Archive for the ‘Regional’ category

Taxes and the Local Government Quandary

August 15, 2017

Got vision? Our City Councilmembers do.  But that takes money.  Can we talk taxes?

Why do people run for office in local government? Various reasons, including personal (political) ambition, an enjoyment of politics as a practice (it has its obsessive qualities and you meet people), sometimes useful connections that might help you in your day job.  But I believe that a common characteristic in budding politicians is that they want to DO SOMETHING.  The aspirational impulse may go many directions.  With me it was land use. (So, immediately, all the BOC of my day was able to deal with was homelessness.)  We have local politicians who have emphasized economic development, transit, and development for population density.  Lately, the attention has turned to economic equity and affordable (i.e., subsidized) housing, and now there is a strong interest rising in solar power as a method of attacking climate change.

The Michigan Difference

It is frustrating, from the viewpoint of a Michigan municipal official, to read about advances in other states.  Here a transit program, there a measure to provide affordable housing, often paid for by a special sales tax, hotel tax, or even ticket surcharge (think UM football games) levied by a city or a county.  Not here. There are only two ways a local government in Michigan can tax its residents and businesses.  One is a tax on real property (real estate) and “personal property” which despite the confusing name is really business property.  However, that tax is slowly being eliminated.

The other option (available only to cities) is a city income tax. According to the Ann Arbor News,  the City Council is considering that again.  If the Council decides to go ahead with this oft-considered option, they will have to put a charter amendment on the ballot.  If the tax is enacted, it will mean that City residents will pay a 1% tax on income (this is rents and retail proceeds as well as wages) and non-residents will pay 0.5%.  In return, property owners will not be obliged to pay the general operating millage (for FY2018, that is 6.0343 mills).  Whether one comes off ahead on this personally depends on personal circumstances. (My best understanding is that retirement income is now taxable, so seniors are not as advantaged as in the past.)  The advantage to the City, and perhaps to many taxpayers, is that we are able to tap the incomes of UM employees and others who live elsewhere and work or do business in Ann Arbor.

Because of limitations in the Michigan constitution, it is very difficult for local government to raise property taxes.  We reviewed that in this post from 2011, which also walks you through details of when and how assessments for property tax are done.  Because of the Headlee Amendment and some other constitutional restrictions, governments are limited as to the total millage they can impose and must go to a vote of the people (a ballot question) to raise a new millage. Tax expenditures become (by design) a zero-sum game.  So local governments are always starved for revenue, especially if they are ambitious.

Invitation to a fundraiser that was posted to Facebook in July 2017

In the face of this frustration, some of our County Commissioners and City Councilmembers have gotten creative.  As we described in Hair on Fire in Ann Arbor, the BOC has established a millage ballot proposal that offers to give certain local governments a “rebate”, to be spent as wished.  This has entered into Ann Arbor City Council politics, with the incumbents who sponsored the resolution that assigned these tax goodies to favored uses (pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and climate change) running for office as the “Sustainable Ann Arbor”, “Progressive” slate on the strength of that resolution.  This device is obviously a response to frustration over the inability to use local tax dollars as they would like.  But in my opinion, both the BOC and these Councilmembers are not just misusing the ballot initiative system, but are being insensitive to the way ordinary taxpayers view local taxes and how they are used.  To be successful, they will have to persuade a majority of Washtenaw County voters that paying an additional 1.0 mill tax is to their benefit.

Taxes are Taxing

Ann Arbor homeowners are very conscious of our local tax system in July. This is the month the big property tax bill is due. To many of us, this is the make-or-break moment. Writing that check by the end of the month (and Ann Arbor has a very big stick to make sure that you do) is a big stress point.  Of course, no one loves taxes, but this is your HOUSE.  And every year, the total goes up.

Most of the property taxes we pay are for local government.  Across the County, the actual rate and amount paid varies widely, especially because of overlapping school districts, library districts, transit authority district, and other authorities. The greatest difference is in the millage that each municipality imposes on its own behalf.  That is the operating millage together with any special millages that voters have approved.  These can be seen by referring to the Apportionment Report from the County Equalization Department. (All figures cited in this post are from County Equalization.) Washtenaw County is really the essential level of government in Michigan, because many programs based on Michigan and even Federal law are delegated to the County to enact (these are called mandated services).  Taxpayers in all of our local units pay the same County millage (currently 6.2432).

Property taxes collected in Washtenaw County as shown in the Apportionment Report (2016). The smaller pie chart is County taxes and is detail of the pink wedge. Note that schools are the largest tax target. AAATA and DDAs are in the “local government” wedge.

Questions About Equity

There are several questions that occur to the taxpayer. One is, “what am I getting for this tax payment“?  That depends. The general expectation for local taxes is that the tax is collected by government so that it can carry out the services we need. Washtenaw County has 27 cities, villages, and townships.  Taxpayers in each of these may live in different school districts, library districts, etc.  In some, voters have chosen a high-service, high-tax government. Many townships are run on a bare-bones model.   So service levels differ, and so do local tax rates.  City residents usually go with the high-cost option. When we want special services (parks, local buses, better roads, etc.) we vote in special millages. In some townships, it is very difficult to pass a library millage or an increase in the township general operating millage.  Cities have a solid waste millage and provide trash pickup; most townships leave it up to the occupant to contract for trash removal.  Cities typically have water utilities (sewer, drinking water). Townships mostly leave it up to occupants to have a well and a septic tank. There are exceptions; the more urban townships like Ypsilanti and Pittsfield contract with the Detroit water authority, and portions of Scio Township and Ann Arbor Township have contracts with the City of Ann Arbor.  In general “you get what you pay for” is the rule. But to feel that you are taxed fairly, you want to see that you get the services you have opted for.

Is It Fair?

The wish to be treated fairly is baked into our bones.  (Experiments with monkeys show they resent being treated less well than the next monkey; they’ll refuse to do the trick if the other monkey gets a grape and they only get a cucumber.)  But part of that is your expectation of the “service” that you are buying.  I want my trash picked up and my drinking water to be clean and readily available.  I’m not fond of potholes either. But I also want to know that my community is being administered rationally and compassionately by officials who have the correct expertise.  In the example of the County, I want to know that public health, environmental health, and mental health are all being tended to by people who know what they are doing, and public safety (policing and judicial system) is important to me even if I never get robbed or a ticket.  So those are “services” I will happily purchase.   I’ll vote for school taxes even though I never had children.  But what really irritates me is if I do my part and others don’t. That is where we come down to the question of an even treatment of taxation.

Local Differences in Taxation

Because voters in local municipalities (that includes cities, villages, and townships) all choose different “packages” and also because the economic picture in each locality differs, there are major differences across the county in how much tax revenue is collected and what individual taxpayers have to pay. The fortunes of each government (and the burden on taxpayers) are determined by two different factors: the millage rate and the taxable value (properly called the ad-valorem) available.  In order to keep local assessors from under-assessing the value of property, the County Equalization Department conducts a detailed study each year and publishes a complete snapshot of local government assessment and taxation.  (All figures we cite here are from the Equalization Report or the Apportionment Report.)  The fortunes of each government depend heavily on the ad-valorem (hence the constant attention to “tax base”).

Let’s stop right here and acknowledge that there are different kinds of taxpayers, including owners of agricultural, industrial, and commercial property.  These are very important to a locality’s tax base but our discussion here focuses mostly on residential taxpayers.  For the taxpayer, the assessed value (SEV) of their house is determined each year by the assessor (assumed to be half the market value), and the taxable value (TV) is determined by a complex formula (see Proposal A) that works to hold down TV for long-term property owners.  For most, it is much lower than the SEV.  The tax due is calculated in this way:

Some localities have such high-value property that they can afford to keep millage rates relatively low and still provide quality services.  Others, with low real estate values, strain to cover all the bases with high millage rates.  This creates a good deal of inequity on a social level across the county.

