After hearing more than two dozen people speak to defend three city-funded facilities facing cuts, the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission passed a resolution recommending that Mack Pool be closed earlier than proposed by city staff, and that the city use those savings to restore funding to the Leslie Science & Nature Center. PAC also is recommending a task force be formed to look at funding options for the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which the city has proposed closing permanently on July 1, 2010.
PAC will send its recommendation to city council, which in May will make the final decisions about what areas to cut in order to balance its budget.
Many of the speakers at PAC’s Tuesday afternoon meeting were passionate about the value of the places they supported, and some told poignant stories about how the Ann Arbor Senior Center, Mack Pool or Leslie Science Center touched their lives. We’ll start our report with a summary of those comments.
Ann Arbor Senior Center
City staff have proposed permanently closing the Ann Arbor Senior Center on July 1, 2010 to save $141,000 for the fiscal year 2011 budget. The savings originally reported by city staff was $141,000, but in response to query from The Chronicle, community services director for the city, Jayne Miller, indicated that for fiscal year 2010, proposed expenses are $189,862 and the revenue is forecast at $38,180 – projecting a $151,682 cost to the general fund. The center is located on Baldwin Avenue on the southeast edge of Burns Park.
Joel Levitt said he’s been an Ann Arbor taxpayer for 37 years, and that he and his wife play bridge at the senior center because they don’t play well enough to play anywhere else. There’s another reason he likes the center: “While usually I feel old, at the senior center I feel young.” He said it’s his understanding that over the years, many of the communal places in Ann Arbor, where people could gather and socialize, have been closed, and he hoped that wouldn’t happen to the center. Though many of his neighbors are out of work and can’t pay more taxes, he believes there are also many that could pay more. He suggested putting something on the city’s tax bills that would allow people to make contributions for specific uses, like the senior center. “So thanks,” Levitt concluded, “and I hope you’ll accept our energy and our money.” He received a round of applause.
Gilbert Cross, noting that despite his British accent he’d lived in Ann Arbor since 1966, said he was part of a group that was working on a plan which they call, “rather grandly,” a sustainability program for the center. They want to work over the next nine months to create a sustainable future for the center, he said. That would include cost reductions, doing market research on other senior centers, and asking residents locally what they’d like to see at the center. Referring to Levitt’s proposal, Cross said he’d been informed that some Ann Arbor residents would be willing to pay more taxes. “I would want to contact them,” he said.
Bob Snyder spoke about how the center provides a focal point for his life. As a widower and retiree, he said what makes his life interesting is going to the senior center two or three days a week for lunch, and spending an hour every afternoon reading the Ann Arbor News. “I look ahead and they’re both gone – the future looks pretty bleak.” He said the seniors he knows aren’t poor, and that he knows they’d support the center financially. Meals there, he said, are ridiculously cheap and obviously subsidized – “We joke about it!” – and he said many would be willing to pay more. The meals are well-balanced and nutritious, unlike the ones he eats by himself at home in front of the TV, which he described as “typical teenager food.” Better than the meals, he said, is the socializing he does at the center. Snyder said he occasionally goes to the senior center in Pittsfield Township, which charges dues. He wouldn’t hesitate to pay dues for the Ann Arbor center, he said. “I think a lot of other people would too.”
Al Gallup, who’s on the board for the senior center, said they’d been working on a plan to enrich the center’s programs, until two weeks ago when they learned that support was being wiped out. Now, they’re changing their approach, but he said it probably wasn’t possible for them to raise the entire $141,000 that’s being cut. He said that the center was a service, in the same way that the city’s parks were a service. He suggested that the city set a goal for fundraising, which would help focus efforts to raise money for the center.
Harlan Gilmore noted that as the population ages, more people will be needing a place like the senior center. Emily Kennedy made the point that AARP named Ann Arbor the No. 1 place to retire, and amenities like the senior center contribute to that. Several people said that the center was not just a collection of programs, but rather a community, a place where they feel welcome and at home.
Leslie Science & Nature Center
Formerly a city program, Leslie Science & Nature Center spun off as an independent nonprofit in 2007, though it still partners with the city and receives city funding. (An item on Tuesday’s PAC agenda included approval of a revised partnership agreement between the city and the center.) For fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, 2009, city staff proposed eliminating all city financial support for the center, which would have amounted to $31,500. However, the new agreement approved by PAC on Tuesday, to be sent to council for final approval, recommends city funding at $28,350 in fiscal 2010, and $25,515 in fiscal 2011.
