Archive for September, 2011

Action Postponed on The Varsity Site Plan

At its Sept. 20, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor planning commission postponed action on a site plan for The Varsity at Ann Arbor, a 13-story apartment building proposed for 425 E. Washington St., east of the 411 Lofts building and west of the First Baptist Church. Currently on the site is a two-story office building that formerly housed the Prescription Shop.

The 177,180-square foot apartment building would include 181 apartments with a total of 415 bedrooms, to be marketed to university students. The plan also calls for 70 parking spaces, both underground and on the street level, with entrances off of East Huron and East Washington. In addition, two spaces would be provided on adjacent property (owned by the same developer) to use … [Full Story]

A2: Dreiseitl Dedication

The city of Ann Arbor announced plans to hold an Oct. 4 dedication ceremony for the Herbert Dreiseitl water sculpture being installed in front of the new municipal center at the corner of Huron and Division streets. Dreiseitl is expected to attend the event, which begins at 7 p.m. Plans for the dedication were discussed at the Ann Arbor public art commission’s Aug. 24 meeting. The sculpture – which cost more than $750,000 – was commissioned and paid for out of the city’s Percent for Art program. The program has received recent scrutiny from city council, but at their Sept. 19 meeting, councilmembers voted to postpone a resolution on changes to the program. They plan to revisit the issue … [Full Story]

Treecity Employee Misidentified

In a report on the city planning commission, as well as subsequent reporting, we misidentified Dori Edwards. She is an employee who does public relations work for Treecity Health Collective. We acknowledge the mistake and have corrected the error in the original article and subsequent reporting.

Greenbelt Boundary Expansion in the Works

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Sept. 14, 2011): Boundaries of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program will expand in Lodi and Salem townships, if the city council approves a recommendation passed by the greenbelt advisory commission at its most recent meeting.

Ginny Trocchio

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which has a contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program. She's showing the greenbelt advisory commission a map of proposed boundary changes. (Photos by the writer.)

The recommendation also calls for allowing the city to acquire development rights on property adjacent to (but outside of) the greenbelt boundary, if it’s under the same ownership as an inside-the-boundary property that’s being considered for the program.

The recommended “bump-outs” in Lodi and Salem townships – in the southwest and northeast corners of the greenbelt, respectively – reflect increased support for the program from those townships. The Salem Township board, for example, recently voted to earmark $200,000 annually for land preservation.

A separate resolution was voted down, with support only from the commission’s chair, Dan Ezekiel. It would have recommended that the council consider properties adjacent to the greenbelt for acquisition, and create a one-mile buffer surrounding the current boundary. Properties within that buffer would have been considered for acquisition with greenbelt funds, but with stricter selection criteria.

Several commissioners were reluctant to increase the boundaries with a mile-wide buffer zone, citing concerns that land in that area is too far from Ann Arbor, and noting that opportunities for land preservation are still available within the existing greenbelt boundaries.

In other business, the commission got a review of the greenbelt program’s finances and activities for the 2011 fiscal year. A 30-year open space and parkland preservation millage, which voters approved in 2003, funds both the greenbelt program as well as land acquisition for parks. During the year, the greenbelt program spent $8.3 million on 12 deals – by far the most transactions since the greenbelt’s inception.

Those 12 deals protect 1,472 acres of farmland from future development. In total, more than 3,200 acres are now part of the greenbelt. To put that into perspective, Ezekiel noted that those 3,200 acres are roughly equivalent to 80 parks the size of Veterans Memorial Park in Ann Arbor.

Three more greenbelt acquisitions were recommended by commissioners at the end of their meeting. The properties were identified only by application number  – the location of the properties and their owners aren’t revealed until the resolutions are voted on by the city council. [Full Story]

UM: MacArthur Fellows

The New York Times reports on the prestigious “genius awards” given each year by the MacArthur Foundation. The awards, announced Tuesday, come with a $500,000 no-strings-attached prize paid out over five years. From the article: “This year three fellows came from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. They are Tiya Miles, 41, a public historian and history professor who has researched the relationships between African and Cherokee people in colonial America; Melanie Sanford, 36, a professor of chemistry whose research on organometallic synthesis has implications for pharmaceuticals and other products; and Yukiko Yamashita, 39, a developmental biologist who studies the mechanisms that regulate stem cell division.” [Source]

Mayor To Give Teall Nod Over Kunselman

At the Ann Arbor city council’s Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) elicited from mayor John Hieftje that Hieftje had decided not to accept Kunselman’s offer, made at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting, to serve as the city council’s liaison to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission.

