Archive for the ‘Regional’ category

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?


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 Reach for The Ride: Local Governments and Funding

October 20, 2013

As we have noted before, transportation is one of those governmental functions that is almost necessarily delivered on a regional basis.  Yet two local concerns inevitably appear almost immediately in any discussion of a regional transportation system.

  • Governance: what power does any one locality have over what services are provided?
  • Equity: who pays, and who benefits?

In Michigan, as again we have noted, these concerns are made especially vivid by the strong tradition of home rule. Regional transit is a vision gladly embraced by many, and it is rightly described as having many potential benefits in providing connectivity across borders and economic benefits.  (For an excellent overview of recent regional transit efforts, see this recent article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

Our previous post suggested rather harshly that the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority was “exceeding its reach”.  That judgment was based on the expectation that the AAATA will run up against those same two obstacles in its effort to achieve a somewhat more limited version of its county-wide 5-year plan.

Here is the blunt truth: Township officials are conditioned by tradition and possibly legal constraints to spend money only to the extent that it buys a direct service.  They will not easily contribute to a regional approach in which monetary contribution and location of service delivery are disconnected.  But the very essence of a regional system is that resources must be made available to the entire system without regard to the source of the funds.

Another blunt truth is that even when the money to be spent is not coming from township coffers, officials will be very cautious about subjecting their residents to taxation via a regional tax.  One argument often made is that even though a “vote of the people” may be required for a new tax (such as a transportation millage), the relatively low-population townships and small cities can be “swamped” by votes from larger urban areas.  One reason people choose to live in townships is the lower tax rate, and placing them in hazard of a new tax is politically unpopular.

best for usFor these reasons, a broad vision of improved connectivity and access across the “urban core” will always be trumped by a careful accounting of the precise benefits to each unit.  This quote from MLive coverage of Pittsfield Township deliberations makes the point: “(Mandy) Grewal (Supervisor) noted that Pittsfield Township opted out of joining a proposed countywide busing authority last year because the township was unclear on service levels it would receive and didn’t have a good cost-benefit analysis.”   Even more illustrative, from MLive coverage of Ypsilanti Township deliberations, (Trustee Stan Eldridge) “I’m in favor of the AAATA expanding transportation, I’m just a little uncomfortable with some things … and I want to make sure we’re doing what’s best for our residents first and the rest of the county and region second.”

A limited result

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

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

What is unfolding is that AAATA will not succeed in their broader plan.  However, they will manage to bring in both Ypsilanti communities, on unequal terms.

The final steps have now been taken (admirably summarized by the Ann Arbor Chronicle) to incorporate the City of Ypsilanti into the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.  It is now the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, with one seat on the board designated to the City of Ypsilanti. (The Ypsilanti City Council must still approve the Transportation Funding Agreement , scheduled for November 5, but it appears unlikely that they will fail to do so.)  By the agreement, the City will transfer its transit millage to the AAATA, less an administrative fee of 1%.

This expansion of the AAATA to include the City of Ypsilanti solves the problem that they had run up against their ability to tax themselves adequately to pay the POSA charges required not only for their previous routes, but for the expanded #4 service and additional Night Ride service that were provided as part of the “advance implementation” of the countywide transit plan.  On practical terms, it means that Ann Arbor taxes are now supplementing Ypsilanti’s millage to provide transit to Ypsilanti.  My own view is that this is a good bargain.  Ypsilanti is our sister city and our success depends on their success, in community terms.  The two cities together really are our “urban core”.

AAATA officials have reached out to the other three main communities in the plan with a proposal that they, too, should consider joining the Authority or at least step up their POSA service.  Most of the proposals for additional service date from the proposed countywide plan improvements, with some refinements.  There have been three different outcomes:

Pittsfield Township heard the proposal from the AAATA on September 11.  They politely declined any expansion of service at this time, but left the door open for later.  Supervisor Mandy Grewal, who has always been supportive of expanded regional transit on an abstract level, commented that “she thought the board needed to look for ways to cut the final cost”.  I predict that they will never join the AAATA, since it would expose their residents to a future millage.  They will maintain their current POSA and likely add service on a carefully metered basis as it seems needed, but the broad expansion envisioned by AAATA is unlikely in the near term. (A chart showing proposed increases over 5 years is here; also refer to service plans in pages illustrating the Urban Core concept.)

The City of Saline was very supportive of the countywide plan and was one of the last to opt out.  However, they do not currently receive service from AAATA; instead, they have a contract with WAVE.    Evidently AAATA made a presentation to their City Council on July 1, and were turned down even for limited POSA service ($175,000/year).   An informal newspaper poll showed a small sample were about even on the proposal (37 for, 41 against, 19 wanted a smaller proposal).  The single commenter on the poll probably spoke for many others, “The City just raised taxes stating that there where no more places to cut. And here they go finding new places to spend the money that they confiscated from their own citizens.”   It appears that Saline will not be a joiner in the near future.

Ypsilanti Township voted to join the AAATA on September 9, 2013.  An account of that meeting, reported by MLive, indicates that there was extensive discussion about proposed future expansion of services, though there is currently no funding source for them.   In their resolution asking to join AAATA, the single “Resolved” clause reads

the Charter Township of Ypsilanti Board of Trustees requests membership in the Ann Arbor Area Transportation
Authority in accordance with the State of Michigan Public Act 55 of 1963 and asks the AAATA Board of Directors to approve the request.

