FY 2015 Budget Preview: Cops, Trees

City administrator Steve Powers on the city's chief financial officer: "Tom [Crawford] is like the Lorax for the numbers. He speaks for our city's financial condition."

Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers’ proposed general fund budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts on July 1, 2014, will approach $100 million.

Left: Stumps (black) and vacant sites (gray). Right: Maples (purple), Crabapples (red) and oaks (blue).  Maps by The Chronicle from the city's 2009 tree inventory.

Left: Stumps (black) and vacant sites (gray). Right: Maples (purple), Crabapples (red) and oaks (blue). Maps by The Chronicle from the city’s 2009 tree inventory. The city administrator’s proposed FY 2015 budget includes a one-time $1 million expense to address the backlog in pruning and removal of trees that are dead or in poor condition.

Funded as part of the FY 2015 budget are five new full-time employees, four of them in public safety: one additional firefighter; three additional police officers; and an additional rental housing inspection position. The additional positions were all presented as possibilities at a Feb. 10 city council work session. The additional police positions will bring the total number of sworn officers in the city of Ann Arbor to 122.

Not previewed as a possibility at that February work session is a one-time expense of $1 million to address a backlog in critical pruning and removal of trees that are in the public right of way. The allocation comes in the context of the development of an urban forestry management plan.

The $1 million one-time expense for street trees brings the total of non-recurring expenses in the FY 2015 general fund budget to about $2.8 million. Other one-time expenses budgeted for FY 2015 are: $80,000 to cover transitional costs for art administration; $606,000 for repairs and maintenance of the city’s hydroelectric dams; $100,000 for consultants to assist with completing the downtown zoning amendments and sign inventory; $300,000 for demolition of city-owned buildings at 415 W. Washington; $200,000 for a corridor studies; and $209,000 in operational support for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission’s (AAHC) transition to a rental assistance demonstration program.

The housing commission also accounts for the bulk of a $13.8 million (17%) increase in general fund recurring expenditures compared to last year. That’s due to an accounting change that recognizes 22 AAHC employees as city employees. By recognizing revenue and expenses for AAHC employee compensation through the general fund, the AAHC can avoid the negative impact of a new accounting rule. The GASB 68 rule requires unfunded pension fund liabilities to be recorded in the financial statements for proprietary funds (like the AAHC) but not for governmental funds like the general fund.

Also included in the FY 2015 budget proposal is about $3,000 for a pilot program for closed captioning of public meeting broadcasts on the Community Television Network. According to city of Ann Arbor communications manager Lisa Wondrash, the cable commission meeting recommended approval of the money at its Feb. 25 meeting, and she notified the commission on disability issues about the pilot on April 16. The pilot will begin with meetings of the city’s commission on disability issues, with a goal of testing out a closed captioning system in July this year.

The $98.1 million of general fund expenditures in FY 2015 will include $95.3 million in recurring expenditures and $2.8 million in one-time expenses.

When the general fund is added in with the rest of the city’s budget – the street fund, water fund, sewer fund, parking fund, and the like – the total expenses proposed for FY 2015 come to $334,434,101.

Powers will present the proposed budget to the city council at its April 21 meeting, the second meeting this month. The council will need to adopt the budget, with any changes, at its May 19 meeting, also the second meeting of the month. That timeframe is specified in the city charter.

The Chronicle sat down with Powers and city CFO Tom Crawford for a conversation about the FY 2015 budget. That conversation is presented here as a Q&A. Within the context of the budget, other issues discussed include state funding, long-term planning, affordable housing, animal control, and fund balance policy. [.pdf of April 21, 2014 pre-dated memo from Powers to city council] [Full Story]

Column: Chasing the Brass Hoop

As Michigan hoops' stars Stauskas and Robinson head to NBA draft, let's hope their choice is driven by more than the lure of lucrative contracts – because that won't buy them happiness
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Nik Stauskas grew up in Mississauga, Ontario – a Toronto suburb better known for its neighborhood hockey games than for a Lithuanian kid spending thousands of hours shooting on his parents’ backyard hoop.

This year, Stauskas was named Big Ten player of the year. It worked.