Tax profiles for three different municipalities. Local millages (including operating and special millages) are shown. Tax calculated on total homestead millage is for house of market value $200,000, assuming TV is exactly half that.

In this example, the owner of a new house of $200,000 market value (TV of $100,000) would pay a drastically different tax bill.  Because it has such a low tax base, the City of Ypsilanti is taxing its residents at the very maximum that its charter allows.  Because most real estate in Ypsilanti is often at a lower valuation, many may not pay that.  However, this tax rate will obviously depress real estate value.

Back to the fairness question: presumably since each of us has chosen to live in a particular community (a free will theory of taxation), the tax assessed there is “fair”. But what about when the tax is being collected for services used by a different locality?  As we explained in our post Regionalism Reconsidered, Michigan has a strong home-rule tradition and culture.  When we pay County taxes, we are paying for a regional benefit.  We must accept that services delivered to our entire region (county) are on our own behalf.  But what few of us expect is that the County will collect taxes specifically to donate to a different municipality.

In the case of the proposed “mental health and public safety” millage, that was a decision made on the floor during debate on the ballot language. In the final language, a change was made so that the “rebate” to municipalities with their own police forces would be made proportionately on the basis of population, not on taxable value.

shall the limitations on the total amount of taxes which may be levied against taxable property within Washtenaw County, Michigan, as provided for by Section 6 of Article IX of the Michigan Constitution of 1963, be increased up to the amount of $1.00 per thousand dollars of taxable valuation (1.0 mills) for a period of eight years, beginning with the December 1, 2018 levy and extending through the 2025 levy, which shall raise in the first year an estimated $15,433,608.00 to be used as follows: 38% shall be allocated to Washtenaw County’s Community Mental Health Department for mental health crisis, stabilization and prevention, and to meet mental health needs in an appropriate setting, thus reducing the burden on the jail and improving care; 38% shall be allocated to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office to ensure continued operations and increased collaboration with the mental health community; and 24% shall be allocated to jurisdictions in the County which maintain their own police force (currently Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Milan, Saline, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Northfield Township) in proportion to their respective 2016 population values?

(The change was made in order to benefit the City of Ypsilanti.) This has the effect of redistributing County taxes from one municipality to another.  As is seen in the table, most other cities and townships are essentially donating their own tax base (accepting the logic that this is a repayment for local taxes already collected) to others.  For the complete calculations, refer to this spreadsheet.

“Rebate” in first year based on taxable value vs. population.

But the tax is also a redistribution from all the other municipalities in the County to these units receiving a rebate.  Recall that the more rural townships have chosen to tax themselves at very low rates and then offer very minimal services.  For example, Bridgewater Township has a local millage rate of 0.8233. Freedom Township is 0.9501.  The proposed new County millage of 1.0 mills is higher than they choose to tax themselves for all services.  And part of that tax is going to be redistributed to the urban communities.  This may be why (as reported by the Ann Arbor News) the vote to approve the millage was 5-4, with the “out-county” commissioners voting against it.

There was some discussion that this redistribution in favor of the City of Ypsilanti was for “equity” and that small city does indeed have its problems, as shown with the tax situation. Perhaps we need to consider what “equity” means in distributing taxes among County communities, especially if the purpose is not truly regional in nature.  Should the farmers of Bridgewater Township be paying for pedestrian safety in Ann Arbor?  Should Saline and Chelsea be donating tax receipts to Ypsilanti and Northfield Township?  The rebates are not going to individual taxpayers in those different jurisdictions, but rather to their elected bodies, to spend on whatever priorities they determine. Is that fair?

The Muddle

County voters have shown that they are willing to pay taxes for a truly regional service.  For example, in November 2016, the County roads millage passed by 70.94% and the millage to support indigent veterans passed by 73.18%.  But because of this muddle, it will be hard to make the case that this is truly a regional service for parts of the County. Perhaps the votes in the urbanized parts of the County will be enough to pull it off.  But I wish that the BOC had offered us a clean choice with two pared-down millages, one for mental health services and one for the Sheriff.  It should have been possible to make a good regional case for each of those.  This was a bad time to introduce political aims into the process.

Just to confuse things further, should the Ann Arbor City Council decide to place a ballot issue for a city income tax on the November ballot, Ann Arbor voters will be making two different decisions about their tax futures at the same time.  Wonder how that will work out?

ADDENDUM:  The City Administrator has prepared a memo recommending use of the county millage rebate as to how that extra tax revenue from the County millage might be used.  Here is the report by the Ann Arbor News.

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor News has an article about the city income tax that compares the UM position (not our business) with that of MSU re an East Lansing income tax (oppose it, offering a buyout).  According to the article, there will be a special work session of the City Council on September 11 to discuss the tax.

General note: I believe that it is probably too late to place a ballot item onto the November ballot.  (I am having difficulty in finding the due dates for a charter amendment to be placed on the ballot by the Council.)  That would indicate that the next opportunity for an election would be May 2018.  After that, August or November 2018.  There are potential political consequences for all these choices.

 

From Drama to Melodrama: Washtenaw County and Conan Smith

October 2, 2016

This thread began with the startling announcement on Mary Morgan’s Facebook page about a letter she had written to the Board of Commissioners about (Commissioner) Conan Smith’s application to the open position of County Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  In the letter, she pointed to a substantial conflict of interest when a sitting commissioner applies for a county position.  Smith soon resigned his seat, but retained his place on the November ballot.  We discussed those implications at some length.  Now the BOC has moved with some alacrity to resolve part of the tangle, by setting a firm schedule for choosing a County Administrator.

But as we pointed out in our previous post, this leaves a big piece of what one might term the “County leadership puzzle” yet to be resolved:  the OCED post to which Smith applied.  Now we know even more of that picture, especially regarding Conan Smith’s trajectory to this point, thanks to the continuing journalistic inquiries by Dave Askins (late of the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  Dave now publishes via Twitter (do consider following him – the jokes are good too) and posts documents in Dropbox.  Most recently, he obtained a number of key documents by FOIA to Washtenaw County and the City of Southfield.  (Southfield is one of the cities represented on the Board of Metro Matters/Michigan Suburb Alliance.) It is evident from them that this story has gone from high drama to outright melodrama.

Conan Smith in Large Outline

I have been observing Conan Smith (or just “Conan” – as everyone calls him) ever since he ran a primary against me in 2002 for the County Commissioner seat I occupied at the time.  I defeated him handily but chose not to run in 2004.  He won in a three-way primary and has occupied that seat ever since.  Here are the things I know about him.

Official BOC portrait of Conan Smith. Date of picture is not known.

Official BOC portrait of Conan Smith. Date not known.

(1) He is very deeply affected by his family history and frequently cites it as his motivation and also as a reason why he should be supported politically.  His grandfather was Al Wheeler, who is a civil rights icon in Ann Arbor. He was the first and only Black mayor and Wheeler Park near Kerrytown is named in his honor.  Conan’s mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, has served in many elected and appointed offices, and is well known and well respected in Washtenaw County.  His aunt, Nancy Wheeler (known for most years as Nancy Francis) was a much beloved, though sometimes controversial, juvenile court judge.

Conan Smith image used in social media

Conan Smith image used in social media

(2) He is a committed regionalist.  In 2002, he joined the fledgling Michigan Suburbs Alliance  (MSA) as its Executive Director. This was a nonprofit that allied the suburbs surrounding Detroit for mutual benefit.  In 2010, as that history describes, the organization began rethinking its relationship to the City of Detroit (which has, notably, been undergoing a renascence) and has been rebranding to Metro Matters. Conan has employed all of his resources, including his role as a County Commissioner (and Chair of that BOC), connections through the MSA, and his wife (Senator Rebekah Warren), to bring about the Regional Transit Authority.  (Here is a post with some historical information about the genesis of the RTA.)  Originally, the RTA was intended to include only the three metropolitan Detroit counties (Oakland, Wayne, Macomb) and the City of Detroit. With Senator Warren’s assistance, Washtenaw County (where Conan had an important seat) was added.  The Metro Matters website celebrates the RTA as one of its signature accomplishments.  Quite recently, Metromode online magazine (a collaborator) highlighted Conan and his regional vision. In that article, Conan proposes a similar tax-sharing program to one used in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) area, where a new tax base in one municipality generates new taxes for use by other municipalities.  This will be a very tough sell in Michigan, where border controls on tax redistribution are set into our constitution.