The post of council liaison to the commission became vacant when it was announced at the council’s Aug. 4 meeting, that Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) had volunteered to replace Jeff Meyers on the city’s public art commission, if some other councilmember could be found to replace him as housing commission liaison.

Hieftje announced at the Sept. 19 meeting that two councilmembers had volunteered to be the housing commission liaison: Kunselman and Margie Teall (Ward 4). Hieftje said he’d be bringing forward Teall’s name as the nomination at the council’s next meeting.

Were Kunselman appointed as council liaison to the housing commission board, he would have been joining a body that now includes Leigh Greden, whom Kunselman defeated in the 2009 Ward 3 Democratic Party primary election. Teall was one of Greden’s strongest allies on the council during the time that he served.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Federal Money May Fund 5 Ann Arbor Police

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council authorized acceptance and appropriation of a federal grant, if it is eventually awarded to the city, to fund the hiring of additional police officers. The city submitted an application on May 24, 2011 to ensure the May 25 deadline was met.

The application was submitted for five officers at a total amount of $1,398,745. The grant would pay for the officers for three years.

The competitive grants were announced in May 2011 as part of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, office of community oriented policing services (COPS).

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Process Starts: Dexter Avenue Assessment

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted to start the process for a special assessment on property owners along a stretch of Dexter Avenue, in order provide the required 20% local funding component for sidewalk, curb and gutter improvements. The other 80% of the project would be paid with federal funds.

There are several gaps in the sidewalks along the stretch. [photo] An administrative hearing for residents is planned for Oct. 3.

This first step by the council essentially directs the city administrator to prepare plans and provide an estimate of the cost. The project is part of the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP). A neighborhood meeting was held on the topic in June 2011.

Next steps, with their expected timing, include: Sept. 20 – mail administrative hearing invitation to residents; Oct. 3 – administrative hearing with residents; Nov. 10 – council approval of resolutions specifying costs to property owners, and a public hearing date; Dec. 5 – public hearing and a council vote on the special assessment.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Approves Police Union Settlement

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted unanimously to approve a new contract with the city’s police officers union, based on an agreement mandated by an arbitration panel’s award signed on Sept. 14, 2011.

The arbitration panel worked through the binding arbitration procedure for labor disputes in police and fire departments, which in Michigan is governed by Act 312 of 1969.

The new contract is retroactive for the period from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2013. In an email to The Chronicle, Tom Crawford, the city’s CFO, wrote that the panel’s determination does not include any liability for the city dating back to the start of the contract.

Highlights of the new deal include a redesigned health care plan which offer options for health care contributions, based on a calendar year. For single-person coverage, for example, the “low plan” would include no monthly premium but a $1,000 deductible. The “high plan” would include a 10% monthly contribution with a $300 deductible.

The new contract includes no across-the-board wage increases.

Pension contributions by employees would increase from 5% to 6% of pay on a pre-tax basis starting Jan. 1, 2012. Employees hired after Jan. 1, 2012 would not be vested in the pension program until 10 years, and their final average compensation (used to determine pension benefits) would be based on the last five years of service. Retirees would have an access-only type retiree health care plan with a retiree health care reimbursement account. Each employee would receive a one-time deposit of $500 in a health retirement account on Jan. 1, 2012.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor to Begin Systematic Annexations

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council directed the city staff to begin taking a strategic, but systematic approach to annexing the 580 township islands from Ann Arbor, Pittsfield and Scio townships to the city of Ann Arbor.

Staff will begin with the annexation of properties owned by utility companies and publicly owned lands within the ultimate boundary area of the city. After that, the next priority for annexation are clusters of township islands. [.pdf of staff recommended analysis and strategy]

The council’s resolution calls for a report back to the council in January 2013 on progress with the annexation work.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Sets Hearing on PACE Program

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council formally expressed its intention to establish an Energy Financing District and a Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE). The council also set a public hearing for its first meeting next month, on Oct. 3, 2011.