Glenn Robinson III took a completely different route to the NBA: His father is Glenn Robinson Jr., also known as “The Big Dog,” and was the first pick in the NBA draft twenty years ago. If Stauskas had to work to get attention, Robinson had to work to avoid it.

They became strong candidates to leave college early for the NBA draft, which is their right. This week, both decided to make that jump, and file for the draft this spring. Stauskas is projected to be a high first-round pick, and Robinson not too far behind.

Good for them. They’re both nice guys, hard workers, and serious students. If a violinist at Michigan was recruited by the London Symphony Orchestra, no one would begrudge her for jumping. I might have done it myself.

But I do object to the pundits and fans claiming if the NBA dangles millions of dollars in front of a college player, “he has no choice. He has to go.”

This bit of conventional wisdom is based on one gigantic assumption: that the pursuit of money eclipses all other considerations, combined. [Full Story]

Column: Stop Reading the City’s Website

Maybe navigating is not the best way to find what you're looking for.

Among the incidental, minor topics touched on at the April 16, 2014 mayoral candidate forum was the city of Ann Arbor’s website. Praise was not heaped upon it – as a2gov.org was described by one candidate (Sabra Briere) as “a terrible website to try to tell anybody how to navigate.”  That’s not an uncommon view.

How to search just one site with Google and reduce frustration when you can find information by navigating to it.

How to search just the city of Ann Arbor’s website with Google and reduce frustration when you are unable to find information by navigating to it.

So stop navigating it. Stop “reading” it.

Start searching it – and you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.

That’s not to defend the user interface or the look and feel of a2gov.org. Maybe it is terrible. I don’t have a strong opinion on that. It’s worth noting that the city council approved a contract with Keystone Media ($26,900) at its Oct. 21, 2013 meeting to redesign the basic templates for the city’s website.

I’m not sure if that work has yet been implemented – as I just don’t pay that much attention to the look and feel or the navigational features of the city’s website. That’s despite the fact that part of The Job is to look stuff up – quite frequently on the city’s website. And mostly I find what I’m looking for pretty quickly.

So my point in writing is to share one simple technique I use dozens of times a day to do The Job. I use Google search – but constrain the search to just the one website where I’m looking. [Full Story]

Brigham Home To Get Upgrade, Expansion

Ann Arbor planning commissioners allow Delta Gamma sorority to use 515 Oxford as annex; site plan preserves most of original mid-20th century structure, expands in back

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 15, 2014): A revised version of renovations and expansion at 515 Oxford – a house originally designed by architect George Brigham in 1940 – will move to the city council for approval, following action by the city’s planning commissioners.

Robb Burroughs, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Robb Burroughs, architect for renovations at 515 Oxford. (Photos by the writer.)

At a meeting with a third of the nine-member commission absent, the group voted unanimously to grant a special exception use that will allow the building to be used by the Delta Gamma sorority. It will be limited to 20 residents, and will be used as an annex to the main sorority house down the street.

The commission also recommended approval of a “planned project” site plan, which will now be forwarded to city council for consideration. Unlike a preliminary version of the project – when the architect had been unaware of the building’s historical significance – the current proposal works to preserve the integrity of the original design. The new design keeps the existing structure, but nearly doubles the square footage with an addition in the back.

During deliberations, some commissioners mentioned the relatively large amount of correspondence they’d received about this project, including letters from several preservation groups – a2modern, Detroit Area Art Deco Society, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Board, and the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission. The house is not located in an historic district, and is not protected by any other historic designation.

City planner Jill Thacher, who serves as support staff for the city’s historic district commission, said she appreciated that the renovations are sensitive to the history of the structure, keeping the front design in tact and minimizing the overall visual impact of the rear addition.

This was the only major agenda item in a relatively brief meeting that lasted about an hour. The commission’s next regular meeting is on May 6 and will be held at the county administration building at 220 N. Main. The second floor of city hall, where the commission’s meetings are typically held, will be used by election staff for the May 6 transit millage vote.

