Ann Arbor’s Fading Dream of Trains and Rail Systems

Posted February 12, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation

The Mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, held a convocation of area leaders on June 15, 2006, in which he outlined a broad vision of transportation for Ann Arbor and the region.   As he explained (press release), the vision would bring environmental benefits (lessen air pollution), enhance quality of life, and increase the region’s economic competitiveness.  The vision was named the Mayor’s Model for Mobility.  Its elements were an East-West Transit (commuter rail) to link communities in Southeast Michigan, as well as a North-South Rail.  There would also be a local connector system to link up the two railroads, and a streetcar system that would encompass the many sprawling campuses of the University of Michigan.  The plan was illustrated by a sketch that is positively jolly.

Mayor's_Model_for_Mobility_20060008The vision was bold and in those heady days before the economic meltdown that affected local property values (and thus local property tax revenues), it seemed not unlikely.  Hieftje at that time was at the height of his influence, with a City Council that was solidly behind him.   He had the power of appointment to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, the ear of our Congressman, John Dingell, and a strong relationship with the administration of the University of Michigan.

Since then, a lot has happened.  The economic collapse affected not only Ann Arbor, but Michigan and the nation.  There have been significant shifts in Congress and in attitudes toward transportation funding.  Prospects rose (with Obama’s election) and sank (Tea Party).  AATA (our local transit authority) put major effort into a countywide transit plan, which failed.  Then a smaller local urban transit millage succeeded.  A Regional Transit Authority centered on the Detroit Metro area was created.  Its millage failed and that effort is now in limbo.  (Some, but not all, of this history, is recorded in our posts on The Transportation Page.)

The remarkable thing is that, over a decade later and despite many discouragements, the current Mayor (Christopher Taylor) appears to be bent on fulfilling the original vision.  And its elements, especially those relating to rail travel, remain at the top of Ann Arbor’s priorities, as reflected by the Capital Improvements Plan.  But these are extremely expensive and rely on the assumption that there will be Federal grants to pay the major portions.

Looking At It With Clear Eyes

In light of recent changes, both in current transportation funding, and in the change of emphasis in the Presidency (as we indicated in the last post, the ground has shifted), how realistic is this vision now?  And how does this affect the rest of our local government initiatives, since we are presumably setting aside considerable funds in order to accomplish these decade-old objectives?

The timelines and priorities for some of the rail projects, such as the North-South rail (WALLY) and the East-West commuter rail, are more distant.  But the rail station (the Ann Arbor Station) is priorities # 1,2 and 3.  Also a very high priority is the Connector, a light rail system that will connect the UM campuses.  While the commuter rail projects and the Connector have other possible participants, the rail station is our very own.

First Comes the Train Station

The train station was part of a grant awarded to the State of Michigan from President Obama’s stimulus program.  That program, ARRA (American Resource and Recovery Act) was launched in 2009 and the availability of the funds is ending in May 2017.  Actually, the grant awarded is only to pay for the initial assessment of the site and preparation of a preliminary design and engineering review.

Mayor Christopher Taylor has consistently placed the Rail Station at the top of his list in importance for Ann Arbor.  In a recent article in the Ann Arbor News, he argued for its importance as he anticipates an increase in rail travel, including a new commuter rail service.  As described in a second article , Taylor was able to persuade a majority of his City Council to provide funds for work that cannot yet be done.

Council voted at the meeting of January 17, 2017 to allocate another $151,600 (matching funds for the ARRA grant).  As the background for the resolution states, availability of those funds is ending in May 2017.   This is awkward because the City is still awaiting a ruling from the Federal Railroad Administration as to the preferred site for a new station.  (The selection process has been arduous and there have been many delays.  More detail is available on the City website.  The two possibilities being considered are Fuller Park and the current site on Depot Street.) (Additional information and viewpoints are on the All Aboard on Depot Street website.)  Basically, the Council has now authorized funds for a contract which cannot be fulfilled at this moment but must be invoiced by May 2017.  (This is about 3 months from now, and critical information is not available.)