The resolution of intent refers to a report, which describes in detail the project and property eligibility for PACE, as well as project size, application process, and financing, among other elements.

At its March 7, 2011 meeting, the council had voted to set up a $432,800 loan loss reserve fund to support the city’s planned PACE program. The money for the fund comes from an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) awarded to the city by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Through its PACE program, the city of Ann Arbor will help commercial property owners finance energy improvements through voluntary special assessments. By establishing a loan loss pool, the city can reduce interest rates for participating property owners by covering a portion of delinquent or defaulted payments. [Some previous Chronicle coverage of PACE: "Special District Might Fund Energy Program"]

After the public hearing, the city council would still need to pass a resolution establishing the program.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Picometrix Gets Ann Arbor Tax Abatement

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted to approve one tax abatement and to set a public hearing for another.

Getting approval for its request for a tax abatement was Picometrix LLC, located at 2925 Boardwalk in Ann Arbor. Picometrix is a supplier of high-speed optical receivers.

The 5-year abatement would apply to $2,434,882 worth of personal property that Picometrix is acquiring. From the application for abatement: “Due to the projected increase in production volume, the company will need to purchase assets to maximize production and support added staffing.”

The list of personal property included in the application ranges from garden-variety desks and cubicles to digital oscilloscopes and laser beam profilers. The abatement will reduce the company’s annual tax … [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Council OKs Cleaning Contract

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council authorized a $580,680 cleaning contract with Kristel Cleaning Inc. for janitorial service at the city’s municipal center, Wheeler Service Center, the water treatment plant, the Ann Arbor Senior Center and various smaller locations.

The contract had been postponed from the council’s Sept. 6 meeting, when Sandi Smith (Ward 1) had raised questions about the need for a 5-day cleaning schedule for the new municipal building and city hall.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, Smith had wanted to understand what factored into the frequency of cleaning: Does it depend on the number of public visitors or the number of people who work there? What are the problems with a 3-day schedule? Alluding to the fact that the city had dropped down to a 3-day schedule from a 5-day schedule, mayor John Hieftje suggested that it would be appropriate to ask if the city is spending more for cleaning now than three years ago. Interim city administrator Tom Crawford said “fruit flies and critters like that” were an example of some problems with the 3-day schedule.

The council did not deliberate on the resolution at its Sept. 19 meeting.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Retains RecycleBank Contract

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council considered but did not approve a resolution that would have ended its 10-year contract with RecycleBank, a company that organizes a program to provide incentives to residents to set out their single-stream recycling carts for curbside collection. The contract has been in place for a year.

Instead, a substitute resolution was put forward directing the city administrator to negotiate a contract revision offered by RecycleBank that would reduce the per-household charge by about one-third, from $0.52 to $0.35 – which translates into a monthly payment reduction from $12,400 to $8,371. Under the new to-be-negotiated contract, if the tonnage of recyclables collected increases above current levels, RecycleBank could earn an additional $50 per ton, for each ton collected above existing levels. There would be a cap of $150,000 per year.

The resolution to cancel the contract had been postponed from the council’s Aug. 4 meeting. The cancellation resolution indicates termination would have given savings to the city of $149,167 per year on that contract. RecycleBank would have been entitled to $120,000 for the depreciated cost of equipment in recycling trucks as part of this program.

The impetus for canceling the contract had been based in part on skepticism that the first year’s worth of data really showed a measurable positive impact on recycling in Ann Arbor due purely to ReycleBank’s coupon incentives.

The interest in canceling the contract was also based in part on a desire by some councilmembers to find replacement revenue to fund a $107,042 annual increase in the contract with Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA), the company that the city hires to empty the curbside recycling carts. That increase was seen as necessary due to the financial stress under which RAA was operating, exacerbated in part by the lower-than-expected value of the contract with the city. The city deployed fewer curbside carts citywide than projected, and because RAA’s contract was based in part on the number of carts deployed, it received less revenue than had been forecast.

