Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (May 17, 2009): At its Sunday night caucus, city council heard from several residents, many of them opposed to the closing of the senior center in FY 2011. They also heard from the chair of the city’s market advisory commission, expressing that body’s opposition to proposed fee increases for farmers market stall rental. Opposition to the plan to introduce parking meters in residential areas close to the downtown was also well represented.
Also related to parking, the author of a recent letter from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which raised the possibility of an environmental lawsuit based on the planned underground parking structure, came to caucus to respond to any questions councilmembers might have. And the developer for City Apartments, a residential and parking project approved for the First and Washington site, attended caucus to ask for an extension to the option agreement.
In the course of the evening’s conversation, council heard again the criticism from a resident that the focus on smaller budget items costing as little as $7,000 distracted from the focus on the bigger picture.
Councilmembers had no issues among themselves they wanted to discuss publicly at caucus.
Several people spoke in support of the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which is to be closed in summer 2011 according to the current budget plan. After one woman had said her piece calling upon council to replace the current shabby facility with new construction similar to the senior center in Plymouth, she got no substantive response from councilmembers. That led her to express a certain amount of apparent frustration: “I take it there are no answers?”
In the last several weeks since the budget proposal for FY 2010 was announced, several speakers at public forums have made reference to the aging population as an argument for maintaining the senior center. At caucus Sunday night that generalization was given quantitative form. A former demographic forecaster for SEMCOG appeared before caucus to walk councilmembers through an analysis of the 2035 forecast for Ann Arbor [SEMCOG 2035 Forecast for Ann Arbor]. He noted that the forecast for total population in Ann Arbor was essentially stable from 2005 through 2035. In 2005 the total population of Ann Arbor was 113,275 with a projection of 115,218 people in 2035. In absolute numbers that’s a 1,943 gain or 1.7%.
But it wasn’t the essentially flat projections for total population that were the focus of the discussion. He asked council to reflect on the breakdown of that total by age. Every age bracket under the age of 65 showed projected decreases from 2005-2035 ranging from 11% to 20%. The one category showing a robust increase was that of age 65 and over. That population is expected to grow from 10,050 in 2005 to 15,209 in 2035. He compared the rising number of seniors to a rising river. If the river is rising, it doesn’t make sense to lower the dike, he said.
One woman who spoke in support of the senior center is a relatively new resident in Ann Arbor who moved here in 2007 from Rockville, Md. She reported that she paid more taxes for a two-bedroom house here in Ann Arbor than she did for a four-bedroom house in Rockville and had received more services in Rockville. Something she got in Rockville was a senior center, she said. Part of the reason she moved to Ann Arbor was that it appeared to have all the ingredients, including a senior center. She urged council to really think about the aging population. “Is there a director of elderly affairs?” she asked. She also wanted to know if there was someone looking at ways to make the senior center more viable.
Mayor John Hieftje, responding to the support expressed for a senior center, said that the city was planning something like a committee or a task force to look at ways to keep it open. He said that after the budget for 2010 is adopted, council would begin to look at a way forward. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) declared, “The door hasn’t been closed on the senior center.”
During caucus, The Chronicle attempted to elicit from council members what the status of the FY 2011 budget planning doccument was.
A bit of background. Council will be voting Monday night, May 18, just on the formal budget for FY 2010. The plan that has been presented by the administration for FY 2011 will not be addressed in the budget resolution they pass on Monday – assuming they finish their work that evening. If council fails to pass a resolution, the budget proposed by the city administrator would, per city charter, automatically be adopted.
The city of Ann Arbor budgets in two-year cycles. It’s worth clarifying that the two-year chunks of the city’s budget process don’t overlap. That is, one could imagine a process that every year would provide a budget plus a plan for the next year. That’s not the case for the city’s budget.
So every two years, a budget plus a plan for the following year is presented to council. The council then adopts the first-year budget. In the following year, the budget proposed is based on the plan already outlined. After the caucus meeting, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) told The Chronicle that based on her experience dealing with adoption of the budget for FY 2009 – which was planned at the same time the FY 2008 budget proposal was made – very little discussion took place for the second year of a two-year cycle. That was Briere’s first year on council, thus she did not deliberate on the FY 2008 budget.
What The Chronicle wanted to know was: What is the formal status of the planning document for the second year of the budget cycle? Why that question? The FY 2011 plan calls for the elimination of the senior center. The senior center would have been proposed for closing in fiscal 2010, but once a decision is made to close the facility, it would take about a year to transition the seniors who use the facility to other options. This has been explained by the city’s director of community services, Jayne Miller, at multiple public meetings.
So if the idea is to use the rest of the summer and fall of 2009 for task-forcing and to come to a final decision in the spring of 2010, implicit in the strategy is a decision not to close the center in FY 2011 – because of the year it would take for the transition of center users. A decision made in spring 2010 to close the center would mean a closure in FY 2012. Given that the budget planning document for FY 2011 specifies closure of the senior center, the intention to task-force and study the issue for as long as a year reflects a deviation from that budget planning document. Our more specific question then, was: Would there be any amendment undertaken by city staff or council to the budget planning document?
Higgins maintained that no one had said there was a need for a one-year transition, despite the fact that Miller has given this characterization at multiple public meetings. Briere clarified that point for Higgins. Then, in summarizing the nature of The Chronicle’s questions for a resident across the chambers, Higgins characterized what we said as suggesting that we wanted council to make a decision now. In fact, our point is that there’s an implicit decision being made now to keep the senior center open until FY 2012 – unless by “study and task force” the council means “transition to closure.” And that could be clarified with an amendment to the plan – perhaps through council direction to staff to take the center’s closure off the table for FY 2011.