At the request of the AAATA PMER committee, they also included a Whereas:

WHEREAS, the Charter Township of Ypsilanti wishes to join AAATA in return for continuing to contribute general fund dollars equal to the cost of providing services represented by Purchase-of-Service Agreement costs to AAATA;

What AAATA board members apparently failed to understand (odd, since some of them have been on other boards) is that Whereas clauses have no force of law.  When a unit of government passes a resolution, the Resolved clauses are binding until revoked.  But Whereas clauses are often used as a summary of known facts or statement of principle.  In this case, another Whereas indicated Ypsilanti Township’s expectations for this arrangement:

WHEREAS, bus service in the Charter Township of Ypsilanti can be improved to more efficiently meet the transportation needs of Township residents by increasing frequency and hours of current operations, as demonstrated by a 30 percent ridership increase on AATA Route 4 and further expanded urban core bus service improvements such as an additional route to service the Ypsilanti District Library and residents in the southern part of Ypsilanti Township, increased frequency and hours on routes in the north, west and east parts of Ypsilanti Township, a new Park and Ride lot and the institution of Ypsilanti Township-wide Dial-a-Ride Service for all Ypsilanti Township seniors and disabled are needed and identified as a part of the future Urban Core transit expansion plan…

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the AAATA board approved the addition of Ypsilanti Township to the AAATA on September 26, 2013, despite urgings (mine) to examine the fine print more closely.

My interpretation is that both parties have been proceeding from good intent but misleading impressions.  This is essentially a “handshake” arrangement in which Ypsilanti Township, unlike the City of Ypsilanti, brings no fixed financial contribution to the table.  All along, the Township has evidently been persuaded that they can better the services offered to their residents without any real cash on the table.  In fact, Karen Lovejoy Roe suggested as much at an early urban core meeting – that if the authority-wide millage passed, they could remove the burden from the general fund.

AAATA depiction of relative millage contributions (dollars are not shown)

AAATA depiction of relative millage contributions (dollars are not shown)

The material provided by AAATA staff reinforces that intent. As the figure indicates, the promised POSA contribution from the general fund will be omitted if an authoritywide millage is passed.  The new millage (paid by Ypsilanti Township residents as well as the other two communities) will also pay for expanded service in the Township.

AAATA published a concept paper with many questions and answers.

Here are a couple of points about the millage and the POSA. (Added emphasis is mine.)

  • Question: If Ypsi Township becomes part of the AAATA organization, will they no longer have to pay for services under a POS contract? Answer: Only if Ypsi Twp becomes a member AND there is a successful millage, would Ypsi Twp stop paying for service from their general fund and start paying the full cost of service through their millage contribution.
  • Question: Is there a backup plan in case new funding through a millage is not approved? Answer: If millage funding is not feasible for any reason, the AAATA will continue running the services already being provided, funded through existing mechanisms, including the POSA mechanisms that have existed for over thirty years. As property values continue to rise in Ann Arbor, AAATA revenues may increase sufficiently to add new services. We can also increase service to the nearby communities if they are willing to increase their POSA payments.

If no millage, what?

So AAATA is running up against its limits.  Although its administration has demurred on the plans for a millage, it is clear from all their planning documents that they are depending on the passage of one, perhaps in May 2014.  They have brought no new revenue in through their expansion efforts, and have only succeeded in expanding the authority to include the two Ypsilanti communities.  This will doubtless lead to more expectations (and probably needs) for increased service.  (Note that the concept paper hinted that increased services would be available via Ann Arbor tax proceeds.) But to pass the millage, they will have to persuade the Ann Arbor public that they will vote in an additional 0.7 mills in taxation in order to accomplish this truncated expansion of transit services.

UPDATE:  The Ann Arbor City Council voted to postpone the resolution approving the addition of Ypsilanti Township to AAATA.  See coverage by the Ann Arbor Chronicle .  It will be taken up again on November 18, when the new Council is seated.

SECOND UPDATE:  Regarding the obligations of township governments to spend for the benefits of their residents: I have been provided with this article with a summary of lawful expenditures for township governments.  Clearly any township trustee would feel quite constrained in making broad commitments.

THIRD UPDATE: The Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce evidently intends to make a recommendation to the Ann Arbor City Council regarding the Ypsilanti Township addition to the AAATA.  They invited me to present my views at a committee meeting on November 12.  Here is the position paper I prepared for them.  As you will see, it also includes an overview of tax equity issues for a future millage.

FOURTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor City Council voted to include Ypsilanti Township in the AAATA, but not without some debate.  Here is the account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

Once Again, AAATA Exceeds Its Reach

October 19, 2013
The urban core authority concept

The urban core authority concept

It seems we’ve seen this movie before.  Elaborate plans.  An extravagant marketing effort.  High-level diplomacy. And an utter lack of understanding of how local government works.  It’s the county-wide transit plan, compacted and trimmed.

Just a little over a year ago, the countywide transit plan, based on an Act 196 authority with a complex structure, was soundly rejected.  As we reported over a number of months, the ungainly plan simply had a number of fatal flaws and most Washtenaw County units of government couldn’t opt out fast enough.  This left the AATA in a precarious situation because of the “advance implementation” of the countywide plan (they simply assumed that the money would be coming from a countywide millage and spent in anticipation).

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Ann Arbor’s City Council passed a resolution to withdraw from the Act 196 authority and terminate the “4-party plan” that had been so painfully negotiated.  The opt out resolution passed on November 8, 2012 contained an additional phrase:

Resolved, That AATA is encouraged to continue to discuss regional transportation options among Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Ann Arbor Township, Pittsfield Township, and Scio Township, leading to a better understanding and process for improving local transit options

Say no more!  AATA took that to be a directive and launched a new initiative, the Urban Core.  At their November 15, 2012 meeting, a subdued AATA Board heard their CEO pledge to start afresh, saying “doing nothing is not an option”.   Michael Ford’s statement was a defiant and confident outline of a new course of action.  He said in part,

We respect the opinions of our elected officials who have chosen to withdraw their participation in the proposed transit authority in favor of moving forward with a different process and a more compact authority…Washtenaw County’s urban core communities…have indicated a strong interest in developing an expanded transit network despite Ann Arbor City Council’s actions to withdraw from the new transit authority. These communities include the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline and the townships of Pittsfield, Ypsilanti and the Village of Dexter.

Staff (especially Michael Benham, the chief planner for expanded transit) began working immediately and had some drafts for a committee to review by December 2012.  The first “urban core” meeting was held on March 28, 2013 at the Pittsfield Township Hall. The meeting included officials representing different communities, including four Ann Arbor councilmembers. A large-format book with pages illustrating the Urban Core concept was provided.