The financial stress at RAA may have played a role in the replacement a few weeks ago of its CEO, Melinda Uerling. The RAA website now lists Kirk Lignell in that position.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Interim City Admin Thanked

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council recognized the service of its CFO, Tom Crawford, who served as interim city administrator from the end of April until Sept. 15. Crawford was given a $10,000 bonus in recognition of his additional service during that period.

New city administrator Steve Powers attended his first council meeting. He’d attended a work session the previous week, though he had not officially assumed the post.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

Ann Arbor to Snyder: Keep Same-Sex Benefits

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council passed a resolution urging Gov. Rick Snyder not to sign House bills 4770 and 4771, which prohibit public employers from providing certain benefits to public employees and will eliminate benefits for domestic partners of the same gender.

The language of the resolution notes that a number of public entities provide health care benefits for domestic partners of either gender – including the state of Michigan, public universities, as well as city and county governments, and public school districts.

The resolution was sponsored by Sandi Smith (Ward 1).

Jeff Irwin – a Democrat who represents House District 53, which includes most of Ann Arbor – voted against the bills and argued on the House floor against them: “If this becomes law, we will have two employees working side by side with the same qualifications and experience and the employee living in a traditional family will receive significantly greater compensation. That is clearly unfair and discriminatory.”

The council resolution reaffirmed Ann Arbor’s “commitment to a diverse and accepting culture.”

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Use of Street/Sidewalk Repair Tax Postponed

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council postponed a vote on a resolution of intent for the use of the proceeds from a street/sidewalk repair millage that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Voters will be asked to approve two separate proposals: (1) a 5-year renewal of a 2.0 mill tax to support street repair projects; and (2) a 0.125 mill tax to pay for sidewalk repair.

The resolution of intent would specify that the street repair millage will pay for the following activities: resurfacing or reconstruction of existing paved city streets and bridges, including on-street bicycle lanes and street intersections; construction of pedestrian refuge islands; reconstruction and construction of accessible street crossings and corner ramps; and preventive pavement maintenance (PPM) measures, including pavement crack sealing.

The resolution of intent would stipulate that sidewalk repairs inside the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority district will not be funded by the sidewalk repair millage, except when the sidewalks are adjacent to single- and two-family houses. Both inside and outside the DDA district (otherwise put, throughout the city) the sidewalk repair millage would be used only to pay for sidewalk repair adjacent to property on which the city levies a property tax.

One impact of that resolution of intent, if it’s adopted, is that the city’s sidewalk repair millage will not be used to pay for repairs to sidewalks adjacent to University of Michigan property.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Public Art Tweak Gets Postponed

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council postponed a vote on changes in the city’s public art ordinance – a law that currently requires setting aside 1% of all capital improvement projects for the acquisition of public art.

The  proposal that was postponed Monday would change the Percent for Art program by explicitly excluding sidewalk and street repair from projects that could be tapped to fund public art.

The timing of the ordinance change is related to two ballot proposals on which Ann Arbor residents will vote on Nov. 8: (1) renewal of  a 2.0 mill tax to fund street repair; and (2) imposing a 0.125 mill tax to fund the repair of sidewalks – which is currently the responsibility of adjacent property owners. The vote on the public art ordinance was postponed until the council’s second meeting in November, after a planned work session on the topic.

Some councilmembers had previously understood the public art ordinance already to exclude replacement of sidewalk slabs from its definition of capital improvement projects.

But based on additional information from the city attorney’s office, the proposed ordinance revision was proposed to spell that out explicitly [added language in italics]: “Capital improvement project means any construction or renovation of any public space or facility including buildings, parks, recreation areas, parking facilities, roads, highways, bridges, paths, sidewalks in locations where sidewalks do not already exist or as part of a larger capital improvement project, streetscape improvements and utilities. This definition includes only those projects designed to create a permanent improvement or betterment, and does not include projects that are primarily for the purpose of ordinary maintenance or repair. It does not include sidewalk crack repair, sidewalk cold-patching, sidewalk slab replacement, sidewalk leveling or sidewalk slab grinding.

The ordinance revision also would explicitly exclude the Percent for Art program from applying to any projects funded with money from the street repair millage. Another feature of the ordinance revision would exclude general fund money from being allocated to public art under the Percent for Art program.

