Archive for the ‘politics’ category

The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics

July 30, 2014

The Placemaking Agenda and its corollary, the New Economy Paradigm, are on the Ann Arbor ballot this August.

For a decade or more, Ann Arbor’s city politics have been driven by two contrasting views of its future. While political contests have sometimes revolved around personalities and personal loyalties, the crucial question underlying almost every race has been that of what kind of community Ann Arbor will be in the future and who (or specifically, what groups) will benefit from that future direction.  At the heart of this divide is the emergence of the Placemaking Agenda.

As has been well discussed here in the past, the traditional party divide (Democratic vs. Republican) is of little value in understanding Ann Arbor politics, since nearly all the action takes place in the Democratic primary.  But there is a real divide, not only in ideology but in the political actors.  This has been thrown into sharp contrast by a recent analysis in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  What is unusual about this analysis is that, rather than displaying the candidates and those who donated to them, it lists prominent political actors and their donations to individual candidates.   The Chronicle, true to its fastidious ways, avoids attaching labels to the two factions.  But it does note that the candidates of one faction are endorsed by the Michigan Talent Agenda.

Michigan Talent Agenda endorsed candidates:

Christopher Taylor – Mayor

Don Adams – 1st Ward

Kirk Westphal – 2nd Ward

Julie Grand – 3rd Ward

 

The Talent Agenda

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

This sounds off-hand like something related to the entertainment industry.  But actually it is related to a drive to replace Michigan’s fading manufacturing-based economy with a “knowledge-based”, i.e., information technology-based, digital-age economy. This has been very clearly enunciated by a recent report, The New Path to Prosperity, from Michigan Future, Inc.  What Michigan Future says directly that it wants to achieve is a high personal per capita income, and not a high employment rate. From the report:

Our answer: a high-prosperity Michigan—a place with a per capita personal income consistently above the national average in both national economic expansions and contractions…Places with low unemployment rates, but also lower personal income, aren’t successful to us.

How is this to be achieved?  By bringing in the young “talent” who can participate in the knowledge-based economy, either as entrepreneurs or simply the needed workforce.  The key is to make our area a place where they want to be.  By increasing the attraction of the place, it will be transformed into a New Economy.  That is the kernel of the Placemaking Agenda.

Placemaking

The origins of the placemaking conception are lovable and sweet.  As explained by the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking as a word and concept grew out of the movement to create shared public spaces where a sense of community could be built.  It comes from the environmental movement and emphasizes a connection with nature and other people.  It calls for places where people can move around freely (pedestrian access), with shared activities, often artistic, joyful, and nurturing.  Pictures usually involve lots of young children. It is about places where the human family is at home.  A good Ann Arbor representation of this would be FestiFools, which takes over Main Street for a couple of days each year.

It also connects to the idea of the sense of place.  As we described in our previous post, this is a consciousness of what our community looks and feels like in a whole sense. This comprehensive environment can affect our experience of life.  A recent MIT review has an excellent history of placemaking as part of the evolution of an urban sensibility (see the second chapter).

But the word has been taken over to mean a formula to create an attractive location that has economic benefits. Michigan State University has established an entire department, the Land Policy Institute, around this concept.  As one would expect, it has generated a number of academic studies, workshops, etc. A substantive data-driven study by LPI, Drivers of Economic Performance (BIG file!) lists a number of elements as increasing desirability of a location.  It also unequivocally pairs placemaking with the New Economy (emphasis theirs).  “…the New Economy has created a scenario where people move to places with high endowments of amenities, and jobs follow.”  LPI has now published a study on placemaking that contains this triumph of plannerspeak:

Placemaking can be defined as the development or redevelopment of value-added real estate that integrates essential elements of local and regional allure (e.g., mixed use, walkability, green spaces, energy efficiency) to generate an improved quality of life, a higher economic impact for the community, enhanced property tax revenue and better return to the developer and investors, while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.

(You’ll notice that we have shifted ground from the soft and fuzzy to the real estate.)

Beginning with Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities campaign (2003), the emphasis has been on making cities places that will attract the young, especially young professionals who are members of what Richard Florida called the “creative class”.  The idea was that if you make the city a place these valued workers want to live, they’ll flock in and create a positive economic environment for all.  Here are some of the most commonly cited attributes:

  • Walkability
  • Transportation alternatives (transit, bicycling)
  • Third places (places to hang out; cue the “vibrant downtown”)
  • Green infrastructure (parks, etc.)
  • Active public spaces with things to do
  • Cultural amenities, including public art
  • Attractive built environment (including historic buildings)
  • Environmental sensitivity, such as energy efficiency

Want to hear this beautifully explained by a current candidate?  Here is Christopher Taylor’s statement on behalf of  “the young”.

Glazer and his group have been very influential in setting the state agenda for economic development based on Talent.  Governor Rick Snyder, whose professional career was grounded in the field of information technology (he was the Chairman of Gateway Computers, which he left in 1997), has embraced the objectives and language of this “New Economy” effort.   The core concept is that Michigan must create the types of communities and regions (through Placemaking) that will attract Talent.  As MIPlace.org (supported by a consortium) highlights, Snyder has emphasized “place-based governance”, or more simply, “placemaking” from the beginning.  Here are some excerpts from his address to the Legislature in 2011:

Today, I am announcing our next steps to help communities build the kind of places that will enable them to compete in a global economy.

  • Establish a process for evaluating the performance of economic development and placemaking activities.
  • Encourage new initiatives that support local and regional programs involved in economic development and placemaking.
  • Promote best practices for local and regional economic development and for placemaking activities.

Michigan government has indeed gone through some realignment in these directions.  Here is an interview on Bridge Magazine of Gary Heidel, “Chief Placemaking Officer” of MSHDA.  He explains:

The idea behind placemaking is simple: By improving the quality of life in downtowns and neighborhoods you will create more walkability, which will attract talent, creating jobs and economic development…Quality of life investments from both the public and private sectors focus on housing, mixed use, transportation, public spaces and recreation, entrepreneurialism, historic preservation, arts and culture.

Now MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority,  is the state agency that is supposed to “create and preserve safe and decent affordable housing”.  But it is now providing personnel and funds to promote placemaking.  It is, for example, one of the supporters of Concentrate magazine.  We reviewed a speaker event that was sponsored by MSHDA via Concentrate in 2010.  Here is a report from MSHDA that seeks to integrate MSHDA’s traditional responsibilities with placemaking.

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It influences business development and expansion decisions, inspires downtown revitalization and historic preservation, builds community identity and pride of place, promotes diversity and stimulates the growth of creative enterprise. Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea behind MSHDA’s community development projects. Together with our many partners, we invest in Michigan communities to:  Enhance the quality of life of our residents; To attract and retain businesses, entrepreneurs and workers throughout the state. Place-based economic development—creating vibrant, sustainable communities—is a winning economic strategy that will provide the foundation for a new Michigan.

If one skims through the numerous memos available on the MSHDA website, it is evident that this “placemaking” dictum has penetrated even to the most basic of affordable housing funding applications, including the CDBG and LIHTC.  The 2015-2016 Qualified Allocation Plan description lists “A strengthened focus on project location and placemaking concepts” as the first item in priority changes.  To that end, it indicates further in the document that projects will have to submit WalkScores (walkability) and distance from the nearest transit stop.

