At its July 1, 2013 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council will consider and likely adopt a new set of rules affecting meeting mechanics.
Easiest to quantify are rule changes affecting speaking time limits. For the public, the time per speaking turn will drop across the board – from three minutes to two minutes. For each councilmember, the total speaking time per item of debate will drop from eight minutes to five minutes.
Whether those quantitative changes will have a qualitative impact on the city council’s meetings is an open question. More likely to have a positive qualitative effect, I think, is a rules change that adds an opportunity for public commentary at the council’s work sessions.
The exchange of viewpoints among councilmembers during those work sessions is currently tentative and spare, often in the guise of merely asking a question. That’s because Michigan’s Open Meetings Act does not allow a gathering of councilmembers to include deliberations, unless an opportunity is provided for the public to address the council. By giving the public an opportunity to comment during those sessions, councilmembers will be free to engage in unfettered exchanges of viewpoint. And that will be a benefit to the public and to the city staff.
However, in this column I’d like to focus on a different proposed amendment to the rules – one that could potentially improve local governance, not just change what happens at city council meetings.
Among the rules changes is one that would move the mayor’s communications from a slot on the meeting agenda after all regular business to one that precedes all regular business. That’s important because the mayor’s communications include nominations to boards and commissions. That agenda slot also includes the council’s vote to confirm those appointments – typically at the following council meeting. This rule change will ensure that interested residents will not need to stay up until midnight or 3 a.m. – or whenever the council finishes its voting business – to find out who the mayor has nominated.
And that bit of extra spotlight on the nominations could lead to an interest on the part of the mayor – whoever might hold that position – in offering a better explanation of each nomination. It’s reasonable, I think, to get a better explanation than the kind we typically hear – generally a brief comment at the end of a meeting, when everyone is barely awake.
For example: What is it about the nominee’s philosophical orientation to the board’s subject matter that makes this person a good fit for the position? How was it that this person came to be chosen? Who is this person? To the extent that residents are given a clearer idea of how and why nominations are made to boards and commissions, that might increase the inclination of other qualified residents to offer their service.
In the near future, nominations to two significant boards will be made by mayor John Hieftje. One nomination is needed due to the expansion of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s board – from seven to nine members. Of the two additional seats, the city of Ypsilanti will make one appointment. For that seat, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber will be nominating Gillian Ream at the Ypsilanti council’s July 2 meeting. Hieftje will be making the nomination for the other new AAATA seat. He will also need to make nominations to replace two departing members from the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – Leah Gunn and Newcombe Clark.
The public policy areas of the two boards overlap – not just because transportation is related to land use and development. The overlap also stems from the fact that the DDA manages the city’s public parking system, and the availability of parking is integral to the area’s transportation system.
So in this column, I’d like to sketch out some current policy issues to be faced by new appointees to the boards of these organizations. For the AAATA board, a pressing question will be: Should we ask voters to approve an additional transportation millage in November 2013? For the DDA board, an ongoing question will be: What’s an appropriate balance among users of the parking system – downtown residents, retail customers, and employees of downtown businesses?
But first, a little history.
Some Recent History on Appointments
The confirmation vote on Eric Mahler’s appointment to the AATA board this spring was 7-4. It was the most dramatic recent signal that the council seems to be taking a keener interest in mayoral appointments. Usually, confirmation votes are unanimous. But in the last three years, other nominees have also been met with dissenting votes. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) opposed Anya Dale’s appointment to the AATA board. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) opposed Eli Cooper’s appointment to the AATA board. And Jane Lumm (Ward 2) opposed Tony Derezinski’s appointment to the planning commission.
Mahler’s nomination to the AATA board was made on April 15, 2013 – at around 3 a.m. In making the nomination, Hieftje’s remarks consisted of clarifying that Mahler would serve out the remainder of his planning commission term through June, but would not seek another term on that body. By way of explanation for Mahler’s nomination, Hieftje said only that he thought Mahler would serve the community on the AATA board as well as he had on the city planning commission.
The lack of any specific rationale offered by Hieftje for Mahler’s nomination opened the door for some dysfunctional deliberations on his confirmation by the council on May 13. I think that’s a fair characterization, because the conversation went off into the weeds – as councilmembers struggled to find the appropriate vocabulary to describe members of the disability community. They needed that vocabulary because councilmembers opposed to Mahler’s appointment cited a preferred alternate candidate – who would, they thought, be in a better position than Mahler to represent the disability community. Though not mentioned by name, the alternate candidate was LuAnne Bullington.
