Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Dec. 7, 2009) Part II: In Part I of the council report, The Chronicle covered a resolution regarding the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), the Percent for Art program, and budget issues, including a possible 3% across-the-board wage cut and firefighter layoffs.
Councilmembers spent considerable time on those topics, during a meeting that lasted until nearly midnight. But they also acted on a range of other items – Part II of this council report will focus on that remaining part of the agenda.
Two items were postponed – the appointment of council members to various committees, and a resolution to buy new parking meters for Wall Street. The council, with no discussion, also sent the area, height and placement (AHP) project back to the planning commission for further consideration.
Several funding requests were approved, including the purchase of new accounting software, two greenbelt acquisitions and funds for remodeling the city’s 911 dispatch center to accommodate co-location with Washtenaw County’s dispatch center. Council also signed off on additional funds for a Buhr Park ice rink project.
Affordable housing issues came up in two different ways. Councilmembers approved a resolution exempting eligible nonprofit housing providers, such as Avalon Housing, from paying property taxes for up to two years. Council also passed a resolution supporting the efforts of the University of Michigan’s Inter-Cooperative Council to secure federal funding.
At the end of the meeting, council went into closed session to discuss a pending lawsuit the city faces over the underground parking garage next to the Library Lot. When they emerged, they authorized action recommended by the city attorney.
Finally, long-time Pioneer track coach Don Sleeman was honored – over the years, his work has touched the lives of several people connected to city hall.
The postponement of council committee appointments received little discussion beyond mayor John Hieftje’s request right out of the gate that someone move to postpone them for two weeks.
What could be the focus of discussion in two weeks will be the composition of the budget and labor committee. In late summer, after the primary election recount established that Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) had won the Democratic primary election over incumbent Leigh Greden, Greden resigned from the budget and labor committee. Also resigning from that committee was Margie Teall (Ward 4). They were replaced by Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). In addition to Anglin and Briere, Hieftje, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) served on the committee. [Chronicle coverage: "City Council Begins Transition"]
After each November election, especially when there are new councilmembers, there’s an opportunity to reorganize the council committee membership. In the reorganization of committees brought forward by Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) on Monday night, the current constitution of the budget and labor committee would stay the same, with the substitution of Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) for Mike Anglin.
In his remarks during communications to council, Anglin spoke of the need to look at budgetary matters as a group. Briere had remarked towards the end of the Saturday budget retreat that she found the discussion of budget matters among all councilmembers was especially valuable.
Rapundalo, too, had remarked at the retreat, and again on Monday night, that what he found particularly valuable about the budget retreat was the time allotted for discussion amongst the councilmembers themselves.
On Monday night, the sentiment for a whole-group discussion format was somewhat supported by city administrator Roger Fraser, who indicated that there would likely be another full-day budget retreat required sometime in January 2010. Anglin, however, seemed to be making a case for making the budget and labor committee a “committee of the whole,” though he did not use that phrase explicitly.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who has served on the budget and labor committee for at least four years, did not attend the budget retreat or Monday’s council meeting. On Monday night, Hieftje explained that she had an extreme family health issue that required her attention – Higgins’ daughter is battling cancer.
Outcome: The city council voted to postpone their committee appointments until their Dec. 21 meeting, with dissent from Rapundalo.
Parking Meters on Wall Street
The resolution on parking meters had been postponed from the Nov. 16 city council meeting:
The resolution to purchase parking meters, a part of the consent agenda, was separated out from that group of items at Sandi Smith’s (Ward 1) request. [The consent agenda items are by definition moved and voted together, unless an item is specifically singled out, as this one was.]
The parking meters were to be installed along Wall Street as part of an effort to generate up to $380,000 connected with the FY 2010 budget, which the city council adopted earlier in the year.
At Monday’s meeting, Smith expressed skepticism that the projected extra revenues would materialize, even if the meters were installed. [Smith has been working to find revenue replacement, to avoid installation of parking meters in neighborhoods near downtown.]
At Monday’s meeting, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asked her colleagues for another postponement, indicating that the planned, comprehensive proposal that she’d intended to bring forward that night was not quite ready.
Outcome: The council unanimously agreed to postpone the resolution to purchase parking meters for installation on Wall Street.
The council considered a resolution that would authorize spending $895,000 to move the city’s financial software system to one that would require less ongoing maintenance from the information technology department. Karen Lancaster, the city’s accounting services manager, described how the current system relies on Oracle, SQL and a full-time dedicated COBOL programmer – who recently retired.