Conan Smith at BOC May 7, 2014 (Ann Arbor Chronicle photo)

Conan Smith at BOC May 7, 2014 (Ann Arbor Chronicle photo)

(3) He is confident in his vision and in his judgment.  Sometimes this can lead to impetuous statements. In addition, he often dismisses the need to satisfy other parties or reach a consensus if the raw exercise of power can be used instead. Here is just one example, from 2014, where the BOC was considering whether to place a tax for roads before the public or to use an obscure pre-Headlee law simply to impose a tax on Washtenaw County citizens, including his own constituents. (From the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives.) (In the end, the tax was simply imposed.)
conan-quote-on-road-tax

Another notable example was Conan’s push for Act 88 taxation. As related by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, he was the instigator to have this tax administered by OCED, and he caused the rate to be increased to homeowners.  The tax has funded mostly economic development projects, especially Ann Arbor SPARK. This was another example of a practice by the BOC in recent years to impose taxes without a public vote.  That practice has now been challenged in court (someone did decide to sue).  This week the BOC will likely act to cease collecting the tax.  The memo from the Interim Administrator lays out the circumstances fully.

And Then One Day It All Came Apart

The position with Michigan Suburbs Alliance seemed to be secure.  It was formalized in 2003 as a coalition of Detroit-area suburbs, to solve suburban problems.  But as time passed, it also seemed to be passing MSA by. With the resurgence of the City of Detroit, all the glamour and excitement became invested in the big city.   Conan Smith posted an announcement in February 2015 that the organization would be renamed “Metro Matters”.

msa-to-metro-matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

A major impetus for this was evidently Smith’s hard work putting the RTA together.  “We sat at the table to write the legislation that established the RTA, an historic achievement that brings us closer to bridging the city/suburb divide. ”  His announcement points out the success in getting the M1-rail project (now known as QLine) together. But that is a central Detroit project, sponsored by Detroit business interests. The Board of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is made up of suburban officers, and the suburbs have been the major source of funds for the organization.

We don’t have the financial records to explain what happened, but Conan gave a decent explanation to his Board in December 2015, via a memo.

…over the past several months in particular, we have failed to generate the financial support necessary to sustain the operations of the organization at the high level we anticipated. As you can see from our most recent financial statements, our overall position is strong but the statement of cash flows shows us spending far more than we are taking in.

A poignant indicator was that the December Christmas party was cancelled within hours of its scheduled time.  (A reminder had gone out that same day.)  This is well explained with the continuation of that Board memo:

What this means directly is the laying off of our staff throughout the month of January and the closure of our physical office. I will continue to work on behalf of the organization to get a stronger funding base underneath us, and Rick Bunch will continue to lead the Energy Office, which has strong prospects coming off a major victory at MPSC. Hayley Roberts and Ellen Vial will be retained on a small contract basis to see through two of our grant-funded projects. The balance of the staff’s positions will likely be eliminated.

By March of this year (2016), it is evident that the Board is not happy.  Steve Duchane, city manager of Eastpointe, was fairly explicit:

The reformation of what was once a collaboration of the inner ring suburbs and then in my opinion worth the time as a municipal official to participate in has been a smoke and mirrors grad project for a long time. When we actually did represent the common shared interests of the metro area suburbs we were a vehicle of advancement and a leader in efficient suburban government, interests and needs that exist today that is not served.

Emails from Conan through March are an attempt to explain matters to his Board.  Evidently they had demanded more direct oversight of the finances of the organization.  There is also one sorrowful email from a vendor who had not been paid.  It is also made clear that by this time Conan and his chief deputy have been serving without paychecks, and she (Hayley Roberts) was evidently leaving to a paying position.

The County Presents an Alternative

In the context of all this, the option presented by the OCED department director position (posted August 1, 2016) must have seemed like a godsend. Conan sent a letter of application  dated August 11, 2016.  He must have talked to someone before sending it, because Mary Morgan sent her indignant letter to the full BOC as of August 15. Conan announced that he was resigning his seat (but not his place on the ballot) on August 16.  Conan communicated with his Board on August 17 that he would be applying and “If I am chosen, I will need to give my notice to Metro Matters.”

Things moved rather precipitously.  Edward Klobucher, City Manager of Hazel Park and the Chair of the Board, scheduled a Board meeting (to which Conan was not invited) for August 26.  “We will discuss the current situation with Metro Matters and hopefully chart a new course for the future.”  Klobucher met with Conan on August 30 to inform him that he was suspended and required to turn over all materials.   The last email available from Dave Askins’ FOIA indicated that the Board’s attorney (Brandon Fournier) had met with Conan’s attorney (David Blanchard) and they were discussing a separation agreement, with no comment for the media.

A Question of Leadership Style

As we reviewed in the previous post, there are two leadership styles that an administrator may adopt.  One is to make the mechanism run smoothly and see that everyone in the organization functions well and happily.  The other is to be the Big Picture, Big Ideas person, who seeks new frontiers and incidentally a certain place in the limelight.  There are, of course, overlaps; Big Picture people may run a perfectly good organization and good managers also have new ideas.  But the style will influence the direction of the organization profoundly.  It is clear, if not already from his history, then from his letter of application, that Conan Smith is the Big Picture – Big Ideas man.  The header of one important paragraph is Strategic Leadership to Achieve Big Goals.  The entire letter (except for the first three paragraphs, which are about his family history) fairly sparkles with his ambition and wish to grasp the department and even the entire County by the shoulders to rush up that mountain.  He also touts his extensive connections within the community.  Clearly he sees himself as a major player in the County and in the region.  It could be a very large presence for a new County Administrator to share space with.  I hope that the Board of Commissioners has the wisdom (and the votes!) to pass the resolution on next week’s agenda that will ask the Interim Administrator to hold off filling the position till a new Administrator can be named.

NOTE:  I did not include a link to the email texts that Dave Askins obtained by FOIA.  These are contained in Dropbox files and are somewhat difficult to read (they are text files, in Notepad).  Because of some comments, it seems that I need to provide substantiation for the statements that are based on these files.  This pdf has hyperlinks to the files, and also a summary of their content.

UPDATE: Mary Morgan will be publishing a follow-up to her previous letter in The Ann.  Presumably this link is to the article in the upcoming print edition.  (I have not received my copy, which is usually distributed in the New York Times, yet.)  She includes more inside information about the Conan Smith machinations and the County OCED position.  She also has some very apposite opinion points to make.

SECOND UPDATE: Today (October 12, 2016) Conan Smith notified officials at Washtenaw County that he was withdrawing his application to the OCED position.  As has been the case throughout this story, the former Chronicle personnel broke the story.
askins-tweet-out

THIRD UPDATE: Now the “official” version (Ann Arbor News, October 13, 2016).  Note that it states that there is only one other person under consideration for the post.

FOURTH UPDATE:  A new article, Ann Arbor News, October 17, 2016, includes an interview with the Chair of the BOC re the tangle surrounding the OCED position.

FIFTH UPDATE: An article by Mary Morgan in the October 2016 issue of The Ann magazine discusses a number of points at length, including more background, the ethics of the situation, and the effect on local civic participation. http://www.theannmag.com/drowning-in-a-shallow-candidate-pool/   It ends with a plea to vote on November 8.

SIXTH UPDATE: Andrea Plevek has been named the new OCED Director; here is the formal announcement from Washtenaw County.