    Urban Core meeting of March 22, 2013. L to R: Daniel Cherrin & colleague from Dispute Resolution center; Shawn Keough, Dexter; Peter Murdock, City of Ypsilanti; Paul Schreiber, Mayor of Ypsilanti; Mandy Grewal, Supervisor, Pittsfield Township; Spaulding Clark, Supervisor, Scio Township

Urban Core meeting of March 28, 2013. L to R: Daniel Cherrin & Brian Pappus; Shawn Keough, Dexter; Peter Murdock, City of Ypsilanti; Paul Schreiber, Mayor of Ypsilanti; Mandy Grewal, Supervisor, Pittsfield Township; Spaulding Clark, Supervisor, Scio Township; Charles Griffiths, AATA chair in foreground.

Two more meetings were held on April 23, 2013 and June 27, 2013 (packets are linked). The meetings were facilitated by Daniel Cherrin and Brian Pappus, who were working as dispute resolution volunteers (an odd note, since this was not exactly a dispute).  They brought a fresh approach to the process, as they had no particular knowledge of transit and had not been associated with the long earlier process.

An early draft of the concept (presented at an AATA meeting in December) had included Scio, Ann Arbor and Superior Townships.  However, Superior Township was not represented at all at the March meeting, and some others were just along for the ride.  Supervisors Spaulding Clark of Scio Township and Mike Moran of Ann Arbor Township pretty much indicated that, while Shawn Keough of Dexter joked that he was there to explore “getting on the map”.  It was clear that the two Ypsilanti communities and Pittsfield Township were the major likely players in an expanded authority, possibly along with the City of Saline.  Brian Marl, the Mayor of Saline City, was very positive but it became evident that they wouldn’t play much of a role (Saline is currently served by People’s Express and does not currently have a relationship with AATA.) .   The outline map has continued to include Saline.

One of the tasks was to decide on which of four options would be pursued.  These were either to keep the current service levels, improve service in Ann Arbor, expand service elsewhere, or to “Improve & Expand”, the full package.

Proposals for “beyond the urban core” services, perhaps at net service cost

But in addition, a tinge of the ambition for the county-wide plan persisted.  (AAATA has not disavowed the 5-year plan from the TMP, but has instead said that much of that is still valid.)  A slide, “Beyond the Urban Core” proposed that an expanded authority might still engage many entities outside its borders.

Process at the first meeting was a bit wobbly, with the officials present taking some time to meet up with the earnest efforts of the moderators to organize a real working structure.  The objective, to form two working groups on governance and finance, was never met.  But the group did more or less accept the idea of the “Improve & Expand” option, in the sense of a “consensus” (no one actually objected).

Moving You Forward

An obstacle to this process was that no one at the meeting actually had the authority to commit their respective communities to anything.  Local governments have processes and requirements of their own.  Leaders may lead, but they still must obtain a resolution from their elected councils or boards of trustees. AATA has had some trouble with understanding this in the past.  With the countywide plan, they seemed to think that having gathered some good people around a table and having made numerous presentations without strong objections being voiced, they were good to go.  But after a year’s laborious effort to achieve an Act 196 countywide authority, Washtenaw County communities couldn’t opt out fast enough.

Local officials present at urban core meetings (most likely participants)

Local officials present at urban core meetings (most likely participants)

In this case, the people at the table were significant elected officials who could evaluate and discuss the concepts being presented, but who were necessarily circumspect about making commitments.

An exception: the City of Ypsilanti officials present, especially their Mayor, were passionate about the need for a new authority that they could join.  The reason: though the city’s voters approved a charter millage to pay for bus service, they were limited in the amount that they could levy by state law (they are at their 20-mill constitutional limit).   At the April meeting, where a number of different governance models were reviewed, there was a burst of discussion which resulted in the addition of the City of Ypsilanti into AATA, thereby cementing the Act 55 authority as the likely vehicle for an “urban core” authority.  That move has been completed, with the addition of two new board members, one representing the City of Ypsilanti, one appointed by Ann Arbor.  The Act 55 authority is now called “Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority” (AAATA), though the marketing staff prefers simply “The Ride”.  The final paperwork has now been executed that will commit Ypsilanti’s millage to the AAATA.

So by the third meeting, the situation was that we had a two-unit authority with possible participation by three others, perhaps by use of expanded Purchase of Service Agreements (POSAs).  This “Improve & Expand” model, which received approval not by any vote but because no one objected and all seemed to agree in principle was a nice idea, was said to have a $5.4 M annual price tag (additional funding needed) by 2019.   The financial model provided at the June meeting supposes that much of that will be met by additional POSA spending by Pittsfield, Superior and Ypsilanti Townships, and the City of Saline.  In addition, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would agree to pay a new millage levied by AAATA, now supposed to be 0.7 mills.  Note that more funding is needed just to make up the shortfall in Ypsilanti’s current millage payment.  AAATA is still paying for their earlier advance implementation of the countywide plan.

From the June 27 packet. (Click for larger view.)

From the June 27 packet. (Click for larger view.)

But will the respective governmental bodies actually approve funding for this expansion?  And will voters approve a new millage?  Plans are being made.  Once again, AATA (now AAATA) is moving us forward with a broad expansionary vision, but is dependent on local politics.

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 , 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.

Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance II

November 8, 2012

David Nacht at a March 2012 AATA Board meeting

A long road to countywide transit comes to an abrupt end.  Why?

Just as governance has been a critical issue for the proposed Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (discussed in our previous post), it has also been a key factor in the development of a Washtenaw County regional (county-wide) authority.  Under the leadership of David Nacht, the previous Chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, AATA has been working toward this goal since the board took a straw vote in May 2008 to become a regional authority.  We described some of those early efforts in our December 2009 post, AATA’s Uncertain Future.  Nacht led the AATA to consider several models of governance for a regional authority,  including one in which the City of Ann Arbor (supported by its perpetual transit millage) would remain separate, but cooperating, with the rest of the county, while the “out-county” would enact its own millage for the regional service.  This “donut hole” model was set aside for the “layer cake” model in which the City of Ann Arbor’s millage forms the foundation for the entire regional system, with just a little assist from the rest of the county’s municipalities via a new millage.  The many twists and turns in the evolution of this proposed system have been discussed in posts on our Transportation Page.

