reply be in writing. I am copying Stephen on this email for further guidance (along with John for awareness). (4 lines are redacted here.)
    @Postema, Stephen will be in touch with you on this issue and I am also happy to help. Call anytime.

At 4:21 p.m., Postema writes,

  • Here is final version with edits. I think the request should be added. John is going to add statement that while the request was concerning a late add Resolution , the HR Director was able to provide a written reply.

(So instead of an in-person appearance by the HR Director, where he could have been asked questions, he is represented by a group-edited statement. And it is clear that this course has been steered by Assistant City Administrator John Fournier.)

At 5:09 p.m. (Council meets at 7:00 p.m.), Higgins sends this message: (emphasis added)

Mayor and Council,
Attached is a staff response to an additional July 20 Council Agenda question that was sent to us late. This memo will be included as a written communication from the City Administrator on the July 20th Council Agenda. While normally a late agenda question would be answered as a staff introduction, Mr. Guajardo was able to prepare the answer today in writing and so it is being forwarded in lieu of a verbal briefing.

Thus, rather than a response actually authored by the Human Resources Director under his own guidance, the Council is presented with an authoritative statement at least partially dictated by John Fournier and Stephen Postema. In addition, he is not given the opportunity to appear before Council to answer questions.

Evidently, this tips the balance or at least justifies actions by individual Councilmembers. It contains the following sentence:

My general practice concerning substantiated discriminatory comments would be to recommend to terminate employment immediately (though this could be effectuated by way of a resignation or separation agreement in addition to termination).

Note that this is not a specific recommendation in the Crawford case. It is presented as a hypothetical. Yet this was cited by some CM as the reason they voted to terminate. CM Lisa Disch, for example, wrote: “I cast my vote based on that advice“.

One can only imagine the course of events if Mr. Crawford had thought to obtain legal counsel. But as it was, he accepted his fate and negotiated a settlement, after which he resigned gracefully with this letter: Crawford Resignation Letter. In the letter, he does not admit to any specific offense but acknowledges that “I have not always been at my absolute best, which I now understand created hurt, distrust and anxiety amongst some staff” and apologizes to those who were affected.

The Why of It

There are clearly many questions and items of dispute remaining about Tom Crawford’s dismissal (formally, he resigned instead of being fired, but no one was confused). It will remain a serious disagreement between two factions of Council who must somehow manage to work together. But it is clear that he got what is colloquially known as the “bum’s rush” – ejection without ceremony.  But why? What was the urgency? The alleged reasons are obviously inadequate. He was careless in his language. But he did not demean any individuals, and the hired consultant stated that she did not believe he actually caused any employee trouble with their job.

…the allegations at issue in this investigation did not involve any claim that Mr. Crawford has taken any adverse employment actions based on race, gender or any other protected category. Accordingly, based on the issues that I reviewed, I do not believe that a preponderance of the evidence supports that the City’s Non Discrimination Policy has been violated.

The lack of propriety and fairness in the process used clearly had a strong motivation. What we have just witnessed was a “palace coup”, which is the takeover of a legitimate government by insiders. What did the instigators hope to achieve? There are several possible explanations, some proposed by other people and some we have already put forth.

Mayor Christopher Taylor on Facebook, August 29, 2021

Overriding a FOIA. It has been bandied about that resentment about Crawford’s releasing material that had been denied in the FOIA process. Crawford reversed an earlier decision and released a police report on a matter that embarrassed Jen Eyer, one of the most powerful Councilmembers, who is thought to have far-reaching political aspirations. But Christopher Taylor, in a recent Facebook “town hall” denied that categorically. He stated,

There is one reason why the administrator resigned that is because the administrator’s workplace statements in the areas of minority hiring, race, and LGBT experience that were unacceptable to the workplace – when a leader makes statements of those kinds, the leader’s not in a position to provide leadership to an organization such as ours. That’s just the way it is. That is the beginning and ending of the conversation.

I consider the FOIA incident unlikely as a motivation as well.

Factional hatred and payback for earlier events. There is discussion of this motivation in “Crawford Out” (the Ann Arbor Observer September issue). There were particularly hard feelings about the firing of Howard Lazarus (he also formally accepted a settlement rather than being fired). Lazarus did not get along with the majority in Council following the 2018 election and he was strongly supported by the Taylor faction. The reporter alluded to this in his conclusion. There is no question that the Council was and is divided along factional lines with regard to opinion about the Lazarus issue. Whether Crawford’s termination was directly seen as payback is questionable. However, some of Taylor’s supporters seem fairly certain.

A tweet from one of the frequent #a2council commenters

Power and Money, or Power over Money. There is considerable reason to suppose that this is the motivation behind Crawford’s ouster.

Over Crawford’s long experience with the City as its Finance Director, he always recommended or imposed a strong budget discipline. It was he who introduced many safeguards and understandings of the logic behind the Budget.

The Budget for any government is a legal document that lays out how money may be spent. Typically money is segregated into designated fund compartments, and transfers between them is frowned on. These fund compartments may have either legally constrained revenue sources (for example, grant funding for a particular purpose must not be used for a different purpose), or they simply reflect the will of the Administrator and the Council working together on priorities. Budget battles are often fought over establishing those priorities and the dollar amounts that come with them. Crawford often made a point of Ann Arbor’s structural deficit – the point that our tax base does not match our expenditures. In the recent budget cycle, (see Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget) he spoke gloomily of the possible need to dip into reserves or delay contributions to pension funds, for example.

He also stressed the difference between one-time revenue (like the American Rescue Plan [ARP] funds) and recurring revenue. The point was that you could not budget by using one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

A “kitchen table” analogy would be that if the rent is due, you might manage to pay it this month by selling a few possessions. But when the rent comes due next month, what will you use then? You need to have a regular source of income if you will be able to pay your rent every month.

The total City budget for FY 2022 is about $470.5 million. But that includes many funds that are not accessible for any but their intended purpose (restricted funds). The General Fund, which can be used for discretionary purpose, is only  about $118.2 million. These are the dollars that Council can spend for priorities, including most salaries and favored projects. The ARP is promised to be about $24.2 million. That is about 20% as much as the entire General Fund for the year. But it is clear that Crawford would not have favored using this windfall just to top up this year’s spending. In informal conversation, he mentioned that there should be plans to address some major issue with it, possibly in collaboration with Washtenaw County.

To return to the kitchen table, an unplanned extra sum of money might be used for investment. A new roof, perhaps, and some addition to the savings account. Not too many extra vacations or other treats.

Enter John Fournier

The Assistant City Administrator, John Fournier, was hired by Howard Lazarus to assist with day-to-day responsibilities. This position had never existed in Ann Arbor City government previously. When Lazarus was terminated, Tom Crawford became the Acting Administrator. When Crawford was appointed City Administrator, John Fournier was still in the Assistant position at a salary of $153,000. He has now been made Acting Administrator as of August 16 and is receiving a salary of $223,600. He has not applied for the open position of City Administrator, and the Council has decided to hire an outside candidate as Interim City Administrator, likely to serve until 2023.

Fournier has shown himself willing to step forward and take action. As we have recounted above, he took charge of the agenda item which led to the termination of Tom Crawford. He stepped in to guide the production of the “agenda memo” which was used as justification for the termination. When Elizabeth Nelson suggested that he had written it (because he did sign it), he sent her a stern letter (Fournier letter) reprimanding her and demanding an apology. In the letter, he denies any role in writing the memo itself, but it is obvious from the emails that he was instrumental in seeing that the final document was a group-edited memo rather than a personal appearance by the HR director.

Even before the formal termination date for Crawford, Fournier announced a number of pay raises for top-ranked staff. One of those is the new HR Director, John Guajardo, who was so recently involved in the “termination memo”. As he states in his August 29 memo to Council (Fournier pay memo),

The day after I was appointed to serve as the acting city administrator (n.b., August 18), I asked the human resources director, Mr. Tom Guajardo, to prepare a pay equity analysis of non-union staff. Over the last several weeks I have met with the human resources director, members of the human resources staff, the city’s senior staff leadership, and city attorneys to formulate a response to our pay equity issues.

I think we could regard that as moving with alacrity. Note that some of these salary raises could be as much as $10,000 per year. Only 10 days after being appointed to a temporary position, a rather far-reaching expenditure is proposed. Fournier references a pay equity study done in 2017, though it is not clear how much that has influenced the current decisions.

Tom Crawford, as we have said, is a budget maven and was likely slow to increase salaries for non-union personnel, especially in this last year. Any governmental money manager knows that FTE (full-time equivalents, or employees) are one of the most expensive items in a budget. There are fringe benefits and pension contributions that add to the base salary cost. Over time, an increase in base salary can add volumes to the final expense of an employee. There is a multiplier effect.

Could it be that Crawford, by restraining growth in compensation for already well-paid administrative staff, garnered ill will? This is not an inconsequential question for someone who was just terminated based on anonymous staff complaints. In any event, it is clear that Fournier is not feeling inhibited to spend money.

It is also evident that he is in the catbird seat, at least in the near future. A choice has not yet been made between the candidates for Interim Administrator, and there must surely be at least a month or two before one will be installed. Even then, Fournier will have considerable influence, as “the man on the scene”.

Mayor Taylor, Missy Stults, and A2Zero

Mayor Christopher Taylor has been very, very clear. He is thoroughly committed to the issue of Ann Arbor’s carbon reduction (we’ve promised to be carbon neutral by 2030).  As we have quoted him a number of times, he has basically promised disruption, transformation, a complete change of the way we do business. (See here again.) There are various estimates of how much A2Zero will cost, (here is last year’s: A2Zero Investment Plan ), but it has been said to be roughly $1 billion over 10 years. The City General Fund is only slightly more than $100 million per year ($118 M). This would consume nearly the entire City discretionary budget.

Missy Stults, who was brought on by Howard Lazarus to direct the new department of Sustainability and Innovation, is clearly a very ambitious and pro-active leader who also generally seems to command respect and appreciation. Here is what John Fournier said in his recent memo:

…with three years of hindsight it is clear that Dr. Stults has created an ambitious, transformative, and effective city unit of more than a dozen staff members who are working with partners across the organization and community to create a more sustainable future. I have come to regard her work as essential to the city’s operations, and her unit of government has become a true enterprise function within our organization.

There are only two problems with the broad-ranging A2Zero program (other than its cost). In my estimation, it won’t achieve its goals, and there are no metrics in place to indicate progress toward them. (See our discussion of this.)

And also, many of its elements are either currently illegal under Michigan law, or impractical for other reasons. But then there is also the fact that it would consume almost our entire governmental structure. What services that we have come to expect as a matter of course will be challenged? This is unknown, but not impossible to foresee. Further, our Mayor has repeatedly promised surprises. In the preliminary document provided prior to last year’s Council vote, Stults indicated that some other City departments and programs could be attached and used. For example, Solid Waste and the Stormwater fund. Certainly, if we are spending over half the City Budget on this program, it will be spreading its wings over many functions.

Power unleashed

It seems clear that there is a strong coalition within City Hall that is seeking to gain control of the money, and the control, of many aspects of our City government. Note that the ARP plan, which was supposed to be presented by October 1, is not spoken of. In contrast, the Board of Commissioners has had County-wide discussion and come up with a draft plan. It is admittedly controversial, but appears to be a solid and considered attempt to address priorities. What will happen to our allocation? I would be pleased to hear that Council is considering alternatives. But frankly, I think that A2Zero is able to absorb the entire amount. Mayor Taylor has already put forth the idea of a new millage to further support it, but it has evidently been postponed till next year.

Dismay

The City of Ann Arbor is in the midst of a very troubling time. It goes far beyond the usual squabbling over unwelcome developments or ordinances. This is an uncertain time for the world, the nation, the states, the people. We have been relatively fortunate in Ann Arbor because of our inherent wealth (in terms of resources) and our well-educated population. We also seem to be fortunate in terms of the weather, compared to many other places. But our governmental structure seems to be dissolving.

One truly dismaying factor is the divisiveness and outright nastiness. Of course, we have had that Greek chorus of #a2council jackals on Twitter for some time. (There is a lot they don’t like about many of us who live here.) But the complete collapse of civility and discourse in our City Council is truly a source of dismay. See Disruption, Dysfunction and Dismay (2). There appears to have been established a culture of character destruction against elected Council members and others who simply have different notions of what the City should supply to its residents, or what its character should be.

Evidently this is a general trend within our culture. A recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Anne Applebaum, The New Puritans, describes it with chill-making accuracy. Typically, someone simply uses a term or a turn of phrase that is deemed offensive. Then there is an outcry, a shunning, a dismissal, all without any mediation or search for true meaning. People have lost their jobs, their friends, their reputations, basically through mob action.

This method has now been “weaponized” right here in our little enlightened city. First, there was the destruction of Jeff Hayner (though he still sits on Council). I’m not going to try to argue Jeff’s case here, but at any distance it would have been seen as incredible to have numerous Council actions against him for the injudicious use of two words in quotations, not aimed at any individual.

Having succeeded so well with that, it was evidently determined to use the same tool against our City Administrator. The timing of the complaints was very convenient, and odd. Most of the attributed comments had evidently been made some time ago, perhaps months. Suddenly, as we have already described, five employees chose to meet with the Mayor and complain about a variety of verbal offenses. The meeting occurred just after the City was announced to be receiving a big pot of money. If these two events are not connected, the universe is very strange indeed. And now we are seeing a rapid move to change the allocation of money, since the budget guard is gone.