Money and Timelines

As always with government, much comes down to money.  How much will it cost? Where will it come from? When will it be spent?  The answers to some of these questions are in that Capital Improvement Plan mentioned earlier.  Staff takes all the information given to them and assembles timelines and cost estimates.  They also indicate some of the expected sources of the money.  But here are some important points to keep in mind.

The General Fund is the checkbook for the City’s cash flow.  It is the amount of money from property tax each year.  Most other funds in the budget are restricted to specific uses, such as roads from the road millage. If Council spends money on special projects, it is from the General Fund.  The General Fund revenues for 2016 were $83,617,342.  That’s $83.6 Million for the whole city.

Another important point is to recall that we are currently in Fiscal Year 2017.  It ends on June 30, at which point we will be in FY 2018.  Council is currently working on the budget for that FY, which will be passed in May 2017.  (Again, three months from now.)

Now look at this information from the CIP.  Note that some activities are already in process (2017).  But we have some big-ticket expectations, in a relatively short time.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan. WALLY omitted.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan.   WALLY omitted.

According to this, we’ll be building a train station in the next fiscal year (begins in July 2017)   And we’ll put more than 10% of the General Fund into this one project.

I don’t believe it either.  And there are other details.  The remainder of that $44.5 million is supposed to come from a Federal grant.  (Money has not been allocated.)  And I’m guessing that part of our General Fund amount is hoped to come from the State of Michigan.  AAATA is being tasked with a grant for some of the Connector expenses, but they have a hard time making all their current expenses.  The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has committed to major expenditures for the Connector, but this is not shown here.  Still, the mere scale of these commitments is breathtaking.

In the next post, more details about transportation funding as it might affect this project.  But meanwhile, all this is hard to take in.  Will we really rearrange our city priorities to accommodate this heavy a drain?  Are the uncertainties being considered?  How will it affect the budget (that has to take in all other City considerations) that is under preparation?  How much will this vision affect our reality?

UPDATE: At the February 13, 2017 Council Working Session, the City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, presented a slide showing new projections for the CIP.  It indicates $500,000 for the Ann Arbor Station for FY 2018 and $13 Million for FY 2019, with the cryptic notation, “New revenue or financing”.  For the Connector, it shows $600,000 for FY 2019, with nothing for FY 2018.  For FY 2020 and beyond, we now see $10 Million for the City alone, with the funding noted as “tbd”.

Now What? Local Government in the Age of Trump II

Posted February 5, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance

Reading the tea leaves for predictions about local government funding.

In the last post, we predicted that there will be some serious changes in the relationship between local government and the Federal Government.  This is because of the election of Donald Trump as President.   As we stated, this is because the President qualifies as an extreme-impact, highly improbable phenomenon, a “black swan”.  This is not just because of a change in party from a Democratic to a Republican presidency.  Trump has already shown himself to be highly unpredictable and that he doesn’t follow any conventional playbook, even a Republican script.  “You can’t do that” is not a meaningful statement.  In fact, with the sudden ruling on immigration (for a recent example), he has shown that he will do things because he can.  So assumptions that anything will go on as it has are very poorly based.

Early Indicators

There are a few hints as to what may happen.  One is that he is apparently intent on fulfilling many of his campaign promises, even those thought to be too outlandish to be real during the campaign.  Often these were no more than tweets, but I hope that planners everywhere have already assembled a book of those for study.

Another hint is his appointments to Cabinet and other high-placed positions.  It appears that his main thrust is to appoint people who have a contrary view on the policies that are the responsibility of their new position.  So for example, Betsy DeVos – hates public schools, appointed to Department of Education. The Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, whose important relationship with that agency has been to sue it.  As these individuals take their places, it will be necessary to examine their records and pronouncements in order to guess what may happen.  But it is obvious that the intent is not to go on as we have.

Then there is the Republican Congress.  They have a rather uneasy relationship with their new President, but they are exultant at the opportunity to apply their views on spending, taxation, and regulation that have been held in stasis for eight years.  So where there are budgetary blueprints already on the table, they should be taken as a serious indication of where things may go.