The MSHDA details are illustrative of how a ruling paradigm can overtake an entire governmental substructure.  There are many more examples and policy issues that could be brought forward.  Quite a few of them can be seen resonating through Council actions of the last decade.  Just one example: Percent for Art was launched with many public statements that Art would make us into a community that would attract the Right People. (As the guy said in the movie, “but that’s another story”.)

The Golden Future – but for whom?

As with any political agenda, there are likely to be winners and losers with this one.  While not voiced fully, those opposing the “talent agenda” candidates have identified some of the issues.  Who will benefit from bringing in this favored demographic via the potential cost in public money and altered community priorities?

Some of the supporters of the “talent agenda ” candidates have derided opponents as being old fuddy-duddys who don’t want anything to change.  Joan Lowenstein, for example, is the gift that keeps giving.  From labeling residents as “sulky”,  and then elderly, she has now moved on to “prissy”.  But doesn’t classic economic theory suppose that people act according to their own best interests?

There are many more reservations about the “talent agenda” than a simple resistance to change or the wish to be able to stay in one’s home in a nice community.  What kinds of people do we want to support in Ann Arbor?  Do we only want to make this an affluent community or do we want to retain our diversity of incomes and occupations?  This is a regional question as well as a city-based one, but one reason I personally moved to the 5th Ward is its yeasty mix of all kinds of people.  I love our little houses (and bigger houses) with people from all walks of life.

Why am I bringing out this populist theme?  Because the New Economy folks are pretty unambiguous that the point is to make wealth, not to make a diverse community.

The report from LPI cited above also has this paragraph:

Increased creative class employment is associated with positive population change and higher per capita income. This is consistent with previous findings (Adelaja et al., 2009). However, creative class employment is associated with a lower resident employment level. This indicates that the greater the percentage of professionals employed in the creative class, the better the community’s potential for future population and income growth, but not resident employment levels.  (see p. 44)

Get that? Current residents will not see a positive increase in employment.  This is consistent with an article by Richard Florida (yes, the Creative Class guru).  What is now being called “talent clustering” is beneficial to the talent class but not to service and blue-collar workers.  Indeed, they suffer because of higher housing and other costs.  Florida concludes,  “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”  And this is the guy who originated the whole Creative Class idea!

If you reread the statement by Glazer and Grimes, you’ll note that  the point is not jobs, not employment, but an opportunity for high levels of personal wealth.  (Note that a high per capita income is an average and can be driven by a small percentage of very high incomes, while a median income figure would better denote the income status of the population as a whole.)  So it appears that the “Talent Agenda” is quite inequitable.

Something to think about before voting in a Democratic primary.

NOTE:  All but one of the “placemaking” candidates won the primary (Don Adams did not succeed in toppling the First Ward incumbent, Sumi Kailasapathy).  Like every political race, reasons for these results are complex and vary with each contest.  For example, Christopher Taylor far outspent any of his rivals, and there was a three-way race in the Third Ward.  We can’t draw any conclusions about the weight of the placemaking agenda in this outcome.

UPDATE: A post by Washtenaw County planner Nathan Voght, writing on Concentrate magazine, makes a forthright argument for placemaking.

Why is creating “places” a key to transformation of the corridor? Millennials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that “places” provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority.

Voght is the manager for Reimagine Washtenaw, which has incorporated plans for transit-oriented development of denser housing alongside the corridor.  However, it seeks to create the walkable community in an area where most people will be living only to travel elsewhere (downtowns and employment centers) to work and shop.

SECOND UPDATE:  A thoughtful article in The Guardian warns against the cool city push (another way to express the placemaking agenda).    It calls this “policy-making by tribalism” and points out that often tangible benefits to people who actually live in a city are ignored.  From the article:

Those benefits are the heart of the matter, though, and city planners should not limit themselves to the things that will attract young, well-educated people. Their central focus should be to make their cities more affordable and diversified than they were before. When the focus of city governance shifts away from winning spots on magazine lists and towards useful service provision for as many constituents as possible – cool people, uncool people and the vast, middlingly cool majority – the US will finally have the urban renaissance it has been promised.

THIRD UPDATE: An article in Bridge online magazine updates some of the demographics (yes, young people are moving out of Michigan).  The reason could be – jobs!  Some interesting comments also point to Michigan politics and lack of civic infrastructure.

 

Moving Us Forward: The Urban Core Expansion Plan

October 26, 2013
Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is moving forward with a new Five-Year Plan for expanded services.  They describe this plan on their recently remodeled website and have been conducting public meetings all over Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. In the meeting I attended, emphasis was given to local (5th ward) routes and enhancements in detail.  The flyer at the right lists many specific route changes.  (There was a surprisingly vigorous discussion, with one current bus user objecting to some of the “enhancements”.)  Clearly, much planning and fine-tuning has gone into the proposal.

The map below shows detail about enhancements in the Ann Arbor area.  (Similar maps are available on the website for the Ypsilanti and Pittsfield areas.)  Here are a few quick points about the changes:

  • New routes are shown in blue, old ones green.  Express Routes purple.
  • Note that most of the new routes are on the west side of Ann Arbor.  (These have letter designations instead of numbers, but this is temporary.)
  • Routes “leak” outside the borders of the City of Ann Arbor, with excursions into Scio and Pittsfield Townships. Scio Township is not participating in the Urban Core plan but a bus would run along Jackson Avenue to Zeeb Road.
  • There is no expanded service into Ann Arbor Township on the northeast side, despite the complex of medical services and offices at Domino’s Farms in that area.
  • There are several Express Routes shown, including the present ones to Chelsea and Canton, and new ones to Belleville and the Walmart/Saline complex on Michigan Avenue.
Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

In my judgment, there are many reasons to say this is a lovely plan on functional grounds.  For example, the plan allows people from Ann Arbor to seek employment at Meijer and presumably makes all the commercial and nonprofit  (like the family shelter) opportunities accessible.  Some of the commercial spots in Pittsfield, like Costco and Walmart, plus the Pittsfield library branch, are also made accessible.  It is rather concerning, however, that the northeast side of Ann Arbor and the WCC/St. Joe’s area appear to be receiving no enhancements.

So, as is always the question: how will this expanded system be paid for?  As we indicated in our previous post, the City of Ypsilanti has joined the authority and Ypsilanti Township has requested to join.  Pittsfield Township and Superior Township will apparently just maintain their current POSA contracts, while Scio Township and Ann Arbor Township have declined to play.  The City of Saline is also a nonparticipant.

As was explained at the meeting, a major cost of implementing the plan will be buying new buses.  Most of the buses in the existing fleet were purchased with Federal funds, but for a variety of technical reasons those won’t be available to expand service. improve and expandAll this will not happen without a major infusion of cash.  As we reported earlier, there was an informal consensus at the “Urban Core Meetings” that the “Improve & Expand” option was to be selected.  According to the description offered, that option will require an annual additional revenue of $5.4 million by 2019 (the last year of the Five-Year Plan). (Since Pittsfield and Saline are not participating, the actual figure is not clear.)  Much money is needed to start up. The planner, Michael Benham, stated, “We’re using every cent we’ve got right now.”   So where will the cash come from?