How can this be happening in Ann Arbor, Michigan? It is hard to comprehend.

 

 

The Long Saga of the Fuller Road Station

Posted August 24, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Transportation

Over 11 years after it was first envisioned, it appears that the dream of a parking structure and train station in Fuller Park is dead. A pointed letter from the Federal Railroad Administration indicates that the project as proposed is irretrievably flawed and no further action on Ann Arbor’s efforts to apply for funding is likely.

Neumann-Smith rendering of proposal; parking structure on left, station to right (gable)

The letter from the Federal Railroad Administration, dated August 11, 2021, must have arrived at City Hall with the force of an earthquake. Ironically, it was directed toward a man who was no longer there – Tom Crawford, our recently deposed City Administrator. The letter is brief and to the point. Here are the most pertinent points. They were written in paragraph form but placed in bullets here, emphasis added.

  1. However, as FRA previously informed the City, the cost estimate for the City’s preferred project is an order of magnitude higher than other new intercity passenger rail and multimodal stations for which MDOT was awarded Federal funding by FRA to construct.
  2. The cost is high because the City’s preferred location for the station is constrained and the City is proposing a substantial amount of parking, requiring the station to be located over the tracks.
  3. In addition, the City’s preferred station design exceeds intercity passenger rail needs.
  4. Therefore, FRA is discontinuing the development of the EA and does not intend to complete the environmental process at this time.

Mayor Christopher Taylor, who has been a major cheerleader for the station, predicted in early 2018 that the City of Ann Arbor would receive a go-ahead from the FRA by the end of 2018.  The City has been in long discussions with the FRA in an effort to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) that indicates a project will not cause environmental harm before Federal funding can be applied to projects. Once that finding was received, the City would be clear to seek grant funding for construction of the station. (The earlier grant was only for preliminary planning and design.) It hasn’t happened.

Point by Point

Here are the underlying facts behind each of the important points made in the FRA letter.

(1.) However, as FRA previously informed the City, the cost estimate for the City’s preferred project is an order of magnitude higher than other new intercity passenger rail and multimodal stations for which MDOT was awarded Federal funding by FRA to construct.

Translation: The cost is hideously high – ten times that for any comparable proposal for a new train station. The reference is to the ARRA grant of $198.6 million received by MDOT to improve and strengthen the Chicago-Detroit line (Wolverine route). This grant, administered by MDOT, is the source of the $2.8 million Ann Arbor has used to plan the FRS. At last estimate, the cost of both phases of FRS would be $171. 4 million (Final Cost Estimate). Compare to the cost of the Dearborn station, constructed with these grant funds for a cost of $28.2 million (open in 2014), and the Troy station, about $12 million (open in 2014; part of the cost paid by other transportation funds).

(2.) The cost is high because the City’s preferred location for the station is constrained and the City is proposing a substantial amount of parking, requiring the station to be located over the tracks.

Translation: Because of the insistence by the City that the location should be in Fuller Park, rather than any of the other sites considered (the current Depot Street location was much favored by many commenters), the parking structure is loaded tightly into the area currently occupied by the UM parking lot. That lot is situated in part of Fuller Park that has been leased to the University of Michigan. The UM has only temporary possession of it, since the lease must be periodically renewed. However, by virtue of this possession, a structure could presumably be erected on it to serve the UM. This has been clearly stated as an objective since the very first version of this project. (Note diagrams in our post, Fuller Road Station: It’s All About Parking. )

According to the Architectural Narrative (Neumann Smith, 2018), a total of 1332 parking spaces is planned (Phases I and II).

The proposed design. Note that the main section is the parking structure. The station (pink/orange) is poised over the tracks.

As noted in the letter, this immense amount of parking in a small space has resulted in the positioning of the train station over the tracks. It is so obviously a near afterthought.

(3.) In addition, the City’s preferred station design exceeds intercity passenger rail needs.

Translation: The design of the station, especially the requested parking accommodation, is based on a very large estimate of future passengers for the train service. But based on ridership for the intercity traffic (as distinguished from a commuter usage), this exceeds any reasonable estimate of people wanting to go from Ann Arbor to Chicago, for example. There are some subtle policy differences here. Amtrak service (which this project is supposed to support) is primarily an intercity network, though commuters may use part of the system. But commuter service is different and may involve entirely different management and even equipment. Indeed, MDOT attempted for some years to refurbish some used train cars to serve commuters. While the tracks are used by all rail providers (including freight trains), MDOT’s grant was actually to provide high-speed rail for intercity travelers.

Mayor Christopher Taylor has clearly confused these two uses of a rail system. In his 2018 letter to constituents Annual Report 2018, he predicted 1.5 million passengers by 2040.

Additionally, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) is proposing commuter rail service linking Ann Arbor and Detroit along the same rail right of way. Should the proposed commuter rail service be implemented, the RTA projects that an additional 143,320 to 229,950 passengers per year would use the station for work commute trips and other intra-metropolitan area travel. Combined intercity passenger rail and commuter rail passengers could result in nearly 1.5 million total passengers per year using the station in 2040.

We now know that commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor is unlikely to happen in the near future, since the RTA millage (2016) failed to pass, as did several attempts to revive it. But Taylor also exposed a conceptual error here, since the primary use of this grant program was not to support commuter rail.

Examination of FRA comments on a review draft of the Environmental Assessment reveal a concern with cross-talk on this conflation of the two types of rail travel and usage.

The core point here is that the projected rail travel does not justify this number of parking spaces, and therefore this immense parking structure. It has so clearly become a case of the tail wagging the dog, with the little train station nearly engulfed in a parking structure.

(4.) Therefore, FRA is discontinuing the development of the EA and does not intend to complete the environmental process at this time.

Translation: What is not quite said here but is certainly intended, is that the project is dead as currently configured. Since the NEPA approval is required to access Federal funds and it will not be coming and is no longer in process. That is it, finis, kaput. Or, with apologies to Jim Morrison,

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end

A Long History

Perhaps the best starting point in understanding the history of the Fuller Road Station (FRS) is the letter to citizens of Ann Arbor sent by former Mayor John Hieftje on July 28, 2011. As we recounted in our post, Fuller Road Station and the Mayor’s Letter, Hieftje explained that the station would be built (located at the site of the parking lot on Fuller Park) as a replacement for the current Amtrak train station on Depot Street. It would be a joint venture between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor, with some Federal funds paying for the majority of the cost. But the UM would essentially pick up the matching funds. He stressed that

A big advantage of the financing plan for the overall community is that the University’s upfront contributions can meet the required local match for federal funding for the entire rail station…The Fuller Road Station, Phases I and II can be built without any significant upfront cost to the City.

Some millions of dollars expended by the City later, the basic theme has remained the same: We can build an elaborate parking structure with an appended train station with little local City money. The Federal government will pay for most of it and the UM will pick up the rest. And, importantly, the station must be built at the Fuller Road site.

An Early Hiccup

We have detailed the history of the City’s failed joint project with the UM in our post Fuller Road Station – A Review. Delays in attaining approval from the Parks Commission and the Council caused the UM to withdraw from the agreement in February, 2012. But a new vision quickly replaced that one. President Obama’s ARRA (stimulus program) awarded a grant to Michigan to implement Obama’s vision of high-speed rail. In September 2011, US Rep. John Dingell announced that Ann Arbor would receive a small fraction of that grant ($2.8 million) for planning a train station. (Note: Federal grants were made on an 80% Federal – 20% local match basis. The actual amount of the grant was $3.5 million, of which Ann Arbor must provide $700,000.)

Tough going

The communications with the FRA were evidently difficult as the City attempted to get approval of the preferred site for a new station in Fuller Park. The FRA required the City to look at different site alternatives, which required a separate analysis (Alternatives Analysis, Phase I, Phase II). As discussed in a May 2016 article in the Ann Arbor News, there were some changes in FRA management of this project. Attempts by the News to obtain information were answered with heavily redacted email text. Citizen FOIA requests were similarly answered with heavy redaction.

The City submitted its Environmental Assessment to the FRA in September 2017 and it evidently was subjected to some hard review. As described in the Ann Arbor News, a tough conference call in April 2018 involved many probing questions from the FRA and a surprise requirement to engage in an archeological study. This required an additional cost, another consultant, and another delay. The study was completed in October 2018 and no further action was required. This was the comment: “none of these sites appear to be associated with important events or patterns of history, or with individuals significant in local, regional or national history.”

There was also extensive public comment, much of which stressed unhappiness with the choice of the Fuller Road site rather than the existing location on Depot Street. Ann Arbor staff and consultants were required to respond to these comments as part of the EA process, but the comments and response are not shown on the City’s web page for the project. The last update to the City’s Ann Arbor Station web page indicated that a revised EA was being reviewed as of June 2019.

At What Cost?

The promise that no City of Ann Arbor funds would be spent was abandoned some years ago. The actual period of the grant ended on September 30, 2017, after which the City was working on its own dime (could not apply any expenses toward the grant). This was well covered by the Ann Arbor News and we asked whether the Council was ready to gamble (they did).

This article details a number of the projected costs.  It mentions the embarrassing gaffe that the project team made in failing to add up the figures. (Rita Mitchell, a citizen volunteer, brought the error to their attention.) In recent years, the Council has been obliged to vote on additional funds to complete the EA process.

Notably, the project has stayed at the top of City budget priorities, in spite of the eye-popping numbers. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is the best report the City’s financial departments are able to produce, showing both the timeline and the projected costs of capital projects. The Ann Arbor Station has stayed at the top priority for years, and is still there. But the schedule has slipped.

 

 

The CIP is intended to show costs in “all funds”, including local and external. Note that for the NEPA activities, all have already been spent (click to enlarge the figure). We are currently in FY 2022, and the total is shown as $2,386,000 (figures must be multiplied by 1000). This is not the complete cost of our activities because that is less than the amount of the grant, and we know that was exceeded. Final design (which would require new funding) is intended to begin in FY 2023 (next year) and planned to cost $14,700,000.  The station construction is shown to begin in FY 2026 and to cost a total of $86,068,000. Of course, without grant funding (which was never guaranteed but is now impossible), this will not happen.

Taylor has continued to suggest that the Federal government will pay 80% of the cost of any construction. But of course, there has to be a program. The TIGER program expired several years ago, and until our new rail-loving Secretary of Transportation makes some announcements, we don’t know of a current program by which Uncle Sam would buy us a train station. Also, most programs are competitive and it is not clear that this project would be successful, for many of the reasons stated in the FRA letter. In any event, without compliance with NEPA, the project is simply dead in the water.

And 20% of any program in the tens and hundreds of millions is still a lot of money. It has always been hinted (or said directly) that the UM would pick up a big piece of the costs for matching funds. Other “partners”, like the AAATA (which has its own funding problems) have also been suggested, but basically the question of how the City would pay for millions in matching funds has essentially been answered by hand-waving. Finding partners for $24 million or so might be challenging.

The Fatal Flaw

So what went wrong? Aside from a number of over-optimistic projections about commuter rail, etc., the true problem is that this project was always about parking for the UM. It began with the effort to keep a parking structure from bothering neighbors on Wall Street (long since constructed) and ultimately grew to a size and configuration that was impossible to defend as a transit project. Though the high employee count at the UM Hospitals was used to justify the possibility of an eventual commuter train, in reality the UM hospital staff agitate for more accessible parking. (The City Council just renewed the lease for the three parking lots once again.)

We could speculate about the connection between our Mayor’s insistence that the “station” will be built and his close ties to the UM, but there is no evidence that any direct pressures have been brought to bear. In any event, it is clear that the UM and its need to expand parking have played a large part in the design and placement of this overblown project.

What now? Indications were that City officials may be having conversations with MDOT and others, seeking to breathe life into the project. They are unlikely to succeed, given the finality of the letter from the FRA.

NOTE REGARDING COMMENTS: It has long been our rule that commenters must give a true name in order to participate. Some comments have been received that are excellent comments, but are anonymous. I dislike taking down comments after they have been posted, therefore we have now instituted moderation of comments. Comments should also be relevant to the subject of the post, and otherwise follow our previously posted guidelines. (See About.)

ADDENDUM:

Many readers may have missed the excellent blog, All Aboard on Depot Street. I certainly did. Because of programming decisions, the Home page does not take the reader to recent posts. They can be accessed from this page. (Note: this site is not secure and your system may give you a warning.)

You’ll note from the post that I have referenced here that the FRA has been sending the City messages about the inadequacy of the proposed project for some time. A document is shown here that dates from 2018. It expresses many of the same objections and concerns that were stated in the “goodbye” letter, in almost the same language.

This paragraph is from a message sent by Melissa Hatcher, who was managing the EA review, to Eli Cooper (the Ann Arbor staff who has been the major contact for this project) and Michael Nearing (the city’s project manager for infrastructure). The letter in general is urging a rethink of the PE (engineering) plan because of the excessive costs.

As best we can surmise, there was no action taken as a result of this letter. There was no rethink of the project and there was no publicly discussed effort to reconsider the project. It appears that the strategy was “hold on and hope”.

It is notable that essentially the same information was sent in the August 2021 letter, but this time it was sent to the Ann Arbor City Administrator, presumably the top individual in the organization. So the current letter is the proverbial club to the head. “Get this???”