According to an article in The Hill, Congressional staffers are putting together a “skinny budget” that is also being scrutinized by the President’s staff.  This budget is based on the Blueprint for Reform assembled by the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Hill has assembled a number of proposed agency cuts (which might affect local governments directly) and listed them in the article.  We hope to examine these closely in a future post.

Another set of guidelines to watch is a set of transportation priorities highlighted in an article from McClatchy DC.  These are slightly different from a set of priorities compiled by the National Governors’ Association.  All these are relevant to Trump’s promise to invest heavily in big infrastructure projects.  But they also have a potential effect on other transportation initiatives.

Willingness to Act

Fifth Ward Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski

Fifth Ward Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski

All of this should also be taken in the context of Trump’s evident willingness to wield a funding sword (or perhaps chainsaw is the better tool) to punish local governments for straying from the policy path that he prescribes.  The recent executive order regarding sanctuary cities, as detailed in this article from MLive, indicates that he will not hesitate to use this tool without a concern for collateral damage.  This caused at least one councilmember, Chuck Warpehoski, to express reservations at taking a step (the casual use of the term sanctuary city) that would endanger programs in the City, including affordable housing.

Be Prepared

Given all these still indefinite indicators, our local representatives should be looking ahead to see which programs may be vulnerable.  Our administrative staff and those whom we have elected to represent us need to be on their toes.  This certainly doesn’t seem to be the time to engage in bold adventures.

UPDATE: Some explicit worries about changes to support for affordable housing from Shelterforce.

SECOND UPDATE: Some shoes are beginning to drop.  This article from the Washington Post details some of the likely cuts to HUD housing programs.  Consequences for local programs are immense.

 

Now What? Local Government in the Age of Trump

Posted February 2, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance

Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County local government will have to embrace a new paradigm in which Federal funding for long-accepted programs is no longer assured.  We hope they start now to think about this.

The Black Swan phenomenon

the_black_swan_taleb_coverThe book,  “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, was released in April 2007.  Taleb used the metaphor of the Black Swan (you never expect to see one, and have trouble believing it when you do), to describe an event with three attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lays outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

Second, it carries an extreme impact.

Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The book ranges through a variety of literary references, mathematical formulations (including chaos theory), parables, historical references, psychoanalytic tropes, and expanded metaphors to make its point.  It is quirky and sometimes difficult to read. (Sample heading: “Zoogles are not all Boogles.”)  But it makes a strong case that just when we believe that the course of the universe is a smooth sail, it will turn around and bite us in the (tail).  Perhaps the best metaphor is the story of the turkey, who lives happily in a grassy field with plenty of corn – until Thanksgiving comes.

Since Taleb often has made his living in finance (as a hedge fund manager, for example), his lessons are evidently meant to apply to the world of finance.  “A storm is coming.” (Not his quote.)  The book appeared in April 2007. In August 2007 there was a small panic as a hedge fund refused withdrawals.  In October 2007, the DOW was at a high of 14,000+ points.  By March 2009, it was at 6,600.  Meanwhile, the US and the world had endured an economic collapse.  Now the causes are well known, or at least well explained.  But at the time, everything was looking fine.   Black swans were hiding, but they were there.

We Shall Persevere

After the economic collapse, many normalization mechanisms were called into effect.  Even now, eight years later, things aren’t great for a lot of people.  There was a lot of damage.  But one thing that did work is that most governmental functions continued on along a fairly predictable course.  President Obama’s stimulus program was short-lived, but even through years of budget crises and sequestration alarms, cuts have been mostly at an incremental level.  This has meant that state and local governments and their planners and bureaucrats could continue to issue budgets expecting that various Federal subsidies and programs would be there, long enough in most cases to forecast several years into the future.  You need that to make plans.  Contracts have to be signed, projects initiated.  Costs of operation need to be anticipated.  And many lives depend on the continued smooth operation of these mechanisms.

Our expectations of our political system have been pinned on this smoothness of operation.  Yes, some programs get cancelled or cut, but on the whole things continue on and most things work out.  How could it be otherwise?  With the likely ascension of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency, this seemed even more obvious.  She ran as the maintainer of the status quo, with improvements.  All the polls said she would win, and President Obama was talking about his legacy.