It is an open secret that AAATA hopes the answer will be a new authority-wide millage.  (The authority is expected to include Ypsilanti Township, along with Ann Arbor and the City of Ypsilanti, the two current members of AAATA.)  The number mentioned is 0.7 mills, to be approved by voters in May 2014.

So as explained in the public meeting, Year One of the Five-Year Plan will begin in August 2014, assuming that a millage passes through the entire authority in May 2014.  This was not obvious, since the assessment and tax cycle has various milestones.  A November millage vote would not provide revenue until the succeeding year.  However, since taxes are paid every July, the May vote will deliver the needed revenue in the same year as the ballot.

AAATA is currently on a charm offensive, with many meetings with local officials and the public meetings.  Although officials have been careful to say that the AAATA board has not yet authorized a millage vote, it is clear that that is in our future.  But the outcome is not certain.  Will voters endorse the plan with their dollars?

UPDATE: AAATA has now released electronic versions of flyers for all Ann Arbor wards.  Here they are.Ward 1 Ward 2  Ward 3  Ward 4  Ward 5

NOTE: A list of previous posts on this topic can be found on the Transportation Page.

The Tumultuous Politics of Ypsilanti Township

October 12, 2013

Before we add Ypsilanti Township to AAATA, Ann Arbor officials need to understand who they are dealing with.

One quality of local politics in Ann Arbor (and perhaps most places) is that we often live serenely unaware of what is happening in adjacent communities.  This has not won us a lot of love.  Serving on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners for eight years was a tremendous learning experience, and one thing I learned is that Ann Arbor is often resented for its standoffish and better-than-you (as perceived) attitude.

Now our leaders have chosen to push us into a more regional perspective, notably by expanding our city transportation system (AATA, now AAATA) into neighboring communities.  It behooves us to understand them if we are to share services and tax base with them.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest.

Washtenaw communities (census tracts) by median income. Dark green is highest, sand color is lowest. (Click for bigger picture.)

Michigan government is structured along extremely local lines, with Michigan townships likely the most potent force.  These (usually) 36-square-mile entities are mostly “general law” townships, and a few are “charter” townships.  They have a somewhat different organization and tax structure.  Charter townships are somewhat more impervious to annexation by cities (though this process is never easy in Michigan) and can impose higher operating millages.  They typically have higher population densities than general law townships.  This is true of Ypsilanti Township, which is the second most populous municipality in Washtenaw County, after Ann Arbor.  It also shares with the City of Ypsilanti and portions of Ann Arbor itself the quality of having the lowest median incomes in the county.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority has now expanded to include the City of Ypsilanti and the AAATA Board recently voted to add Ypsilanti Township as well.  Before our City Council votes on this measure, it is important to know a little more of the politics and history of the township.  It is good to understand people you are doing business with.

Brenda Stumbo

Brenda Stumbo

Karen Lovejoy Roe and Brenda Stumbo burst upon the Ypsilanti Township scene in 1996, when as a team they defeated well-respected Wesley Prater (Supervisor) and Ethel Howard (Clerk).  They remained in office (Roe as Supervisor, Stumbo as Clerk) until 2004, when a slate headed by former State Representative Ruth Ann Jamnick unseated them.  Roe then ran against Wes Prater to knock him out of his seat on the Board of Commissioners (Prater was the Chair of the BOC but was defeated by Roe in 2006).   In 2008, the pair ran again, this time with Stumbo taking the office of Supervisor and Roe the Clerk’s position.  (Analysis of the race by Mary Morgan, then on the editorial staff of the Ann Arbor News, is instructive.)  They have remained in those positions ever since, and in their nearly 20 years of leadership have shaped much of the way the township does business.

Karen Lovejoy Roe

Karen Lovejoy Roe

The single largest impact they have had, at least as viewed from the outside, has been the dispute with Washtenaw County in an effort to reduce the cost of contract Sheriff’s deputies.  As for many municipalities, the cost of “public safety”, especially policing, had become the largest fraction of the County budget in the 1990s.  The Sheriff had been providing this service both with “road patrol” (paid for by General Fund monies) and direct contracts with townships.  As the result of a study done in 1999, the County proposed in 2000 to institute a system of charging townships for policing services based on a “PSU” or police services unit, approximately the fully loaded cost of a single deputy.  County grants would pay 34% of the cost.

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

Proposed charges for deputies in 2000 report

But this was very bad news for Ypsilanti Township, with the policing needs of an urbanized area.  While cities and most villages in the County, plus at least two townships (Northfield and Pittsfield) had their own police forces, Ypsilanti Township needed essentially a full police force composed of Sheriff’s deputies.  In 2000, the majority of Sheriff’s deputies were employed in the township, 44 in all compared to 25 for the entire rest of the county.  The bill would be over $3 million annually.  After years of disputes, they filed a lawsuit against the County in 2006 demanding a lower payment schedule.  The lawsuit lingered in court and through various appeals until a settlement was finally reached in 2011. As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle,

The bulk of the recommended payment – $732,927 – will come from Ypsilanti Township, which had contracted for 44 sheriff deputies in 2006…County representatives previously indicated they were seeking around $2 million. The county is not seeking payment for its legal expenses related to the lawsuit, which are estimated to be just over $1 million.

The township, according to  the Ann Arbor Observer,  had legal fees of $1.1 million.  But the new 4-year contract means that the County is still subsidizing Ypsilanti Townships’ police service by $1 million/year.  Since many of the County’s municipalities – including Ann Arbor – pay for their own police forces and only make incidental use of the Sheriff’s deputies, they are doubly subsidizing Ypsilanti Township, as they are paying for services they don’t use directly.

Were Ypsilanti Township officials justified in spending over $2 million of taxpayers’ money in court trying to get a better deal?  Most likely they still feel that they were, as the township had lost a good deal of taxable value with the closing of auto plants.  The township form of government dictates that officials will try to obtain the best services for their residents with the lowest taxes.  But this means that other municipalities (County, cities, other townships) must be aware that they are dealing with some very value-oriented folks in making arrangements for sharing services and tax base.  And – they are fighters.

The township’s website is ytown.org , where much information may be found.

UPDATE: In response to Larry Krieg’s query (see comment below), I am providing some historical documents.  A memo to the BOC on May 17, 2000 laid out the premise and approach for a new police charges methodology.  (This is the document from which the illustration is drawn.) In a 2006  memo containing details of contract offers, the county explains all the different pricing strategies and references the lawsuit.  As it states, all townships other than the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (Ypsilanti Township, Salem Township, and Augusta Township) signed a four-year contract using the new methodology before the deadline of December 31, 2005.  “Representatives from each of these Townships publicly stated that they would not sign the four-year proposed contract because the specific prices for 2008-2009 would not be approved by the County Board of Commissioners before April, 2006.”  Thus,

the County proposed a four-month “bridge” contract to the Plaintiff Townships to cover January through April, 2006 at a cost of $100 per hour per PSU, which was less than the County’s actual full cost of $111 per hour per PSU to place a PSU on patrol. The purpose of the “bridge” contract was to provide a contractual means to continue police services to the Plaintiff Townships until such time as the Board of Commissioners would approve the price figures for 2008-2009. Once those figures were approved, these Townships would then be able to approve or reject the four-year proposed contract.