UPDATE (September 5, 2021): Some interesting afterthoughts by John Hieftje, the former Mayor, quoted here. He accurately notes that in those early days MDOT was leasing rail cars to establish a commuter train system, which seems unlikely now.

“It was a different scenario back when I was hoping to get this project built,” he said. “The world’s a different place.”

 

 

 

Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (2)

Posted August 1, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: politics

This is the third in a series of posts about the crisis in Ann Arbor’s City Council.

Dysfunction

With the stunning overturn of all Council incumbents in August 2020 and the installation of an entirely new slate of Councilmembers, it was reasonable to expect some new directions from Council, with the leadership of Christopher Taylor as Mayor. Taylor had often clashed with the previous Council majority. But this is Ann Arbor. Our town literally has the highest number of citizens bearing advanced degrees in the nation and we consider ourselves to be cultured, liberal, sophisticated, and rational. Surely our Councilmembers could collaborate, negotiate, and come to solutions that would benefit the citizenry of our town. We are civilized people, after all. I certainly expected this. The new CM are all well-respected citizens, many with previous public service and all well-qualified to have assumed this responsibility. Sadly, this has not been the case. We have experienced shocking and even embarrassing event piled on event. And sadly, the comity between the two factions has been almost completely absent. The new lineup has consistently voted according to the evident directions of their Mayor, and 7-4 decisions have been almost universal. But most sadly, the early indications here and there of collegiality have disappeared.

Taylor’s new CM. From left, Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, Erica Briggs,Linh Song. Travis Radina not shown.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. The style of politics in this entire country has been on a steep decline. Yes, James Carville said that “politics ain’t beanbag” but apparently that expression goes back to the 19th century.  (Disclosure: I have actually played beanbag, in church camp. You throw little pillows that are loosely filled with beans at each other. No one gets hurt.) It now seems that lies (even Big Lies), character assassination, and the occasional kidnap attempt are our new political reality. When Congressmen call the January insurrection culprits “political prisoners”, all bets are off.

But so far in Ann Arbor, the main weapons of choice are simply unbridled nastiness. The principal field of battle is social media, with occasional breakouts into overriding all procedural niceties on the Council floor in order to condemn others. I’m fond of the term “toxic political tornado” (this is the MLive article detailing efforts to establish some rules).

Denying Dignity and Credibility

While we understand that there will be differences, in the old politics one could at least grant one’s opponent the benefit of the doubt. Respect even for those who disagree, and a recognition of different perspectives is a sort of civil discourse that used to be customary. Evidently what we used to call “civility” is out of fashion.

Artist’s rendering of a portion of the Valhalla project

One small example: On June 7, Council discussed rezoning to accept a new development called Valhalla. This has been controversial and has several issues, including neighborhood opposition and complaints from the UM. It is extremely dense and several buildings could be called “high-rises”. It does not fit the Master Plan but the Taylor faction praised it for its ability to accept new families so that they could stop commuting into Ann Arbor (this is part of the A2Zero concept). Evidently CM Kathy Griswold commented that children do not do well in high-rise apartment buildings. She also asked about other accommodations for children. The project was approved, 7-4, with all of the Taylor contingent voting “yes”.

After the meeting, this twitter conversation was held. (#a2council is a twitter tag used for frequent observers of the Council meeting, most of whom favor Taylor’s programs.)

Note that “Cabrini Green” was an infamous Chicago housing project. According to Wikipedia, “Crime and neglect created hostile living conditions for many residents, and “Cabrini-Green” became a metonym for problems associated with public housing in the United States.” It was torn down in 2011. Using that comparison would be serious hyperbole, and it did not sound like CM Kathy Griswold’s style. In a personal interview, she denied mentioning that name at all. She explained her comment about children in high-rises on the basis of her training and experience (she is a MSW social worker and at one time worked in Detroit in that capacity).

In the 1970s I attended a workshop on urban design in Toronto and learned that there were issues that have been identified with the
well-being of children living in low income high-rises. Later, as part of my MSW coursework and as a social worker in Detroit, I became familiar with public housing projects in other cities. I noted that our public housing for families in Ann Arbor has been designed as townhouses around common play areas to provide “Eyes on the children.” The phrase is similar to “It takes a village.” The design fostered a sense of community and support so the children could be watched by neighbors.

So in this one particular case, a CM with specific experience and knowledge is mocked for a statement made on the solid ground of that experience. Further, she is misquoted, misinterpreted, and then labeled as racist, classist, and anti-renter based on those misrepresentations. (That last word is a euphemism for “lies about the person”.)

Sadly, this is not an exception. CM who are not on the Taylor lineup are routinely disparaged in social media and in the actual meetings.

This means that all decisions are being made by the one tight coalition, without actual deliberation or an attempt to benefit from what other CM offer in terms of expertise or insight. It is harmful to our democracy, unproductive for the business of our City, and unfair to the persons who are representing their constituents after winning free and fair elections. One should not be subject to abuse in the course of doing one’s elected office. It is sadly reminiscent of some of the appalling behavior that we are reading about in Congress.

 

 

 

Disruption, Dysfunction, and Dismay: Ann Arbor’s Governmental Power Struggle (1)

Posted August 1, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance, politics

This is a chaotic and potentially hazardous time in Ann Arbor. The next posts will attempt to set recent events into context. They should be read after first reading Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget.

Disruption

Disruption is a favored concept in the business of technology. “Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” (Investopedia) One well-known disruptive technology that has changed our politics is Facebook and other social media. Mark Zuckerberg, in earlier days, made his motto “Move fast and break things.” (It was changed in 2014.)

Ann Arbor’s Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has clearly taken this concept to heart. As we discussed in an earlier post about Taylor and disruption, he has been using that word and stressing that concept for many months. “Disruption is not something we do terribly well in Ann Arbor. Business as usual will not be acceptable. Things are going to have to be different.” And as quoted in our previous post, “The old way of running an economy, the old way of doing business, the old way of operating civil society is subject to change…”

It was not always so. In running for re-election (2018), a sunnier Taylor had this to say about Ann Arbor:

I like Ann Arbor the way it is, and it’s changing every day. I think we have a great thing going on here in our community. We are, I believe, going in the right direction. We’re a community that strives to balance character and affordability and demand and vitality. We need to make sure that the development we have in our community is smart and sustainable and that it doesn’t adversely impact residents’ quality of life. Change will come. We just need to make sure that it’s channeled, that it’s change that is good for us all today and tomorrow.

Mayor Taylor in 2017

At the time, Taylor ran on assurances that basic services would be a first priority (important to residents). We would even maintain quality of life. Things began to change after he ran into a hitch in an important achievement, the sale of the Library Lot to Core Spaces. With his 8-3 majority on Council, he easily won approval (April 2017). But a group of citizens stubbornly plowed along to collect signatures on a petition for a ballot issue to prevent the sale. One week after signatures were complete and as the ballot issue looked likely to materialize, Taylor ill-advisedly rushed the completion of the sale contract on a weekend without taking the agreement back to Council as the Charter prescribes. (Only Taylor, City Administrator Howard Lazarus, and City Clerk Jackie Beaudry signed the contract.) This occasioned a lawsuit from two Council members. In addition, the group seeking a win on the ballot filed a lawsuit via Thomas Wieder, a well-known litigator.

Mayor Taylor looks as though he has things on his mind. (February 2020)

But though Taylor himself handily won re-election in the primary election of 2018, he suffered a major blow. Three incumbents were displaced, losing him his Council majority. Then in the November election the citizen’s ballot measure passed, making the Library Lot a public space. This was suffered in disbelief for nearly two months; finally the City settled the two lawsuits (January 2019) and notified the purchaser of the Library Lot that the agreement was off.

One can almost sense that Taylor’s feelings for residents of Ann Arbor may have shifted with these sequential losses. He became noticeably tense and snappish. And he moved decisively to correct this power imbalance. As we reported in our post, Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise, he recruited an impressive slate of challengers and backed them up with strong criticism of the incumbents. Money poured in and the challengers received twice as much in donation dollars as the incumbents, in addition to strong social media support from Ned Staebler’s Inspire Michigan PAC. (See our post, Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor.) The incumbents were overturned and Taylor had his majority back again. The new majority took office in November 2020 and set about undoing many of the actions of the previous Council, especially those in regard to property and development. As we have noted in the past, this is a  new political direction and a major shift in policy from earlier years in Ann Arbor. With the new majority, Taylor is succeeding in moving in that direction rather rapidly, at least in terms of Council decisions (cue the disruption). A March article in the Detroit Free Press highlighted the differences between the remaining incumbents and the new slate. But what it doesn’t quite show is how many 7-4 votes have occurred, many of them overthrowing the decisions previously made by the old majority. The effect has been to make more of Ann Arbor’s valuable land area accessible to developers.

A2Zero and Development

In November 2019, Council passed a resolution calling for the City to become climate neutral by 2030. A plan was to be prepared by Earth Day 2020. The A2Zero plan (April 2020 is still the current version) was finally accepted on June 1, 2020. The Welcome letter is signed by Mayor Christopher Taylor. It is a call to action:

achieving carbon neutrality within a decade will necessitate that we all work together. It will necessitate collaboration, innovation, and disruption. If we are to achieve our goal,  Ann Arbor 2030 must be vastly different from Ann Arbor 2020.

A close reading of A2Zero is that it is a roadmap to a much denser city. While the premise is to make Ann Arbor carbon-neutral, that means only in terms of carbon dioxide generated within the borders of the City. A major theme is to bring automobile users to live here, and ideally to use non-motorized transportation.

A2Zero provides Christopher Taylor with a popular and credible premise (to address global warming) for making policy to facilitate dense development. The entire strategy as proposed will be incredibly expensive. The proposed overall budget is $1 billion over 10 years. That is 1000 X $1 million, or 10 X $100,000,000. The City general fund revenues for the current fiscal year (as budgeted) amount to $118,316,0321. (See Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget.)That is going to take some creative bookkeeping. At one time we would have assumed that our CFO (and then City Administrator) would ensure that good process was followed. However, it appears that this procedural obstacle has been removed with Tom Crawford’s dismissal.

Taylor is indeed succeeding with the strategy of “Move fast and break things.” The dismissal of Tom Crawford clears the way for him to solidify his power base and to accomplish the major rearrangement of our community that he has promised. He is now making some moves to eliminate inconvenient Councilmembers. Students of history will recognize all the classical elements of the palace coup. To some extent, the voters of Ann Arbor may yet exert a weak influence, but he very nearly has his power base secure. He should be smiling again before long.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescuing Ann Arbor’s Budget

Posted July 30, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance

The City Budget determines how money may legally be spent. It is a complete accounting of revenues and expenditures for the forthcoming fiscal year. This is really the major work of the City Council and City Administrator. More attention is given to zoning matters and the occasional ordinance change, but the weight of actions lies with expending money according to the Budget.

Note that the General Fund is $118,160, 321. Revenues exactly match these expenditures.

The City Fiscal Year is on a July-July basis. Thus, we are now operating in FY 2022. Yes, the calendar says 2021 but until July of 2022 we are busy spending next year’s budget. (Washtenaw County operates on a calendar year budget, so they are still living in 2021. The Federal Government FY begins October 1, as does the State of Michigan.) Every year, the City Council is required to approve the next year’s budget by the second meeting in May. Here is the FY 2022 budget as approved in May 2021.

This year and last year have been rather confused because the COVID pandemic changed nearly everything. City revenues, which depend in part on parking revenue, were down severely and in the December 2020 Budget planning session  City Administrator Tom Crawford’s summary was, “We’re in turbulent waters.” Projections were that the Budget could be facing a $2.8 million to a $9 million shortfall.

Several months later, the Administrator’s message was still cautious.

In Budgetspeak, this meant that the deficit had to be made up by using reserve funds. We don’t like to do that. The savings are there in case of catastrophe (a worldwide pandemic comes to mind). Note that sentence about long-term stability. That is a budget director telling you “we have to tighten our belts”. The role of a budget director is to make sure that money is always available for its required uses and never to overspend.

Stresses and Strains

There were stresses obvious already in December 2020. From the news report:

The city’s sustainability office has identified a need for $6 million next fiscal year and $11.2 million the following year to work on implementing the A2Zero plan, Horning said. At a bare minimum, if the work was pared down with portions of the A2Zero plan deferred, the office would need $3.2 million next fiscal year and $5 million the following year, he said.

Note the disjunct: Sustainability (e.g. A2Zero) wanted $6 million, but there was already a structural deficit, and then more trouble likely ahead just to keep the boat floating. Here we see a suggestion just to “pare down” A2Zero.  “Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, said the A2Zero plan council unanimously adopted this year was ambitious and the city has lacked money to fully support it right away.” But Mayor Taylor pushed back. “In my view, the work that is promised or foreseen under A2Zero is really a moral imperative,” Mayor Christopher Taylor said. “It’s imperative that we do this here in Ann Arbor and it’s imperative that we do it in every jurisdiction throughout the country and indeed the world, ultimately.” Taylor is being consistent. In April 2020, as we were in the midst of the first hit of the COVID crisis, he was quoted in the Michigan Daily as saying this:

“All lines of work, all manners of doing things, are open to interrogation. The old way of running an economy, the old way of doing business, the old way of operating civil society is subject to change, subject to reexamination, subject to improvement. As we figure out where we go next, reconstituting as a functioning society with the goal of carbon neutrality will be a part of our recovery.”