Jeff Basch, a board member for the center, turned to the people who’d come to the meeting and asked those who supported Leslie Science Center to stand – more than a dozen people did. (Later in the meeting, a supporter of the senior center asked everyone who was a senior or who had aging parents to stand – that group was, not surprisingly, somewhat larger.) Basch said he was an environmental entrepreneur who started a wind energy firm (a startup called Accio Energy), and that he had moved here because of special places in Ann Arbor like the Leslie Science Center, where his 5- and 7-year-old children attend camp and special activities. He asked that the city look at making fair and equitable changes, but not abandon the center.
Michael Adams was one of two students who talked about their experiences at the center. A junior at Huron High School, Adams said he started as a camper in elementary school and learned how to get along with people who weren’t necessarily his friends. Over the years he attended leadership camp, became a junior counselor and then a counselor. Volunteer opportunities at the center teach kids how to be more involved in the community, he said, and to be better citizens. That might lead him to someday sit in their seats, he told commissioners, as a leader deciding the fate of places like Leslie Science Center. Another student, Ryan Shea, said he’d been going to the center since he was five. It was fun, he said, but he also learned about the environment, stewardship and responsibility – he wanted others to have the same experience.
Lisa Brush, a board member, said that not so long ago, Leslie Science Center was in the same position as the senior center, in terms of its financial dependence on the city. They realized they didn’t want to come to the city each year for money, and since they’ve spun off, they’d done a fabulous job of transitioning, she said. “Two years into it might be a little early to cut us all the way off,” she concluded.
Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes Regional Center for the National Wildlfe Federation in Ann Arbor, is also a board member for the Leslie Science Center. He said it was unusual for the NWF to sign on as a formal partner with a local entity like the center, but that they shared the same mission and passion for educating youth about the environment. When they partnered with the center, they had counted on support from the city for a reasonable period of time, he said. Without appropriate funding, programs would have to be cut, which in turn would decrease revenues even more and create a dangerous spiral. He urged the commission to restore funding.
Mack Pool is a venue for the general public and organized groups, such as master swimming and the Dawn Ducks, which swims weekdays from 7:15-8:15 a.m. The city’s proposed budget would close the pool during the summer months this year, then close it permanently in the summer of 2010 or turn it over to the Ann Arbor Public Schools, which would save the city $59,000.
Several members of the Dawn Ducks spoke, including Malloria Miller, who wore a blue Dawn Ducks sweatshirt and said it was her first time speaking at a forum like this. She said swimming helps her deal with diabetes, and is a great social outlet as well. She said her doctor told her it was good for her.
Anne Remley said her husband suffers from terrible back pain and can only find relief when swimming. She thanked PAC for all they do “to keep us ducks afloat.” Nancy Livermore said she’d been swimming with the Ducks for 20 years, enjoying the camaraderie of other swimmers. She praised an earlier speaker who had talked about the many areas of Ann Arbor that are nourishing and supportive, and said that the Dawn Ducks is a microcosm of that.
Bethany Williston spoke on behalf of the master swimmers who use Mack, and said that there’s no other pool in Ann Arbor that will serve the needs of this group. She said the University of Michigan doesn’t allow any kind of organized swim at its pools by community groups, and in fact breaks up groups that take over more than one lane. Swimming is a life-long sport, she said, and Mack serves many ages well.
Prior to the public commentary, Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, gave a report on the city’s overall budget, as well as the impact of proposed cuts and revenue increases on the parks budget. [See previous Chronicle coverage of the city's budget: the April 13 council working session, April 14 town hall meeting, and the April 20 council meeting.] Among the changes for parks include an increase in shelter fees and plans to eliminate contracted services for mowing.
Before discussing the budget, PAC members also approved a detailed, revised agreement between the city and Leslie Science Center. [The full text of the agreement is in the commission packet.] Smith said the main points were 1) extending the terms of the agreement from 10 to 20 years, and 2) providing opportunities for sponsorships, which he said was important in cultivating the center’s donor base. Sam Offen, a commissioner who is also on the board of Leslie Science Center, said the board was in full support of the new agreement. PAC unanimously approved the agreement, which will now be forwarded to city council.
PAC also approved several fee increases as well as new fees and programs. They include:
- Increasing shelter fees by 10%. For example, an all-day weekend or holiday rental of a shelter for residents would cost $137, up from $125.
- Setting weekend rates for shelter rental fees on Fridays. That day currently is billed at weekday rates. The change is in line with policies for county parks and metroparks, Smith said.