It’s worth pausing a moment to think about the AATA board member that Mahler replaced – David Nacht. At more than one board meeting since I started covering the AATA for The Chronicle, Nacht clearly stated that he felt he had been appointed to the AATA board specifically be a champion for regionalism. And Nacht cited that perspective in pushing for last year’s general countywide transit initiative (now demised), as well as the more specific AirRide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport (thriving after a year).
If Hieftje had nominated Mahler to the AATA board by saying that Mahler would be expected to lift the regional banner that had previously been carried by Nacht, then the council’s confirmation deliberations might have focused on actual transportation policy – instead of identity politics. For example, Mahler could have been discussed as a candidate with a regional perspective – one informed by an appreciation for the impact of transportation on land use and future planning. Bullington could have been discussed as a candidate who’s more focused on the transportation needs of Ann Arbor residents who need to get around within the city.
The difference between those perspectives is a policy difference that is worth taking more time to grind through. I think it’s less important to talk about who’s a minority or is a person with a visual impairment.
Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber’s nominee to the expanded board of the local transit authority – now called the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority – will be put forward at the Ypsilanti city council’s July 2 meeting. Gillian Ream was most recently communications coordinator at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance & Regional Energy Office. She has a new position as communications and development coordinator for the Ypsilanti District Library.
Ream was among those in attendance at a June 27 meeting of “urban core” communities held at Pittsfield Township Hall. It was the third in a series of such meetings this year on the topic of improvement and expansion of transportation services in the immediate area of Ann Arbor. And it was these “urban core” meetings that formed the most recent impetus toward expansion of the AATA board. The meetings have been attended by Ann Arbor city councilmembers, Ypsilanti city councilmembers, as well as representatives from the townships of Pittsfield and Ypsilanti and the city of Saline.
The effort to focus on improved transportation within a narrower geographic footprint near Ann Arbor – instead of the whole of Washtenaw County – came after an attempt to establish a countywide transit authority unraveled in the fall of 2012. And of the communities in the more narrowly focused urban core, Ypsilanti has been the most assertive in pushing for action. On April 23, 2013, the Ypsilanti city council requested membership for the city in the AATA. The final step in that process was completed with a June 20 vote by the AATA board to adopt revisions to its articles of incorporation. Those revisions had earlier been approved by the city councils of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.
While the change to the articles will affect the governance of the AAATA, the goal of the governance change is to provide a way to generate additional funding for transportation. The AAATA could, with voter approval, levy a uniform property tax on the entire geographic area of its membership – something the AATA never did. The cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti now levy their own millages, which are transmitted to the AATA. However, Ypsilanti is currently at its 20-mill state constitutional limit. A millage levied by the AAATA would not count against that 20-mill cap.
Ann Arbor’s perpetual charter millage was approved at a rate of 2.5 mills, but is levied at a rate of just over 2 mills due to the Headlee rollback. Based on information provided to Ann Arbor city councilmembers for their June 3 meeting, the local share of Ypsilanti’s transportation services – the part for which Ypsilanti is responsible – would come to $325,983 for FY 2014. Ypsilanti’s dedicated millage, which is levied at a rate of 0.9789 mills, generated about $308,000 in FY 2012. So there’s some interest in establishing an additional funding source, just to maintain existing levels of service.
However, current discussions indicate that the intent is to increase levels of service – both frequency and the hours of operation – within the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city boundaries. The additional amount of local funding for the planned increases in service would be the equivalent of around 0.6-0.7 mills. One mill is $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.
An AAATA millage proposal would require voter approval. There’s an outside chance for the AAATA to place a millage on the November 2013 ballot, but that decision would need to be made by late August. [Ballot language must be certified to the county clerk by Aug. 27, 2013.] The practicalities of mounting a successful millage campaign mean that a decision to make a millage request would likely need to come sooner than late August, however.
At the June 27 “urban core” meeting, the question of floating a millage was discussed, along with the challenges a millage campaign might bring.
AATA staff noted that extending hours of service is one of the easiest kinds of service change to implement. But that kind of change, as well as increased frequency of service, is hard to portray to voters, because the lines on the map don’t change. The people who ride the service notice the difference, but the public at large likely won’t. When a new route is introduced in an area where no service was available before, that’s easier to explain to voters: Here’s the additional service that will be provided. And once it’s implemented buses running where they didn’t previously run are more easily noticed.