This vision is hard to reconcile with the work of running a city with a balanced budget. In fact, it renounces that concept.

American Rescue Plan

Happily for all local governments, the Federal Government enacted a plan to rescue them. As announced by Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ann Arbor is in line to receive $24,182,630. (It will not be coming all at once, but this is a firm promise.) There are some restrictions and some suggestions. You are not to use it to pay yourself bonuses (as one Michigan county did). You are not supposed to use it to pay off debt or to cut taxes or enrich pensions. It is supposed to be used to make our communities stronger, including the repair of failing infrastructure like water utilities and roads. Most attractive is the idea of doing projects that would normally not be affordable, such as new facilities (hello, WasteWater Treatment Plant?).

Accordingly and sensibly, the Ann Arbor City Council passed (by voice vote!) a resolution (June 7, 2021) that asks the City Administrator to prepare a plan to use the money. The resolution, sponsored by CM Ali Ramlawi and CM Elizabeth Nelson, notes a number of outstanding grant requests for Federal funding and some outstanding priorities, such as infrastructure, public health, and making public facilities more resilient against environmental stresses. The Administrator is asked to bring that report to Council by October 2021.

But That was Then

It looks as though the Council will not be getting that report. In a sudden, shocking move, a majority of Council voted to terminate the City Administrator, Tom Crawford. The vote is back on the agenda for reconsideration on August 2. If the move to reconsider the resolution passes, the Council could then re-debate and revote, or it could postpone the action until a subsequent meeting. Certainly this action is proving to be controversial.

If the action stands, Council is rudderless as far as the Budget goes. It will take some months to replace Mr. Crawford, and time is not friendly in this case. Who will be steering the ship? Maritime metaphors abound. We can expect that Taylor will want to take a different tack, as he has vehemently stated this. Will this mean a direct transfer of Rescue Money to A2Zero? As noted, the request for this year and next year was $17 million. The $24 million would address that nicely.

UPDATE: Council voted to terminate Tom Crawford’s appointment as City Administrator on July 20, 2021. A subsequent motion to reconsider on August 2 failed. He has now accepted a settlement.

SECOND UPDATE: Bridge Magazine has a review (August 5, 2021) of issues surrounding the American Rescue Plan.

THIRD UPDATE: Consolidation of power over City funds is continuing with proposals of ballot measures on the November 2021 ballot.

In Deep: Ann Arbor’s Water Troubles

Posted January 1, 2021 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance, Sustainability

An Update, July 2021 (scroll down to see it)

 

Ann Arbor’s Plymouth Road water tower

Years of questionable use of utility fees are coming back to bite the City of Ann Arbor and millions of dollars are at stake. How will they be paid and how will this affect the affordability of our water system?

Water is necessary, not only to life, but to human civilization. It is also critical to the success of a city, both as a place of habitation and also to conduct business and industry. Many of us living in Ann Arbor have been accustomed to taking our well-run water system for granted, even though daily life would be unimaginable without it.  Now we may become more aware of the cost and complications of maintaining a water utility that provides clean drinking water and eliminates sewage, while it also exerts environmental controls in order to safeguard the health of surface waters in the Huron River watershed. We are facing a crisis that may affect the affordability and quality of our critical water system.

The Class-action Lawsuit against the City of Ann Arbor

The crisis is this: a class-action lawsuit has been brought against the City which alleges that the City has illegally overcharged the customers of the City for use of its water utilities. The monetary amounts involved are not certain, but are in the tens of millions. The lawsuit, which was filed in August 2020 via a Royal Oak law firm (Kickham Hanley PLLC) with a track record of successful class-action suits, alleges that (a.) utility customers have been overcharged for water and sewer; and (b.) the stormwater utility charges are largely unwarranted and illegal. The remedy suggested is that both the signed plaintiffs (two Ann Arbor residents) and the entire class affected (all utility customers as of six years ago) should be reimbursed, and legal charges (to the attorneys) should be paid. Typically, class-action suits like this are undertaken on a contingency basis, which means the attorneys will be paid their fee only if the suit succeeds. All members of the class (all of us users) can expect to receive a modest sum based on our overpayments. (Don’t plan any extensive vacations.)

Here are the actual court documents.

Original complaint: Hahn-v.-City-of-Ann-Arbor-Plaintiffs-Class-Action-Complaint-and-Jury-Demand

City of Ann Arbor response: City of Ann Arbor response to Hahn

Hahn amended complaint: Ann-Arbor-First-Amended-Complaint-10-29-20

Ann Arbor’s Municipal Water Utilities

Our water system is really three systems, operated mostly in isolation from each other and with a separate financing mechanism. Fees and charges are based on usage to some extent, though Ann Arbor’s fee system has gotten more and more complicated over the years. Here is the sample water bill as displayed on the City’s website.

Note that there are two types of charges for water and sewer: the Customer Charge (fixed) and an amount based on volume usage. Volumes are measured in “Centum Cubic Feet” (CCF), namely 100 cubic feet of water. (Sewer usage is based on the water usage.) The charge is calculated as (CCF x rate). Sewer usage is calculated based on the water used. (What goes in, must come out.)  The fixed customer charge is supposed to pay for administrative costs, and is levied according to the size of the water meter.

A Question of Rates

Some years ago, Ann Arbor introduced a tiered system of rates for residential water use. There are also varied rates for “water only” (irrigation) usage, and different user classes such as multifamily, commercial, etc. (A detailed description of the water fee schedule will have to wait for a different day.) Each year for more than a decade, the rates have been going up consistently, which is causing more and more comment each year. The increase each year is by a relatively modest percentage, but with compounding the rate really goes up over time.

The controversy became more pronounced with the Cost of Service (COS) study launched in 2017.  This was followed by an analysis of rates( Water and Sewer Cost of Service Study) by a consultant (Stantec). The result, as the Stantec study notes, was that costs were transferred from multifamily residential users to single-family users. A particularly high rate was assigned to users in a fourth tier which was thought to represent people who watered their lawns. This angered a number of residents. CM Jane Lumm, who represented a number of them, was instrumental in bringing in a second consultant group to review the rate structure. The Arcadis “alternative analysis”  was presented to Council in March 2019. Meanwhile, overall rates continued to increase. In June 2020, with the COVID crisis afflicting many Ann Arbor residents, CM Lumm successfully offered a resolution that delayed an increase in water rates for the remainder of the year. However, the increase will be made up after the final passage of a resolution on December 21, 2020. The water rates will now increase by 7% as of January 1, 2021 and by 6.5% as of July 1, 2021. Here is a calculation of rates that might affect most homeowners. As this shows, the cumulative rate increase is nearly 14% (13.94 %). So if you are in the third tier (not too atypical for many households), your rate for the highest tier has increased by nearly a dollar per CCF. Let’s suppose you use 20 CCF per quarter. After the two increases, your water bill will have gone up about $8.06 per quarter. (Corrected amounts)

From ORD 20-32 as amended

Stormwater, A Special Case

“Stormwater” refers to the water that enters streets and drains, ultimately finding its way to a river or tributary. It requires management for several reasons, including flooding and water pollution. Typically, pervious surfaces like lawns and wooded areas accept a fair amount of rainfall without flooding. Impervious surfaces like pavement and building structures do not absorb water, and it runs off to cause surface flooding unless captured by underground stormwater systems. The City of Ann Arbor has an extensive stormwater system. While water usage is easy to measure (we all have a meter), individual contribution to stormwater is more difficult. A stormwater rate study  (2018) by Stantec describes the system being used in some detail. It is very complex. This system has also been controversial since it was first put into place in 2007, and the scope has increased to pay for more items. It has gone from being a trivial charge for most homeowners to a substantial one.

The Point is Taxes

Taxes are the lifeblood of government. I can confidently state that this has been true from the beginning of recorded history. Although possibly not recorded, it has also always been true that the people governed would rather avoid them. Yet, we also generally recognize the importance and utility of government. So there is always a tension, or if you like, a negotiation, between the taxing entity and the taxed.

Here in Michigan, as in many other locations, the tax revolt led by California’s Proposition 13 (1978) resulted in an amendment to the Michigan Constitution (the Headlee Amendment [1978]) that limited taxation by local governments. The intent was to protect citizens from new taxes unless they voted for them. It has several sections but the take-home message is: no new taxes without a vote!  This has severely limited municipalities (cities, townships, counties) in Michigan because the only available source of new revenue has been voter-approved property tax millages.

But municipalities also offer services that can legally be supported by fees. A fee is not considered a tax. It is simply the price of receiving the service. It is not, however, supposed to exceed the cost of providing the service. When is a fee a tax? When it is meant as a revenue source, not merely a compensation for the service. This distinction became very important in what is widely referred to as the “Bolt Decision” (a ruling by the Supreme Court of Michigan in the lawsuit, Bolt vs. City of Lansing). There are summaries of this many places but it is worth reading the actual decision because there are some subtleties.  Here is the essence:

  • A fee should serve a regulatory purpose, not a revenue-raising purpose. (This is a little hard to explain. It basically means that the fee is simply the price of using the service.)
  • A fee is voluntary. The user of the service should be able to choose the degree to which they use it. A good example would be that if you don’t want to pay for water, you shut off a lot of taps.
  • A fee should be proportionate to the cost of providing the service. (This is how the “Cost of Service” study gets born.)

The Court’s decision also addresses the question of whether the fee collected benefits the user directly.  Here is a direct quote:

The revenue to be derived from the charge is clearly in excess of the direct and indirect costs of actually using the storm water system over the next thirty years and, being thus disproportionate to the costs of the services provided and the benefits rendered, constitutes a tax.

So why is the distinction between a fee or a tax so important? Because in Michigan, because of the Headlee Amendment, a municipality must obtain the consent of the voters in order to impose a tax.

Arguments to Come

To date, the original complaint and an amended complaint with more detail have been filed. They have many separate instances and arguments to support the claim that Ann Arbor residents and users of the utility system have been overcharged. The City has filed an initial response, most of which is simply a denial of the allegations. The defense of the suit will involve a very fine dissection of many details of the rate structure and of the use the funds have been put to. A critical question is whether the City has been collecting water fees as a source of revenue (to use for purposes other than providing the service).

On December 21, 2020, the same day on which they authorized higher water rates, the Council approved an amendment that increased fees to an outside law firm to defend the City against this lawsuit. They authorized paying it from the water fund.

Next Chapter: an Update

July, 2021: Progress on the lawsuit seems to have stalled out. The plaintiff’s motion to proceed in a class action lawsuit (request for class certification) was denied by Judge Archie Brown on 5/20/2021, and a motion for reconsideration was denied on 7/12/2021. Meanwhile, the Judge also denied (on 5/27/2021) a request to file a Second Amended Complaint.

As noted, Council approved a fee to an outside law firm to defend the suit. Here is the City’s response to the motion for recertification. As you may note, it includes extensive documentation, including material from other lawsuits against municipalities.

City’s Response to Motion for Class Certification

It is not clear where the plaintiffs will go from here. Filing this lawsuit under any condition other than as a class action would not be remunerative.

In our opinion, a fatal flaw in the lawsuit was the emphasis on water fund reserves. The City’s response made a number of pithy comments about this claim. They showed figures to indicate that “the reserves are insufficient, not excessive”.

The plaintiffs chose the wrong hill to die on. Their case could have been very strong if they had confined themselves to the stormwater “fees” (they are, in fact, a tax, as could easily be shown). Class-action lawsuits based on Bolt against a number of other Michigan municipalities have been successful. Jack Eaton, a former Ann Arbor Councilmember who is an attorney, has been following these issues for some time. This is a summary of recent Michigan court cases relevant to the Bolt Decision which he wrote. The summary is worth reading in its (short) entirety, but these are the significant conclusions. Quoting here:

On December 11, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an order that may impact the current lawsuit against the City of Ann Arbor. The Supreme Court order was short, just one paragraph, but it vacated a Court of Appeals decision that had given some hope to municipalities whose utility charges were being challenged. The Court of Appeals had ruled in the combined case of Binns v Detroit and DAART (Detroit Alliance Against the Rain Tax) v Detroit that the City of Detroit’s drainage charge was a fee rather than a tax under the analysis of the Michigan Supreme Court in Bolt v City of Lansing, 459 Mich 152 (1998).

…Some believed that the Binns and DAART cases provided the Supreme Court a chance to address the impact of the Bolt decision with the hope that the Supreme Court might modify its approach to the fee versus tax analysis. The order vacating the Court of Appeals opinion made clear that the Supreme Court maintains its original approach.

Proportionality

One of the issues discussed in the summary cited here is the issue of proportionality. Are the fees assessed equitably across all parties? Taxes can be levied so that some parties receive a more favorable treatment than others, but fees are supposed to be assessed on the basis of cost of delivery of the service, and should be equally shared by all users. The Ann Arbor stormwater fee system is highly nonproportional. For most individually owned homes, an image obtained by infrared photography is used to declare a certain area to be impervious.  Here is the proposed image-to-impervious area relation as shown by the consultant (PhotoScience Geospatial Solutions). In their presentation to a professional group (2013), they state: “Area is directly related to runoff from a parcel”.  But rather than basing the fee directly on the impervious area, they have proposed a tiered system.