As the memo goes on to explain, the BOC approved the bridge contract, but the plaintiffs refused that contract and instead sued.  The complaint named several members of the BOC individually as well as the County itself.  The subsequent history is given in this memo describing settlement of the lawsuit. Courts found for the County at every level, including at the Appeals Court.  The question of the contract has literally been adjudicated in great detail and the County was found to be justified in the contractual approach that they took.

SECOND UPDATE:  Continuing the documentation in answer to Larry Krieg’s query, here are the history and supporting documentation of the County’s jail expansion.   My very first writing assignment for the Ann Arbor Observer was a comprehensive coverage of the issues leading up to a February 2005 ballot issue. Here is a proof copy of The Jail Millage (please note that the images are copyrighted by the photographers). Mary Morgan provides an excellent history and summary of outcomes in her account on the Ann Arbor Chronicle. As she indicates, the ballot issue was defeated by the voters.  That millage proposal was very large and complex with many moving parts.  After its defeat, the County still had a jail overcrowding problem, and the BOC considered the issuance of a $30 Million bond to pay for a new jail. From the Chronicle:

A citizens group objected to the $30 million bond, saying it was too similar to the ballot initiative defeated earlier that year. The group – called the Save Our Sheriff (SOS) Committee – collected more than 17,000 signatures aimed at forcing a countywide referendum on the issue. The protest came in the context of disputes between the county administration and the sheriff at the time, Dan Minzey, over funding for operations as well as the cost of sheriff deputy patrols in the townships. In early 2006, commissioners dropped plans to issue that bond.

Indeed, as seen in the August 2005 bonding resolution, the slightly revised Administrator’s recommendations were to be financed by this bond and there were expectations that the savings from the new police services model would assist in that.

transfer of funds clauseAgain according to the Chronicle account,

But in November 2006, the county board was ready to move ahead again, approving a $21.6 million bond issuance for the expansion. This time, no organized efforts were made against the proposal, and the bonds were sold in early 2007. Just over a year later, in March 2008, the board authorized another $12.6 million bond for the new 14A-1 District Court.

The resolution passed in November 2006 was this time not referencing the Administrator’s Public Safety recommendations, but rather a Space Plan funding resolution that nevertheless also references the General Fund savings from the changes in police contract methodology.

This memo requesting additional construction funding which dates from 2010 details the amount of the bond proceeds and the actual costs of construction.  It requests more funding, which is from a Facilities Operation & Maintenance fund (used for capital projects).  The memo makes it clear that all construction was paid for either with bond proceeds (including interest on bond balances) or the facilities fund.

However, staffing was also needed for the new jail. This  memo requesting more Corrections staff which also dates from 2010 indicates a considerable expansion of the Corrections budget.  There is no reference to including this in the cost of PSUs or contract personnel.  Historically, the Corrections budget has been separate from the police function.  Counties in Michigan are obliged by law to maintain a jail but not to provide policing.  The two should not demonstrate a cross-over in budgetary charges, though they are both under the Sheriff’s budget.

It must be noted that one complication to this story was the role of Sheriff Dan Minzey, who served from 2000 to 2008.  He was often at odds with the BOC and the County Administrator on these issues under his charge.  Note that the anti-bond committee was called Save Our Sheriff.  He doubtless helped to cause a conflation in the public mind between the changes in funding deputies and the cost of the jail.  Minzey came from the ranks of the deputies and was apparently not very interested in the Corrections responsibilities under his aegis.  The present Sheriff, Jerry Clayton, was elected in 2008.  To my estimation, he has had a calming effect and has brought a thoughtful managerial style to the job.  As an example, here is his overview of public safety issues facing Washtenaw County.

The overlap in timing of the two issues (jail and policing), together with the somewhat adversarial posture of the then Sheriff, may have naturally led to some of the confusion.

  • February 2005: Failure of the jail millage
  • August 2005: First bond measure passed, with many references to Administrator’s revision of items discussed in jail millage proposal
  • December 2005: Deadline for signing new police contracts
  • January 2006: Ypsilanti Township and two others file suit against County
  • January 2006: BOC rescinds bond resolution

Nevertheless, in my opinion, the changes in the way the County charged for contract deputies was going to happen regardless of what was happening with the jail.  When it all began in 1999, the aim was to curtail the rapid increase in the Sheriff’s draw on the general fund.  The fact that jail overcrowding created a crisis that also needed funding was coincidental.  When the millage failed, like any governmental body, the County looked to see where funds could be obtained to address the problem.

Partisan Labels and Ann Arbor Politics

October 6, 2013

As the Council Party fades, what do party labels mean to local politics?

We are nearing a November election that will possibly result in a major shift in direction on the Ann Arbor City Council.  For a time, John Hieftje enjoyed a nearly complete hold on power to command votes from the Council.  This coming election may lose him that, though it will by no means render him without major influence over the City’s fate.  This August’s primary saw the defeat of one of his longtime supporters (Jack Eaton defeated Marcia Higgins) and the failure of his effort to unseat one of his critics (Stephen Kunselman held his own over Julie Grand).  The November election will pit his chosen candidate, Kirk Westphal, against an old opponent, Jane Lumm.  Westphal is a Democrat running against an Independent, thus he has garnered endorsements not only from the Mayor, but from a number of prominent Democrats. (His endorsement list reads like an honor roll of the Council Party, including kingmaker Leah Gunn and vocal CP spokesperson Joan Lowenstein; many of the same names appeared on Grand’s and Higgins’ endorsement lists.)  Next weekend the Ann Arbor Democratic Party is having an “Endorsement Saturday” that will include Westphal’s endorsement.  And Lumm’s candidacy, along with the success of many of her political supporters, has brought out some shrill voices attempting to use party labels against her.

One of the most confusing aspects of recent Ann Arbor political history has been that traditional party labels have become very nearly meaningless as the balance of power has shifted.  The labels and issues that relate to the national and even state parties have receded into the background as we debate specifics of how Ann Arbor is to be governed.

Ann Arbor is one of very few Michigan cities that elect members of City Council on the basis of political party.  Here we hold primaries in August to win the nomination as a Democrat or a Republican.  (I don’t know whether technically a new or third party could qualify to have a primary ballot.) (But see the SECOND UPDATE below.)  Otherwise, one runs as an Independent, who appears on the ballot only in November.