The Trump Effect

Now we have our new Black Swan.  Who could have predicted that the American public would elect this man to the greatest station in the land?  (Clinton based her whole campaign on the bet that we wouldn’t.)  But here he is.

And then – there were the hopes that wise heads would counsel our new leader and changes would be at least well rationalized.   But he is showing some signs that he will be a wild card indeed.  He doesn’t accept known fact and makes his own up when it suits him.  He is prone to personal offense at criticism.  And he has been appointing mostly people who seem most interested in bringing down the established order.  Clearly he will not hesitate to take an egg-beater to government as we know it.   So he is likely to have an “extreme impact”.

Andy LaBarre, Chair of the BOC, 2017

Andy LaBarre, Chair of the BOC, 2017

In a recent interview on MLive, Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Chair Andy LaBarre put it succinctly: “Who the hell knows what Trump’s going to do on any number of things.”

You said it, Andy.  We are now facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.  But we know that change is coming. Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and indeed the entire State of Michigan will have many adjustments to make in both programs and expectations as the full array of changes in Federal policy take place over the coming months.  I expect that the final resolution will be that we will have to rely more on local resources for essentials, and this in turn will mean a new evaluation of our own programs and priorities.

Timelines

Change will probably come very rapidly in some cases.  But for many programs, it will probably fall along budget schedules. One point to know is that different governments have different budget schedules.  The Fiscal Year that each level uses is a crucial piece of information in understanding when all the pieces will fall into place.  The next Fiscal Year will be FY 2018.

fy-datesAssuming that the Federal Government really does pass a budget on time this year, both the State of Michigan and Washtenaw County will have at least some ability to anticipate needed changes to their budget.  It may be trickier for the City of Ann Arbor.  The City Council actually approves that budget in May.

We do have a few tealeaves to read.  There are already some proposals for deep budget cuts being floated.  In the next post, I hope to highlight a few of those and their likely effects on local programs.

Bagging the Plastics Ban: Washtenaw County’s Never-was Ordinance

Posted January 4, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

no-plastic-bagsIt was one of those great outrages.  In the closing days of the 2016 session, the Michigan Legislature killed any possibility of Washtenaw County’s attempt to regulate plastic grocery bags.  “Ban on local plastic bag bans now Michigan law”, reported MLive. Outgoing State Representative Jeff Irwin decried this defeat for local control.  This was seen as another case of Republican domination of progressive Michigan municipalities (cities and counties).  A few days later, another news account stated, Washtenaw County concedes it can’t enforce disposable bag ordinance.  The bill (Senate Bill 853)  is succinct but also thorough: it mentions regulation of any “auxiliary container” of almost any composition as being forbidden for local units of government.  (There goes any hope of banning styrofoam clamshells.)

But the story is more complicated than it appears at first and there are some questions.

Washtenaw County’s ordinance is the only such regulation in the State of Michigan.

As explained in this memo from Water Resources Commissioner Evan Pratt to the Board of Commissioners’ Ways and Means Committee last May, the existence of Senate Bill 853 was already understood at the time the BOC passed the ordinance.

Senate Bill 853, currently pending in Michigan legislature, seeks to withhold local government authority to regulate “auxiliary containers,” a category within which carryout grocery bags falls. If SB853 is adopted by the State of Michigan, it would act to preempt a County bag ordinance. Washtenaw County seeks to retain its local authority to regulate the material in furtherance of its duty to optimally manage solid waste within its geographic boundaries, and to increase Washtenaw County’s recycling and waste economy to full extent possible.

The motivation for adopting an ordinance in the face of a likely preemption by the State is unclear. Are we trying to make a point or hoping that it will survive to be enforced?  That expression about “seeks to retain its local authority” seems to argue the first.

In spite of most indications, the ordinance is not just about plastic bags. It also applies to paper bags.