The system for commercial buildings and developments is much more nuanced and complex. Here UDC on stormwater rates are the definitions and provisions as shown in the Unified Development Code of the City of Ann Arbor. These properties are able to reduce charges by demonstrating performance (actual diversion of stormwater). But the homeowner rate structure has no such provisions, short of very minimal credits for rain barrels and rain gardens. Many homeowners in Ann Arbor will tell you how they have carefully placed drainspouts to carry water into lawn areas rather than the street, etc. In fact, impervious area as determined by remote sensing is not a direct measure of stormwater discharge, a core assumption. While water usage is measured by meter readings, these images do not actually predict how much water will be discharged from an individual property. This needs to be measured by direct assessment. Such an assessment is not available to owners of individual houses.

Another defect of this system in terms of proportionality is the tiered system itself. Here are the actual current rates.

 

Note that a taxpayer will be charged the same amount whether at the very bottom (for example, 2,187 SF) or top of a tier (4,175 SF). Further, since these figures are based on an image made at some elevation, it is likely that the resolution is not perfect. It would be perfectly possible to have a reading of [2, 187] instead of [2, 186], which would mean an additional quarterly sum of nearly $25 is due. This is hardly proportionate.

The complaint in Hahn vs. Ann Arbor does address stormwater fees and rightly challenges their use to pay for certain items. But the heavy emphasis on water rates and water customers has hampered their case. We noted that one of the City’s defenses is that they do not actually know who they have billed to over the years. (People come and go, students move in and out, etc.) Property ownership is surely more easily traceable, even historically.

Will the lawsuit be reconfigured, resubmitted, appealed, or dropped? Only time will tell. But there is a good case waiting here for someone to pursue.

Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor

Posted July 28, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: politics

Endorsing candidates for all five City Council seats in Ann Arbor. Ward 1: Anne Bannister. Ward 2: Jane Lumm. Ward 3: Tony Brown. Ward 4: Jack Eaton. Ward 5: David Silkworth. Here’s why.

Ann Arbor’s Democratic primary election on August 4, 2020 is probably going to be the most consequential election in Ann Arbor for the near future. By choosing a new City Council, voters will also be choosing a future path for the City, and depending on the outcome, there will be no going back.  Although we have always had agendas and differences, there has rarely been a divergence so sharply defined.

What is at stake?

Although there are many themes and questions (how can we deal with housing affordability? what about the roads? taxes – who should pay? what about Climate Change!), this election is simply about power.  It is about votes and whether Mayor Christopher Taylor controls them. It is about the direction and purpose that our civic body, the City of Ann Arbor, will take, and how that will affect its various constituencies. So while we have 10 likely candidates running for 5 seats (and really, they are all good and sincere people with minds of their own) – the question for Ann Arbor voters is – which faction do we want to win?

Lately several articles have attempted to define these factions. The most recent article about the election on MLive is my pick for the time being: “Disrupters vs. Defenders“. The Ann Arbor Observer likes to point to the Back to Basics Caucus, while Taylor’s Slate is the Activist Coalition. In his recent well-received blog post Sam Firke used the terms Protectors and Strivers. (In each case, the Taylor faction is in red, while those who oppose the direction he is taking the City are in blue.) If you ask any of these candidates whether they are members of a faction, they are likely to declare that they are independent thinkers with individual viewpoints, but reality says that we are choosing between two boats with different crews.

Regardless of which name you apply to the faction, Disrupters (who are Taylor’s candidates) will support his agenda for a complete change in the form and governance of Ann Arbor. He will continue to promote development and density, with a view to exploiting the high value of Ann Arbor’s real estate. If the result is displacement of the current residents, that is not all bad. He is fond of words like “transformative”, and “disruptive”, and often his initiatives are couched in broad visionary terms alluding to such liberal objectives as racial equity, housing for the “most vulnerable”, or preventing climate change. He is fond of soaring rhetoric. From his letter introducing A2Zero:

We recognize that this is an ambitious goal, but we know that Ann Arborites have the passion, intellect, creativity, and the compassion necessary to see it met. To be clear, achieving carbon neutrality within a decade will necessitate that we all work together. It will necessitate collaboration, innovation, and disruption. If we are to achieve our goal, Ann Arbor 2030 must be vastly different from Ann Arbor 2020.

Taylor’s Slate can be expected to carry out his promise of Disruption, though you will not find any of them using that term. If Taylor regains a Council supermajority, there will indeed be a whirlwind through our City, especially in terms of development and growth initiatives.

A central theme is the elimination of single-family zoning throughout the City. Although Taylor denies in the recent MLive article that this is his intention, this was the effect of the A2Zero language he endorsed. In the article discussing the campaign, he offers some vague reference to a future Master Plan revision process. (For a review of this, see our post, The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent.   This planning process has been put on hold for budgetary reasons for the present.) But read the comments from the Slate. Lisa Disch was perhaps the most forthright about the concept. Here are her comments as reported in that recent MLive article.

Many who live in single-family homes in Ann Arbor are benefiting from a building boom that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, Disch said, adding it was surely disruptive then. It will be disruptive today to go through another boom, Disch said, but those who enjoy the benefits of homeownership owe it to future generations “to give back and to accept disruption and change as part of what makes a city thrive.” Disch said she’s concerned it’s illegal to build anything but single-family homes in much of Ann Arbor. “Single-family housing is not only the most expensive housing, it’s also the most energy-intensive,” she said. “And so we need to change our zoning codes to allow for more diverse forms of housing throughout the city.”

(Note: Disch is incorrect that single-family zoning makes it “illegal” to build anything but single-family homes. The zoning simply imposes restrictions regarding setbacks and lot sizes. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are already permitted in R1 zones, with restrictions. See our discussion of single-family zoning in this post. Also, many other R zones are designed to accept duplexes or other additional structures and there are areas where this is prevalent.)

The Defenders, on the other hand, in general support the wishes of current residents to have the City government provide a continuity of community and maintain a level of services and protections that empower residents to continue Ann Arbor as their home.

Here are my chosen candidates’ views in their own voices (copied from their campaign websites, which are linked to their names):

Anne Bannister (Ward 1)

There are significant debates in Ann Arbor that you all need to be aware of: How much density is appropriate for Ann Arbor? Should neighborhoods be up-zoned to allow the replacement of single-family homes with apartment buildings? I believe those decisions should be up to neighborhood residents and should not be imposed by city government. I promote community involvement in the upcoming Master Plan Revision, giving the citizens a voice in shaping future development to meet the needs of all of us.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

I’ve also worked hard to increase meaningful resident and neighborhood engagement in decision making. That, too, will be especially important going forward as the city considers major policy questions on land use and zoning as well as in the necessary prioritization of scarce financial resources.

  • Opposed provisions of A2Zero Plan permitting apartment buildings and mixed uses in any single-family neighborhood

Tony Brown (Ward 3)

I support a community-oriented approach to neighborhood vitalization that keeps pace with our city’s modest growth. Ann Arbor’s downtown is an important part of our city, but within a much larger picture. Ann Arbor is its neighborhoods: Burns Park, Pittsfield Village, The “Woods,” Lower Burns Park. Ann Arbor city government must continue to invest in, improve and maintain the parts of our city where the majority of our residents live.

Jack Eaton (Ward 4)

Jack promotes development and City policies that generate public benefit. He negotiated affordable housing contributions from a developer and works closely with neighbors and developers to achieve positive outcomes. Many of the problems the City has had in the recent past are due to our economic success. Housing shortages, congested streets and flooding are the consequence of rapid growth. Jack believes the recession provides the City with an opportunity to seek economic equilibrium, where growth does not outpace our ability to improve our infrastructure.

David Silkworth (Ward 5)

Our affordable housing problem won’t be solved by simply increasing density with quadraplexes and ADUs in single-family residential neighborhoods. The solutions, and yes that’s plural, will only come from everyone working together, including developers, realtors, bankers, non-profit foundations, and politicians to create housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income folks. We can’t just keep building more market rate housing for upper-income people.

Since I am not attempting to provide an unbiased assessment of the two sets of candidates, I will not attempt to further characterize the viewpoints of the Slate individually here, though they are quoted extensively by MLive.

Adding up the numbers

Here are the power dynamics in the Ann Arbor City Council. There are 2 Council Members in each ward (10 in all). Then there is the Mayor. This is a total of 11 voting members. The Mayor has limited powers, but one of them is the veto.

As we described in this post, Taylor has had a rough time of it lately. He went from a supermajority (8 votes, which are required for certain high-consequence decisions, including purchase or sale of City property) in 2016 to a majority of 7 votes in 2017 (enough to pass most resolutions) to a disastrous 4 votes with the wave election of 2018. Now that we have Council elections only on even-numbered years, this (2020) is his first chance to recover the power that allows him to pass his full agenda without impediment. Currently, the Defenders have 7 votes, which means they are able to pass resolutions (most require 6 votes), but Taylor can veto them, which he has been doing more and more freely. Since it requires 8 votes to overturn a veto, the two groups are currently at a standoff.

The T-shirt for Taylor’s Slate. It has been seen out and about.

Two of Taylor’s reliable CM (Ackerman and Smith) are not running for re-election. That means that he will have only 2 votes unless he takes all or most of the seats currently being contested. Three of the Defenders (Lumm, Bannister, Eaton) are running for re-election. If they retain their seats but no others, the situation will continue in the standoff (7-4), since Hayner, Griswold, Ramlawi, and Nelson usually vote with the Defenders. Just one more victory (Silkworth in the 5th Ward, Brown in the 3rd) will mean 8 votes for the Defenders, which will seriously cripple Taylor’s ability to push his own agenda without a consensus. He really, really needs the entire Slate to win.

This need above all to win has been evident in the way the campaign has been waged. This is not a polite debate on issues. Forces have been gathered and weapons have been put into action.

The No-Holds-barred Campaign

Taylor’s direct involvement: For some time now, Taylor and his surrogates have been denigrating the very character of his opponents. He sent out an email to supporters with seven points about the incumbents’ record, all of which refer to particular disagreements but none of which are accurate. Unfortunately each of these would require almost a blog post in itself to explain the details and decisions involved. Here is just one:  “Voting no on affordable housing“. In fact, the incumbents have voted for numerous affordable housing initiatives, including non-profits’ projects, extra funding for affordable housing, a plan for using the old Y lot for affordable housing, and a request for the Housing Commission to evaluate City properties for affordable housing. They also voted for the pledge that Council passed unanimously. I suspect that the Mayor is still sore about Core Spaces (it had a few units in its plan). But as phrased, this is simply a lie; it can’t even be dressed up as “misstated” or inaccurate. His phrasing has been repeated by several commenters and bloggers on social media without modification.

Campaign contributions: The Slate has been blessed with generous campaign contributions. (This information is available on the Washtenaw County Campaign Finance database.) They received in total more than twice the contributions than the Defenders. Jane Lumm, who has been cultivating her donors through many campaigns, was the only one who received an approximately equivalent sum. (Jack Eaton loaned his campaign $10,000, which makes his figures illusory.) Linh Song made very substantial contributions to her own campaign. Note that these figures are for the entire election cycle, so include some contributions from 2019. Many of the contributions to the Disruptors were at the top allowed figure of $1000.

Total contributions for each candidate

But that is not all the assistance they received. At least one PAC (political action committee) was also active. Inspire Michigan, which is a PAC run by Ned Staebler (Staebler is from a Michigan political dynasty and is an active commenter on social media), is the funding source for the Michigan Talent Agenda. This organization has been active in Ann Arbor politics since at least 2014, which is when Christopher Taylor first succeeded John Hieftje. They are dedicated to bringing “talent” (think tech) into Ann Arbor for economic development purposes. This year they hired Change Media Group, which describes itself this way:

“Sophisticated targeting techniques allow us to ensure the right message reaches the right people at the right time, and gets results. We specialize in integrating digital, social, mobile, and more into comprehensive multi-channel campaigns that are proven to drive results.”

One outcome was a postcard that endorsed Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs. There were other activities, as revealed by their Expediture Report filed with the Michigan Secretary of State. Many of the items in that report are payments to Facebook. They are notated as “oppose Jane Lumm” “oppose John Eaton” “support Jen Eyer” “support Lisa Disch” “support Erica Briggs”. Evidently the sophisticated targeting made use of Facebook algorithms. (I never saw any of them.)

Postcard from the Michigan Talent Agenda.

What is the agenda?

There are a number of specific call-outs on Taylor’s agenda, which are reflected in the positions of his Slate. Many if not most of them are directly linked to the wish to upzone Ann Arbor, and specifically to eliminate single-family zoning. We provided a lengthy discussion of that issue in our previous post. Briefly, here is our summary of the argument advanced by Taylor’s supporters.

By allowing greater density in the many parts of Ann Arbor that are still single-family, housing will become more affordable. As a consequence of this, it will also become more racially diverse and more economically equitable. (Because a unit in a quadplex is smaller and presumably more affordable, and also because it is presumed that more supply will reduce the effect of demand.) This is often signaled as “inclusive”. Also, because people who could formerly not afford to live in Ann Arbor can live close to work and take transit or use bikes, we can reduce the carbon load. Young people who have not been able to afford a house in expensive Ann Arbor can finally have a home (but not a single-family house) near the core and escape expensive rents.

A great many people, especially the frustrated and sometimes angry young (Millennials, etc.), have bought into this argument. It can be dismantled piece by piece, but not in this blog post.