Conan Smith was re-elected to his seat on the Board of Commissioners. He received 17029 votes (90.56%) to the 1776 write-in (Jen Eyer) votes (9.44%).

The County Leadership Quandary

September 30, 2016

Much of the current confusion on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners comes down to this: they are attempting to resolve what the future direction of the County is, and what type of leadership should be on board to take it there. 

As we have remarked, the BOC failed to choose between two top candidates for County Administrator, and terminated the process in April 2016.  The resolution to do this  has a useful description of the quandary the BOC found themselves in. They had a “leadership assessment” done for each of their two top candidates, and then failed to reach a consensus among themselves as to which “style” was right for the County.  There was no indication that both candidates did not have the requisite experience and qualifications.  Rather, it had to do with the character of leadership each would bring to the position.

The resolution also includes a significant bit of history: the BOC first “spent a number of months looking at the various types of County government to insure that an appointed County Administrator was the best type of government for the citizens of Washtenaw County”.  In other words, whether to continue with the current structure in which an Administrator is hired by the BOC and answers to them; or an elected Executive who answers only to the voters county-wide.  (Washtenaw County has several top administrators who are elected county-wide, including the Treasurer, the Sheriff, the Prosecutor, and the Water Resources manager.)  Only a few counties in Michigan have an elected County Executive.  This has most often resulted in a near fiefdom and often the BOC has relatively little influence on policy.  L. Brooks Patterson, the CE of Oakland County, is the most notorious example.  Most other Michigan counties have the same structure as Washtenaw. Evidently the BOC decided to stay with the current structure.

So what would be the factors that might enter into the “leadership” question?  There are two choices:

Should our County government concentrate on fulfilling its obligations (the county has a mandate to provide most state- and Federal- directed and funded programs) and providing services to its residents and taxpayers?, or

Should the direction be to make the County Be Something – a more muscular approach in which the County sets a regional direction, initiates new programs, is the leader among local governments, gets noticed regionally, statewide or even nationally for innovation and economic success?

The leadership style of the executive is crucial to these two very different visions of what the county should be.  Do you want a good administrator who keeps the mechanism running smoothly, or a “big picture” person who is restless if not pursuing new ambitions and garnering new influence, new achievements, new visibility for the county and him/herself? Often the second version opens up opportunities for others and can contribute to growth and economic development.  But such leadership can be ruthless in where priorities are assigned, and it is often not to simple service delivery.

The decision looms

If the BOC is trying to choose between those two styles of leadership, no obvious choice for the aggressive leader jumps out from their four top candidates.  Those are Bob Tetens, the current head of Parks and Recreation; Muddasar Tawakkul, Director of compliance and purchasing for the Detroit­/Wayne County Mental Health Authority; Gregory Dill, the current Interim Administrator; and James Palenick, currently Director of economic & business development for Fayetteville, NC.  All of them have solid administrative credentials.  Tetens has a planning background and was previously the director of WATS (the body that oversees transportation planning for Washtenaw County).  He has been a well-respected top administrator at the County for well over a decade and can be expected to have a breadth of understanding of County government.  Dill has been in a variety of County administrative positions, including with the Sheriff’s department, and at one time was in charge of building programs in the County.  Tawakkul is an attorney and has had a number of high-power assignments; his technical knowledge is evidently impressive.  Palenick has a long varied resume from many locations (he has moved around a lot) but at one time long ago was the Dexter Village manager.  It is difficult to see why any of them should be the “visionary” type of manager, though Palenick hints that he views himself that way; “I sincerely believe that I can bring the kind of innovative and strategic leadership that Washtenaw County needs and demands at this time in its organizational evolution”.

As we have detailed, the process is now on fast track and a decision will be made on October 19.

Another piece of the puzzle

But another factor in County leadership is still pending.  That is the opening for the Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  As described in the last two posts, the conclusion of that search is still pending.  The question was partly whether Greg Dill, as the Interim Administrator, would choose to fill it before a final decision on the County Administrator.

The OCED position is one of the most powerful of the appointed department chairs.  It is the result of combining three former departments and administers a great many Federally funded programs.  Its previous director, Mary Jo Callan, exerted a great deal of leadership and caused the County to conduct a major study of inequality (of income, housing, circumstance) in the county which has been used as a basis for new policies.  The director of this department, if appointed prior to the hiring of a permanent administrator, could compete with a new administrator in setting directions.

Conan Smith’s application for this position has brought the decision into high focus, as already described, partly because he was a sitting Commissioner.  Smith has been influential on the BOC in the past; he has been Chair in a couple of terms. Now he has resigned his seat – but may be re-elected come November! and meanwhile, it is evident that he has also lost his long-time (well-paid) position as the executive director of a nonprofit organization (Michigan Suburbs Alliance).   All of this is happening in the mix of decisions to be made about the direction of the County as determined by choice of its chief Administrator.  More detail on this melodrama in the next post.

 

The Transit Question

February 23, 2014

With a May millage vote scheduled, the question of whether Ann Arbor and its immediate neighbors really want an expanded transit system should finally be resolved.

At last the board of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority have voted (after a good deal of hesitation) to put a measure on the ballot which will ask the public to endorse their vision of an expanded transit system.   The board of (then) AATA had a “straw vote” (nonbinding) in May 2008 to become a regional authority, rather than one centered in Ann Arbor.  In November 2009, the board t00k a formal vote to move toward becoming a countywide system and began calling in the experts to figure out how.  That effort was an embarrassing failure, as we have documented in our Topsy Turvy Transit series.  In a recovery move, AATA launched a campaign to establish a smaller Urban Core regional authority.  They encountered some of the same barriers (regional and township politics, limitations of the Michigan governance system) and were not able to persuade even all of this smaller number of targeted municipalities to join them.

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield retains its POSA, Saline does not participate

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield and Saline are not authority members.

In the end, only the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have joined the newly named AAATA.  (As this formal description of the service plan indicates, Pittsfield Township and the City of Saline remain active participants in talks and have service scheduled, hypothetically to be paid for by Purchase of Service Agreements, or POSAs.)  Thus, the millage vote set for May 6 will be held only in the City of Ann Arbor, the City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township.  Voters in all three municipalities will be asked to vote for this:
ballot languageThe campaign has already begun.  AAATA, as a public body, is not legally entitled to campaign for passage of the millage, but has an “information” page that pushes beyond simple facts into persuasive language.  A campaign by a coalition supporting the millage called “More Buses” is already soliciting contributions (it is largely fueled by Partners for Transit via the Ecology Center).   And now an opposition group is registered as Better Transit Now (their website is not yet active).  The Ann Arbor News has covered the contest with quotes from the participants.

Regardless of the outcome, this ballot issue should help to resolve the direction that AAATA will take in the future.  If the millage passes, the organization will likely continue to seek expanded regional initiatives (already they are contemplating additional “express” buses, including one to Belleville).  If the ballot fails, it should at the minimum be a moment for some serious soul-searching.

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle now has an article describing the AAATA meeting at which the vote establishing the ballot issue was taken.

SECOND UPDATE: On his blog, Mark Maynard discusses the transit millage with some of its proponents.  They have few kind words to say about the opponents.  Martha Valadez, who is described as the field organizer for More Buses (she works for the Ecology Center), says this about the measure’s opponents:

They just refuse the truth and, instead, produce false information, stirring up fear.

Unfortunately, Valadez herself is given to careless use of the facts and overstatements of her position.  An example:

People involved in this anti-millage campaign complain that Ann Arbor is subsidizing services for Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. This just isn’t true. Each individual community would, under this newly proposed plan, be paying for the services they would receive in the five-year plan.