The proposed bag ordinance is not a ban.  And it sanctions disposable paper bags just as much as plastic bags.  This although almost all the educational material about the ordinance specifies plastic bags.  The slide show on the ordinance given to the BOC in a work session is all about the hazards of plastics.  The memo that accompanied the resolution stated that it was about “a policy to combat the problems caused by excessive plastic bag waste in our community”. The resolution setting the public hearing on the ordinance mentions only plastic bags.  And yet the ordinance cracks down just as hard on paper grocery bags.

Did the Commissioners know what they were passing?

ugly-plastic-bagNow, it is hard to love plastic grocery bags. They are ugly, consume valuable unrenewable resources, are a hazard to animals, glob up machinery of recycling plants, and last longer than the human race.   They actually cost the County and other units of government money. They are difficult to recycle even when collected.  Surely no one who cares could object to banning them, and in fact this was a very popular idea.

Paper grocery bags are another matter.  Many of us reuse these bags many times or at least once. They compost. They are recyclable. They are most often made from recycled paper.  No, they are not a “zero footprint” item but just not in the same class as a plastic bag.  Besides, that is not how this ordinance was being sold.  Yet, they are being treated exactly the same as plastic bags in the ordinance.  The indication is that customers should bring reusable bags (most often cloth).

The whole enterprise has a rather unpleasant air of bait-and-switch.  Don’t like plastic bags? Fine, and also you can’t use paper bags (hidden in the fine print).

It suddenly seems to be about money.

Here’s what the ordinance does.  It imposes a ten cents fee on the consumer for each plastic OR PAPER bag used.  Of that, 8 cents goes into a new fund (the Stewardship Fund) that the County has created.  The retailer gets 2 cents, which is to be used only for enforcing the ordinance.  There are also civil infraction fines for retailers who do not cooperate.

What this does is to create a monetary incentive for the County for consumers to use plastic bags (or paper).  You rush into Meijer to buy some milk and bread.  Cashier says “it’ll cost you 10 cents per bag”.  You say, “whatever”.  Out the door.  It actually incentivizes the retailer to keep on providing these bags too.  I can’t imagine the County sending around deputies to check on the quality of their environmental education efforts. The cost to the retailer for providing plastic bags is less than for paper bags, but they get to keep the same fee.

So how effective would this have been in preventing use of plastic bags? My estimation is, not very.  If your budget is very, very tight, you might sweat those couple or five dimes.  Or you might remember to bring bags whenever you have a big shopping to do.  (As far as I can tell, no forgiveness for simply reusing old paper bags, either.  The ordinance imposes conditions on the “reusable bag” that may be used.)  Mostly, it would just be an additional cost that most consumers would pay at checkout.  And money would go to the County.

It is hard to escape the thought that this might be a way to raise revenue for the County’s solid waste endeavors as much or more than actually changing behavior on bags.  Those fees would add up.  Do you know how hard it is these days for counties to get money?  And the Washtenaw County solid waste program used to be dependent on tipping fees from the Salem Township landfill.  I don’t know how that is going these days.

By the way, I think the fees may not have passed the test of the Bolt decision.  Michigan municipalities are not supposed to impose new fees unless they are related to the delivery of a specific service.  I don’t see how this qualifies.  One of those sticky only-in-Michigan constitutional issues.

If only…

What might have worked?  There are many examples around the country.  If the County could have simply banned use of plastic bags (and it does ban some things, like smoking in workplaces), that would have achieved the stated objective more simply and effectively.  For reducing waste due to paper bags: many retailers even now give a 5 cent credit for each bag you bring in.  Depending on the market, they could increase that to 10 cents and raise their prices slightly. That is essentially the same as charging 10 cents for use of a new bag.

Good legislation should achieve its stated goal without being any more intrusive than necessary.  This did not pass the test.

Meanwhile, let’s lean back and blame it on the Republicans.  They probably deserve it.

 

 

So Where are We Now with Ann Arbor’s Deer?