There is an enduring conflict in our country between two firmly held concepts.  One is the principle that a local community should be able to determine its own fate (self-determination).  The other is the ideal of a regional governance for the common good across the region.   As we described in an earlier post, Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?,  this inherent conflict is playing out right here in Washtenaw County.  Michigan has a stubbornly vital tradition of local rule.  In fact, it’s in our state constitution. The township system of government makes every issue intensely local, with citizens of each township deciding on the level of services and taxation they prefer, while viewing the efforts of other governments (especially, in this county, Ann Arbor) to dictate their activities with suspicion and mistrust.  Yet putting a regional authority into place requires, roughly paraphrasing Pittsfield Township Mandy Grewal, that “we all join hands and jump”.  The makers of the Washtenaw County regional authority sought to address this conflict by using a blended system of representation.  As described in a presentation by Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) director Terri Blackmore,  a combination of population (less-populated townships were combined into larger districts) and financial contribution were taken into account to award seats at the table. (Blackmore was strongly instrumental in developing this scheme.)

District map as presented in December 2011

The thinly populated western townships, along with the city of Chelsea and village of Manchester, were awarded just one seat on a board of 15.  Pittsfield Township, with a large partly urbanized population, got one full seat.  The tiny population of the city of Ypsilanti earned itself a full seat by voting in a charter millage (about 1 mill) to pay for its service contract (POSA) with AATA.  And Ann Arbor, with its fat perpetual millage (now almost 2 mills, down from 2.5 mills), got just under a majority of seats (7 of 15), despite having only about a third of the county’s population.

Contrast this with the system proposed for the SE Michigan RTA in which each participating county was tentatively given the same number of seats.  As we discussed in the previous post, awarding seats on the basis of  either population or financial contribution has a potential effect of sowing mistrust and doubt.  Smaller communities may fear domination by the larger ones, and larger contributors may fear the redistributive effect.  Yet awarding seats on the basis of monetary share highlights any perceived inequities in the way those funds are distributed.  While the regional approach is presented as cost sharing, it is also inevitably cost shifting.  When differential weight is given to monetary contribution, the question then becomes, “Am I getting MY money’s worth?”.

Nevertheless, AATA assembled a “u196” (unincorporated 196) board along those lines.  It has been meeting since December 2011.  Many of the members are actually township officials, and there seemed to be a fair amount of enthusiasm and support for the idea.  They were presented with what appeared to be a carefully thought-out process. AATA staff endured many sessions before the Ann Arbor City Council and the Board of Commissioners, and finally got their Articles of Incorporation approved.  They requested that the County file the AOI, which was on October 3, 2012.  (See the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle explaining that moment) Letters were sent to all affected jurisdictions in early October that specified how each one could opt out – or choose to stay in.  This should have launched a 30-day window for opting out, but because of some confusion about the legal requirements (summarized by the Ann Arbor Chronicle), Washtenaw County administration sent out a second set of letters, so that the opt-out window was “reset” to December 10.

But even before that final moment, there were indications of trouble with a universal buy-in.  Six townships simply refused to participate even at the most preliminary stage.  Then, as early as September, AATA board members began referring to the possibility that some communities might opt out and then opt back in later.  Comments were made indicating that opted-out communities might be able to retain a seat at the table for the interim, in hopes that they would decide to opt back in.  This possibility and some of the legal tangles involved were reviewed by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  According to that account and to comments made by staff on venues such as WEMU radio programs, opted-out communities might come back in up until the (presumably) May millage vote.

At the October 2, 2012 meeting where the AATA board voted to submit the AOI, the new chair of the board Charles Griffiths gave voice to that approach, as quoted by the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

Griffith addressed the possibility of opt outs, by saying that everyone knew that some jurisdictions will not feel ready at this time to join in this effort – but that’s okay, he said. What’s important is that we give it our best shot to provide an opportunity to everyone. He said the AATA had come up with the best that it could to meet the needs that had been identified and expressed through communities across the county. “If, for whatever reason, we didn’t get that right, we can keep working at it,” he said. He characterized this step as the beginning of the journey, not the end. He hoped that as many jurisdictions would cooperate as possible.

The AATA board and administration must have been surprised, however, at the totality of the reaction.  Municipalities began voting to opt out almost on receipt of the letter (see the post, Washtenaw County Transit: More Outs than Ins, for more details.)  By the end of October, every township, with the exception of Ypsilanti Township, had opted out, as had many villages and cities.  Among cities and villages, only the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline remained.  (Saline passed a resolution affirming its intention of joining the authority.)  The Village of Dexter postponed its decision.

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

What Happened?

So why did most Washtenaw County communities opt out after sending representatives to nearly a year’s worth of meetings, many of whom were very encouraging about the process and even allowed their images to be used in promoting it?  One reason is that they simply didn’t have much to gain by joining.

Summary map for Washtenaw Ride services as of September 2012 (click for larger version)

As seen in this map, most townships were offered very limited services.  (Poor Bridgewater counted for so little that is covered up, as is most of Saline Township.) They were offered vanpools (AATA has already moved to take over this service from a previous operator) and enhanced service from WAVE (a contractor; the green lines).  The red lines are express buses that have limited stops and times and are mostly designed for 9-5 commuters into Ann Arbor.  The larger villages and cities have a local circulator (blue).  Otherwise, most bus services and even the demand services like Dial-a-Ride are limited to the urban area.

As we have outlined earlier, most townships have a very low operating millage rate, by design.  The millage for the countywide authority has been forecast to be 0.58 mills, though that was subject to revision depending on how many units opted out.  To many Ann Arbor residents, that might not seem too consequential as a standalone amount, as we have many millages for specialized services that have received a popular vote.  But to understand county politics, you must understand how large a commitment that seems to many township residents.  If they are going to tax their residents even that much, they must receive visible services for that money.