Actually, the City of Ypsilanti is even now being subsidized by taxpayers in the City of Ann Arbor.  The millage currently being collected from Ypsi City no longer is adequate to pay for their basic service, let alone the expanded service currently being provided.  The additional revenue from the 0.7 mills in the ballot measure would only be about $202, 700, which might just pay for current service but not much more.  What Ypsilanti Township expects to do is to move its current POSA costs to the millage collected by the authority.  Strictly speaking, Ypsi Township will not be paying anything at all as a community.  While Ypsi City’s taxpayers will continue to pay their current millage of just under 1 mill in addition to the new millage, Ypsi Township will simply offload its current general fund expenditure onto the new millage, and then ask for more service.  Here is the final text of the Ypsilanti Township funding agreement with the AAATA.

Fortunately, Maynard also includes policy wonk Richard Murphy (“Murph”), who makes a number of useful observations about route planning (hub-and-spoke emerging into a “spiderweb”).

Interestingly, Maynard’s guests draw comparisons to the failed AADL bond issue, saying that “the same people” are behind the opposition to the transit issue.  Actually, the only person that the two campaigns really have in common is Kathy Griswold.  But it sounds better to make the opposition into a tax-hating cabal.

THIRD UPDATE:  The history of the campaign against the AADL bond measure, which was on the November 6, 2012 ballot,  seems to have become relevant to this transit millage issue.  Here is a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle listing the three campaign committees that formed to oppose the measure.  They were Love Our Library (Sheila Rice, treasurer), Save the Ann Arbor Library (Douglas Jewett, treasurer) and Protect Our Libraries (Kathy Griswold, treasurer).  Protect Our Libraries was probably the most muscular effort. Here is a contemporaneous story about the campaign that shows some of the advertising.

The committee supporting the bond measure, Our New Library, led by Ellie Serras, had a stellar list of endorsers and raised over $71,000, with in-kind contributions of just under $10,000.  In contrast, Protect Our Libraries raised less than $3,000 in cash and had an in-kind contribution by an advertising agency of about $33,000.  (Much of the campaign was run on its treasurer’s credit card.) (Libby Hunter, the treasurer for Better Transit Now, informs me that she was also part of the Protect Our Libraries campaign.  I don’t know in what capacity.  Both she and Lou Glorie contributed modest amounts to the campaign.)

morebusesThe measure was defeated rather decisively (55.17%  No, vs. 44.83% Yes).  (Here is the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  All the right people and the big money got behind the AADL bond and expansion.  Now that the transit millage campaign is being promoted in a similar way – lots of support from organizations and community leaders, confident media campaign, a puppy-love kind of subject (though buses perhaps less cuddly than libraries) – there seems to be some concern that an upstart group could once again deal a killing blow.

My take is that the library campaign was less the issue than that the community just didn’t buy it, or at least not enough voters did.  I think this millage vote is likely to rest on just such a question: is this what we want for our community?  The discussion won’t be over for some weeks.

FOURTH UPDATE:  The AAATA has now published a “report” that is a further marketing piece for the millage.  It has a number of “facts” that will need to be examined closely.  Some of them come from older general reports (state or national).  As an example, it claims that there will be a 15% reduction in drunk driving for each additional hour of evening service.  This “fact” references a Cornell University study conducted in 2008 that examined the effect in the Washington D.C. area of service via the Metro.  A preliminary draft of the study shows some meticulous protocols and data-gathering.  For example, the estimates of the amount of drunk driving are based in part on DUI arrests.  They also study the effect of placement of bars vs. Metro stations, and identify at which bar a particular DUI originated.  As you might expect, a location effect exists.  Bars located more than a 5 minute walk from Metro stations showed less reduction in DUIs than those located within a 5 minute walk.

Now, intuitively, if public transit is available and drunks are either smart enough or encouraged by friends to take transit, it will indeed cut drunken driving.  But what kind of numbers are we likely to see in a highly dispersed rural area?  What is the location of most bars in regard to transit stops?  Where are our drunks coming from?  (Let’s just exclude all our campus drinkers from the question – many of them presumably walk home.)  I don’t think a census has been performed, thus this is not a “fact” as far as the Ann Arbor area goes, just a nicely intuitive suggestion.

I’m sorry to say that this approach to data and presentation of facts seems to be rather typical of the AAATA’s marketing approach.  It shouldn’t be necessary to get down in the weeds and check every number, but I guess it will have to be done.

FIFTH UPDATE:  The Ann Arbor News has published a twin set of reports on the transit millage.  The first describes the objections that Ted Annis, a former treasurer for the AATA, has about the millage.  This article refers to a number of datasets about AAATA budgets and performance.  The second is primarily about salaries paid to AAATA officials.

Part of the interest in the two articles are the comments.  While some of them are the usual trolls, there is some serious discussion about such issues as efficiency, fares, the University of Michigan’s arrangements with the AAATA, and resistance to additional taxes.

SIXTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report on a Board of Commissioners meeting where a discussion of the transit millage was held brings up an interesting point: to what extent will the millage solidify the income separation of Ann Arbor from the two Ypsilanti communities?  Yousef Rabhi is quoted as saying that he endorses the millage but not the idea that Ann Arbor should thus give up its accessibility to housing based on income.  “Rabhi said he wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports using public transit to divide the community based on socioeconomic levels.”

 SEVENTH UPDATE: The question has been answered.   The Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities voted “yes” to an additional transit tax, with an authoritative majority of over 70%.  Some numbers here in the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle. “The tax received clear majority support in all jurisdictions: Ann Arbor (71.4%); the city of Ypsilanti (83.4%); and Ypsilanti Township (61.6%).”

The AAATA can now place the orders for those buses.  The July tax bill will include the new millage and preliminary plans for implementation begin as soon as August.  The 5-year plan is detailed on the AAATA website.

Some elements of the plan require assent by communities not in the Authority, notably Pittsfield Township and Saline, to contract with AAATA for increased service. That will bear watching.

EIGHTH UPDATE: According to a report in the Ann Arbor News, Pittsfield Township has now (as of late October 2014) agreed to an expanded POSA that will increase bus service to the township.  I have not reviewed it to determine whether this will provide the full extent of service envisioned in the Urban Core plan.

 

AAATA and the Zen of the Millage Vote

January 16, 2014

Will they or won’t they?  The tantalizing wait for a May millage decision.

The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been on a long journey.  We began reporting  in December 2009 on their efforts to put in place a county-wide transit authority.  It’s been a long Ride.  On November 8,  2012, the culmination of much planning, consulting, execution of legal documents, and public engagement collapsed when the Ann Arbor City Council voted to opt out from the nascent authority, in the face of the withdrawal by virtually every other jurisdiction in Washtenaw County.  But the AATA got busy and assembled “urban core” communities for some serious talking.

Partners for Transit cartogram representing communities' areas as a function of population

Partners for Transit cartogram showing population (click for larger)

The idea was to put together a smaller, tighter version of the countywide plan to serve only the relatively urbanized communities surrounding Ann Arbor.  This matches the population profile of the county and makes sense, as mass transit does require some masses.  They had some measure of success.  They have now succeeded in expanding the authority to include the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.  Other communities continue to be reserved about jumping in to a membership that includes being vulnerable to a future millage tax.  Still, the newly christened Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority plans to include Pittsfield Township and perhaps the city of Saline and village of Dexter via longer-term POSA contracts.

With that in hand, the AAATA has been involved in a major public engagement campaign for the new, reconfigured 5-year plan.  Our post Moving Us Forward: The Urban Core Expansion Plan explains that in some detail.

Now the AAATA has refined their plan, following public input. Tonight (January 16, 2014) the Board will be asked to approve the revised 5-year plan (formally the Five-Year Transit Improvement Program) “for implementation when local funding is secured”. The plan has a roughly $5.47 million funding gap. That is what is supposed to be filled by an authority-wide (Ann Arbor, City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township) millage.  There is also a fairly hefty expectation of additional POSA funds. (Click the figure for larger view.) Note that the expected millage amount is still 0.7 mills, as has been estimated for months.

Estimated funding gap calculations from AAATA resolution

Estimated funding gap calculations from AAATA resolution

Who moved my millage?