Posted December 30, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: Neighborhoods, politics, Sustainability

The last three years have been the Early Period for Ann Arbor’s deer debate.  Now there is a coherent plan for deer management and a page containing historical documents on the Ann Arbor City website – quite a long story.  We posted extensively about this issue through 2015.  Those posts and other articles and resources may be found on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer.  2017 will be busy. In a special session on November 14, 2016, Council approved several resolutions to make the management plan operable.   According to the Ann Arbor News, officials are still awaiting permit approvals by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  Maps showing where a sterilization program will be conducted have also been published.

For several decades, the white-tailed deer have been appearing around the edges of the city. But as of early 2014, they became numerous enough to be real pests.  As the numbers of the animals began to intrude on more and more human lives, there was an organized effort to limit their effects on gardens, natural area vegetation and automobile crash incidents.  Their impact on parks and natural areas in Washtenaw County was recognized by the WC Parks & Recreation Commission in early 2014. In May 2014, Ann Arbor’s City Council directed the City Administrator to prepare a report on deer management in partnership with other entities.

Numbers of DVDs in Ann Arbor City between 2005 and 2015. Source: Michigan Traffic Crash Facts.

Numbers of DVCs in Ann Arbor City between 2005 and 2015. Source: Michigan Traffic Crash Facts.

As the account in the Ann Arbor Chronicle about that Council meeting indicates, one impetus to raising the problem of the increasing deer population was the slow increase in the number of deer-vehicle crash incidents.  These are reported in Michigan via a website, “Michigan Traffic Crash Facts“, whose data is from safety (law enforcement) personnel.  (There is always a delay after the end of a calendar year in publishing the totals for the previous year, so as of today’s writing we must wait for a couple of months before we know the totals for 2016.)  By 2014, DVCs in Ann Arbor had increased by 30% from the previous decade.  Last year, there was a major jump in numbers of crashes.  We’ll be watching to see if 2016’s number indicates a trend or that this was an aberration.

A single doe and her offspring over 5 years. Males are not shown.

A single doe and her offspring over 5 years. Males are not shown.

So why do we need a deer management program?  Because of their explosive reproductive capability.  As we explained in detail in our post, Deer and the Numbers Explosion, deer will increase their numbers exponentially if left unchecked.  In the early years, one only notices that there are more deer around than in the past.  Suddenly 10 deer are camping out in your backyard.  This increase in numbers has many effects on the immediate territory.

The common white trillium is used as an indicator of deer herbivory. Photo by B. Ball, courtesy of the UM Herbarium.

The common white trillium is used as an indicator of deer herbivory. Photo by B. Ball, courtesy of the UM Herbarium.

  1. Plant herbivory: Most plants (or at least their edible parts) are consumed.  This causes damage to gardens and landscapes, and natural areas where native plant communities are being maintained are severely altered. As we explained in Deer and the Flowers of the Earth, wildflowers are beautiful and a source of delight for visitors, but they are also extremely important in the survival of the entire wild community.   Plants are “foundational” in a wild ecosystem and without them, nothing lives, even the deer.  Fifth Ward councilmember Chuck Warpehoski has expressed this beautifully in his recently updated post.
  2. Deer-vehicle crashes: As we have already noted, DVCs increase with increasing population.  To date, we have not had any crashes locally where a human has been killed, but there has been considerable dollar damage to automobiles and the potential for human injury is certainly there.
  3. Lyme Disease:  Deer have a complex relationship with this disease.  They provide a blood meal for black-legged ticks, the vector for this bacterial disease, and help carry the tick into new territory.  Also, their plant herbivory often favors an understory full of Japanese barberry.  Deer don’t eat this thorny shrub and it provides an ideal habitat for the white-footed mouse, the main host for the tick.  Mice multiply under the canopy of the low shrub and help carry the tick and its bacterial rider into new territory.

Lyme disease is known as an “emerging disease” in Michigan.  It has been moving into new areas of the state. When the deer problem was first highlighted in 2014, it was thought to be a couple of counties west of Washtenaw.  Now there are recognized cases in our county.  We are all at risk.   I hope that our governments provide adequate education so that people can recognize the disease and seek immediate treatment.   Here is a good place to start.

2016_lyme_risk_map_485658_7

UPDATE:   The City of Ann Arbor has now posted an explanation of the 2017 deer management programA somewhat more easily accessed account was published by MLive. 