Ward 3 councilmember Stephen Kunselman said he wouldn’t oppose a millage proposal, but wondered what the argument was against asking Ann Arbor voters for a Headlee override on the existing millage. He allowed that it wouldn’t generate as much revenue as a uniform extra 0.7 mills levied in both Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, but the additional 0.5 mills from an Ann Arbor Headlee override would still generate over $2 million.
The fact that Kunselman framed his current position on a possible millage request in terms of “not opposing” as contrasted to “fully supporting” is not the best endorsement a millage proponent could hope for. But Kunselman might come around to a more (but also less) enthusiastic position – as more details of a specific proposal are put forward.
On a possible millage question, staff and board members are currently having “feeler” discussions with some members of the community who have strong interests in transportation. One of those community members was Jack Eaton, who’s competing this year with incumbent Marcia Higgins for the Democratic nomination to city council in Ward 4.
Eaton reported the sentiments he’d conveyed during the “feeler” conversation in a comment written on The Chronicle’s website. Overall, Eaton stressed the importance that AAATA be able to make the case that it was currently providing high value for local tax dollars – something about which he indicated some skepticism.
The AAATA board will decide whether to put a millage proposal on the ballot. That’s not a decision of the Ann Arbor city council. But if Ann Arbor’s nomination to the additional seat on the expanded AAATA board were made in a timely way, it could provide the mayor and city council with a mechanism for conveying their view to the community and the AAATA board about a possible millage question.
If a high-profile nominee with “dollars-and-cents” credentials were willing to endorse the AAATA as providing high transportation value for local taxpayer dollars, then a city council confirmation would provide implicit support for the AAATA board to place a millage on the ballot. And if the AAATA were to float a millage with the support of a new, additional board member who has a reputation for financial acumen, that would increase the likelihood of success.
But if this kind of a nominee says the AAATA first needs to show better financial performance before asking voters for additional funding, then a city council confirmation would provide implicit direction for the AAATA to delay placing a millage on the ballot. And that would provide the AAATA with a reason to delay that’s different from: “We got scared into thinking it wouldn’t pass.”
In any event, it’s clear that a main policy issue the AAATA board will face – whether a millage is floated and if so, whether it passes or fails – will involve fiscal problem solving.
The DDA board faces its own need for problem solving and policy making based on hard numbers.
The total inventory of parking spaces in downtown Ann Arbor includes around 7,800 public parking spaces and about 3,200 privately owned spaces. The 7,800 public spaces are managed by the Ann Arbor DDA under a contract with the city of Ann Arbor. The DDA contracts with Republic Parking to provide the day-to-day operating oversight. Of the 7,800 public spaces, about 2,000 are on-street metered spaces. The rest are located in surface lots or parking structures.
For those off-street spaces, motorists can pay by the hour, or they can purchase a monthly parking permit. The DDA makes monthly permits available at prices that yield less revenue per space than the DDA would otherwise receive, if all spaces were paid at the standard hourly rate. For example, the standard hourly rate for a parking structure is $1.20 per hour. A standard monthly permit in some structures costs $145 per month. So a downtown worker who used a permit for eight hours daily would break just about even after three weeks, compared to paying hourly. [145/(1.2*8)]
The number of hourly patrons in the system has shown relatively flat performance over the last four years (See Chart 1 below). However, in the most recent month for which data is available (May 2013), the number of hourly patrons was up about 4% compared to May 2012.
The amount of revenue generated by the system has consistently shown year-over-year increases for the last two years as shown in Chart 2 below. That’s attributable at least in part to the rate increases that have been implemented over that period. But when DDA board member Roger Hewitt reports out the revenue increases each month at DDA board meetings, he typically notes that the amount of the revenue increase exceeds the amount expected based just on the rate increase.
When the number of hourly patrons is flat or shows a decrease compared to the previous year, a common speculation put forward by board members at monthly board or committee meetings is this: The revenue increase should be interpreted as an indication that hourly patrons are staying longer. Fewer hourly patrons, who stay longer, could theoretically generate more revenue. However, the DDA does not on a routine basis make publicly available any hourly usage data that Republic Parking might be extracting for analysis. So it’s an open question whether hourly patrons are, in fact, staying longer.