At one time, control of Ann Arbor City Council shifted back and forth between the two dominant political parties, but two things happened to alter that.  One was the shift of city elections from April (low turnout, mostly of long-term residents) to November, when many state and national elections are also held.  (See our history of this.)  Another was the election of George W. Bush to the Presidency of the United States, which began the ruination of the Republican brand among Ann Arbor’s relatively liberal populace.  Coincidentally, Bush’s election was paired with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor of Ann Arbor.  As we noted in an earlier post,

The last time a Republican won a city office in Ann Arbor was 2003, when Marcia Higgins was re-elected to the Fourth Ward council seat and Mike Reid bested Amy Seetoo in the Second Ward by 54%. The last time the Republican Party put up a candidate for Mayor was in 2004, when Jane Lumm garnered only 31% of the citywide vote against a triumphant John Hieftje. There were no Republican council candidates on the ballot.  Marcia Higgins announced that she was joining the Democratic Party and won re-election as a Democrat in 2005, joined by the former Republican mayoral candidate, Stephen Rapundalo, who won as a Democrat in the Second Ward.

The (old) Ann Arbor News' concept of the Council Party leaders after an email scandal. L to R: Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall

The (old) Ann Arbor News’ concept of the Council Party leaders after an email scandal. L to R: Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall

The move to a monolithic Democratic council coincided with the rise of a dominant political faction which we dubbed “the Council Party”.  It was to some extent John Hieftje’s Council, but former Councilmember Leigh Greden was also a dominating force. (Here is our analysis of the impact of Greden’s defeat.)

It is difficult to characterize the Council Party’s agenda succinctly but it has principally been pro-development, pro-growth, nominally liberal on social and environmental issues, and relatively nonresponsive to actual Ann Arbor residents and taxpayers, showing a willingness to pare services in order to redirect those resources to favored initiatives.  Under the management of former City Administrator Roger Fraser (hired in the first year of John Hieftje’s tenure as Mayor), city staff have been pared severely and departments combined. (Here is an excellent overview of those dark days from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

The result of these resident-unfriendly policies has been a small revolution within Democratic ranks.  Beginning in 2006, there have been primary challenges, where Democratic challengers have run against incumbents.  There have also been strong contests for open seats. And notably, Jane Lumm, a former Republican council member and mayoral candidate, ran as an Independent in 2011 and trounced Stephen Rapundalo with the support of many Democrats. (In doing so, she bested another former Republican mayoral candidate.) This article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a table showing changes in the Council since 2007.

The dissidents have generally run against incumbents on the basis of fiscal issues (the redirection of tax dollars from services to such projects as the City Hall addition and the Fuller Road Station), the direction of development of the city (loss of neighborhood integrity, domination by the DDA and development interests in the downtown), and support for our park system.  An early review of the differences between this set of longer-term residents and taxpayers and the dominant majority on Council were highlighted in my article, Our Town vs. Big City.  Another reflection on these differences is in the post, The Council Party vs. The Ann Arbor Townies.  I don’t like the term “townies”, really, because it is often used to draw a distinction between town and gown (a different dichotomy, and many UM workers and faculty may be more sympathetic to the residents’ viewpoint).  Similarly, the Council Party no longer seems quite as descriptive as it was, diminished to the rump faction that it now is.  So let’s just call the factions Our Town and Big City for now.

So why are so many lifelong Democrats supporting Lumm for re-election?  Because she has our backs.  She has been a moderate Republican (not Tea Party or even particularly conservative) with liberal social views.  She supports the use of our city taxes for city services.  I am not representing her campaign so will not attempt to characterize her further. Westphal is the current chair of the Planning Commission and has supported most of the Big Development moves of recent years, such as the notorious 413 E. Huron project.  He generally follows what he refers to as the “progressive” party line, referring not to social convictions but rather to Big Picture and Bold Idea views.  In a Democratic candidate forum (Lumm was not, of course, invited) the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported his remarks as, “this is a really exciting time for Ann Arbor” The Chronicle goes on to say, “It seems that Ann Arbor is increasingly being mentioned in the same breath as some larger cities across the country – as a place that people who have other choices can locate their business and move to.” and further quotes him as saying “I think that we can set our sights even higher”.

In electoral contests between the two factions over the last seven years, success has visited both sides but Our Town has slowly increased its numbers to the point where it is a serious challenge to Big City.  This means it is time for name-calling and the use of partisan labels.  Recently a new political blog surfaced.  The “Middle of the Left” is anonymous and allows no comments, which considerably undercuts its credibility.  But it is a fair representation of the efforts to discredit Our Town on partisan grounds.  This continues the overall tenor of earlier attacks by Joan Lowenstein.  Now of course, Jane Lumm makes no claim to be a Democrat.  But the general theme is that anyone who supports her politically is also not a Real Democrat.  MOTL calls the Our Town faction “Teapublicans”  and even accuses them (us) of being “birthers” (a reference to the right-wing crazies who consider our President to be not really American).  He also manages to apply the DINO (Democrat in Name Only) label.

Partisan name-calling is, in my opinion, a refuge of the weak.  But there is no question that this is a partisan issue.  Don’t forget that the word “partisan” has a much broader meaning than the D/R split we often hear about.  According to Collins’ English Dictionary, the first meaning is “an adherent or devotee of a cause, party, etc”.  But that and other dictionaries draw attention to the use of the word in revolutionary or resistance movements, notably during World War II but in other conflicts.  There is no question that there are two “parties or causes” here, but the Democrat/Republican designations are not the point.  The point is the view of what the future of Ann Arbor should be, and what purpose city government should serve.  Is it to serve the citizens of Ann Arbor, or is it to transform Ann Arbor into a different community altogether?  The Big City folks clearly choose the latter.

The Democratic Party has had plenty of factions before.  There is no conflict like an intraparty conflict.  When I was the chair of a Democratic club in Southern California, we held a “unity dinner”.  I was a little bemused by the “unity” label but it was explained to me that plenty of folks were still angry with each other over the Vietnam War.  (This was 1982!)  The New Deal was constructed by Franklin Roosevelt using an ungainly collection of Southern segregationists and Northern union members.  And people still quote Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat”.  The point is that insisting on some sort of Party purity is rather silly for Democrats.  We know who we are and there are some core beliefs that get us there.  Many times the details differ.

When does principle and objective overtake party identification?  As I have related, I’m a lifelong Democrat.  But there was a day I registered as a Republican.  It was to see that Winthrop Rockefeller was nominated to be Arkansas Governor, following the long reign of Orval Faubus.  (You may remember Faubus as the governor who resisted the integration of the Little Rock high school.)   Win Rockefeller was running against Justice Jim Johnson, an outspoken segregationist – but a Democrat.  I turned Republican to help get Rockefeller into the statehouse – and was rewarded by the image of the Governor of Arkansas linking hands with black Arkansans to sing “We shall overcome”.

No, our small issues in Ann Arbor do not rise to that heroic level.  But they are meaningful and many of us on both sides of the divide feel very strongly about them.  One reason the voices on the Big City side have gotten so shrill is that the Mayor has already lost the ability to push big money issues through.  Many of those require 8 votes on Council.  For most regular business, he needs 6 votes. (This would include his own, as he has the 11th vote.) Assuming that both Sabra Briere and Jane Lumm are re-elected (disclosure: I am supporting both of them), by my count there are 4 definite votes against most of the Mayor’s agenda, 3 sure votes he can count on at all times, and 3 council members who will vote very independently and can’t be counted on by either side.  So there are enough votes to block him on big money issues, but for all others he’ll need to win 2 of the three independents.  That gets serious.

