Even in a smaller-sized city like Ann Arbor, governmental issues can be fairly complex. Still, our local issues are typically simple enough that they can be mastered even by an ordinary citizen who can read words on a page.
However, over the last several weeks, a significant issue has been brought forward for debate that’s been portrayed by some local officials as far more complex than that.
For now, let’s not even think about what the issue might be. It could be zoning. Or dog parks. Or parking rates. Or police staffing levels. Or public art. Or express bus service. Or outdoor signs. Or none of those. Call it Issue X.
As I’ve chronicled the workings of Ann Arbor’s local governance recently, I’ve watched as two local representatives – one elected and one appointed – have seemed to portray Issue X as too mathematically challenging to grasp. I chalk that up to politics: If the math can be set aside, then the conversation can more easily move to pure politics – the strong suit of elected and appointed officials.
To be clear, Issue X is fraught with politics. But I don’t think that focusing on the politics of Issue X serves the interests of Ann Arbor residents.
Issue X is also fraught with mathematical calculations. But not everyone is comfortable with equations.
So in this column I’ll sketch out an analogy that I think, on a purely conceptual level, accurately captures the essence of Issue X – in non-mathematical, non-political terms.
Issue X: The Gas Cards
Imagine a company called CommunityWorks. The company has five frontline employees in the Ann Arbor area: Allison, Ann, Walter, William and Dan. Each employee has a company automobile. The company gives four of the employees a card with a magnetic strip – which they can swipe at the CommunityWorks pump to put gasoline into their automobiles. Using that gasoline, they can drive places to do important work for the company. But Dan is the odd man out. Dan doesn’t receive a gasoline card.
So what is Dan supposed to do for gasoline to keep his car running?
Issue X: How Dan Gets Gas
Dan gets his gasoline using a CommunityWorks company policy, set forth by the CEO. The policy allows Dan to go to the other employees’ cars and extract gasoline from their tanks. So Dan routinely hooks up a hose to Allison’s car – and to Ann’s and Walter’s and William’s – and extracts some gasoline from their tanks.
It’s just a small portion of the gasoline in each tank that Dan extracts. The amount is strictly regulated by a special meter – given to Dan by the CEO and calibrated by Ann’s supervisor. Dan is required to attach the special meter to the gasoline extraction hose whenever he uses it to extract gasoline from someone else’s tank.
The other employees know that Dan is doing this, and they might grumble about it from time to time – because other than Ann, they didn’t have any say in the formulation of the gas hose policy. But they understand that it’s all perfectly consistent with the policy. Still, they sometimes ask Dan where he’s driving with the gasoline he has extracted from their tanks. They ask, because they themselves can’t drive quite as far to do their own work for the company – on account of the gas that Dan takes out of their tanks. So they feel it’s fair to ask Dan to account for where he drives.
And Dan will explain that he’s used their gasoline, for example, to make client visits. And Dan will tell them that this generates more income for the company. And Dan often talks about the fact that he calls on really difficult clients, and convinces those difficult clients to do business with the company. These are the clients that Allison, Ann, Walter and William would probably not otherwise call on, according to Dan.
The company’s employees seem to be mostly satisfied with the arrangement – and they all agree that Dan is a solid employee who makes a positive contribution to the company. Dan is able to make pleasant small talk around the water cooler.
And the other employees think it might be possible that what Dan is saying is true – that Dan is generating additional income for the company, that allows additional gasoline to be put into the pump for the other employees: Allison, Ann, Walter and William.
Issue X: The Special Meter
But one day, as Ann is watching Dan extracting the gasoline from her tank, she notices that Dan has attached the special meter to the hose in an odd way. It looks upside-down to her. And when questioned about it, Dan concedes that it looks upside-down, but says he’s always done it that way. It turns out that Dan’s way of attaching the meter to the hose increases the amount of gasoline that Dan is able to extract from the other employees’ gas tanks.
So Ann says to Dan: I think you ought to attach the meter so that it’s right-side-up. Dan agrees in the future to use the meter in its right-side-up position. And Dan even goes so far as to put back some gasoline into the other employees’ tanks based on the excess amounts he’s previously extracted.
But then Allison, Walter and William notice something: Dan didn’t use the special meter that the CEO had given him to measure out the amount of gasoline he put back into their tanks. They notice that Dan used a different meter – one that returned to them less gasoline than the company’s meter would have dispensed.
So they question Dan about this. Dan’s response: I’ve hired a mechanic who tells me the technique I’ve always been using to attach the meter to the hose is actually an acceptable way to do it; and, by the way, I didn’t need to put that gasoline back into your tanks in the first place.
Issue X: Resolving the Dispute
Ann’s supervisor – the guy who calibrated the meter – proposes that a safety clamp be added, to ensure that in the future, when the meter is attached to the hose, it’s right-side-up.
Tax Increment Finance (TIF)
I’m guessing that at least some Chronicle readers quickly recognized Issue X as the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax increment finance (TIF) capture. In terms of Issue X, the city council is Ann’s supervisor.
The council is currently poised to add a safety clamp to the meter that attaches to the DDA’s TIF revenue hose. That safety clamp takes the form of revisions to Chapter 7 of the city’s code, which established the DDA.
When the politics and the math are stripped away – as they are in the CommunityWorks analogy – it’s easy to see why those ordinance revisions received majority support (7-3) when the council took its initial vote on April 1.
And it’s easy to see why city councilmembers who are focused on the substance of the issue, instead of the politics, would support those revisions on April 15. That’s when the council is set to take its second and final vote.
Cast of Characters, Props
A more complete key to the characters in the CommunityWorks analogy:
- gasoline: tax money
- gas card: legal authority to levy a tax
- extracted gasoline from another tank: tax increment finance (TIF) revenue
- gas hose and meter: Michigan’s Downtown Development Authority Act
- inner workings of gas hose meter: Ann Arbor’s DDA ordinance (Chapter 7)
- Allison: Ann Arbor District Library
- Ann: City of Ann Arbor
- Ann’s Supervisor: Ann Arbor city council
- Walter: Washtenaw County
- William: Washtenaw Community College
- Dan: Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority
- The Mechanic: DDA legal counsel
- CommunityWorks: State of Michigan
- CEO of CommunityWorks: Michigan state legislature
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