But what is missing from tonight’s agenda is an approval of a millage ballot measure.  Partners for Transit, an organization formed originally to promote a countywide transit organization, today put out a public statement calling for AAATA to authorize a millage measure.

Partners for Transit, a coalition of business and community leaders, religious groups, social service organizations, and environmental organizations today called on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority to propose a new millage to advance the AAATA’s five year plan for improving public transportation in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and the neighboring region.

The account on the Ann Arbor News mentions that “AAATA officials have been talking about putting a 0.7-mill tax on the ballot in May to fund the expanded services in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township”, and doubtless PFT assumed that this vote is on tonight’s agenda.  But it isn’t.  Further, there is no mention of this issue in the minutes of the Planning and Development Committee, where agenda items are usually discussed.

Now, this is very peculiar.  We’ve been hearing for months about a likely May millage vote, and it is already being debated by the public.  Indeed, I spoke at public comment to the PDC two months ago and urged them to go ahead and schedule the vote. But apparently, AAATA administration and Board are still weighing their options.

The May ballot made sense for an important reason: the property tax collection schedule.  Local property taxes are collected in July.  A millage on the May ballot would mean that money would start rolling in for an August implementation, and indeed schedules presented at the fall workshops seemed to factor in that expectation.  A millage passed either at the August primary or the November general election would not be available until July 2015. This would put off implementation by a full year.

There was some urgency in getting the matter voted on by the AAATA Board.  There are statutory deadlines for putting measures on the ballot.  Two steps, first informing (by “petition”) the local clerks, then getting the final language to them for the ballot.  Here are the deadlines for this year.

millage deadlinesNote that unless AAATA holds a special board meeting,  they will already be too late for a May election.  Further, if they want to put something on the August ballot, they’ll have to act by April.

This was an error and the table has been replaced with one showing correct dates.  The “petition” step does not apply to ballot measures placed by a governing board, but rather to petitions which require collection of signatures.  In each case, the Board meeting for a month in which action is necessary does precede the deadline in that month.

Why the holdup?  We can only speculate.  There is always a strategy involved in getting a ballot measure passed.  We don’t know what the fine details of all the surveys that they have been conducting.  Has there been some uncertainty about public acceptance?  Any tax issue is always controversial. But positive survey results are not necessarily a guarantee.

The later elections this year seem to be problematic for a couple of reasons.  One is the possibility (probably remote) that the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority might also place a transit millage on the ballot.  This seems not very likely reading between the lines of the Detroit News report of the RTA’s recent meeting.  They have had some setbacks, including a lack of support from the State Legislature and the loss of their selected candidate for CEO, John Hertel.  But the Chair of the RTA board, Paul Hillegonds, is quoted as saying that they have enough funds to get along for a while (mostly just to pay staff, not to undertake any initiatives).

Even more troubling might be the chaotic nature of current Ann Arbor politics.  With John Hieftje’s departure from his mayoral chair, the music has been getting downright frenetic, with four council members running for mayor and three new council candidates for vacated seats (partial summary here).   The months of June and July are likely to be steamy regardless of the weather.  The November election looks calmer in the city, but it is a gubernatorial election and there will be plenty of action at the polls for statewide seats.  Based on the November election of 2012, Ann Arbor is likely to contribute about 64% of the voters to an AAATA-wide election.  (The City of Ypsilanti is about 7%, Ypsilanti Township 28%.)  So the political mood in Ann Arbor could be important to the AAATA.  In addition, it is always the mix of voters for a particular election that matters.  Is a bigger turnout more or less favorable?  Typically there are many more voters, often less informed, in the November elections.  For a millage vote, it might be better to try to turn out favorable voters in a smaller election.

A timely report on tonight’s (January) board meeting from the Ann Arbor Chronicle provides one possible reason for the delay; a May ballot will incur more costs (because they’d have to pay for the election) than later.  With all the money spent to date, it seems it might have been worth it.

UPDATE: AAATA has already issued a press release regarding the Board’s approval of the plan.  Here is what they say about a millage:

AAATA officials say they are considering a recommendation that calls for the TheRide Board to approve placing a 0.7-mill, five-year property tax increase proposal on the 2014 ballot for residents in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The date of a potential election is still to be determined pending the outcome of the AAATA Board’s decision.

SECOND UPDATE: In a follow-up article on Ann Arbor News AAATA Board Chair Charles Griffiths describes the potential benefits of the plan for “this year”, apparently without understanding that a deadline for the May ballot is about to pass without his board’s action.

THIRD UPDATE: I’ve been informed that I am misinterpreting the ballot deadlines.  The petition deadline applies to measures for which signatures must be collected. (See corrections in the body of the text.) The relevant deadline for a May ballot is February 25, for ballot language.  So it looks as though they can still make it.  But why the delay in approving it?

FOURTH UPDATE: Here is a report from ModeShift of the latest RTA meeting in which there was discussion of both an RTA millage and possible conflicts with provider millages (including AAATA) .

FIFTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has produced a comprehensive summary of the January 16 AAATA meeting, in head-spinning time.

SIXTH UPDATE:  At their Planning and Development Committee meeting of February 11, 2014, AAATA board members sent forth a resolution to place a measure calling for an authority-wide millage of 0.7 mills on the May 2014 ballot.  This is likely to sail through the February 20 board meeting without a hitch, in time to be submitted before the deadline.

This is a boon to Council and Mayoral candidates, who are now relieved from being asked questions about their position on this measure prior to the August primary.

SEVENTH UPDATE: As predicted, the AAATA board voted unanimously to place the millage on the May ballot, after some carefully staged political theater (many speakers were present to urge them on). Excellent coverage by the Ann Arbor Chronicle has the details.

Regionalism Reconsidered II

November 26, 2013

So what is Ann Arbor’s region?

In our first post in this series, we noted the importance of the concept of regionalism in current political discourse. But we also noted that there has been little discussion of the impact of regionalism on “the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.”

First, what is a region?  It is a general term, of course, but there have been a number of attempts to define our region.  Here is an overview.

Let’s Make a Plan

SEMCOG region of 7 SE Michigan countiesBroadly speaking, in its simplest formulation regionalism is practised by information sharing and coordinated planning across jurisdictional boundaries. In Southeast Michigan, the regional planning agency has since 1968 been SEMCOG (the SouthEast Michigan Council of Governments).  This is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne Counties.

As their website explains, SEMCOG is the contact point for many governmental programs, including regional transportation planning under MAP-21 (Federal trust fund), air and water pollution under those Federal acts, housing and land use under Housing and Urban Development (Federal) and many other Federal planning projects under MFPRS.

SEMCOG is also known for its data collection and summarization of items such as census figures, and its projections of population, job growth, etc.  These are sometimes taken as predictions, a mistake.  (It would be entertaining but time-consuming to go back 20 years and track how closely these projections have been made real over time.)  On the basis of all these data and projections, they consider trends and how to address them in their work program.

SEMCOG doesn’t implement or do.  SEMCOG facilitates discussion and makes plans.  Here is what the site says about how they operate (emphasis is mine):

All SEMCOG policy decisions are made by local elected leaders, ensuring that regional policies reflect the interests of member communities. Participants serve on one or both of the policy-making bodies — the General Assembly and the Executive Committee. These bodies act on recommendations developed through SEMCOG’s various engagement methods. We engage regional stakeholders from local governments, the business community, and other special-interest and citizen groups.

The significance of that statement is that all parties are equally represented.  That is a governance model that is very easily understood.

Regional Transit Coordination

regional transit authority2The Regional Transit Authority, formed as a result of state legislation, involves just four counties, all of which are also part of SEMCOG.  As we noted early on, there was some degree of fuss about how representatives were to be allocated to four counties and the City of Detroit, but after some down-to-the-wire legislative high-jinks last December, it materialized as a reality.   The authority is temporarily housed on the SEMCOG website, where meeting notices are to be found. (Evidently, minutes are not yet being made public.)