The ordinance revision would also require that any money allocated for public art under the program be spent within three years, or be returned to its fund of origin.

On two previous occasions in the last two years (Dec. 21, 2009 and May 31, 2011), the council has considered but rejected a change to the public art ordinance that would have lowered the public art earmark from 1% to 0.5%. The city’s Percent for Art program was authorized by the council in 2007.

An exchange between Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) resulted in a challenge from Kunselman: Councilmembers who are supporters of the public art ordinance should bring forward a resolution directing the city attorney to write a legal opinion on the public art ordinance and to file it with the city clerk as stipulated in the city charter.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Tweaks LDFA Agreement

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted to amend the agreement between Ann Arbor and the city of Ypsilanti so that a councilmember who serves on the local development finance authority (LDFA) board will not serve on that board past the time they are a member of the city council.

Under the change to the agreement approved by the city council, the city council representative to the LDFA board would cease to be a member of the LDFA immediately when that person ceases to be a member of the city council. The change addresses the fact that appointments to the LDFA board are for four years, while councilmembers are elected to just two-year terms on the council.

To take effect, the change must still be approved by the Ypsilanti city council, and then the LDFA board must change its bylaws to be consistent with the agreement.

The change was previously discussed at the council’s July 18, 2011 meeting, when Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) was appointed by his council colleagues to a four-year term on the LDFA. Rapundalo, a Democrat, faces a challenge in the Nov. 8 general election from Jane Lumm, who is running as an independent. Lumm has assembled a long list of endorsements from prominent Democrats and Republicans.

The LDFA is funded through tax-increment financing (TIF) in a manner similar to the way the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority is supported. A TIF district allows authorities like the LDFA and the DDA to “capture” some of the property taxes that are levied by other municipal entities in the district. The LDFA contracts with the economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK for various business development services. [For more background on the LDFA, see Chronicle coverage: "Budget Round 5: Economic Development"]

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

City of Ann Arbor Sells 6-Foot Strip to AATA

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council authorized the sale of a six-foot-wide strip of city-owned downtown land to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The strip forms the southwestern border of one of the parcels where the AATA’s Blake Transit Center is located. The $90,000 sale price of the 792-square-feet of land was determined to be the fair market value by an independent appraisal.

The desire of the AATA to acquire the six-foot strip has been mentioned at several AATA board meetings during routine updates. It’s part of the AATA’s plan to reconstruct the BTC on the South Fifth Avenue side of the block; the BTC currently stands on the South Fourth Avenue side, with a canopy that stretches towards Fifth. The AATA hope to finalize the design of the new transit center by the end of December 2011, with construction to start in early 2012.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Rezoning for Med Marijuana Postponed

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council did not follow the recommendation of the city planning commission to deny a request for the rezoning of a property on State Street, so that it could be used as a medical marijuana dispensary. Instead, the council decided to postpone a decision for two weeks.

The owner of Treecity Health Collective, a dispensary at 1712 S. State, had requested that the city planning commission recommend that the location be rezoned from O (office) to C1 (local business). The owner had also asked that the area plan requirement for that location be waived.

However, at their Aug. 16, 2011 meeting, planning commissioners recommended denial of the requests, based on a staff recommendation, stating that C1 zoning is not consistent with adjacent zoning, land uses and the city’s master plan.

And at their  Sept. 19 meeting, councilmembers were hesitant to vote down the rezoning, and instead decided to delay their vote.

The Treecity Health Collective opened in 2010. This summer, the Ann Arbor city council approved amendments to the city’s zoning ordinances that prevent medical marijuana dispensaries from operating in office zoning districts – those changes were set to take effect on Aug. 22, 2011. Rather than relocate the dispensary, the business owner – Dori Edwards – is asking for the zoning change. Dori Edwards, an employee of Treecity, was the only person to speak during the public hearing on these requests. The property – located on the west side of State, south of Stimson – is owned by Francis Clark.