Here is the deer management map.  Note that some residential areas are targeted for participation in the nonlethal program. Also note that without fanfare, some UM properties have been included in the lethal culling program.

SECOND UPDATE: The University of Michigan made some of its properties available for the cull for the first time this year, eliciting some cries of anguish from the opposition.  Here is an explanation from the University Record of the program from the UM perspective.

THIRD UPDATE: On March 8, 2017, there will be a lecture program addressing the problem of deer herbivory from an experimental and data-oriented viewpoint. The two presenters are both experienced with direct testing of deer-wild flora interactions.  Jacqueline Courteau is a wildlife biologist and consultant, and Paul Muelle has been the manager of natural resources at a major park (Huron-Clinton Metroparks) through a time that culling and vegetation assessment have been practiced to maintain the parks’ resources.  Here is the full announcement about the talk.  It will be at the Matthei Botanical Gardens, 6:45 p.m. on March 8.

Same Song, Different Verse: Ann Arbor and the City Income Tax

Posted December 15, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance

Now that the Ann Arbor City Council is beginning budget discussions, they are being given information by the staff about what we know is Ann Arbor’s “structural deficit”: the proportion of the property in the city occupied by the University of Michigan, thus not in the tax base; the limitations that the Michigan Constitution imposes on cities for taxation; and the cost of maintaining and advancing city infrastructure and services, greater than the revenue available.  In the December 12, 2016 budget retreat, as reported by the Ann Arbor News, the idea of a city income tax was once more brought up for discussion.  I hope that this time, the City Council shows some courage and gives this worthwhile idea a chance.  Important note: no matter what the Council does, it will take a vote of the people to change Ann Arbor’s method of taxation.  And it is actually a choice between income tax and property tax as means to operate our city, not just a new tax.

I’m a bit weary.  This is now a thrice-told tale. I was on the committee that met for over a year beginning in 1995 and ultimately recommended a study of a city income tax.  The study, by Edward Gramlich of the UM (later of the Federal Reserve Bank) was completed and presented to Council in 1997As noted by the Ann Arbor Chronicle,  there was also a study completed in 2004.  Here is an account of the City Council discussion of a tax ballot issue in 2009, also from the Chronicle.  There is much interesting information there, including a table showing exemption amounts in various other cities.  One way to minimize the impact of an income tax on low-income residents and/or workers is to have a high personal exemption.  Note that the link to the 2009 study by Plante Moran does not work.  The City has redone its webpage and many historical links are no longer available.  Here is the 2009 study.

Here are three posts I wrote in support of a city income tax in 2011.  I was astonished when reading them to see how incredibly wonky they are.  But this is a green-eye-shades, bean-counter kind of topic.  The first tries to lay a basis for putting a proposal on the ballot.

This one lays out a lot of the details of Michigan tax policy and the way the City of Ann Arbor schedules its tax assessments and tax collections.

The final post examines in detail a study that purported to show that income tax was a less dependable means of revenue than property tax for cities.  But as I show, the figures are badly flawed and the argument falls apart.  This might be very old news, except that it has already been cited in the recent Ann Arbor News coverage.

Some things have changed.  All the figures relating to city revenues need to be updated.  The Michigan tax law has been revised.  Governor Snyder’s changes affect some aspects of city income taxes as they affect taxpayers.   If the discussion continues and looks serious, I’ll have to do some more incredibly wonky posts.  But now you have the history.

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor News reports that the city income tax is back on the agenda.   A special work session is scheduled for September 11.

 

 

 

 

 

From Drama to Melodrama: Washtenaw County and Conan Smith

Posted October 2, 2016 by varmentrout
Categories: media, politics, Regional

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

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

Conan Smith in Large Outline

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

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

Official BOC portrait of Conan Smith. Date not known.

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

Conan Smith image used in social media

Conan Smith image used in social media

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

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

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

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

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

And Then One Day It All Came Apart

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

msa-to-metro-matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

Portrait on the staff roster for Metro Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The County Presents an Alternative

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

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

A Question of Leadership Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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