Commentary from other councilmembers on the possible revision to the budget plannng document for FY 2011 seemed not to recognize the possibility of revising that document at this time, instead focusing on the fact that they would not adopt the FY 2011 budget until this time next year. The answer to the question seemed to be: No revision to the budget planning document for FY 2011 will take place.
Noah Hall, who wrote a notification letter on behalf of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit alerting city council to a possible lawsuit about the underground parking structure, appeared at caucus to make himself available for an open dialogue. He stressed that his goal was not just to get the situation resolved but to try to take advantage of a missed opportunity to demonstrate environmental leadership on Ann Arbor’s part. Hall mentioned the upcoming federal cap-and-trade bill, which calls for a 17% reduction in CO2 emissions by the year 2020, with respect to which the underground garage represented a possible financial liability. He said that his group was asking for the city to engage in a reason-based process to address questions. Examples of such a questions: To what extent would the proposed underground parking structure increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT)? Would the new parking structure undermine the city’s own goals or the federal goals to be introduced in the cap-and-trade legislation? In light of the major investment being made by the city, he said, the concern by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is that the investment is not consistent with the direction coming from Washington D.C. In response to his invitation to questions, councilmembers had none.
Ray Detter, who chairs the downtown citizens advisory commission, was also at caucus to discuss parking, but not in garages. He was there to address the proposed installation of parking meters in residential neighborhoods. Parking meters were equivalent to designating an area as commercial, Detter said. Detter agreed with Hall, in saying that parking has something to do with the bigger picture. The city had to examine its need for parking, Detter said. It shouldn’t be based on the need for money.
Hieftje asked Detter if there were motorists who park in the areas proposed for parking now. Detter allowed they did, but said that there were various means to get the cars out of those spaces, though Detter and his neighbors didn’t use them in every instance. It basically entailed calling parking enforcement. There were violations which the neighbors had some time to report, but they did not use that as a systematic strategy. Detter suggested that residential parking permits were a possibility, but not parking meters. Hieftje noted that residential parking permits systems don’t pay for themselves. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) observed that in a residential parking permit area, it becomes a privilege to park on the street.
Detter characterized parking meters as “an affront to the neighborhood character.” To which Hieftje responded, “That’s what I’m trying to get a grip on.” Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) tried to pin down the difference between parking meters in a purely residential neighborhood completely outside of downtown versus residential areas inside the central area. He suggested to Detter that the recognition of the usefulness of residential parking permits in the higher density central area was a recognition that there was a difference between purely residential and central area residential neighborhoods. Detter said that the only reason he mentioned the central area was the city had not proposed to put parking meters in other areas of town.
Bob Snyder, president of the South University Area Neighborhood Association, appeared at caucus to address the issue of parking meters as well. He said that he always enjoyed following Ray Detter, because Ray usually said everything that needed to be said. Snyder noted that the South University area was not yet on the “hit list” for installation of parking meters. But his specific concern for the South University area was that meters, should they eventually be proposed, would increase the phenomenon of backyard parking. He also stated that based on his gut reaction, introduction of parking meters into an area “cheapens” the area.
Mark Hodesh, owner of Downtown Home & Garden, appeared before caucus to encourage council to focus on the shape of the proposed loading zone ordinance. He said that he had quite a number of small vendors who delivered one or two times a year, or perhaps four times a year. “They make me different from big-box stores,” he said. He contended that these small vendors should not pay the same fee as, for example, Sysco. If they did, he warned, he would have to charge $30 for a bale of straw.
Farmers Market Stall Fees
Peter Pollack, who is chair of the public market advisory commission, appeared at caucus to convey a resolution passed unanimously by the commission, 4-0, expressing the group’s lack of support for the increase in fees for stall rental as proposed in the city budget for FY 2010. Pollack explained that the commission’s lack of support was based on a substantial bank account of the farmers market and the timing of the decision – neither the public nor vendors had had sufficient time to contemplate the fee increase. They’d had to do so within a month.
The resolution states that the commission does not support the fee increases at this time and requests a quarterly financial report of expenses and revenues to be accompanied by an annual review with a cost adjustment up or down based on that review. The idea is to minimize the percentage of any proposed change in any one period. Another goal of the commission is to achieve equity between the farmer stall fees and the rental rates charged to others who use the facility – for example ,as a wedding venue. Sabra Briere asked Pollack to clarify when the fees would go into effect – she had met with Molly Notarianni, the market manager, and had understood that the fee increases would not take effect until next year. Pollack confirmed that bills had been sent out for the 2009-10 season with the existing rates.
The new rate would appear on the next market bill, he said. Pollack said that the commission’s point was that the data did not yet exist to support the proposed fee increase. Hieftje asked Pollack what kind of data he was looking for. Pollack clarified that the additional dollars to be generated through the new fee increases are attached to the full-time position of market manager and a part-time allocation of an assistant manager, so Pollack wanted to see those numbers as they related to the revenues and expenses of the market. “We need to track it,” he said. “We assume staff made the analysis,” he said, “but we haven’t seen it.”
Jon Frank of Village Green, who is building the City Apartments project at First and Washington Street, began by acknowledging that it was not the very best time for him to be addressing council with all of their current focus on the budget in very hard economic times. However, he reported to council, “Sadly, our option agreement is over at the end of this month.” He was there to ask for an extension. One bright spot: Village Green had lined up a construction lender who had signed on to the deal. In addition to the construction lender, Frank told The Chronicle after he addressed council that an equity provider would need to be identified who could make the $3 to 4 million down payment.