A recent court of appeals ruling has raised legal questions about the existence of dispensaries under Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Act. However, the Ann Arbor city council decided at its Sept. 6 meeting to proceed with the appointment of four out of the five members of its medical marijuana licensing board. That body will meet for the first time on Sept. 21, from 4-6 p.m. in the city council workroom on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. Update: At the conclusion of its Sept. 19 meeting, the council appointed physician Gene Ragland to the city’s medical marijuana board.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Revises Retirement System

At its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council gave final approval to an ordinance revision that increases the city’s pension vesting period for non-union employees hired after July 1, 2011 – from five years to 10 years. It also changes the final average compensation computation so that it’s based on the the last five years of employment, not the last three years.

The ordinance change had been given initial approval at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting and came after a public hearing on Sept. 19, held before the vote.

The preparation of the ordinance change came at the direction of the city council, which passed a resolution at its June 6, 2011 meeting asking the city administrator to bring forward ordinance revisions that for non-union employees would change health care benefits and aspects of the city’s pension plan.

Specifically, the June 6 resolution pointed to ordinance revisions that would base the final average contribution (FAC) for the pension system on the last five years of service, instead of the last three. Further, employees would be vested in the pension plan after 10 years instead of five. Finally, all new non-union hires would be provided with an access-only style health care plan, with the opportunity to buy into whatever plan active employees enjoy.

At its Aug. 4, 2011 meeting, the council gave final approval to an ordinance change that addressed the health care provision from the June 6 resolution. That ordinance change distinguishes between “subsidized retirees” and “non-subsidized retirees.” A non-subsidized retiree is someone who is hired or re-employed into a non-union position with the city on or after July 1, 2011. In their retirement, non-subsidized retirees will have access to health care they can pay for themselves, but it will not be subsidized by the city.

The ordinance change that was given final approval at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting addresses the retirement plan portion of the June 6 resolution. All ordinance changes require approval by the council at two separate meetings, in addition to a public hearing on the change before the final vote.

The city expects that when it reaches a point when all non-union employees have been hired under the revised pension plan, the city’s costs will be $230,000 less than they would be under the current plan.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Ann Arbor’s Finances Now an A2OpenBook

At the Ann Arbor city council’s Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, city CFO Tom Crawford announced the launch of A2OpenBook, an online tool that residents can use to follow the city’s revenues and expenditures. The information on the system is refreshed daily from the city’s LOGOS financial system.

The online system allows users to look at expenses and revenues by service area, by fund and by expense type. The information is download-able in MS Excel format so that users can search for and manipulate data as desired. Information is available for expenses beginning July 1, 2010 through today – data is updated daily.

There’s a possibility that P-Card data might be added in a second phase of the project.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

AAPS Families Challenged By Busing Changes

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education meeting (Sept. 14, 2011): The main topic of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the board of education was transportation, specifically cuts to bus service that the district has made this school year.

The full 45 minutes of public commentary time was used at the meeting, and it was almost exclusively devoted to the transportation. Public commentary was bookended by pleas from administrators to view the transportation cuts as necessary in the context of severe state funding decreases. Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Patricia Green warned, “Although we have had a lot of pain, be aware that this is not the end of the budget reduction cycle.”

Later in the meeting, Brit Satchwell, president of the local teachers’ union, jettisoned the remarks he had prepared for his regular report to the board, and instead made an openly partisan, passionate speech echoing the outraged sentiment expressed during public commentary, and imploring the community to unify in opposition to Gov. Rick Snyder instead of blaming each other.

Describing Snyder as “the man whose finger hit the first domino,” Satchwell argued, “The Republicans have taken $1 billion from students and the elderly and turned it into corporate tax breaks … We are dealing with ideologues who will not compromise and will not be moved by facts … We have to step back and look at the source of the problem.”

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved the district’s choice of auditors and financial institutions, and the recently ratified tentative agreement with the AAEA-P, the union representing the district’s paraprofessionals. It also reviewed two bids under consideration – one for the publishing of the Rec & Ed course catalog, and one for the contracting of therapeutic services needed to meet the needs of special education students. Both bids will return to the board for a second briefing and vote at its next meeting. [Full Story]

Column: Gordon Lightfoot in Ann Arbor

This Wednesday Ann Arbor is in for a rare treat when Gordon Lightfoot – the fair-haired troubadour from north of the border whose repertoire includes such classics as “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – makes his first local appearance in more than nine years, performing at the Michigan Theater.