Before then, the commission will hold a retreat on April 29 starting at 3 p.m. at the NEW Center, 1100 N. Main. It will likely last until about 8:30 p.m. and will include a walking tour of the area. [Full Story]

Town Hall: Four Mayoral Candidates

| On April 16, 2014 a town hall forum took place for candidates in the Ann Arbor Democratic primary race. The event was hosted at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy as part of a class taught by the current mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje. He announced last year that he would not be seeking re-election. That opened the field to Sabra Briere, Sally Petersen, Stephen Kunselman, and Christopher Taylor. All four are sitting city council members. [Full Story]

Homeless Issues Emerge on County Agenda

| At its April 2, 2014 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners discussed short-term needs and long-term strategy for dealing with homelessness. They were briefed on the 2013 audit, and gave initial approval to a two-year pricing proposal for police services. The board took final action to add autism coverage as a health benefit for employees, and moved forward a brownfield redevelopment plan for the Thompson Block in Ypsilanti. Action on a road commission resolution was postponed until May 7. [Full Story]

Sustainability Action Plan Takes Shape

| Continuing a process that began more than four years ago, members of Ann Arbor's planning and energy commissions received an overview of the draft sustainability action plan and gave feedback toward finalizing the document. The joint working session, held on April 8, 2014, was led by the city's sustainability associate, Jamie Kidwell. [Full Story]

Column: Hank Aaron’s Impressive Run

| This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of baseball’s signature moments: Hank Aaron hitting his record 715th home run, to surpass Babe Ruth’s 39-year old record. But to appreciate how special that was, columnist John U. Bacon says you have to understand who Hank Aaron is – and what he faced. [Full Story]

Column: Ann Arbor’s Dumb Old Charter

| Ann Arbor Chronicle editor Dave Askins calls for the city council to take the steps necessary to establish a commission to review the six decade old city charter – which in part refers to city offices that no longer exist. Prompting Askins to write is a current dispute over the candidacy of Bob Dascola for Ward 3 city council. The city clerk as informed him that he doesn't meet city charter requirements on eligibility to serve as a councilmember. [Full Story]

Park Commissioners Question Council Action

| The main discussion at the March 18, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission focused on implications from city council action regarding the Library Lane site – the surface of an underground parking garage. The council has voted to reserve part of that site as a public urban park, but PAC's role in developing it is unclear. Commissioners also were briefed about volunteer efforts in the parks system, and voted to recommend applying for a grant to improve the trail system at Gallup Park. [Full Story]

April 7, 2014: Council Live Updates

| The Ann Arbor city council's April 7 agenda features two significant items of old business: a first reading of an ordinance that would regulate outdoor smoking in certain locations; and an allocation of funds for the work of a pedestrian safety and access task force. Pedestrian issues form one of the main themes of the meeting agenda, as some other items are also related to pedestrian infrastructure. Another significant theme is land-use issues. [Full Story]

In It For The Money: Presidential Stinkburger

| For this month's "In in It for the Money" column David Erik Nelson obtained press credentials for U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Ann Arbor on April 2, 2014. He showed up and wrote about what he saw there. "You can see it in the video, a hint of it, but there in the room, you could feel the antic energy gathering. Even from 65 feet away, standing behind the crowd, I could feel a dad joke coming. It was like the portentous pressure front that proceeds a tornado; my ears popped, wasps went nuts, squirrels fled, dogs barked at locked doors." [Full Story]

DDA: Transit, Housing, Parking

| At its April 2, 2014 meeting, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board approved about $1.2 million in grants. A $674,264 grant will support the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s getDowntown program for another year. A $600,000 grant to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission will be invested in capital improvements to two properties in or near the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax capture district: Baker Commons and Miller Manor. In other action, the board approved a policy defining "community benefit" in the context of the removal of on-street metered spaces. [Full Story]

Sunday Funnies: Bezonki

| It's April – and springtime for Bezonki, who awakes rather fitfully from a deep winter slumber. Will fresh flowers and a newborn chick break the sleeping spell? Or will it take more drastic measures – like a worldwide intervention and jumper cables? With Bezonki, no one can be quite sure. [Full Story]

Planning Agenda: Art, Eats, Drive-Thrus

| At their April 1, 2014 meeting, Ann Arbor planning commissioners were briefed about proposed artwork on the East Stadium bridge. They also recommended approval of the site plan for a new Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Ann Arbor, and voted to recommend ordinance changes related to drive-thru businesses. [Full Story]