Information on the RTA is only sketchily available.  It will, according to its legislative mandate, coordinate the transit agencies within its borders (currently, DDOT, SMART, and AAATA).  In the future it may also create some regional high-capacity transit corridors.  According to an account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the RTA is still looking for a source of operating funds.  It is working with a small grant from MDOT and a minimal appropriation from the original legislation.  One possibility was use of local bus operating funds, which would have reduced the ability of local transit agencies to provide transit.  That has now been excluded by agreement.  The authority could place a millage on the ballot for all four counties next year, or could attempt to impose a special vehicle license fee, which would also require a majority vote across the four-county area.  (No opting-out by individual counties is possible.)

Good for Business

One of the drivers for regional planning has been to enhance the opportunities for economic development.

a2 successAn early attempt at a regional economic entity in Washtenaw County was the A2Success venture.  This was an initiative of the Board of Commissioners and took the “suits around a table” approach.  In October 2007 a number of community leaders were assembled to launch a county-wide effort to boost regionalism in several areas, including education, transportation, business marketing and incubators, and human services. (One of the participants was a guy named Rick Snyder, a local entrepreneur.)  They formed “action teams”.  Several projects were launched and took on their own identities. washtenaw One was ReImagine Washtenaw; another was the effort at a countywide transit authority. The “A2Success” title referred to the notion of rebranding all of Washtenaw County as Ann Arbor. The idea was that Ann Arbor was a nationally recognizable location with a favorable image. Indeed, SPARK (an economic development not for profit that is partly supported by tax dollars) has characterized itself as AnnArborUSA.   Although A2Success is still listed on the Washtenaw County Economic Development webpage, its website is no longer active; an annual report  was last published in 2009.

Livingston plus WashWhile SPARK has retained its “AnnArborUSA” title, it has pushed into new territory.  It has had a business incubator in Plymouth Township (Wayne County) for some time.  In 2011, it moved into Livingston County as well.  In a telling statement at the time, its CEO, Paul Krutko, is quoted as saying, “We recognize the old parochial boundaries that are from the 18th Century … are not how the 21st Century works”.

Greater Ann ArborNow those boundaries have been expanded over six counties.  Greater Ann Arbor includes not only Washtenaw County and its adjacent semi-urbanized neighbors Livingston and Jackson Counties, but also rural Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties, not to mention Monroe County (which is due south from Detroit).

Located at the crossroads of the nation, anchored by the University of Michigan and home to one of the world’s most highly educated workforces, the Greater Ann Arbor Region is equipped and ready for business. No one can imagine, engineer, build and deliver your idea to the world better than we can.

Talk about a reach!  It was announced in MLive this month by Councilmember Christopher Taylor.  SPARK is, of course, involved.  As quoted by MLive,

Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko said that the new region will help all parties involved by allowing them to take advantage of the Ann Arbor name while giving companies more flexibility when exploring the region.

The 10 state prosperity regions in Governor Snyder's initiative.

The 10 state prosperity regions in Governor Snyder’s initiative

The geographic form of this enlarged Ann Arbor is easily traceable to Governor Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative, which divides the state into ten economic zones.  We are Zone #9.  As the page describing the initiative acutely observes,

Michigan has numerous regional entities, including regional planning and development organizations, metropolitan planning organizations and workforce boards. Unfortunately, they were designed in such a way that results in overlapping goals and competing priorities.

And in another paragraph:

As it stands today, many of Michigan’s regions and their various public planning and service delivery entities have overlapping responsibilities yet competing visions for their economic priorities. The absence of a broad based regional vision and coordination of services create both redundancies and gaps.

required participantsSo what does the Regional Prosperity Initiative amount to?  It is a competitive grant program.  As the Governor’s message indicates, the intent is to avoid additional “layers of government or bureaucracy”.  Regional entities are encouraged to apply for grants from $250,000 to $500,000 (it is a little unclear whether that is a one-time grant or annual) to enact a 5-year “regional prosperity” plan that will have a “performance dashboard and measurable annual goals”.  This is classical Management By Objective language.  The required participants are split between existing educational, “workforce development” (typically training and employment counseling), economic development, and transportation agencies.  Clearly the intent is to create an efficient business environment with good transportation and readily available employees throughout the region, as well as to facilitate recruitment of new business to the area.

Something is missing

So what do all these regions have in common? Mostly, they have no power and no relationship to the population of the region.  And they are lacking a reliable funding source.  SEMCOG has some power in that it allocates grants, and its funding is by dues paid from the constituent governments, who are all represented.  The Regional Transit Agency will eventually have the ability to levy taxes (if the measures pass) and to make changes in local transit provider plans so that the area’s transit is better coordinated.  But the funding for those local transit plans is mostly based on funding by the localities where they are based, so that the issue of governance of this additional layer of bureaucracy will likely re-emerge over time.  Neither of these agencies has the power to pass or enforce laws and regulations over the region.  The economic development initiatives appear to be most active as marketing efforts.

It is notable how variable and inconsistent the regions are in their definition.  Washtenaw County is included in the greater Detroit metropolitan area in two, and separated from it in another.  (What in the earth does Washtenaw County have in common with Hillsdale County?  Not the politics, at least.)   Does it make sense to try for “regional cooperation” when the regions keep shifting?

In the end, all of these efforts are destined to be limited in effect, because they have no effective governance mechanisms.  Unless Michigan localities choose to be blended into regions, or unless the State Constitution is radically amended, most of these efforts will be talk, even if very well-informed talk by estimable citizens sitting around those tables, and staff generating reports with many tables of data.  As we indicated in our first post of this series, it is very difficult to get localities, especially townships, to give up any level of sovereignty.

ADDENDUM: Alert readers will have noticed that I left out one recently-discussed region encompassing Ann Arbor: the “urban core” that AAATA is basing its recent expansion on.  We discussed that at length in a recent post, Once Again, AAATA Exceeds Its Reach, and the post that follows it.

UPDATE:  Another important “region” for Ann Arbor is the Ann Arbor MSA, or Metropolitan Statistical Area.  This is a census region that includes the actual city of Ann Arbor but is actually the entire county.  Some articles and reports talking about Ann Arbor or ranking it according to various measures are actually referring to the MSA because that is a region for which the census collects a lot of data.

The Milken Institute recently rated cities according to their economic development success, or “performance”. Ann Arbor was placed in “large cities” because the rating really applied to the MSA  (Ann Arbor’s rank was 87, a loss of 11 notches in rank since last year).

SECOND UPDATE: Bridge Magazine has used the Governor’s economic regions in an analysis. They indicate that Region 9 (aka Greater Ann Arbor) nearly matches the Grand Rapids region in expected job growth for 2023, both just a little over 9%.  Of course, that is simply a projection.  Don Grimes was involved in the study. He links economic growth to population.  (Can anyone say “young talent”?)

THIRD UPDATE:

MDOT divides the state into 7 regions. The yellow one containing both East Lansing and Ann Arbor is the

The yellow region containing both East Lansing and Ann Arbor is the “University” region.

Yet another region that Ann Arbor belongs to is significant in transportation planning.  The University Region is a planning category for the Michigan Department of Transportation.  Projects are assigned by region, and there are staff specifically tasked for the region.  Ann Arbor is separated in this case from the Detroit Metro region and combined with nine other counties, including Ingham  County, the location of Michigan State University.  Recently MDOT released a list of accelerated road projects that received additional funding from the Legislature.  None of the projects in the University Region are located in Washtenaw County.

FOURTH UPDATE:

ModeShift’s David Sands with another excellent transportation article, this one about SEMCOG’s role.

FIFTH UPDATE: SEMCOG has now posted a compilation of all their transportation initiatives.

SIXTH UPDATE:  The RTA has hired a new CEO (Michael Ford) and as of May 2015 is moving along to create a transit plan, including a series of open houses around the region.  Here is their new website.