Pittsfield Township trustees were very clear in their discussion prior to opting out, as reported by

The township currently levies a 0.5 mill tax on residents for parks and recreation activities, Grewal said, and prides itself on its low taxes.

Israel stated that he did not believe Pittsfield Township’s participation in the new transportation authority guaranteed the expansion of transit options in the township.

The township’s trustees also noted another feature of the plan: that their township’s taxes would be paying for other services elsewhere.

Israel noted AATA’s proposed express route to Canton Township in its five-year service plan – and said he didn’t think Pittsfield Township voters should be paying out for that kind of service.

On the other hand, Ypsilanti Township, the sole township to stay in the regional authority, will receive expanded bus services and “demand” (Dial-a-Ride) service.  (Note the dashed red outline on the map.)  Its supervisor, Karen Lovejoy Roe, remarked in a comment on’s earlier coverage of the Pittsfield decision that the availability of services for seniors and enhanced ability for workers to get to jobs were important reasons for the township to ask its voters to take on the additional millage.

Mixed Messages

One of the reasons this venture hasn’t quite come together is that there are several different, sometimes competing, messages about why we need county-wide transit.  Looked at from a township perspective, they don’t compute.

Connectivity:  “Our life does not end at city borders.  We should recognize that we are a greater community.”  This is a nice sentiment but it is hard to attach dollar value to it.  Also, the bus routes provided are not designed for casual travel to other communities, but only for commuting.

Environment: The argument is often made that mass transit will reduce air pollution and global warming.  But though this is likely true (and we certainly hope so), there have been some contrary comments about how this really pencils out.  Those making the argument for environmental benefit often use the “hand-waving” method, rather than citing data studies.  In any case, clearly a substantial ridership is needed for an individual transit vehicle to make a difference; there must be a payback ratio, and this is not discussed much.  Certainly no dollar value to local communities is easily attached.

Need:  It’s hard to argue with this one, since it is a primary reason to support mass transit.  People who have poor access to personal transportation or are low income need to be able to get to work and other places.  But the countywide plan really only addresses this for the urban area (Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas).  As someone from Lyndon Township told me, in order to get to Ann Arbor, they’d have to take WAVE to Chelsea, then take the express bus, and then they wouldn’t be able to get home again later (unless at strictly commuter times), and it would be expensive.

Regional Business Development: This is, in my opinion, one of the primary drivers behind the plan.  Notice all those express buses going out of the county to areas that are not paying in?  But it would mostly benefit businesses located in the greater Ann Arbor area, and of course the University of Michigan.

And of course, though most of the discussion is about bus services, the county-wide authority is also seeking money to support expensive rail and connector services that will benefit only a very limited population, and centered on Ann Arbor.  The townships are rightly suspicious.  The idea of paying into a regional pool for something that doesn’t benefit them (or their residents) directly doesn’t match their idea of governance.  As we noted some time ago, there has been a suspicion among township residents that this entire scheme was a way to get their money for the benefit of Ann Arbor.

Partners for Transit, a rather informally organized advocacy group for regional transit (it appears to be supported by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Conan Smith’s shop), has been making the case that really, the massive opt-out is not a concern because the greatest population of the county will be served.  Further, this is where the need is.

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

But though this observation is true enough, it ignores the entire question of governance.  An authority limited to these urban communities abandons the idea of “county-wide” transit (and many of the rationales on which it was based) and it will inevitably mean that Ann Arbor is simply subsidizing the two Ypsilanti communities.  (The purchase of service agreements shown for connecting townships are not necessarily in place or defined.)  Recall that the plan is for Ann Arbor to continue paying 2+ mills, plus the new one, Ypsilanti City to continue  its approximately 1 mill, plus the new one, and then Ypsilanti Township would pay only the new millage.  It also means that a higher millage (in addition to the existing Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city millages) would be necessary to achieve that level of service.  To get some sense of proportional contribution, see our earlier post in which even with the entire county participating, we would be paying approximately 75% of the cost.

If we wish to subsidize Ypsilanti, surely there is a more efficient way to do it rather than to create a whole new authority with expanded powers but a territory hardly larger than is served under our present system.  And there will still be an issue of governance.  Would we give the two Ypsilanti communities seats on our joint transit board, even though we are subsidizing their service?  They would probably expect that.  And how would we allocate them?  The same options apply as mentioned earlier: a choice between unitary representation, population-based, or monetary contribution.  Each of these has potential political obstacles. If we include the townships that wish to have only a service contract (in which they would pay only the cost allocated to their own service), an even more unequal form of governance might be possible.

Partners for Transit is also stating that Ann Arbor would have a higher level of service, as well.  But we could achieve that ourselves, simply by using our existing millage for Ann Arbor rather than to support the many regional and commuter-oriented additions that the AATA board has introduced.  Or we could pass an additional millage for our own use.


With all this before them, a good-sized fraction of the Ann Arbor City Council is now preparing to regroup.  Tonight (November 8, 2012) has a new agenda item.  The resolution to opt out from the Act 196 authority also calls for abrogating the 4-party agreement.  (A lengthy discussion and analysis is in this from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)  It contains this language in explanation (click on the text for a larger view):

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor City Council voted 10-0 to withdraw from the Act 196 authority and the 4-party agreement (November 8, 2012).    Here are links to news accounts:        Ann Arbor Chronicle

Michael Ford sent out a news release acknowledging the loss and pointing to future action.   He pledged to concentrate on the urban core but also said “Efforts to extend the benefits of transit to a greater number of Washtenaw County residents will continue”.  AATA Press Release-New Transit Authority Update

Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance

October 30, 2012

Some public services are best performed on a strictly local basis; those aimed primarily at privately owned property, for example.  But others lend themselves best to a broad regional approach, and transportation is surely one of them.  A transportation network needs central planning.  Imagine the Interstate Highway system administered by counties.  Public transit systems logically should be regional in nature, especially in this era where people expect to work at a distance from where they live.  But two attempts in southeast Michigan to institute regional transit have run up against obstacles inherent in Michigan political organization.  The two wannabe regional transit authorities are the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Washtenaw Ride.   Each of these must resolve a matter of governance in order to launch successfully.