Kingsley Condominiums. Price range $450,00 to $1,755,000

As indicated in the candidates’ statements, the Defenders don’t buy it. They recognize that these changes are likely to lead to displacement of current residents. A theme that one sees in social media is a suggestion that people who are squatting on single-family parcels would do well to sell out and move elsewhere. Transformative. Disruptive. Indeed. But the result will not be what many of its hopeful supporters believe. An advantage of this agenda is that it will release the untapped value in Ann Arbor real estate. There is wealth to be earned. We have seen what has happened in the neighborhoods near the core, where most parcels were formerly occupied by single-family houses or small apartments, and now host large expensive condominium complexes. This is what density looks like. But it is not affordable.

Ann Arbor – Tree City

As I see it, the Defenders will support change and all the progressive ideals that we share with most of the people involved in Ann Arbor’s civic affairs. But the issue of upzoning with its destruction of Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods is off the table. The Master Plan revision coming up in another several months or a year will involve full community input and review, and it will not displace the current residents of the city. Ann Arbor will continue to be the place we all made home.

Special note: It may not be obvious from coverage of the campaign, and he doesn’t make an issue of it, but the candidate for 3rd Ward, Tony Brown, is a lifelong Ann Arbor resident who is Black. He is also a well-informed long-time journalist who is familiar with the issues of the day and who speaks to them cogently and with great articulation. Isn’t it time we had a person of color on our Council? He could provide the type of leadership we have been missing.

Important information about the election: The Ann Arbor primary election is on August 4, 2020. Polls will be open for physical voting, with appropriate safeguards for physical distancing. If you prefer to vote by absentee ballot, it is highly recommended that you use the convenient drop boxes at City Hall (301 Huron St., Ann Arbor). The Clerk’s office is open on Saturday, August 1, from 8:00 to 4:00. Voters may request an absentee ballot (no reason is necessary), vote by turning in that ballot, and/or register to vote on that day. (Did we mention that we have a City Clerk, Jacqueline Beaudry, who has won awards for being a superlative Clerk?)  Vote as you like. But vote.

UPDATE: MLive has an article today (July 30, 2020) which is unfortunately behind a paywall. I subscribe but their use of “exclusive” for election-related coverage is questionable for what is our last local paper. The article is a good one, though. It reviews the campaign donations for the two factions and accurately points out the high proportion of development interests who have donated to the Taylor slate.

CONCLUSION: The Slate won handily. One has to say that the voters have clearly chosen the view of the future presented by the Mayor and in November Ann Arbor will have a different governing body. All incumbents were defeated. Here is a news report.

EPILOGUE: On a recent Friday (the 13th of November), new Council Members were sworn in. They immediately announced their intention to “densify” the city, in many cases by overturning decisions that were made in the previous term. Here is a key section, quoting Mayor Taylor in the MLive article.

Political opponents and critics have worried the new council will act to eliminate single-family zoning in the city, though Taylor earlier this year called that “classic election nonsense.”

Still, Taylor and his allies have made clear they support increased housing density and growth, and some have said they want to facilitate a broader community conversation about how the city is zoned through a master plan review process, including taking a look at what some call the racist history of single-family zoning.

“We have to have a reckoning with our past history,” Song said on the campaign trail. “What City Council can do is think about more inclusive zoning, talk about more dense housing, actually speak to and work towards affordable housing so that we have the diverse community I think that we expect from Ann Arbor.”

Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (2)

Posted July 12, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Neighborhoods, politics

In our previous post, Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise (1), we discussed the oncoming primary election in which Mayor Taylor has put forth a Slate with a unified message. In particular, he has been promising some major changes in Ann Arbor for months, using the signal word “Disruption“. We concluded:

The message is very clear. No more business as usual. A different community. And most of all, more density. Whether we like it or not. As Taylor has experienced more and more barriers to his direction-setting for the City of Ann Arbor, he has grown more and more shrill. And the key factor appears to be density. Why is that?

Density and Development

There is quite a history of the effort to develop Ann Arbor more intensely. Tall buildings downtown were an issue for a long time. Here is a nice history of Tower Plaza. For a long time it was the tallest thing downtown. Several historic districts were formed just to keep this sort of thing from happening again (one reason our Main Street is so attractive). But starting in 2003 with the Downtown Residential Task Force (sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority, which had just been granted a 30-year charter), there was a push to bring dense high-rises downtown.  This entailed changing the zoning code. The Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2) process, beginning in 2006, accomplished that. But first there was a major push to educate and inform Ann Arbor citizens about all the ins and outs of intense development downtown. A well-known consultant, Peter Calthorpe, presided over a mapping exercise where we residents sat at tables and put little stickers where we thought more density could work. The discussion is described here, in an article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) Our Town vs. Big City . The Calthorpe report was, in fact, not much followed in future planning.  It makes for interesting reading to see what might have been. Now our downtown is scarcely recognizable from what it was only a little less than 20 years ago. Ryan Stanton of the Ann Arbor News has been doing a good series to describe these changes, including this article.

ADDENDUM: Evidently Tower Plaza is still the tallest building downtown. I haven’t actually made a census of the rash of high-rises. But I was probably thinking of the planned 19-story high-rise that was approved last December. But now that project (to be constructed on Washington, behind the Michigan Theater) is on pause because of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll see if Mr. Frehsee’s optimism is warranted.

The Library Lot

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

Downtown was the location of a recent battle between the densifiers (development advocates) and residents. The Library Lot (LL) has been a key focus of the competition for the future of Ann Arbor and its use by its own citizens for years. We reviewed that in Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor. Taylor’s Council supermajority voted on April 17, 2017 to sell the development rights for the LL to a developer, Core Spaces, to build a 17-story building. It was important that Taylor had the 8-vote majority because it takes 8 votes to approve certain types of City action, including the sale of City property. But note: this was not the final sale. There were still numerous steps to go through, including a site plan approval and a final sale contract. In August 2017, Anne Bannister was elected to fill Sabra Briere’s former Ward 1 seat. (Jason Frenzel was appointed by Taylor to fill it when Briere left, and he was that vital 8th vote.) So upon her seating in November 2017, a new Council was sworn in and Taylor no longer had his supermajority. On May 31, 2018, Taylor and City Administrator Lazarus signed the Agreement of Sale with CBRE, the developer for Core Spaces’ building. But Taylor failed to bring this contract to City Council, and instead signed it on their behalf. On June 18, 2018, two Council members, Sumi Kailaspathy and Anne Bannister, filed suit against the City, the Mayor, and the City Administrator (the Clerk was also named, as she was required to sign the document) on the basis that this was an illegal contravention of the City Charter requiring the Council to vote on all such sales of city property. Kailaspathy was on the previous Council (and did not vote for the initial resolution) and Bannister represented the new Council, sworn in as of November the previous year. (This lawsuit is the reason that some campaign materials accuse Bannister of having sued the City.) The lawsuit was finally settled with a Council vote on January 22, 2019. The settlement prohibits the City from selling the development rights to the LL.

After an effort of many months to collect signatures, in May, 2018, a couple of citizens’ committees finally submitted petitions to place a measure on the ballot for the November, 2018 election that would prohibit the sale of the Library Lot and cause it to be made into a public area (a commons or park). This was obviously a cause for alarm on the part of Taylor and others who firmly supported the Core Spaces’ building. (Note that the contested contract signing occurred after these petitions were submitted.) The battle was now truly on, with committees forming on both sides of the issue, which became known as Proposal A.  Voters for A Responsible Ann Arbor included many recognizable Taylor supporters among their contributors, including, notably, current Council candidate Linh Song, who donated $5000 to the cause of defeating Proposal A. Ann Arbor Central Park Ballot Committee similarly received donations from many Taylor opponents, including current CM Anne Bannister. Most of those donations were modest, excepting the $7200 (in several separate donations) from the long-time stalwart supporter of a Central Park, Mary Hathaway (now deceased).

There was quite a concerted effort to defeat the ballot proposal. Apart from the campaign committees, a number of prominent citizens spoke up on both sides of the issue. Linh Song was highly visible in the opposition, as was YIMBY spokesperson Jessica Letaw. The Washtenaw Housing Alliance, a non-profit headed by real estate broker (and former Council member) Sandi Smith, came out very strongly against the proposal. And of course, Christopher Taylor himself sent out a message to supporters urging the proposal’s defeat. When the voters approved the measure by 53% in November 2018, Taylor described it as a “gut punch”. (It can’t have helped that he also lost his majority on Council in the August primary.)

Why was this such a devastating loss? It was the money. The lot was to be sold for $10 Million. Half this cash was to go into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, thus it was a big payday for affordable housing advocates, especially Jennifer Hall, the Housing Commission director who has taken the lead on most such programs. The other $5 Million was to buy back the Y lot (later the Council simply borrowed the money).  But a $10 Million (or more) addition to the tax base, once the building was complete, would have served as a great addition to the General Fund. In his plea to voters, Taylor estimated this as $600,000 per year. But also, this was a defeat in showing that the mood of the voters was not entirely complicit with the development program.

Eliminating Single-Family Zoning

The initial impetus behind the downtown density explosion was, ultimately, the need to provide for housing for the huge inflow of students to the University of Michigan. This has been nicely documented until recently by Ryan Tobias, the publisher of the blog TreeDownTown. His 2018 post explained how the downtown density has just kept up with growth in student enrollment. We are waiting anxiously for an update. And of course the COVID-19 pandemic may have an effect on that demand that we can only speculate about at this point.

Most recently, the focus has been on density in residential areas of the city.  The current zoning and master planning for the city has resulted in large areas zoned for single-family housing (especially the R1A classification). The Strivers have been emulating efforts in other cities, including Minneapolis, to eliminate single-family zoning in order to permit more densely built housing (sometimes called “missing middle” housing, referring to duplex, triplex, or quadplex buildings) in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

This effort has been given voice by a group who were self-named YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). This has been a nationwide movement, brought to Ann Arbor by DDA board member and housing advocate Jessica Letaw. She opened up a Facebook page under the name A2YIMBY. The theme has been simple and straightforward: Build more densely, increase the supply of housing, housing becomes more affordable and therefore more equitable. YIMBY was a term chosen to counter the NIMBY label (Not In My Back Yard), a pejorative often used against people who simply want to keep their neighborhoods intact. But lately the YIMBY term has itself become a pejorative.  Recently, the YIMBY Facebook page has changed its name to Ann Arbor Humans Who Wonk. (Try putting that into an acronym.)

Neighbors for More Neighbors sign being distributed in Ann Arbor

Another group that is emulating efforts by advocates elsewhere is Neighbors for More Neighbors. This appears to have sprouted from Minneapolis as well. Our local group has its Facebook page and has produced signs and other material. It also has a Twitter feed. But it is not obvious who is behind it. No actual persons’ names have been used. Yet the group is taking on a shadow identity. NFMN also signed on to the Washtenaw Housing Alliance pledge to seek affordable housing in the county. This from an organization without any identified principals. It is not listed as a PAC in the Washtenaw County campaign finance pages. Perhaps all this would be less noteworthy if its signs were not showing up on lawns joined with the Slate’s campaign signs. Someone is putting substantial effort and money into it. But who? Note that campaign signs like this cost approximately $1000 per 250 signs.

Finally, a clue. NFMN held a “kickoff” on March 24 at BLØM Meadworks. Here is the announcement.

The little note says it is a special project sponsored by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance. But the “project” is not mentioned on the WHA site itself. And what does “sponsored” mean? Is WHA using its own funds to pay for the signs and other expenses? WHA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit (this information is buried inside a recent financial report). So they should not be using funds to support candidates. But are they? Perhaps not. It’s just that their signs cohabit many lawns with the Slate’s campaign signs.

It was initially thought that abolition of single-family zoning would be accomplished via the Master Plan process. The Master Plan is specifically mentioned in A2Zero. Here is some background about the effort to embark on a new Master Plan. In that post, I speculated that it was about eliminating single-family zoning in our city (though the RFP does not specify that). However, the Master Plan required substantial funding for a consultant to take us through the process. That has been “deferred” in the new City budget planning because of the COVID-19 crisis, which has caused a considerable shortfall. The price tag (initially $500,000) has been subtracted from expenditures for the near term.

Density in Ann Arbor’s Residential Neighborhoods

So why is there such a push for density in our residential neighborhoods? The answer keeps changing. Early on, we were all concerned about suburban sprawl. The townships around us were turning into tract developments. It was simple economics. Farmers got old and their property was worth more for development than to farm. It was seen as their 401K. After several attempts to pass land-protecting measures at the County level, the Ann Arbor Greenbelt millage was accepted by Ann Arbor voters (2003). As explained at the time, it was to keep down sprawl and also prevent congestion from the new homeowners who would be commuting into Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, after it passed we were presented with an unwelcome linkage – it was claimed by development interests that we had also voted for density! (That was not on the ballot, nor on the campaign material.) So ever since, it has been claimed that we must develop densely in Ann Arbor in order to prevent sprawl.

Then we came into the Placemaking age. As we explained in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics, economic development in Ann Arbor was tied to lifestyle issues. These were important to attract “talent” (read, tech workers). These young people like downtown action, biking to work, and a generally condensed and readily accessible lifestyle. So we were to remodel our core neighborhoods to fit these needs. This general push seems to have worked, in that new companies and enterprises have succeeded in building an increased demand for near-downtown housing.