UPDATE: Kirk Westphal’s endorsement page is linked above but I’ll repeat it here.  Jane Lumm’s endorsement page is here.  It includes many longtime Democrats.

SECOND UPDATE:  Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum responded to my inquiry about third-party primaries.  Here is his answer.

Unlike many other states, Michigan insists that all party qualification matters be handled statewide. There was an unsuccessful legal challenge to this about 15 years ago. Village elections used to be held with local parties like “Peoples” and “Citizens”, but those were wiped out in the 1960s when the state insisted that only parties with statewide ballot access, such as Democrats and Republicans, could appear on village ballots. Similar reasoning applies to whether a party nominates in primaries or at caucuses. The threshold for holding primaries is determined by the vote at the top of the ticket in the last statewide election. For example, following John Anderson’s presidential race in 1980, on the “Anderson Coalition” party ticket, there were Anderson Coalition primaries for all partisan offices in August 1982. Almost no one filed for those nominations, however. That being said, Ann Arbor had Human Rights Party primaries for city offices in the 1970s. There may be some wrinkle about the way parties are handled in the city charter. I’m guessing, though, that the state Bureau of Elections would be strenuously opposed to that today.

THIRD UPDATE: Jack Eaton’s comment reminded me that I failed to note a major influence and organizational force for the Our Town folks.  It is the Neighborhood Alliance, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary.  Jack has been the major maintainer of  the website for the Neighborhood Alliance. This site has many policy positions enunciated and resource listings.

FOURTH UPDATE: Mayor John Hieftje has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014. He told the Ann Arbor News that the changing dynamics on Council were not a factor, but one can’t help but wonder.  After all, he has lost several of his council contingent despite his own personal involvement in their campaigns.  His influence will persist for years in the many board and committee appointments he has made. Not known: whether he is grooming a replacement.

FIFTH UPDATE: At the October 12, 2013 Ann Arbor Democratic Party meeting, numerous politicians sought an early endorsement.  Candidates who won Democratic primaries for Council were, of course, in essence already endorsed by the Democratic Party, since that is the point of the nomination process.  Apparently Kirk Westphal requested a special endorsement.  (Sabra Briere and Stephen Kunselman, who also have opponents in the General Election, did not request this extra endorsement.)  Rather than have the membership vote on an endorsement as they had for all other candidates present, the Executive Committee voted to endorse Westphal at an earlier meeting.  There was an attempt to rescind this action from the floor, but it failed.

SIXTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the October 12 Dems meeting resulted in a rather comprehensive gallery of local Democrats.  Rather delicious, actually.

SEVENTH UPDATE: Westphal renewed the “Tea Party” label at a forum held on October 17.  As reported on MLive, he said Lumm was “Tea Party” because she has questioned spending city money on the Fuller Road Station. One commenter on that story made a very good comparison of this smear with the notorious “pinko” smear used by Richard Nixon in an early Congressional campaign.  It is true that in Ann Arbor and many other places now, “Tea Party” is every bit as inflammatory and damaging as “Communist” was in the 1950s.  Political smears are a tempting tactic, but the candidate should realize that it makes him appear venal.

EIGHTH UPDATE: In another gasp from the Big City folks, Charles “Chip” Smith announced a write-in campaign against Mike Anglin in the Fifth Ward. “He’s worried Anglin and others on council are more interested in building an Ann Arbor for now, and not an Ann Arbor for the future.”  Translation: not pro-development enough.  Smith works for a civil engineering firm, Wade Trim.

NINTH UPDATE: The Washtenaw Democratic Party has now weighed in to support the Democratic nominee in the Second Ward.   Lauren Coffman, campaign manager for Kirk Westphal, sent an email under the WDCP masthead calling for help with a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort in the next five days.  Jane Lumm’s name is not mentioned.  The title of the message is, “Let’s bring this victory home for the Democrat!”

TENTH UPDATE: Ypsilanti resident Mark Maynard posted a request on his Facebook to have his friends explain the appeal of Jane Lumm.  The results were quite nasty, with a lot of ageism and misrepresentation of political views.  What stands out is that a younger generation (the “Millennials”?) are beginning to show some political push behind the growth paradigm – evidently a wish to see a better future for themselves has made them buy the development meme.  Unfortunately they often do not look below the surface of the message.  Long-time Ann Arbor residents are going to have to embrace the question of what will happen for the generation that has just emerged into adulthood.

ELEVENTH UPDATE: I evidently stepped on some toes with the prior update.  See the comments on my old campaign blog which tell me that the generation causing the uproar is not the Millennials, but people in their late 40s (Gen X).  Apparently I fell into the popular preoccupation with Millennials (technically born after 1980).  But it still does seem that a new generation is starting to flex its muscles.  I probably overreacted to the comments on Maynard’s blog.  That is what partisan politics will do for you, especially on election day.

TWELFTH UPDATE: All incumbents won the election, except that Jack Eaton had already displaced Marcia Higgins in the August primary.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle and Ann Arbor News have details.  Of interest is the relatively strong showing for Chip Smith, who evidently received nearly a third of the 5th Ward votes in his write-in campaign.  As I have noted, that is indicative of some political winds that are blowing, perhaps generational.  The Our Town candidates will now have to demonstrate how their vision of the city’s future and approach to governance should prevail over the long term.

 THIRTEENTH UPDATE: The Middle of the Left blog has now been identified as the work of Diane Giannola. Recent posts have been thoughtful explorations of some general topics such as the recently defeated Michigan Proposal 15-1.

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here? III

January 1, 2013

Continuing a retrospective of AATA’s countywide transit authority efforts, with a look ahead.

In the first post of this series, we described AATA’s decision to “catapult” the authority into its hoped-for transition to a countywide service by advance implementation of several services.   This meant that AATA passed a deficit budget for FY 2012 (which began in October 2011).  At the time, it was clearly expected that this bold leap would be for one year only.  As we reported at the time, it was evident that the intention was to ask voters to approve a property tax millage in the November 2012 election.  Assuming that was approved, there would have been a funding gap between September 2012 (the last month of that fiscal year) and July 2013 (when taxes for the next year would be collected).  We commented,

But the AATA, which uses the Federal tax year (October-October), would have to pass a new budget in September 2012 in advance of the millage vote.  So not only will the AATA have to pass a new year’s budget without a certainty that a countywide millage will pass, but three-quarters of a year will pass before revenue will be realized from a successful millage vote.

And indeed, September 2012 rolled around and a new budget was passed.   As the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported,  the AATA finished the year with a deficit of over $1 million.  (Note: the deficit is the difference between revenues and expenses; this does not reflect a negative fund balance overall.)

And so the AATA began another fiscal year with a deficit budget (this time the projected deficit is about $300,000).  That was partly because of a reduction in state formula support, as detailed in an expanded report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  But they had a bigger problem: the possibility of new revenue had been pushed much farther out toward the horizon than anticipated.  Instead of a November millage vote, they were instead only now preparing to incorporate the Washtenaw Ride (that request to Washtenaw County would take place October 2) and after an opt-out window, would ask countywide voters to pass a property tax millage, perhaps in a May 2013 election.