Regional transit hopefuls (L to R), Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United, Jesse Bernstein of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and Conan Smith of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, August 2012

Governance is a word that has come into vogue lately.  It alludes to the manner in which government conducts its business and especially the way it interacts with its citizens.  Some of the important elements in this interaction are representation, taxation, and power.   People generally want to believe that they are fairly represented at the decision-making level.  If the body collects taxes, are they proportionate to the function of the governing body?  And does this body exert a level of power over daily lives that is appropriate to its function, not dictatorial or burdensome?

The proposed Detroit metro area RTA has a very specific prescription for how representation will be determined.  As we reported, Governor Snyder proposed a major revamp of Michigan’s transportation laws and system nearly a year ago.  A summary of the bills that emerged to implement this ambitious plan is available in our post, Those State Transportation Bills and the Regional Transit Authority.  Most of the bills have not moved very far.  The bills that would implement the RTA are “tie-barred”, meaning that the principal bill, Senate Bill 909/House Bill 5309, must pass before the others in the package can be implemented.  The best explanation of this package of bills is contained in an analysis from the excellent Senate Fiscal Agency.  SB 909 has been amended  and a substitute (S-3) has been reported out of the Senate Transportation Committee, which I understand to mean that it may be taken up by the Senate as soon as it is placed on an agenda.  The analysis has a good deal to say about governance, specifically about representation. There is apparently some rule that legislation cannot name specific municipalities, thus they have to be described by population and other indirect means. The legislation calls for two members appointed from each of the four counties (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw), plus one appointed by the Mayor of Detroit. This has proved to be an issue that has apparently been at least one reason for the slow progress of the legislation.  Detroit representatives have complained that they should be entitled to more than one seat.  But one of the Wayne County seats is allocated to Detroit as well.  This has led to Wayne County’s complaint that they are entitled to two full seats and the suggestion that Washtenaw County should give up one of its seats. Conan Smith, who as one of his hats has been negotiating on behalf of Washtenaw County at both the state and regional levels, has apparently (according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle) offered to give up one of Washtenaw’s seats in order to seal the deal.  (Smith is very invested in the RTA concept, presumably in part because of his position at the metropolitan Detroit Michigan Alliance of Suburbs;  the MSA is hiring staff to promote the concept.)

Rounded-down figures for population of the 5 RTA communities

Note that the representation is based on a simple formula of equal representation for each geographical unit, except for the single appointee from the city of Detroit.  The populations of the different geographical units are quite different.  If the basis of the appointments was on an equal representation for each person (one man, one vote concept), the result would be very different.  This first table shows the lower figure of population of each unit from the legislation.  Note that the figure for Wayne County must include the population of the City of Detroit, since it is within that county.

Seats apportioned on the basis of percent population, if current 9 members were retained

If we subtract the population of Detroit from Wayne County, it still holds its own as one of the highest populations among the five communities to be represented in the RTA.  If we then apportion the number of seats based on percentage of the total population, Detroit and Washtenaw would both have only one, while the biggest two counties would have three. The problem with such a solution is that these are all sovereign entities, each with local constituencies and concerns.  Pride is a factor, especially for Detroit. But self-preservation also makes joining an alliance as a weaker member unsavory.  The possibility exists that the more powerful (in terms of votes) communities could force policies or requirements down the throats of the weaker ones.

Another way to apportion seats could be by relative monetary contribution.  But since this is to be funded by vehicle registration fees, it could be a shifting number over time, and it could also be a measure of the relative affluence of each community, which would presumably disadvantage Detroit, again unpalatable from a political viewpoint.  Yet on the other hand, one suspicion that participants in a regional venture have is that this is not a cost-sharing opportunity, but rather a cost-shifting move.  In other words, that the suburban counties (including Washtenaw) might be picking up the tab for Detroit.  This has its own political calculus. Emphasizing the difference in monetary contribution could also lead to heavy-handedness on the part of the larger contributors, and to squabbles over what the exact proportions are, or other factors.  The lesser contributors might also fear that their needs would be slighted in favor of the more powerful members’ priorities.

The rationale for passage of the bill package and establishment of the RTA shifts depending on whose eyes you are looking through.  To Transportation Riders United, it is a simple question of needing adequate bus transit service within the greater Detroit area.  Bus transit in the Metro area has a sad confused history, as recorded in this detailed chronology.  Two different bus systems, Detroit Department of Transportation (City of Detroit) and SMART (regional transit authority which serves Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties) do not interconnect adequately and leave many functional gaps in transit coverage. This is frustrating to everyone from riders to civic leaders to economic development planners.  We explained in our earlier post that improving this coordination is apparently one motivation for the new RTA.  Dennis Schornack, the Governor’s spokesman, intimated at one meeting that his intention (not expressed in these words) was basically to smack the two authorities alongside the head and make them behave.

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

But this wasn’t what the Governor stressed when he made his presentation.  Instead, he stressed the importance of rapid efficient transit within the metro area, including to Detroit Metro Airport.  As explained in various venues, this would be in the form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes.  The famous example of this is Cleveland’s Euclid corridor line.  BRT routes in the purest form are segregated lanes with high-tech long buses, somewhat like a small train.  They are necessarily express routes, especially over a long route like those being proposed here, so they don’t stop at every corner.  The purpose is to enable commuters and business interests to travel quickly to the economic center in Detroit.  This is favored by economic development planners.