- Starting a two-week water polo camp at Buhr Park Pool ($65 for residents) and a teen camp at Argo Park ($210 for residents).
- Increasing rent for Farmers Market stalls by 20%. Renting one stall for the year would go from $250 to $300, for example. Smith noted that the last fee increase was in 2004, and rates are still lower than other markets in the area.
PAC member Brigit Macomber, who leads the group’s budget & finance committee, presented a draft resolution addressing fiscal year 2010 only, which begins July 1, 2009. (The budget for FY 2011 is characterized as a “plan” at this point.) She said that overall, the committee’s reaction to the 2010 budget was the same as the people who spoke at public commentary. They wanted to see funding for Leslie Science Center reinstated, at least in part. They felt that since the senior center wasn’t slated to close until FY2011, there was still time to work on a solution to that.
Macomber asked about alternatives to Mack Pool. Dan McGuire, Mack Pool facility supervisor, told PAC that when the pool was closed in 2002 for renovations, they were able to find other pools within the city for the various groups that swam at Mack, and he was confident they could do the same again. He noted that there were some differences – the Dawn Ducks, for example, previously relocated to the old YMCA pool. That might not be an option at the new Y, he said. Smith noted that the Y has scholarships for people who can’t pay dues, and that it has a policy of not turning people away if they can’t pay. Bethany Williston, who teaches the masters swimmers and who’d spoken during public commentary, said they had relocated in 2002 to UM’s Canham pool, but that she didn’t think that was an option anymore.
Smith said he’d been to both Mack Pool and the senior center to talk to people there about the proposed changes. He said they are working to accommodate Mack Pool users, and that there’s already both an advisory board and a neighborhood group working on long-term plans for the senior center. Commissioner Tim Berla said he thought the city should get out of the pool business, but that the senior center and Leslie Science Center were different – in those cases, the facilities are important.
The commissioners had an extended discussion about mowing in the parks. Macomber asked why changes to the mowing cycle weren’t among the list of budget recommendations. Smith said that they’d heard from the public that shorter mowing cycles were important, and that’s why it wasn’t included. Matt Warba of field operations told PAC that they now mowed on a 14-day cycle, compared to a 28- to 30-day cycle prior to passage of the parks millage in 2006.
Karla Henderson, manager of park operations, said that they’d actually put everything on the table – including the mowing cycle – but when they took their list of possible cuts to the city council’s budget & labor committee, certain things were immediately removed from consideration by that group. Extending the mowing cycle was one of those, she said, saying council members cited the commitment the city had made to the community when asking for the parks millage. [The budget & labor committee includes council members Leigh Greden, Marcia Higgins, Stephen Rapundalo, Margie Teall and mayor John Hieftje.]
Linda Berauer, PAC’s chair, said the economic situation was quite different now, and that the public might feel differently too. Warba said they have some flexibility in their seasonal workers, and would save about $65,000 if they eliminated those jobs – but if the parks aren’t mowed fairly frequently, they’ll look start to look unsightly, he said.
Commissioner John Lawter proposed that they decrease the number of mowing hours by taking some sections of the park out of the mowing cycle completely, such as steep hillsides and swampy areas. There was a bit of back-and-forth with Warba about this, with Warba contending they’d already done this to a significant degree, and Lawter saying he didn’t think they’d looked at it hard enough.
Smith said that last year, he didn’t receive a single call from the public complaining about the condition of the grass in city parks. He said there’s a huge value in the 14-day cycle, and noted that weather can play a factor as well – if it’s dry, like last year, they could probably mow a little less often. But a wet summer would cause grass to grow more quickly. It’s unpredictable, he said.
Warba cited security issues if the grass and weeds got too tall, and said they’d also had issues with people dumping trash in areas that were unmowed. Lawter said he wasn’t proposing that they never mow, but that they find areas to mow only a couple of times a year, while using resources to mow more frequently the areas that are used by the public, like fields for playing soccer. Lawter said he was actually supporting Warba regarding the shorter mowing cycle, but he thought they could save money by eliminating part of the sections to be mowed. Warba joked that it was a small victory, but he’d take it.
In discussions of the draft budget resolution, the commissioners agreed to delete a clause that called for more clarity about what could and could not be funded from the parks millage. They generally agreed it was worth discussing, but that it didn’t fit well into this resolution. Macomber said the language of the millage was, in hindsight, too vague and that it “opened a barn door” in terms of what can be funded by the millage, versus what is paid for out of the general fund. Berla said those accounting issues were important, but that he wouldn’t support the resolution if that clause were included, because it wasn’t the right place for it.