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot in a recent publicity shot. He'll be performing at the Michigan Theater on Sept. 21, but has a decades-long history of touring here.

For his part, the 72-year-old singer-songwriter is glad to be returning. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says via telephone from his home in Toronto. “I’ve always gotten good vibes from Ann Arbor.”

Lightfoot first brought his guitar to town almost exactly 45 years ago, to play a three-night stint at a funky Episcopalian coffee house located in a former print shop at 330 Maynard Street. Today the unprepossessing brick building is home to Madras Masala, purveyor of exotic Indian delicacies; but in the ’60s it was Canterbury House, purveyor of coffee, donuts, and a hip spirituality that meshed nicely with the countercultural ethos of the day.

Canterbury House is actually a generic name used by many Episcopal student ministries at colleges across the nation. Ann Arbor’s incarnation was established in the mid-1940s and by the ’60s had become an important feature of the city’s increasingly progressive landscape. It began offering folk and blues music in 1965 as an experiment in reaching youth through the arts. Though mostly local performers were featured, the new program proved phenomenally successful, and the next year it was moved to a bigger location to bring in nationally-known acts.

First to appear at the extensively remodeled Maynard Street venue was the California-born “one-man folk festival,” Michael Cooney – “brandishing guitar, kazoo, banjo, autoharp, microphone, guitar strap, and truck,” according to the ad – who played three sold-out nights in early September.

Next up was a singer-songwriter from Ontario named Gordon Lightfoot, whose first album – the appropriately (if a bit over-exuberantly) titled “Lightfoot!” – had recently been released by United Artists. Although the young Canadian himself wasn’t that well-known in the states, his songs were. Marty Robbins took Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” to the top of the country charts in 1965, and Peter, Paul and Mary made a Top 40 hit out of “For Lovin’ Me” that same year.

“If I had not gotten my songs recorded by some other artists very early on,” says Lightfoot, “I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. It was my songwriting, actually, that got me started.”

Which according to Herb David, proprietor of the famous guitar studio that bears his name, made Lightfoot very similar to another famous troubadour of that era, Bob Dylan. [Full Story]

Barton Dam

Evidence of repairs on the concrete chases of the dam. Sign says the work is scheduled August to December. [photo] [photo]

Murray Street

Street closed to traffic, but brimming with kids, kids on bikes, dogs, neighbors, ribs, cake, hula-hooping, live band … it’s a block party. [photo] [photo]

Column: Ann Arbor’s Monroe (Street) Doctrine

On the northeast corner at the intersection of State and Hill streets in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan’s Weill Hall stands majestically as a landmark building, establishing the southwest corner of the UM campus.

Monroe Street University of Michigan Law School

Looking east down Monroe Street, across State Street. This section of Monroe Street is flanked by two University of Michigan law school buildings: Hutchins Hall to the north, and South Hall. (Photos by the writer. )

Following State Street north up the hill towards downtown will lead you to the intersection with Monroe Street. Turn right on Monroe, and you’ll wind up at Dominick’s, a local watering hole, majestic in its own right.

One parking option for patrons of Dominick’s is that first block of Monroe Street east of State. And what better topic to discuss over a pitcher of beer, sitting at a Dominick’s picnic table, than Ann Arbor parking rates. How much should it cost to use an on-street parking space on Monroe in that one block between State and Oakland?

Here’s a different question: How much for the whole damn block? I don’t mean just the parking spaces. I mean the whole right-of-way.

That question is part of a current conversation among public officials from the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. The university is not interested in parking cars on that block. In fact, it’s the university’s desire that the thoroughfare be blocked to vehicular traffic. Permanently.

By tackling this topic, I’d like to achieve a two-fold purpose. First, I’d like to promote the daylighting of conversations now taking place out of public view. Second, I’d like to provide a rational way to approach calculating the value of city right-of-way, specifically in the general context of city-university relations.

Otherwise put, I’d like to sketch out a kind of Monroe Doctrine for Ann Arbor, which might in some ways mirror the message in the original Monroe Doctrine, set forth by President James Monroe in his address to Congress, on Dec. 2, 1823.

I’m not going to suggest including the part that talks about when “our rights are invaded or seriously menaced …” [Full Story]