In spite of these two bus-related types of motivations, the RTA legislation has languished in the legislature.  Suddenly in September, the House Transportation Committee held a public hearing on the bills.  (No action was scheduled, just the hearing.)  Many business and civic leaders turned up to testify, along with a crowd of enthusiastic transit supporters.  But in watching it, one suddenly realized that the subject for many of them was not buses, even BRT.  The subject was light rail.  A group of investors has been pushing a light rail line down Woodward Avenue, called M-1.  It is 3.4 miles in length and it could be argued that it is less about transit than about development and economic revitalization.   But the investors have run up against resistance from the Federal government when seeking grant funds to help finance it.  It turns out that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pressing local leaders to achieve a regional transit authority before Federal funds will be made available.  From this Detroit News story,

LaHood has said federal officials are prepared to offer $25 million for a proposed light rail project on Woodward “if the community can get its act together.” On Monday, he wouldn’t specify the amount, but noted one of the hurdles is the creation of the regional authority to coordinate mass transit.

The Michigan Chronicle lays out some even more specific points about the pressure being put on legislators:

We’re willing to put on the table millions of dollars if this community can get its act together,” LaHood said of the Metro Detroit region… I met with the speaker of the house and senate majority leader and they told me that they support the idea of a regional transportation system and that legislation.

The story goes on to quote Governor Snyder in saying that he hopes that the Legislature will address the matter in the lame-duck session.  That makes sense from a strategic viewpoint because it is a time that legislators can take action with relatively little fear of retribution from constituents.  [I’m sure that Conan Smith is hoping it will be passed as immediate implementation (otherwise it might not take effect until next year).  One provision is that the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners appoints the two Washtenaw County members of the RTA board, and his term as Chair expires on December 31, 2012.]

There are many fine details to this legislation that deserve attention, including the question about the true priority for attention and funding.  Is it the bus system?  The BRT? The M-1 rail?  The voters of the four counties will still have to approve the vehicle fees, and the description of what services are being provided will be critical.  The populations of the three counties outside Detroit may not be persuaded by the M-1 priority, for example.  New taxes usually hold out a promise for delivery of services.  Will that be convincing across the region?

And ultimately, the message to the voters will have to deal with the governance question successfully.  Voters from each municipal unit will have to be convinced that they are signing on to a system which represents them and for which they receive at least some direct benefit.  Of course, since Washtenaw County has such a small proportion of voters, our vote may not matter much.

UPDATE:  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners acted to withdraw support of the RTA on November 7, 2012.  It is not clear what effect that action will have on the ultimate fate of the initiative.

SECOND UPDATE: The Detroit News reports today (November 27, 2012) that the RTA legislation is having a rough go in the state legislature.  Ironically, much of the story focuses on the possible loss of funds for M-1.

The story mentions the actions earlier this month withdrawing BOC endorsement of the idea:

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution this month saying the county wants to manage its own transportation systems and funds and let voters decide whether to join the authority. Ann Arbor and several townships opted against forming a countywide bus system.

There are numerous issues, including funding and condemnation powers the new authority would have.

The story quotes Mark Ouimet, who lost his re-election bid this year when Gretchen Driskell was elected instead.  Ouimet was a major supporter of the RTA concept.

THIRD UPDATE:  News services report that the RTA passed the State Senate this afternoon (November 27), with amendments.  Washtenaw County is still included in the region.   SB 0909 passed 22-16.  SB 0911 passed 22-15.  SB 0912 passed 23-15. SB 0967 passed  23-15.      SB 0445 passed 23-15.

FOURTH UPDATE: Most measures have now (December 9, 2012) passed the House and are anticipated to be signed by the Governor. (SB 912 and SB 0967 are still pending.)

For further updates on this subject, see The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress.

Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?

November 27, 2011

Regionalism has become the guiding force behind many initiatives – but is it good for Ann Arbor?

A group of happy people gathered last Monday (November 21, 2011) to hear an important announcement. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional administrator Antonio Riley was there to announce a Sustainable Community grant award to Washtenaw County and there were a number of elected officials basking in the glow.  But the real star of the show was an idea, not a person.  It was Regionalism.

Many recent initiatives in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan have been organized around regionalism, in which the role of traditional jurisdictions like cities, villages and townships is diminished in order to operate within much wider boundaries.

The idea has a lot of appeal on the face of it. The reasoning behind it has several arguments.

  • One is that certain functions, like transportation, naturally occur over larger geographical areas than the traditional political boundaries describe.
  • A major impetus is that it is “good for business” because of efficiency in organizing and delivering services and administering policies (and business does not have to deal with “a patchwork” of regulations and politics).
  • Perhaps the most persuasive to many is the opportunity to distribute benefits and services more evenly across boundaries, with less regard to the affluence of each locality.  It  is the basis of many of our Federal and state programs, where citizens are guaranteed certain benefits and protections whether in the poorest or most wealthy states or counties.

Tony Derezinski at a recent Ann Arbor council meeting. Courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle (photo has been cropped).

This last is a strong moral argument that speaks to “our better angels” and our sense of community when it is being broadly expressed.  It is an argument that lies behind some of the acceptance of the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue project, which this grant is intended (even designed) to support.  The siren song of intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration speaks in part to our response in Ann Arbor to the knowledge that Ypsilanti (city and township) is our sister urban area that is not as wealthy as fortunate Ann Arbor.

One of the enthusiastic speakers at the announcement was Ann Arbor Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who has been the promoter of Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue since its inception.  CM Derezinski is also a committed supporter of the concept of regionalism.  As he said at the event, “We are a region, we are not just Ann Arbor”.  And then he misquoted (with apologies) poet John Donne in saying, “No municipality is an island unto itself”.  Here is the full quotation of the actual poem (really from a long essay).

In other words, are we not responsible for each other?  This is an easy emotional and empathetic argument which, unfortunately, runs into some practical and political brick walls on close examination.

If you examine the history of humankind even at a superficial level, you will note that it consists of waves of geographical consolidation, followed by periods of revolt in the name of self-determination.  The thing is that natural human communities are self-limiting.  Right now, Europe is trying to work out how much member states will take on in respect of each other. In the United States, we are still arguing the dynamic of federalism vs. states’ rights.