For the last couple of years, the YIMBY argument of the need to increase supply in order to make housing more affordable has been the dominant argument. This has continued despite the lack of any evidence that it has worked here in Ann Arbor (or really, anywhere that has a similar real estate value situation). As old houses in near-downtown neighborhoods like Kerrytown or Water Hill come down, expensive condominiums go up. They are typically occupied by wealthy retirees or affluent employees of the UM or downtown companies. But still, the YIMBYs hope that somehow by increasing supply, the younger members of our community can achieve a lower rent, or homeownership.

Note: “affordable” means many different things to different people. There is a well-accepted rule that no household should spend more than 30% of their total annual income on housing. This ceiling has long been exceeded for many, including relatively affluent households. For lower-income households, there is limited subsidized housing in which the cost is held below the market value by grant programs. This housing is often what is meant by “affordable housing”. But for many people whose income is below the median, but does not match the thresholds for subsidized housing, “affordable” simply means a place where they can afford to live. Unfortunately, most market-based housing in Ann Arbor does not match that need.

While the subject of this current post touches on affordability, it is not intended as the major topic. There is a thirst in the community to discuss affordability, but this post is meant to make a different point.

Our Housing Commission Director, Jennifer Hall, has of late been bringing up the timely racial angle. She presented all our Council members with a copy of the book, The Color of Law. The book has an excellent summary of past history in recounting how Federal law, mortgage policy, and activity such as “redlining” and covenants in housing developments actively and knowingly discriminated against African Americans in housing. Her conclusion has been that single-family housing (because it was the result of zoning decisions during that time) is racially discriminatory on its face, including today. Recently she administered a scolding to Council members on this basis. (She is referring to neighbors of 415 W. Washington.)

The very latest wrinkle has been nicely summarized by UM professor Jonathan Levine. (Dr. Levine’s special field is transportation planning.) His recent op-ed in the Michigan Daily has drawn in climate change as a reason to increase density, with a good dose of racial equity thrown in. The premise is that with denser housing (more dwelling units), fewer commuters will be traveling by automobile into the city, and instead will use mass transit or non-motorized travel (i.e., bicycle or walking) to work. He was writing the piece in support of the A2Zero Plan, recently approved (June 1, 2020). In the earlier version (2.0) of the plan,  eliminating single-family zoning was identified as a method of moving Ann Arbor toward “carbon neutrality”. Although single-family housing is not identified, the phrase “by right” means that the zoning restrictions involved would be lifted.

As a compromise during the Council deliberation of the plan (June 1, 2020), this language was modified (Strategy 4.5 Diversity of Housing) to remove the key phrase “by right”, though most of the language of that section remains confusingly the same (it is not clear how the objectives will be met since the actual mechanism is no longer specified).

In recent social media posts (7/11/20), Taylor has stated flatly that “I don’t propose that we eliminate single family zoning. ” It appears that he is literally correct. However, he has been a forceful proponent of the A2Zero plan as originally drafted (see above), even writing the introductory letter to the plan, in which he stated “carbon neutrality means that we must adopt new land use strategies.”  In using that phrase “by right”, the zoning changes proposed would eliminate single-family zoning. Explanation follows.

What is single-family zoning?

The definition of zoning districts is contained within the Unified Development Code (Chapter 55).  “Single-family” refers to one of the R1 districts (see this table). The differences between R1A, R1B, R1C, R1D and R1E are basically the required lot size and the required setbacks. There is also a height limit. More than one building can be present, but it must adhere to the setbacks and the minimum distance between buildings. In practical terms, this means one house per lot for most lots.

If the provisions of the original A2Zero plan were followed, presumably these setbacks and area limitations would resemble those for multiple family districts. Note that while R1A requires a total of 20,000 square feet per dwelling unit, R4A requires only 4, 300 SF per unit. While the front setback for R1A must be 40 feet, for R4A it is 15 feet. So as long as new construction obeyed those limits, many more dwelling units could be built in an existing single-family lot. This is what is meant by “by right”: it is implied permission to build whatever you like as long as the restrictions for that zoning code are followed. The actual setbacks, height, etc. would have to be determined through a planning process if this change really took place.

City Place student apartments. They took the place of historic houses on S. 5th Ave. Not exactly the character of the neighborhood.

Single-family zoning does not actually guarantee one little house on a lot. The zoning code is actually more flexible than that. Unfortunately, from the neighborhood viewpoint, too flexible. Some of the zoning classifications (R2A and R4C) allow a modest number more of units to be built on a “single-family” lot, but restrain them in size and setback. But the lots can be combined and this changes the parameters of any planned development (remember, it’s all about the setbacks). We saw this completely played out with the City Place fiasco. This is a development on South Fifth Avenue where a single developer (Alex de Parry) owned a whole row of historic houses which had been rentals for years. The neighborhood was just beginning to be recolonized by homeowners and the lovely old houses to be fixed up. City Council went through months of debate before de Parry simply claimed “by right” to build a dense development on his combined lots. By combining lots, he was able to defeat many of the safeguards in the setbacks and area limitations and the result was a student-style development in a residential neighborhood. Some of the residents moved away and many historic structures were lost. It should be noted that the original structures, though somewhat deteriorated, were already serving the need for student housing and were more affordable. In other words, less profitable. Meanwhile, this had the effect of displacing a whole neighborhood. There was outrage about this, and a committee was formed to examine the role of R2A and R4C zoning. They produced a report after months of productive work. Oddly, the recommendations in the report were then and are still now ignored by the Planning Commission.

So how would this be handled if we abolished single-family housing by changing the zoning code to something like R4A? The proponents imagine tidy little duplexes, triplexes, and quads tucked in amid single homes, with relatively little change to the character of the neighborhood. But what provision will there be to administer a case where several parcels are combined? How large a complex might then be built in a block of formerly single-family homes?

Who benefits from development in residential zones?

Regardless of which explanation you chose for the abstract benefits of increased density, there are many interests who benefit directly (in monetary terms) by development. Let’s assume that we have a half-acre lot in a single-family zoned neighborhood. Under provisions of something like R4A zoning, this could hold 4 units (attached or not). Now, if the original owner continues to live in the house on that lot, they are not really of a lot of value to most other people. Yes, they will pay their taxes. They’ll buy goods, we hope locally. They’ll employ local services. They might even make donations to local charities. But frankly, pretty much of a dead letter in terms of bringing a lot of money into the pool. It is even worse for people who have lived here for some years. Because of Michigan Proposal A, there are limitations on how much property taxes for residential homeowners can increase from year to year. The taxable value (TV) can increase only 5% a year, or inflation, whichever is lower (inflation has been lower through most of the life of this law). So a nice little neighborhood of long-term residents essentially becomes a little tax-evasion garden, from the viewpoint of taxing authorities. Once the property is sold, it is taxed at its current value. Avoiding this “pop-up” tax is a major influence in keeping neighborhoods static. And, more troublesome, those residents persist in requesting services, which can get to be costly.

Development has a wide set of beneficiaries. Right up there at the top is the taxing authority, and also the people who actually get to spend those tax monies. The City Council and Mayor, City Administration, and career staff need money to fulfill various visions and projects. With everyone set in place, it mostly gets wasted providing services.

New development is much sought after for that reason. This answer to the pertinent question during the latest budget discussion illustrates the stakes.

Actually, $1 million per year isn’t much for the average budget these days, but I think if we could see this on a yearly basis you’d see a bigger bump in more recent years.

When the property is sold for development, money flows in many directions.

1. The owner. Most likely bought the house at a much lower price, but has put a fair amount of money since then into maintenance and upgrades. Still, in a good market, this is a way many people extract some equity from their property. If the zoning has relaxed so that the parcel can be developed more intensely instead of just selling an old house, the yield might be bigger.

2. The realtor and people involved in the property transfer. (Title companies, lawyers, inspectors)

3. The developer. This is the deal-maker. With luck, they’ll buy the property at a favorable price and then leverage that with lots of financing.

4. Banks and investment entities. Making money from money.

5. Construction contractors, demolition contractors, excavators, building materials suppliers, land surveyors, architects, decorators, furniture stores, paint stores, landscapers.

6. Brokers and rental agents. Once built, sales to customers begin.

7. And don’t forget the taxing authorities.

The Oil Well in Your Backyard

Here’s the thing. Ann Arbor is now such a desirable place to live that its real estate has essentially become an extractible resource.  Just like an oil well or a gold mine, each little piece of ground is a fungible bit of wealth. For one thing, actual City of Ann Arbor area is geographically limited because we can no longer annex land (other than occasional township islands). So our land availability is inelastic, which is known to increase housing prices. In other words, there just isn’t enough land to meet our demand, especially in the choice areas near the core. This can be a good thing, if you own the land and want to sell. But there are considerable downsides as well. As the Joint Center for Housing Studies (Harvard University) explains, the cost of land is a driving factor in the expense of housing. As land prices increase, it becomes more and more difficult to build moderately-priced housing. And the value of the land is likely to cause a replacement of existing structures with higher-value ones. We have already seen examples of this, with teardowns in the areas near the core and big-footprint houses (or, where zoning allows, expensive condominiums). For example, a decent house on Spring Street was bought last year for $400,000, immediately demolished, and a 3000-square foot house built. (The zoning would have accommodated a duplex.)

Increases in cost per acre within Ann Arbor zip codes per FHFA

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has been tracking the cost of land using a complicated formula which takes into account the cost of replacing an existing structure. (Note that not all parcels in these zip codes are within the City of Ann Arbor; also note that most parcels are less than one acre.)  The value of these parcels will be much higher if they can be used to develop a higher-value structure.

So what would be the effect on single-family neighborhoods if zoning were changed to allow duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes? Inevitably the value calculations will drive the sale of parcels and the house on them (which could be a rental, or owner-occupied). Because of that sale, the assessed value of similar parcels will increase. (Assessed value is based on current market value.) This will have some tax consequences, depending on the status of each remaining parcel. A house that was accompanied by a house on each side will gradually find itself flanked by larger structures (just how large depends on how the setbacks are drawn and what the height limitations are). Inevitably, because more households now occupy the block, there will be more congestion, more noise, more issues with neighbors. This is not a tragedy but will change the quality of the originally quiet neighborhood. And, of course, there is the possibility that a developer will succeed in assembling several parcels and a City Place type of structure will be built. (Remember, it is all about lot area and setbacks.)

More to the point, this value profile will mean that more and more current residents will be displaced for one reason another, perhaps because a landlord or relative has decided to cash out, or because costs of remaining may increase. This pattern is familiar to all gentrifying neighborhoods. Water Hill, currently in full flush of gentrification, was once a segregated Black neighborhood and has gone through many of these changes already.

Often it is assumed that older residents would welcome this opportunity to sell and bank that equity. But the cost of living in any part of our metropolitan area has now increased to a level that this is not going to be easily feasible. (There is an “Ann Arbor bleedover” effect.) A new residence (if purchased) will be at a new higher tax rate. There is the loss of nearby friends and helpers. There is also an expense and trouble in moving. There are many reasons why many prefer to “age in place”. So the notion of being displaced from one’s home is a frightening one.

Disruption, indeed.

Those Troublesome Voters

Over the last several elections, it has become clear that the residents of Ann Arbor, especially in the settled neighborhoods, just can’t be trusted to vote against their own preferences and best interests. This is our home, our city, and we expect our elected representatives to address our concerns. That is not to say that our Council should not represent our ideals and aspirations. We are among the most liberal populations in the State of Michigan. We respect good leadership and confident, competent government. But we do believe that we deserve a say in the direction of our community.

Ann Arbor does indeed face many challenges in an uncertain future. As we have commented in the past, as in Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes, we need to match our policies with the need to adapt to changing conditions, including the climate crisis. (And we really didn’t plan for a pandemic.) Instead, we are being confronted with a wealth agenda. The proposed changes (disruption!) in our City’s organization appear all to be oriented toward growth. Growth and real estate development are the source of wealth. And it is likely that current residents are not considered to have much of a place in this scenario.

Taylor’s Slate. He would like you to vote for them.

It is clear why our Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has become so frantic and is now campaigning so strenuously for his Slate. Unless he regains his supermajority, all these “disruptions” will be at hazard over and over again by the troublesome voters of Ann Arbor. Every election matters, but this one (the Democratic primary, August 4, 2020) really could be the turning point.

 

 

 

Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (1)

Posted July 10, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: politics

A two-part examination of the driving force behind this August’s primary election

The Election

It’s that season again. As all those who have lived in Ann Arbor for some years must be aware, we go through this stressful exercise every time there is a City Council election. Now that Council terms are for four years instead of two, elections are only in even years, so at least we get a little bit of a break. Because we still have partisan elections (thanks to a mayoral veto of a referendum to ask the voters which they prefer), the important election is held as the Democratic primary. And our ballots still allow for straight-line party votes, so many voters don’t even bother to get down to the bottom of the ballot in the  November general election. Thus, the only real vote for our Council members will be on August 4, 2020.

Mayor Christopher Taylor, February 18, 2020

The dominant figure in this election is someone who is not on the ballot. Christopher Taylor has been our Mayor since 2014, when John Hieftje (whose agenda he has emulated) retired as Mayor after a long successful tenure. Taylor was re-elected to a four-year term in 2018. But he has had a struggle. Though Hieftje maintained a solid majority of his supporters on Council, the numbers were starting to decay. There were continual efforts by dissenters to win places on Council, and by 2014 they were making headway. By November 2014, six Council Members who were not reliable Taylor votes were seated (though they differed on many specific issues and did not vote as a block). (There are 10 CM, plus the Mayor, a total of 11.) They were Sumi Kailaspathy, Sabra Briere, Jane Lumm, Stephen Kunselman, Jack Eaton, and Mike Anglin. Since the number of CM required to pass a resolution is 6 votes, but many other actions by Council require 7 or 8 votes, this presented something of an impasse and a barrier to very many really ground-breaking initiatives.