The theory of longer-staying hourly patrons depends in part on an assumption that revenues from monthly parking permit sales are constant. And it was portrayed as recently as the May 29, 2013 DDA operations committee meeting that monthly parking permit numbers were being kept essentially unchanged. That’s a factor the DDA can regulate, by limiting the number of permits sold in each structure and maintaining wait lists.
But in response to a request from The Chronicle, the DDA just recently produced monthly parking permit data by month and by parking facility, dating back to September 2011. And that dataset shows a steadily increasing upward trend for total monthly permits: 3,122 in September 2011 compared to 3,901 in April 2013 – an increase of 779 permits.
Chart 3 shows that upward trend (red line), plotted against the total system inventory (blue line), which saw a 738-space increase from July to August of 2012 when the new Library Lane underground garage opened:
So the number of additional monthly parking permits that have been sold systemwide since September 2011 exceeds the capacity of the Library Lane garage.
If the data is broken down by facility (as in Chart 4 below), it’s easy to see graphically the strategy that the DDA has deployed in order to free up spaces for hourly patrons in some structures: Offering permit holders in those structures a discount to shift their permits to the new Library Lane structure.
After the initial decrease in monthly permits sold in some structures, the upward trend resumed – across all facilities in the structure. That trend is even clearer when the number of monthly permits is plotted as a percentage of the total spaces in a parking facility, as in Chart 5:
What Chart 5 also makes clear is that monthly permits are sold in the same way airplane seats are sold – by managing the “oversell” margin. In some structures, more monthly permits are sold than a structure has spaces – because not every permit holder parks every day at the same time. From the dataset it appears that Republic Parking has been increasingly optimizing this margin.
Measured as a percentage of total inventory, the total number of permits has also increased from September 2011 to April 2013, illustrated in Charts 6 and 7.
In balancing the use of the parking system by downtown residents and workers (monthly permit holders) and by retail customers and other visitors (hourly patrons) and determining policies that are fair, equitable and that achieve community goals, I think it’s important to have a firmer handle on the way the parking system currently functions.
So in thinking about new appointments to the DDA board, it would be useful to recruit additional DDA board members who are interested in understanding the parking system through actual hourly usage data. That is, the DDA board would be well-served by new appointees who want to see usage data broken down by hours parked – by monthly permit holders and hourly patrons – instead of being content to look at usage only through the proxies of revenue and the number of hourly patrons.
I think it’s important to recruit board members who are also interested in the patterns of revenue per space by parking facility, as shown in Charts 8 and 9 below. For example, it’s striking how lucrative the Huron/Ashley/First (Brown Block) surface lot is on a per-space basis, compared to other facilities:
But in terms of the parking system’s overall financial health, the Huron/Ashley/First surface lot is not that crucial – because its total revenue doesn’t stack up to that of many other facilities, as shown in Chart 10 below.
And you have to add to the mix the fact that the DDA incurs additional costs for that facility – because the Huron/Ashley/First lot is leased from First Martin Corp. That means the DDA’s approach to that lot could be a function of longer-term policy goals as opposed to shorter-term financial needs. So the DDA board would be well-served by new appointees who are interested in taking a different approach to Huron/First/Ashley – one that would increase the likelihood that First Martin would explore a greater and better use for that land than a surface parking lot.
Coda: July 1, 2013 Meeting Appointments
Even if the council adopts the rule changes at Monday’s meeting, the nominations and appointments will – for that meeting – still be slotted onto the agenda after all the other voting business. The new regime won’t be implemented until the council’s July 15 meeting.
And on July 1 there won’t be any nominations put forward by Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje for the new seat on the AAATA board or the open seats that will be left by Leah Gunn and Newcombe Clark on the DDA board. In response to an emailed query from The Chronicle, Hieftje indicated that there was “no rush” on those appointments.
But he did expect to be nominating Michigan Theater executive director Russ Collins for a reappointment to the DDA board. I can think of many good reasons that could be offered to explain that re-appointment. For example: Collins knows the difference between a suburb and a downtown. Or if you’re looking for something more technical: When you hand Collins a page filled with numbers, he only needs a quick glance to spot those that are out of line or possibly just a mistake.
When the other nominations are announced, I hope we’ll hear a rationale that reflects a thoughtful consideration of the policy roles that the new appointees are expected to play on these boards.
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