Column: Reforming College Football

| In the wake of the National Labor Relations Board's decision to grant Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, columnist John U. Bacon examines the possible impact. He argues that the NCAA, leagues and all universities should be pushing for reforms on their own, including health care for injuries sustained while playing, paying for the players' entire education, and ending bonuses for coaches and administrators that are tied to players' achievements. [Full Story]

April 7, 2014: City Council Meeting Preview

| The council's April 7 agenda features two significant items of old business: a first reading of an ordinance that would regulate outdoor smoking in certain locations; and an allocation of funds for the work of a pedestrian safety and access task force. Pedestrian issues form one of the main themes of the meeting agenda, as some other items are also related to pedestrian infrastructure. Another significant theme is land-use issues. [Full Story]

In the Archives: When The Press Fed Us

| In this month's "In the Archives" column Laura Bien compares the loss of the Ypsilanti Courier as a stand-alone local paper for Ypsilanti to "homeopathic dilution." She then goes on to describe how the full-strength Ypsilanti Press in 1931 helped organize an effort to feed hungry Ypsilantians. [Full Story]

Old Y Lot: 2 More Years of Surface Parking?

| Starting March 30, the city-owned 87-space surface parking lot at Fifth and William streets in downtown Ann Arbor (aka the former Y lot) might sit unused for any purpose for a year or longer. For the parcel to remain in use as a part of the city's public parking system, the pending purchaser of the property, Dennis Dahlmann, would need to reach an agreement on a leasing arrangement with Ann Arbor's Downtown Development Authority. A March 26 meeting of the DDA's operations committee indicated a lack of enthusiasm by the DDA for reaching an agreement. [Full Story]

County Board Handles Budget, Policy Items

| Budget and finance issues were the focus of several items at the March 19, 2014 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, including a report that the county saw a $3.92 million surplus for its general fund in 2013. Commissioners authorized the hiring of a contract employee who will support budget-related work this year, and got an update from their Lansing lobbyist, Kirk Profit, about how state action might impact future budgets. The board also appointed Bill McFarlane to the road commission, gave initial approval to provide autism coverage as an employee health benefit, and passed a resolution to oppose a mining operation in Lyndon Township, where the county parks system owns land. [Full Story]

Planning Group Gives Advice to Council, UM

| At its March 18, 2014 meeting, the Ann Arbor planning commission weighed in with advice on the use of two publicly owned sites: the city-owned Library Lane in downtown Ann Arbor, and the former Edwards Brothers property on South State that's being bought by the University of Michigan. Commissioners also recommended approval of three other projects: A renovated Shell station and new drive-thru restaurant at State and Eisenhower; an expansion to an office on Collingwood, near West Stadium Boulevard; and an easement related to a new Belle Tire at 590 W. Ellsworth. [Full Story]

Lawsuit Now Filed on Dascola Candidacy

| Even though Bob Dascola has more than the required 100 signatures to stand for election to represent Ward 3 on the city council, the Ann Arbor city clerk has informed Dascola that he does not meet the city charter requirements for eligibility. So on March 28, 2014 Dascola filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Michigan's U.S. District Court to assert his right to compete in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary election. He's relying on two federal court cases from the early 1970s that struck down each of two different Ann Arbor city charter eligibility requirements for candidates. [Full Story]

Committee Meeting: Why a Police Presence?

| Ann Arbor police were present at a March 20, 2014 meeting of a citizens advisory committee (CAC), created in conjunction with Ann Arbor's sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation study (SSWWES). The background to that meeting included the removal of one of the committee members the day before the meeting. Also a part of the context was a lawsuit filed earlier in the month challenging the legal basis of the city's footing drain disconnection program. This article includes responses from city administrator Steve Powers to questions about the police presence. [Full Story]

Column: Michigan Stadium’s Big Open House

| Michigan Stadium is the front porch for one of the world's great universities, writes columnist John U. Bacon. When you walk through the front gates, no one should care – and most don’t – about your age or income, or your race, religion or creed. Most don’t even care if you went to school there. They care about one thing: Can you sing “The Victors”? If you know when to throw your fist in the air, you’re in. [Full Story]