In 2015, the balance shifted, with Zachary Ackerman replacing Kunselman, and Chip Smith replacing Anglin. Thus the “insurgents” were reduced to 4 votes, which still gave them some power when 8 votes was required, but little ability to defeat most issues. When Sabra Briere left town and Jason Frenzel was appointed in her place, Taylor finally had the desired “supermajority” of 8 votes.  In 2017, Anne Bannister ousted Frenzel, so that we were back to the armed standoff for big items. Finally, in 2018, tables got turned again, so that a new majority of insurgents have an almost decisive 7 votes. Again, the not-Taylors are not a unanimous bloc and there are often dissenters on particular issues. But Bannister, Hayner, Lumm, Griswold, Eaton, Nelson, and Ramlawi often oppose major actions by Taylor.

These elections take on a bit of Groundhog Day vibe since we always seem to be arguing about the same things. In a recent amazingly even-handed discussion of our local politics, Sam Firke identified two Ann Arbor political factions, Protector and Striver.  Protectors: “They love Ann Arbor, have deep roots in the community, and want to preserve its goodness.” He mentions tall buildings, among other things. Strivers: “They want to keep growing the things that make it so special. They are also more likely to see the ways in which Ann Arbor can do better. ” He accurately identifies me as one of the Protector clan. (I’ve given our two groups a number of different names over the years, but these are better.) Taylor is, of course, the leading figure for the Strivers. The not-Taylors on Council represent the Protectors.

But Firke misses the essential difference. Protectors represent the residents, especially the longer-term residents, of Ann Arbor. Strivers seem to be envisioning a new, improved set. We highlighted this years ago with The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. It was all about “talent”. But the themes keep changing, with the fashions.  Each new theme comes back to the same thing: more development within the City of Ann Arbor. And its current residents are, simply, in the way.

Taylor’s Slate. From left: Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, Erica Briggs, Linh Song. Travis Radina not shown.

Given the rocky ride he has had, it can be understood if Taylor is getting rather frustrated. Once the sunny smiling charm purveyor, he has gotten openly combative, with more and more emphasis on his slate winning. He has actively recruited and endorsed candidates for the last several elections. This year he has assembled a slate of substantial candidates, who have accepted the assignment cheerfully, even wearing T-shirts with all five names on them (Lisa Disch, Ward 1; Linh Song, Ward 2; Travis Radina, Ward 3; Jen Eyer, Ward 4; Erica Briggs, Ward 5), and all pretty much singing from the same hymnbook. None are incumbents.

Recently he sent an email to supporters with his endorsement for the Slate and outlined their platforms.In this, he explicitly condemns the incumbents in three wards (Anne Bannister (Ward 1); Jane Lumm, Ward 2; Jack Eaton, Ward 4) with a set of misleading and inaccurate characterizations.  I will not attempt to discuss these at length, but there is some discussion of them in this MLive article. There is an increasingly desperate tone to Taylor’s statements, and those of his supporters. It is dispiriting to see the Mayor of a city like Ann Arbor, which has one of the highest proportions of well-educated people in the nation and is the home of an internationally respected University of Michigan, engage in such deceptive and inflammatory rhetoric as he has in recent messages. What is driving this desperation? We can give him the benefit of the doubt, that he sincerely believes in the ideals he espouses, but that should not prompt this type of behavior.

Disruption

Lately Taylor has introduced a rather fearsome theme: disruption. He has been preaching this for quite a few months now. Here is an excerpt of his comments on February 18, 2020. He was discussing the affordable housing pledge the Council had just unanimously endorsed.

Putting this pledge into effect will require disruption. Disruption is not something we do terribly well in Ann Arbor. Business as usual will not be acceptable. Things are going to have to be different. … It means that density is something we need to countenance in areas where it has previously not been acceptable.

Prior to the vote for the expansive A2Zero plan (finally passed on June 1, 2020), Taylor again promised disruption.  The Plan explicitly called for zoning changes to allow  denser development in currently single-family zoned areas. That language was slightly modified in later drafts. But attention was drawn early on to the cost of the Plan (said to be $1 Billion over 10 years) and then the hit on the city budget from the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor was defiant and once again promised disruption (from the Michigan Daily).

“Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the plan will be disruptive…Ann Arbor 2030 will be materially different than Ann Arbor 2020… It’ll be a denser community, a more electrified community, a community that emphasizes renewable energy.”

The message is very clear. No more business as usual. A different community. And most of all, more density. Whether we like it or not. As Taylor has experienced more and more barriers to his direction-setting for the City of Ann Arbor, he has grown more and more shrill. And the key factor appears to be density. Why is that?

Next: Density and Development.

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Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: Estimating the Improbable

Posted May 26, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance, Sustainability

The logo for the A2Zero campaign

The A2Zero Plan looks to reduce emissions drastically in the next 10 years. But what are the probabilities that this will succeed? A review of some of the contingencies.

The A2Zero Plan, which is scheduled to come before the Ann Arbor City Council on June 1, is a rambling complex of objectives and strategies that ostensibly was devised to meet the requirements of a Council resolution (November 4, 2019) that called (alternately and confusingly) for a “climate neutrality plan” and a “carbon neutrality plan”. In reading it, evidently what Council was trying to achieve was to map out a strategy to reach “net zero”.   This appears to be the operative phrase:

Whereas, Creating a climate neutrality plan is necessary to identify, plan for, budget, and work towards implementing the actions required to achieve community-wide carbon neutrality.

No other principles or directives are found in the resolution. The staff is being directed to figure out (a “draft plan” is actually mentioned) how Ann Arbor can reach “carbon neutrality”, i.e., net zero carbon produced, by 2030. That is all. No mention of sustainability, equity, or anything else. Just “get us to carbon neutrality”.

The Goal: Taking Our Net Emissions to Zero

Although it is not exactly stated, evidently the purpose is to achieve a net zero carbon dioxide balance (or better, CO2 equivalents [CO2-eq]), though that term is used only once in passing in the resolution. The term can be used in different ways, but I’m pretty sure that the net operating energy is the definition here. “Net Zero” installations typically produce much of their own energy onsite using non-emitting technology, and this balances their carbon cost otherwise. A famous example in Ann Arbor is Matt Grocoff’s Netzero House. Presumably a net zero Ann Arbor would reduce emissions and also bend energy generation toward non-emitting technology such as solar energy generation. The Introduction to the Plan says (p.12):

Simply defined, carbon neutrality is reducing the emissions our community puts into the air down to zero, through actions that minimize output and/or by purchasing greenhouse gas emissions offsets.

Precision is important here because the aim is to counter a climate emergency, which Council has declared. The name of the game in climate is GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions. But there are many GHG and they have different climatic effects. Therefore a standard has been devised which states all GHG emissions in terms of the effect of CO2. (Explanation of the term and its uses here.) Happily, the Plan does state results in terms of CO2-eq. Note that the units shown in the lead figure are metric tons of CO2-eq. The number does not appear to reach zero by 2030 except for the electricity contributions.

Lead graphic in A2Zero plan showing carbon load reduction

The Main Points

  • Why are we concerned about the output in CO2-eq? Because we have all heard the dire predictions. I reviewed some of them in this post, Climate Change in Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future, where I linked to and quoted the IPCC report of 2018. And then there was this, Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes. Along with many others, I have been anguished (for years, actually) about the vision of the future of the Earth and its children – all because we produce too many Greenhouse Gases. Ann Arbor committees and Councils have expressed a hope that we could mitigate this output for years. Success has been elusive. Apparently Council decided it was time to get down to business.
  • Since this is our objective (reduction of GHG), it makes sense that any plan to address it would have a strict accounting of CO2 emissions and how we expect to address them. It is a matter of arithmetic. Count the emissions. Figure out how to subtract the needed amount. The A2Zero plan does have a number of proposed approaches. But unfortunately most of the proposals have low probability of succeeding.
  • The approaches to carbon neutrality used by other institutions fall into several categories, especially low-carbon energy and heat generation, energy efficiency, and green building approaches. The University of Michigan has a task force addressing this goal (see most recent report). Note that the final report from this group, President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) is due this fall. So far the recommendations are aimed at reducing emission levels.
  • Another method to become “carbon neutral” is to use offsets, meaning that we send money elsewhere to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the globe.The spirit of the Council’s directive is, I believe, aimed at reducing emission levels in the City of Ann Arbor. As an environmentally conscious community, we would like to believe that we are doing our best to reduce our own contribution to the CO2-eq burden of the planet. This Plan instead makes liberal use of offsets and other means of essentially shipping our obligation to reduce carbon pollution to other locations, while continuing to add to the emissions with our own activities.
  • The Plan also has many, many proposals aimed at different policy objectives that have little or nothing to do with carbon sparing. While “equity” is a high value and something we should address as a community, it is not related except remotely to addressing CO2 emissions.
  • Just to add to the problems, the actual math in the Plan is defective.  I have no idea how the original database (I assume there was a spreadsheet at some point) looks, but there are so many typos and inconsistencies in this document that it is impossible to analyze. I have sent some detail to the City Council and the Administrator, but here is just one sample: one proposal (Offsets) has two different numbers in the document vs. the summary table. One is 13.2% of the GHG needed and one is 45%. That is not a rounding error. It was my intent (and I built a table) to compare the strategies based on their contribution, but it is impossible with the mangled condition of the report. Numbers do not add up.

State Law, Ann Arbor Regulations, and the Art of the Possible

As noted by the Ann Arbor News, several items are dependent on changes in state law. This
(1) Assumes that state law can be successfully amended to make certain actions impossible under current law possible. They include community solar, building code changes, and community choice aggregation. This seems to be oblivious to the actual steps and political barriers between anything Ann Arbor requests and our majority Republican legislature. Have the drafters of the plan determined which committees will take up a measure, and have they determined that there is a lawmaker who is willing to carry the issue forward?

(2) Assumes that these changes can happen almost instantaneously. Several show timelines that assume state law can change in 2020. Enforcement is to begin in 2021. An example is a proposal to change State building codes to require that all new buildings be built to net zero energy standards. This would likely mean full electrification, among other changes. It would be a substantial change in the way building is done across the State of Michigan.

About dates: Ann Arbor and many others have a fiscal year that begins in July of the preceding year. Thus, though we are currently in the calendar year 2020, our Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget was just approved and in July 2020 we will be transported to the future, or at least to 2021 for the purposes of our civic operations.

Some units (like Washtenaw County) have a calendar year budget. So while the City of Ann Arbor is living in 2021, the County will be comfortingly at home in 2020, until January 2021.  Meanwhile, any agency that lives mostly on Federal funds (like AAATA) uses the Federal fiscal year (beginning in October). So for purposes of Federal grants, we are in 2020 until October.

Effects of Building Code changes

One question that arises from these differences in how dates are used: when the plan says “2020” or 2021″, what does it mean? Will a number for 2021 be as of July 2020, January 2021, July 2021 (midpoint of the calendar year), or December 2021? If we expect to start measuring the outcomes and there will be regular reports, presumably a particular date will be used from year to year. The timeline for “Building Code changes” is a straight-line reduction of emissions, starting in 2021. But that over-simplifies any such course of changes, since even the rate of building new structures is likely to vary. The basis for this estimate is not shown.

Presumed effects of a regional transit system in the Ann Arbor area by 2022.

Other proposals indicate very poor information about the actual status of an issue. There is a blithe assumption that a Regional Transit system will be in place and functioning in 2022. It appears that there was not even a cursory Google search because this story has been all over the place for the last couple of years. We have every detail you could wish in this post, Governance and Transit and Taxes, Oh, My.  If you scroll down to updates 21-25 you will see that the supporters of the RTA tried two separate attempts at revising State law to make a RTA without Macomb County work. The RTA will not be on the ballot this year and possibly never. A lot of reworking in back rooms is probably going on, though maybe not during the pandemic.

Supposing that the RTA does get on the ballot in, say, 2022, it would then have to get the approval of the voters. (There was a prior failure.) The likelihood that anything at all from the RTA will be reducing the carbon load in the next two years is vanishingly small. (Note: the RTA is a functioning authority and has done many good things in the Detroit area. They also collaborated with the AAATA for a Ann Arbor-Detroit bus, sadly discontinued for the pandemic.)

Let’s Rethink

Council asked the Administrator and thus the Office of Sustainability and Innovation for a draft plan. This is indisputably a draft. Like all drafts, it needs a lot of markups. The many errors of estimation and addition do not belong in a finished plan. (The Plan does not show the work used to arrive at these estimations. I assume that there was some. It is impossible to analyze or evaluate without showing how the numbers were derived.) It also needs some project management expertise so that each strategy can be tracked and evaluated over time. I haven’t even begun to address the budgetary implications (the amounts requested would consume nearly our entire City budget over 10 years and are simply infeasible).

I earnestly hope that Council will not be asked to adopt it as a Plan, but will ask the staff to continue fine-tuning the strategies and present them as they are mature and completely calculated with the best information possible. Clearly more work, and more time to do it, are needed.