From the Chronicle’s first brief account:

At the board’s Sept. 27 meeting, board treasurer David Nacht was keen to stress that various initiatives in which the AATA has invested in the past year and in this next year’s budget could not be sustained without the kind of additional funding that could come from a countywide authority.

Of course, just the next month, as we have described, most communities in the county opted out, and the “countywide authority” vanished into a puff of smoke.

What could go wrong?

Reprinted with permission by S. Harris.  Copyright by ScienceCartoonsPlus.com

Reprinted with permission by S. Harris. Copyright by ScienceCartoonsPlus.com

From the beginning, the AATA’s quest for a countywide (Act 196) authority has been powered by magical thinking.  A number of assumptions were made, one of which is that no obstacle was insurmountable. But really, if only one of these assumptions was in error, they were in trouble.  The other items of faith:

Local governments will opt in (didn’t happen).

Voters will support a new millage (irrelevant at this point).

Required documents (4-party, Articles of Incorporation) passed by City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, along with the City of Ypsilanti quickly, for a November 2012 millage vote (final sign-off by the BOC in September, much too late).

Changes in Federal transit funding would not affect them negatively (see the memo by Chris White; loss of discretionary funds; still some uncertainly with the Federal budget sequestration).

But if not the greatest miscalculation, certainly a major one was the mis-estimation of the effect of Washtenaw County’s inclusion in the Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan.  As explained here, a package of bills passed in the lame-duck session of the Michigan Legislature and has been signed into law by Governor Snyder.  This is a succinct summary of the main package.    (The detailed discussion of the effects of Washtenaw County’s inclusion will be in a later post.)   We speculated a year ago that then-Board Chair Jesse Bernstein expected that a vehicle license fee associated with this package might serve instead of a millage to fund the AATA’s expanded authority.  He had made some cryptic remarks, like this one at the October 2011 u196 meeting:

“Everyone talks about a millage, but I’m hoping that the Governor will light a candle over the weekend.”

Earlier, there was this exchange at the September 2011 Planning and Development Committee meeting (discussing the deficit budget later voted in by the Board):

Rich Robben: We won’t be able to follow this mechanism (dipping into reserves) next year.  We’d better pull some rabbits out of a hat.

Michael Ford: I’m looking at finding some rabbits.

How SB 910 would have allowed a county vehicle fee (from illustration by Richard Murphy)

How SB 910 would have allowed a county vehicle fee (from illustration by Richard Murphy)

All this became clear once the package of bills was revealed in January 2012.   SB 910 provided for any county to assess a vehicle license fee, upon passage of a measure by the county BOC and approval by the voters.  The bill provides for up to $1.80 per $1,000 vehicle list price to be assessed in addition to all other vehicle license fees, and paid to the county treasurer for transportation purposes.  However, if the county were in the RTA, the amount of the fee would be reduced by the fees paid to the RTA.

Right up to the issuance of the final 5-year plan, AATA staff apparently had hoped that this source of revenue might replace the need for a millage.  But the plan acknowledges that the millage appears to be the only option.

From the September 2012 final 5 year plan

From the September 2012 final 5 year plan

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission.  Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission. Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

The RTA package was delayed past the initiation of Washtenaw Ride, so the vehicle license fee did not materialize in time–or ever.  When the RTA package was finally passed in the last days of the 2012 lame-duck session, SB 910 was not included.  The only vehicle license fee included in the final package is that which will support the RTA itself, most likely to initiate Governor Snyder’s dream of Bus Rapid Transit connector routes.

So – after 18 months of intense effort, the AATA finds itself highly leveraged, over-extended, and with no immediate source of new revenue.  And in addition, it has an extra layer of complication introduced with the inclusion of Washtenaw County in SB 909, establishing the SE Michigan Regional Authority.

Next: What now?

 

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here? II

January 1, 2013

In our previous post, we listed five assumptions that AATA was operating under in its quest for a countywide transit authority.

  1. The elected officials of all the units of government in Washtenaw County would assent to being included in a new scheme that included a likely new tax and a governance model that left Ann Arbor mostly in charge.
  2. Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County would all sign off on a couple of fairly substantial legal documents.
  3. The Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan either would not materialize or would not affect them significantly.
  4. The voters across the county would vote in a new property tax, including in both tax-adverse rural townships and the voters of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, who were expected to add this millage to one already existing.
  5. Changes in Federal transportation funding would not affect them negatively.

From AATA’s perspective, assumption #1 seemed pretty reasonable to begin with.  From the beginning, staff spent many hours meeting with local officials and holding local public meetings.  They were  assisted by the Executive Director of the Washtenaw Area Transit Study (WATS), Terri Blackmore.  (Blackmore is more or less the godmother of the countywide transit plan and knew many of these officials through her professional activity.)  They received generally a good reception.  A number of local officials allowed the use of their faces in promotional materials and ultimately signed on to serve on the “u196 board”.  The u196 board, who were recruited via the district governance scheme, were all either local officials or very solid citizens who were accustomed to accepting civic responsibility.  Meetings began in November 2011 and the u196 appointees sat solemnly through a number of excellent staff overviews of various topics concerning transit.

u196 BOD
(Note that the list circulated at the second meeting does not include any representatives from Ann Arbor.  According to the governance scheme, the u196 board was to have 15 members, 7 of whom would be the current AATA board, representing Ann Arbor.  However, it was decided by leadership that the entire AATA board could not sit on the u196 board, since that would make meetings essentially a meeting of the AATA board and thus come under all the legal requirements of the Open Meetings Act.  Therefore, three AATA board members (the actual individuals who served changed) sat on the u196 board.)

But the acquiescence of u196 board members to discussion was not a promise that the political environment at home in the township would be favorable to an agreement on new taxes.  As we detailed in this post about county politics, many townships have a long tradition of very low property tax millages, and a 1-mill tax would have been doubling tax rates for some townships, a very hard sell.  And AATA leadership ignored the results of their own survey data (results from March 2012).

Results by region: Would you vote for a 1 mill transit tax?

Results by region: Would you vote for a 1 mill transit tax?

Note that while 68% of respondents in the City of Ann Arbor said they would be likely to vote for a transit tax of 1 mill, and 56% of the urban core communities in Ypsilanti and Pittsfield were positive (combining “definitely” and “probably”), only 48% of those in the City of Saline and eastern townships, and 42% in Chelsea and western townships were positive.  Of those, the greatest proportion were only “probably”.  The overall percentages of respondents in 2011 who said they would be “definitely” vote for a tax was 18%, and 36% said “probably”, for a total of 54% positive responses.  But that overall positive number did not take willingness to participate on a regional basis into account. Further, was this really a very strong positive result, even overall?  Survey respondents are known to tailor responses to what they think the questioner wants to hear.  Who knows what that 36% of  “probable” voters would have done in the privacy of the ballot box?

Somewhat disastrously, AATA appeared to take the position that any negative implications were to be ignored or explained, and positive ones the only to be considered.  When six rural townships withdrew very early even from the planning exercises, AATA leaders like Jesse Bernstein began talking of population numbers and taxable value, in effect arguing that those townships didn’t matter.  But these withdrawals undercut the premise of a countywide authority and set a precedent for non-participation.