The financial system is used to pay vendors, record all transactions, and manage the budget. It’s the official record-keeping system for the city, explained Lancaster.
The transition to a new system – provided by New World Systems Corp., which is based in Troy, Michigan, and which recently picked up a contract with the city of Battle Creek – is expected to pay for itself in two years, eight months, said Lancaster. The cost savings would be realized in part by a reduction in annual maintenance costs from $150,000 to $60,000, and the elimination of the COBOL programmer’s salary of $135,000.
Christoper Taylor (Ward 3) elicited the fact that the license for the new software was for 10 years, so after the payback period of a little under three years, there’d be more than seven years of cost savings.
The money to pay for the system, said Lancaster, had been set aside each year for the last five years.
Queried by mayor John Hieftje, Lancaster explained that there was a window of opportunity to implement the change now, which was defined in part by the retirement of the COBOL programmer, and in part by the construction of the new municipal center. When that center is completed, the city’s IT department will be fully engaged by their move to the new facility and would not be available for work on the financial system transition.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) quizzed Lancaster about the number of users among city staff: 150 different staff members use the system. Queried by Briere, Lancaster explained that it’s not the age of the current system that makes it slow – its processing speed is fine. It’s just that it’s complicated for the user, she said. For example, users found themselves looking at one screen and typing numbers into MS Excel in another. The new system is fully integrated into MS Office, including Excel.
Lancaster also said that the new system would allow someone without in-depth knowledge of the accounting codes to get information out of the system. Asked whether the new system would provide improved availability of reports to council, city administrator Roger Fraser clarified that it’s not the kinds of reports that would change, but rather the effort that it took to produce them.
Briere asked if the reports would be made available online. Lancaster allowed that this was the trend – to a citizen portal. But that, she said, would be an additional project to ensure that the data were read-only.
Outcome: The council unanimously approved the resolution to spend the money that had been accumulating in the IT budget to pay for the new accounting system.
Greenbelt: Frederick Farm, Chapin Street
The council considered two resolutions involving the acquisition of land under the city’s greenbelt and open space program.
The first of them is a house on Chapin Street adjacent to West Park, which currently has three rental units. After the leases expire in August 2010, the $280,000 house will be demolished. From the memo accompanying the resolution:
The parcel is located immediately adjacent to West Park. The park is located near downtown Ann Arbor, and has several entrance points from the four streets on which it borders. However, the entrances are scattered and can be difficult to locate. The Chapin Street entry into West Park, which is closest to downtown, does not have optimal visibility in to the park. Obtaining this property, as well as removing the existing house and wooden fences, will significantly open the view to and from the park along Chapin, creating safer, more welcoming access.
The second acquisition was for development rights to a farm in Lodi Township. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who serves as the council representative to the greenbelt advisory commission, explained that the $1,000 contribution of the township to the $815,767 cost was rather nominal, but that the township was participating at the level it was able and had done so enthusiastically. [Detailed Chronicle coverage of that acquisition: "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt"]
Outcome: The council unanimously approved both acquisitions.
The city of Ann Arbor has agreed to co-locate its 911 dispatch with the county’s operation – that will take place at the city’s existing location in fire station #1, across from city hall. The cost of the remodeling will be $48,183, but will be reimbursed from the 800 MHz public safety communications millage fund.
At Monday’s meeting, chief of police Barnett Jones called the co-location a “dream come true.” The expectation is that co-location will eventually lead to consolidation of the operations.
The cooperative effort with the county on 911 dispatch, Jones said, was part of an effort to regionalize services, which already included SWAT, K-9, and training. [Previous Chronicle coverage: "County Reorganizes 911 Dispatch"]
Outcome: The council unanimously approved the resolution to remodel fire station #1 to accommodate co-location of 911 dispatch with the county’s dispatch.
Area, Height and Placement (AHP)
In June of 2008, the city’s planning commission recommended to the city council a series of zoning amendments that would apply in all non-downtown areas, which were meant to encourage more sustainable land use. Instead of voting on the recommendations, the city council – which had heard from residents that they’d wanted a greater chance to participate in the process – directed city planning staff to conduct a series of public engagements. Eight such meetings were held between May and October 2009. [Chronicle coverage of one of those meetings: "Zoning 101: Area, Height and Placement"]
Out of that public engagement process came staff recommendations for amending the planning commission’s originally recommended zoning changes. On Monday night, the resolution before council sent the planning commission’s recommendations back to that body to be revised, in light of the staff-recommended changes.