INTRIGUING SERIES: CityLab has begun a series on borders that looks promising for many insights on regionalism, and regions.  Drawing the Lines (January 2017)

Regionalism Reconsidered

November 3, 2013

What are the realistic outcomes of Regionalism? In Michigan, can it live up to expectations placed on it ?

Regionalism has been a recurrent theme that we have been exploring.  (See our post of two years ago, Is Regionalism Really A Good Thing?; we have now added Regional to our category list, which will make searching for related posts more feasible.) The subject keeps coming up. Many recent initiatives in the Ann Arbor area have been linked to this concept. In particular, transit and transportation planning have revolved around a regional vision.  But there has been little debate about the significance of regionalism to the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.  Nor has the concept truly been explored and explained in any depth, at least not at the popular level.  (I’d welcome citations to some scholarly work that applies to Michigan or comparable states.)

Rather, a faith in the power of Regionalism has emerged as a category of received wisdom.  It seems that every new City Council candidate expounds on its virtues without the impediment of having studied its history or implementation.  As a very recent example, here is what Chip Smith, a write-in candidate for the Fifth Ward council seat currently held by Mike Anglin, had to say in an interview on the blog Damn Arbor.

Economic Development also includes developing regional transit solutions to more effectively move people into and out of the City…(it) has to grow our regional economy so we can continue to make investments for the future and provide the public services we need to be a great place to live. (skip)We also had a debate during the last budget cycle about making sure we keep five fire stations operating. What’s the return on this investment? Can we engage our neighbors like Pittsfield and Scio Townships to develop a regional partnership to more efficiently provide the same, or better, level of service than we have today?

Unfortunately, such rosy viewpoints ignore the actual structure of Michigan governance and the history of past efforts. Here is a white paper on Michigan governance that lays out the history and impediments to action across governments. Briefly, the history makes clear that the strong direction of Michigan legislation and law has been to strengthen the power of townships and to inhibit the ability of cities to expand.  This has also meant that the development of metropolitan governance so successful and celebrated in other states (think, Portland) (note, Seattle) has been virtually impossible in Michigan. We have previously discussed, notably in this post, township governments and their approach to funding, that make cooperative efforts difficult.

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

I confess to being a recovering regionalist.  As a county commissioner, I was intent to bring these concepts to Washtenaw County.  The County had a long-standing and successful Metropolitan Planning Department.  It was my mission as a planning commissioner and later as the first chair of a new Planning Advisory Board, to bring a new County Comprehensive Plan into being, which we achieved in 2004.  This was the springboard for many regional initiatives. At the time, Washtenaw County planning had been facilitating many regional planning groups.  Their discussions went beyond land use planning to many issues of mutual interest.

A countywide workshop was held in 2005.  The background material, Thinking and Acting Regionally, encouraged localities to engage in issues from solid waste disposal to farmland protection to transit, as well as sharing expenses for necessary services and using growth management techniques to avoid an undue demand for new services.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught.  As detailed in a scholarly paper by Carolyn Loh and Neha Sami (of Wayne State and University of Michigan, respectively), the Washtenaw Planning department came to an end even in the midst of a major burst of activity in initiating regional cooperation in the county. Here is the abstract:

Advocates have long claimed that a regional land use planning approach achieves gains in equity, efficiency, and environmental protect(ion), but few studies have empirically tested these claims. In this case study of a regional planning process in a weak mandate state, we find that the regional plan would have produced better land use outcomes, but its impact was severely limited by political conflicts at the county level, a recession that necessitated cuts to non-mandated services, and a lack of state leadership around regional planning. Ultimately, all these factors contributed to the eventual disbandment of the entire regional planning structure in the area.

After County finances suffered a collapse during the national fiscal crisis (and the collapse of housing values and thus taxable value), the Board of Commissioners decided to cancel the entire enterprise.  This memo to the Planning Advisory Board (which was soon to be disbanded) details the many regional initiatives that had been begun in the interim between the Comprehensive Plan (2004) and the memo (2009).  Most of those were abandoned.

Still, the golden gleam of regionalization still calls to those who hope.  The fire protection cooperation idea has been recurrent and its advantages are clear.  (Here is a Washtenaw Metro Fire Cooperation overview from 2006 of a county effort.)  Yet, it seems every time county townships consider it, there are very small steps indeed.  In this recent account, Pittsfield Township joined a cooperative effort based on a technological enhancement.  Here is what the Pittsfield Township fire chief had to say about it:

“I see it as a step in working together. There are good points and bad points to regionalizing,” he said. “In some places it works great and some places it’s not so great. So in Washtenaw County, if it ever happens, we’ll have to wait and see.”

In the next series of posts, we’ll continue to consider what regionalism really offers here and elsewhere.  Does it really improve the human condition?  Some thoughts to consider.

UPDATE:  Detroit’s water system is a case study in regionalization of a vital resource.  This editorial in the Detroit Free Press outlines the issue with some useful links.  It’s the same quandary as with other regional initiatives: control vs. who pays vs. cost vs. “equity” (i.e. supplying a service to those who need it but can’t really pay).

While it might seem that this is a problem for another set of communities, Detroit water actually serves a substantial number of Washtenaw County residents.  Ypsilanti City, Ypsilanti Township, and Pittsfield Township at a minimum rely on Detroit water, as does the neighboring Wayne County Canton Township.  Meanwhile, Ann Arbor has been a regional water source for some other communities, including notably Scio Township.  There are unanswered issues about the future role of Ann Arbor’s limited system in that regard.

SECOND UPDATE:  The effort to regionalize Detroit’s water system has apparently failed.  Here is the Free Press coverage of the latest developments.

THIRD UPDATE: As we have noted before, another attempt at regionalism (the Regional Transit Authority) has a limited ability to provide the necessary services to the Detroit Metro area because of governance issues.  This article from the Free Press examines the problem of Oakland County’s patchwork coverage.  Rochester Hills and some other communities have elected to stay out of SMART, forcing one brave man to walk 21 miles daily in order to get to his job.

FOURTH UPDATE: With the eyes of the state turning to Detroit, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is reconfiguring itself to Metro Matters, in a bid to be relevant to the greater Detroit metropolitan area.   (“Suburb” isn’t exactly a classy appellation any more.)

FIFTH UPDATE: This article in the Free Press provides an overview of the problems of providing transit in a region where local options have made for patchwork coverage.

SIXTH UPDATE: As of May 2015, the Detroit Water Authority remains a poster child for the challenges of regionalization.  As this article from the Detroit News describes,  Detroit’s bankruptcy exit plan calls for a new Great Lakes Water Authority that would lease the water system from the City of Detroit.   But some of the suburbs are resisting certain details.  (Although Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority receives water from Detroit, Ypsilanti does not have a representative on the new board.)

SEVENTH UPDATE: Apparently the greater Detroit area now has a regional water authority.  According to this report from Crain’s, the deal has been finalized, but not with a unanimous vote of the Great Lakes Water Authority Board.  A sticking point has continually been the boost to Detroit’s finances in the aftermath of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Macomb County executive Mark Hackel is quoted as saying “I wanted to make sure ratepayers weren’t paying for something other than for their water.”  Macomb County did not vote for the deal but the rest of the board did, providing the required supermajority.  Rates are likely to go up as much as 10% next year. 

EIGHTH UPDATE: The Flint water crisis has been a national story for weeks now.  This was only one of the consequences of the regional water conundrum that has resulted in part from the organizational issues surrounding the Detroit water system.  This column about Flint presents a thoughtful viewpoint on how the community, and the crisis, can be tied directly to Michigan’s “hyperlocal” system of governance, and its neglect of cities.

 NINTH UPDATE: This review of local financing mechanisms in Michigan from Bridge is a good review of the conundrum. Can regional goals coincide with the many layers of restrictions on revenue built into the extremely local-oriented Michigan system?