Michigan resolved this question constitutionally as Home Rule.  The  review of this principle by the Michigan Municipal League quotes the 1908 constitution as saying, “each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” As the review indicates, the principle of home rule for Michigan municipalities has been eroded in recent years by state law overriding the ability of local units (note that “municipalities” is a basket term for cities, villages, townships, and counties) to regulate a wide variety of issues.  Only this week, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Ann Arbor City Council was grappling with a proposed state law that would prevent Ann Arbor from extending anti-discrimination protection to people on the basis of sexual preference.  The ingrained belief in the home rule principle persists in the Michigan psyche, especially as it comes to taxes.  Some Washtenaw County townships still have a local tax limitation for local services of 1 mill, and they are proud of it.  (Charter townships may tax up to 5 mills.  Special ballot issues don’t count.)

So if we are to extend authority across established jurisdictional lines, two things happen.  One is that local control of just what services and options are offered is limited.  Another is that one jurisdiction may find itself paying, at least potentially, for services received by another.

With Reimagine Washtenaw, if it is fully fleshed out and enacted, four municipalities (Ann Arbor city, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township) will surrender much of their sovereignty within the Washtenaw corridor to a new entity, a Corridor Improvement Authority. (For good reviews, see the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of a public meeting and coverage of a BOC working session.)

There are some other examples of regionalism that specifically affect the City of Ann Arbor:

The move to a countywide transit system.  We have a number of posts about this, including the most recent on “Where the Money Is” .  The decision was made a couple of years ago to emphasize commuter access to Ann Arbor rather than to optimize within-city service.  Now Ann Arbor taxes are being used to pay for express buses to Chelsea and Canton, as well as enhanced service to Ypsilanti.

The Governor’s transit plan. As we reported earlier, Governor Snyder has proposed a Regional Transit Authority that includes Washtenaw County.  If enacted fully, it would draw all Federal and state transportation funds to itself, contract local bus service to AATA and other local entities, but emphasize major routes for the movement of workforce toward the Detroit Metro area, probably by use of Bus Rapid Transit technology.  This would handicap the ability of local transit authorities like AATA to innovate and serve new needs locally.

The Urban County.   Ann Arbor was one of the first Block Grant communities in the state, and for many years was the only community in the county with Federal CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds to spend on human services and housiing.  Washtenaw County formed the Urban County to make CDBG-funded services available to other communities.  As described on the county website, the city’s Community Development department was merged with the county’s department and finally the City of Ann Arbor joined the Urban County.  One consequence was that Ann Arbor lost nearly $400,000 a year in human services money that had been grandfathered in.  As the memorandum provided to Council explains, this was to result in an increase across the Urban County of $100,000 in HUD-supplied funds.  But those funds would be directed toward other uses (not human services).  An increase to the county  of $100,000 in Emergency Shelter Grant funds was expected to offset this somewhat.

So while Ann Arbor formerly had human services money from a Federal grant and an independent Housing and Human Services Advisory Board to administer them, the City Council has been obliged to supplement human services from the Ann Arbor general fund in the last several budget years.  This has led to heart-rending presentations from non-profit organizations that serve the needy and their clients.  A search in the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives has many reports of such moments, including the one with paper cranes.  At the same time, general fund support for human services from Washtenaw County has also been cut severely in the wake of County budget problems.  In a triumph of bureaucracy, the County approved a Coordinated Funding model for distribution of services in 2010.  This funnels all funds, including those donated to the United Way, through a goals-and-objectives process that is supposed to be more efficient.  (An astonishing document prepared by Community Development touts the economic “return on investment” for nonprofit funding, quite a change in emphasis from human needs.)  One result was slashing the funds allocated to the Delonis homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000 (see the account by the Chronicle).  On an announcement that this would result in closing the “warming center” in which homeless individuals not in residence at the shelter can find protection on coldest nights,  both the County and the City of Ann Arbor found some stopgap funds, just for this year.

The A2 Success project and SPARK  This is regionalism on steroids.  The A2 Success project was begun approximately in early 2009 and has a number of economic development projects for the “Ann Arbor region” (which is essentially Washtenaw County with some incursions into Wayne County).  SPARK, which began as a merger of the former Washtenaw Development Corporation and the Smart Zone, now styles itself  “Ann Arbor, USA” and has been consuming ever more and more general fund support from both the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.  Now a revived millage tax levied by the county will give SPARK over a quarter of a million dollars next year.

Regionalism Rules – but what about Localization?

Clearly the concept of regionalism has the support of most of our political leaders, and it has a powerful and persuasive voice.  But does it really benefit the community that we have within our City of Ann Arbor?  Or is it actually an effort to exploit the resources that we have, including our educated population,  our positive image countrywide,  our strong cultural environment, and most of all our tax base? In other words, is regionalism at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers supportable only for altruistic reasons?  Or does it bring our actual community actual benefits?

You wouldn’t expect a blog called Local in Ann Arbor to espouse regionalism, and you are right.  As we said in our first post, we support something of an opposite concept: localization.  In “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie“,  we tried to put forth the case that we have an unusually desirable place to live because of our special local character.  But it goes beyond that to a belief that a successful, resilient community is built on interdependence at a local level. To some extent, we must be an island  – and island economies are notably self-sufficient.

Localization is a world-view, a prescription for living, and a field of academic study.  I’m looking forward to the coming book on the subject,  The Localization Reader, by UM professors Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen.  You’ll hear more on this from us another day.

UPDATE:  This post is not the place for a full discussion of allocation of costs in AATA’s regional outreach.  However, the attached Report to the Treasurer from last year (it does not include the special service to Ypsilanti) shows the contribution of Ann Arbor taxpayers to the Commuter Express projects.  The University of Michigan does not contribute directly to this service (as stated in a comment below), but rather compensates employees for the cost of their fares.  The report indicates that 31% of this service (to Chelsea and Canton) is paid for by Ann Arbor taxes, and 26.4% by fares.  The remainder is picked up by State and Federal operating assistance.

NOTE: Readers of this post may also find discussions of governance in this post on regional transit plans and its sequel of interest.  The two posts discuss governance issues for regional authorities.

NOTE: We have now begun a new series on this subject, beginning with Regionalism Reconsidered.