In discussing the resolution’s clause to close Mack Pool on July 1, Berla said he was concerned that it didn’t give them time to find alternatives or discuss the situation with Ann Arbor Public Schools. Scott Rosencrans said he understood why people were attached to the pool, noting that it was difficult when this kind of quality-of-life issue was on the table. However, he said that he thought there was adequate remedy to address the users of Mack Pool if it were closed, while he didn’t see a similar remedy for Leslie Science Center.
Closing Mack early would result in savings of $43,000 – about $15,000 more than Leslie Science Center needs for FY2010, Macomber said. Could that extra money be used to keep Mack open another month or two? Smith said he wouldn’t recommend it, since they’d have to drain the pool to close it for the summer, then refill it, then drain it again. Macomber then asked if it would be practical to keep it open through September. Dan McGuire said that in August, the main users were the Dawn Ducks, and that it wasn’t cost effective to do the chemical treatments, run the pump and heat it for so few users. (The pool is typically closed in August for maintenance.) Macomber suggested the additional funds might be used to subsidize memberships at the YMCA for people who are displaced from Mack.
PAC members agreed to insert this clause:
Resolved, that PAC recommends that staff will work with representatives of the displaced Mack Pool user groups, including the Dawn Ducks, Masters Swimmers, and Seniors, to find alternative swimming facilities for their activities.
Christopher Taylor, one of the council’s representatives on PAC, reiterated that the $43,000 saved by closing Mack will cover FY2010 for the Leslie Science Center, but not all of FY2011. Berauer asked how it would go over at council if they recommended funding the rest from the general fund reserve. Taylor said council would be looking for alternative recommendations.
Smith suggested directing his staff to look for an additional $10,000 in savings from the 2011 budget plan. A bit later, he said he realized where they could find those funds: If Mack closes on July 1, 2009, that will decrease the number of hours for a seasonal assistant supervisor, at a savings of about $12,000 for FY2010.
The clause related to closing Mack to fund Leslie Science Center reads:
Resolved, that PAC recommends that, for FY 2010 and FY 2011, the Leslie Science Nature Center (LSNC) be funded in the amount suggested in the “Amended and Restated Partnership Agreement Between the City of Ann Arbor and Leslie Science and Nature Center” dated May 4, 2009, in order to preserve the unique and critically important environmental education services to City residents and residents in surrounding areas. PAC recommends that this be paid for by closing the city-owned swimming pool at the Mack Open School at the beginning of FY 2010 (July 1, 2009) in consideration of the availability of swimming facilities in that general area that have the capacity to accommodate those residents who currently use Mack Pool for Parks and Recreation programs. PAC further recommends that the facility be offered to the Ann Arbor Public Schools for either purchase, lease, or, if feasible, a joint operations agreement, in order to allow the schools to continue to provide the swimming programs they currently offer at Mack Pool.
Finally, PAC heard from Pam Simmons, facility supervisor for the senior center, who said they had several vacant position on the center’s board, but that she expected there’d now be plenty of volunteers to fill those slots. A task force is also working on a five to 10-year strategic plan for the center, which is in its early stages. She said they were writing a grant that would fund a strategic planner to help with this process.
The clause related to the senior center reads:
Resolved that PAC recommends that a task force be formed, to include interested seniors in the community and members of the Senior Center Advisory Board, to study the impact of closing the Ann Arbor Senior Center in the second year of the budget; to document adequate alternative services, if any, for the approximately 500 seniors currently using the facility; and to develop a proposal for alternative funding sources to allow for the sustainability of the current Ann Arbor Senior Center. PAC requests that the task force submit its report to PAC by December 1, 2009 so that PAC may review and forward a recommendation to City Council by January 1, 2010, so that Council can advise park staff and users of the Senior Center of their final decision regarding the disposition of the Senior Center well before the proposed closing date of July 1, 2010.
Three and a half hours into its meeting, PAC approved the entire resolution as amended, with Berla dissenting.
Taylor told PAC members it was a solid recommendation that’s helpful to council. ”This is a funded mandate,” he said, “and that’s great.”
Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission members present: Linda Berauer (chair), John Lawter (vice chair), Brigit Macomber, Samuel Offen, David Barrett, Scott Rosencrans, Julie Grand, Tim Berla (representing the Recreation Advisory Commission), Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor (ex-officio members representing city council).