One move that AATA did make in the face of these negative indications was to reduce the target millage in an attempt to make a vote for a new tax more palatable.  As mentioned in the last post, the Financial Task Force was able to reduce the proposed millage amount to 0.5 mills by excluding a number of projects from the cost of the plan (though AATA kept them in the plan and continued to spend money on them).  But there was again a political miscalculation here.  It was not a matter of the amount of the millage.  It was the question of any new tax at all for the benefit being offered.

Remaining (green) and opted-out (red screen) communities in Washtenaw County as of October 30, 2012.  Dexter Village had not voted.

Remaining (green) and opted-out (red screen) communities in Washtenaw County as of October 30, 2012. Dexter Village had not voted.

Ultimately, AATA simply failed to make the sale.  As we attempted to explain in an earlier post, for most sections of the county, the plan didn’t pencil out.  Once AATA sent out letters to municipalities offering a 30-day window from October 3 for opting out (the date was later extended to December 10), there was a rush to the exits.  By October 30, all but four governmental units had formally opted out.

Faced with the likelihood that the new authority was likely to consist of Ann Arbor subsidizing transit for a couple of other nearby communities, the Ann Arbor City Council voted on November 8 to opt out of the Washtenaw Ride and also to cancel the city’s participation in the 4-party agreement.

With Ann Arbor out, remaining communities followed suit.  Dexter Village finally opted out, and Ypsilanti Township and the City of Saline reversed their earlier “opt-ins”.  (See our post,  Washtenaw County Transit – More Outs than Ins for a blow-by-blow account.)

Opt-outs as of December 5. Only Ypsilanti City remains.

Opt-outs as of December 5. Only Ypsilanti City remains.

By the deadline of December 10, only the City of Ypsilanti remained in the Washtenaw Ride.  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the November 18 AATA Board meeting sought to put the best face on what was, in fact, a devastating rejection of their efforts to put together a countywide transit organization.

Next: It’s all about the money.

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here?

December 27, 2012

This has been a tough year for AATA.  What was supposed to be a walk in the park has turned into something more like a ride on Space Mountain.  And The Ride hasn’t finished with the possible surprises and upsets.

As we documented early on, the AATA board settled on a plan to launch a countywide transit authority at a retreat in June 2011, and released its first version of the Transit Master Plan in August 2011.  The process laid out was complex. It required participation of all units of government in Washtenaw County to appoint a 15-member board that would serve as an “unincorporated 196 board” (u196), execution of a very complicated legal document that would result in the city of Ann Arbor dedicating its charter transit millage to the new authority, and approval by the voters countywide of a new transit millage.

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

In September the AATA board approved a deficit budget for the next year (FY2012 started in October 2011).  As the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported, Planning and Development committee chair Rich Robben

“led off deliberations by saying it’s not a sustainable budget. But he said it would catapult the AATA towards a transition to countywide service.”

The “catapult” consisted of advance implementation of a number of new services that were presented as part of the countywide plan.  The choice of term was perhaps unfortunate, since it did indeed “catapult” AATA into its first acceleration to the top of the mountain.

The first jolt was felt in October 2011, with Governor Snyder’s announcement of his new transportation initiative, which included a Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan.  It would include Washtenaw County.  We reported on this in detail in a post that described the reaction of Albert Berriz, the chair of the Financial Task Force.   The FTF had been appointed by the AATA to come up with a financial plan for financing the TMP.  It had its first meeting on October 28.  Snyder had given his talk on October 26.  Berriz was clearly stunned by the implications of the RTA (especially its control of state and Federal funds) and rather summarily canceled most business of the FTF, postponing the next meeting for a couple of months.

But AATA staff and board seemed sanguine and pressed ahead with their plan despite this large dose of uncertainty delivered by the Governor. They came up with a reassuring interpretation of the effects of the RTA on Washtenaw County’s transit plans as being minimal. Apparently these were based on conversations (the text of the legislation was not yet public). Many details are now clearly understood to be mistaken.  And they pressed on with their original plan.

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

The FTF appointed a subcommittee of very knowledgeable people who did a very high-level job of analyzing finances needed for the TMP.  By considerable fudging (they simply omitted many facets of the plan from the financial estimates) and raising fares, they were able to recommend a county-wide millage of only 0.5 mills (this was later recalculated to 0.584). But just as they were poised to present this to the full FTF, Governor Snyder’s package of bills were made public and the roll-out was again postponed.   Finally, the FTF met on February 29 and released their recommendations.  A complete set of these reports and recommendations is available on our Transportation Page.   The chair, Albert Berriz, wrote a letter to the committee that was telling.

…we don’t know what the Governor’s plan will look like in its final form, and without that information it’s difficult to say that pursuing the track of a countywide millage is the right thing to do at this time.  Therefore, in my opinion, it’s premature to pursue any millage option at this time…as there are too many parts of the current economic model that we have been asked to review that may and likely will change once the final legislation comes into play.

Meanwhile, in the background, serious discussion was going on in Washington D.C. about the fate of Federal transportation funding.  The then-current transportation bill was on life support after many short-term renewals.  Finally, on July 6, 2012, MAP-21, the new transportation bill, was signed into law.  Regulations and funding schedules have been generated on an ongoing basis.  (For excellent coverage, see Transportation Issues Daily’s MAP-21 Learning Center.)  During much of 2012, AATA did not know how Federal funding (a very important component of their overall financial plan) was going to settle out.

So, let’s summarize.  The AATA was proceeding on a number of assumptions.

  1. The elected officials of all the units of government in Washtenaw County would assent to being included in a new scheme that included a likely new tax and a governance model that left Ann Arbor mostly in charge.
  2. Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County would all sign off on a couple of fairly substantial legal documents.
  3. The RTA either would not materialize or would not affect them significantly.
  4. The voters across the county would vote in a new property tax, including in both tax-adverse rural townships and the voters of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, who were expected to add this millage to one already existing.
  5. Changes in Federal transportation funding would not affect them negatively.

To all of these challenges, the response was to press ahead.  After all, what could go wrong?

In order to pursue the county-wide vision, the AATA invested big.  Over a three-year period, they spent $463,499.66 of Ann Arbor millage money.  The rest of the $1,418,890.15 cost for consultants, survey research, promotional materials and “outreach” was borne by Federal and state funds. See spreadsheet from AATA here.

The effort to get the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to sign off on both the four-party agreement and the Articles of Incorporation was longer and much more tedious than hoped.  But finally, on September 5, the BOC approved the AOI (account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  The AATA immediately (September 7) approved their 5-year plan and launched the countywide plan.  This would presumably lead to starting a 30-day clock for local units to opt out, after which the 196 board could be seated.

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

A very thorough campaign was conducted through the u196 members and their associated District Advisory Committees (staffed by u196 members and AATA staff) to convince communities to support the countywide effort.  It included postcards to be sent to elected officials and drafts of emails, letters to the editor, Facebook posts, and letters to officials.

The objective was to build a public pressure to get local governments to sign onto the countywide plan.

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Next: So how did that work out?

Note: Posts on this subject and much reference material is on our Transportation Page.