Column: When Lawyers Fool with FOIA

| Two weeks ago, the city of Ann Arbor took a deliberate step to remove a document that had been publicly available on its website for nearly half a decade. In this column, Chronicle editor Dave Askins explains why: Allegedly, that document contains information that – if it were disclosed – would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone's privacy. Never mind the fact that the context of the document itself makes clear that the information in question is clearly and deliberately intended to be publicly available. [Full Story]

In it for the Money: Your Public Library

| In this month's "In it for the Money" column, David Erik Nelson writes a love note to the local library. The column lays out how the taxes he pays to support the Ann Arbor District Library work out to give him a ten-fold return on that investment. He interviewed associate director Eli Neiburger for the column, who's quoted as follows: "The library is very unique among taxing entities, in that you pay a flat fee up front, and then the value you receive from it is in direct proportion to how much you choose to use it, with no additional cost required." [Full Story]

County Parks Commission Gives Trail Grants

| At its March 11, 2014 meeting, the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission allocated $600,000 in grants to local municipalities for trail projects, and authorized applying for state funds to develop Staebler Farm for recreational use. Commissioners were updated on plans for a recreation center in Ypsilanti, and during public commentary heard concerns about deer overpopulation. Some commissioners fear that action to handle that issue could affect a millage renewal that's expected to be on the November 2014 ballot. [Full Story]

Column: City Council as Entertainment

| In this column, Chronicle editor Dave Askins suggests an approach to making Ann Arbor city council meetings more entertaining. The suggestion entails making textual amendments to resolutions and ordinances visible to the public in real time. The proposal is based on a freely available tool called WriteURL, which requires no user registration or management of passwords. [Full Story]

AirRide OK’d, State Funding Reviewed

| At its March 20, 2014 meeting, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board extended a contract with Michigan Flyer that will provide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. For the third year of the agreement, the not-to-exceed amount is $170,000. The board also got an update on statewide transportation issues from the Michigan Public Transit Association. One highlight is the idea that the poor road conditions resulting from the harsh winter could be a rallying point for additional transportation funding generally – which by state formula would also generate more money for public transportation. [Full Story]

Library Board Weighs Urban Park, Survey

| On a 6-1 vote at its March 17, 2014 meeting, the Ann Arbor District Library board asked the city council to reject designating a portion of the city-owned Library Lane site – which is adjacent to the downtown library – as a public park or plaza at this time. Nancy Kaplan cast the lone dissenting vote. The board also approved an agreement to allow the bike share program ArborBike to locate a bike station on AADL's downtown property, and reviewed results from an EPIC-MRA survey of residents regarding perceptions of AADL. [Full Story]

Column: Michigan-MSU Rivalry Recharges

| Columnist John U. Bacon writes that the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have elevated basketball in the state of Michigan – and with it, the rivalry between them. And with John Beilein and Tom Izzo at the helms, they’ve done it the right way, too. [Full Story]

County Board Briefed on Transit Tax

| Two months before voters weigh in on a public transit millage proposal, staff with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority briefed Washtenaw County commissioners about the initiative at a March 6, 2014 working session, and answered a wide range of questions. The proposal – for an 0.7 mill tax to pay for expanded transit services – would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. [Full Story]

March 17, 2014: Council Live Updates

| The council's March 17, 2014 meeting features three items related to the future development of the surface of the Library Lane underground parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor: (1) a resolution reserving part of the surface of the structure for a publicly owned urban park; (2) a resolution that moves towards hiring a brokerage service for selling development rights to the surface; (3) a resolution that waives attorney-client privilege on a memo from the city's outside bond counsel. This agenda preview includes a detailed run down of those and other items. [Full Story]

Dascola to Assert Right to Run in Ward 3

| On March 12, 2014, Bob Dascola took out petitions to run in the Ward 3 city council Democratic primary. He was subsequently notified by the city clerk that he was ineligible to run, based on a city charter provision that imposes requirements for residency and for voter registration – for a year prior to taking office. But both requirements were the subject of lawsuits in the early 1970s that so each of those requirements struck down as unconstitutional. Local attorney Tom Wieder is representing Dascola, and is prepared to file a lawsuit if the city does not yield to friendly persuasion. [Full Story]