Outcome: The city council voted unanimously to remand the zoning changes recommended by the planning commission back to that body.
Buhr Ice Rink
Planning and development staff were also front and center on an agenda item that was not obviously about planning and development. The item was a change order for $70,048 in connection with ice rink concrete slab replacement at Buhr Park. It drew the attention of Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who noted that the need for a change order was an inspection issue. From the administrative memo:
A three week delay in the project occurred when an inspection raised questions regarding the type of piping being installed. The contractor and manufacturer of the piping were required to provide additional technical information. While this issue has been satisfactorily resolved, the delay has resulted in construction taking place in colder weather conditions and a modified specification concrete is now required.
The work required will delay the opening date of the ice rink until Jan. 9, 2010.
Smith noted that she’d heard numerous complaints about the timeliness of city inspections and that this perhaps illustrated how crucial it was to be aware that these things can actually cost money – in this case to the city. Jayne Miller, community services area administrator, together with a query from Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), clarified that it was not really a problem with the performance of the inspector – the inspection had revealed a problem and the inspector had acted properly, said Miller.
Kunselman had noticed that the problem was with the type of pipe being installed – that was an issue that was in the purview of planning and development staff, Miller said. She said they needed to figure out how it happened and address that problem. She reiterated something she’d spoken about in greater detail at Saturday’s budget retreat – the past six months have been extremely difficult for the planning staff, with eight different zoning initiatives underway.
Outcome: The council unanimously approved the $70,048 change order for the new concrete slab for the Buhr Park ice rink.
The council passed two resolutions related to affordable housing. One involved an expression of support for the University of Michigan’s Inter-Cooperative Council in their efforts to obtain federal funding. During a public hearing related to a different resolution, Eric Lipson, general manager of the ICC and former planning commissioner with the city, mentioned that Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) had been the president of the ICC in the 1970s. Later in the meeting Taylor would correct the record: He allowed that he’d been the president, but that in the 1970s he was somewhere in middle school. The accurate time frame was 1989-90.
The second resolution was not just symbolic. It exempted eligible nonprofit housing providers from paying property taxes for up to two years. Michael Appel, executive director of Avalon Housing, who attend the meeting in case he was called on to answer questions – he was not – told The Chronicle that the point of the resolution was not to promote ownership of housing by nonprofits. Rather, the point was to remove one barrier to the temporary acquisition of housing, for rehabbing, then eventual sale to a permanent occupant as affordable housing. This was the rationale behind the two-year limit on the exemption.
In a closed session at the end of the meeting, the council discussed with the city attorney pending litigation related to the underground parking garage being built by the Downtown Development Authority on the lot next to the library. [Chronicle coverage: "Parking Deck Pretensioned with Lawsuit"]
The claims in the suit can be divided into two kinds: nuisance claims and Open Meeting Act violations.
When the council emerged from the closed session, a motion was made and passed to direct the city attorney to follow the strategy he’d recommended to them in the closed session. The strategy itself was not specified.
Proclamation Honoring Coach Sleeman
At the beginning of the meeting, a mayoral proclamation was made in honor of Pioneer track coach Don Sleeman. Sleeman, who lives just down the street from The Chronicle, turns out to have a connection to Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), via Kunselman’s son, Shane.
The younger Kunselman was a captain of the Pioneer track team last year – he was a member of the state champion 4×800 meter relay team as a sophomore. So in addition to the proclamation, Stephen Kunselman read aloud a statement expressing his appreciation for Sleeman’s coaching, from his perspective as a father.
It emerged that senior assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald, as well as the city attorney himself, Stephen Postema, had also been coached by Sleeman. Postema’s background as a high school track star would have already been familiar to Chronicle readers who remember every word published here. From our 2008 election report:
Additional chairs and tables were also added for poll workers and election inspectors, with help from Pioneer principal Michael White, who asked some teachers there (they were in school for in-service training today – students are off) to wrangle furniture. An historical factoid: Postema and White were fierce rivals as cross-country runners back in the day. Postema competed for Pioneer, while White ran for a high school in Jackson.
Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.
Absent: Marcia Higgins
Next council meeting: Monday, Dec. 21, 2009 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]