Govt. Section

No Major Change Likely for Road Commission

A subcommittee that’s been exploring possible organizational options for the Washtenaw County road commission is recommending that it remain an independent operation, and not be absorbed into the county government.

Pat Kelly, Alicia Ping, Doug Fuller, Washtenaw County road commission, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly, Washtenaw County commissioner Alicia Ping, and Doug Fuller, chair of the county road commission board. Ping chairs a subcommittee that’s looking at the future of the road commission. Kelly is a member of that subcommittee, which met on March 1, 2014 at the county administration building in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

The recommendation was made at a March 1 meeting, and will be forwarded to the county board of commissioners, an elected body that has authority to make changes in the road commission’s organizational structure.

The vote came over dissent from Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9), who argued that consolidating the road commission into the county would allow for more flexibility and accountability in oversight. Currently, the road commission is overseen by a board with three members appointed by the county board of commissioners to six-year terms. Smith thought that asking voters to approve a countywide road millage – when the revenues aren’t allocated by an elected body – would be a tough sell. It would be especially tough to sell to voters in the city of Ann Arbor, who already pay a millage for street maintenance within the city.

But others on the subcommittee were in line with the strong support from township officials for keeping the road commission independent. Most township boards in the county have passed resolutions supporting the current structure, citing their strong relationships with the road commission staff and board.

The subcommittee also discussed the option of expanding the current three-member board to five members. Pat Kelly, Dexter Township’s supervisor, voiced concerns over possible Open Meetings Act violations: Two members constitute a quorum, so any conversation about road commission business must be held in public. “I think a three-member body in the age of the Open Meetings Act is just a dangerous thing,” Kelly said. “I just don’t think it can operate properly all the time.”

The three county commissioners who serve on the subcommittee – Conan Smith, Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Alicia Ping (R-District 3) – all agreed that the question of expansion was primarily a political one, and should be taken up by the county board. Subcommittee members did not make a recommendation on this issue, but indicated that they’d be willing to discuss it further, if directed to do so by the county board.

Regarding the question of whether road commissioners should be elected positions, the subcommittee unanimously passed a resolution recommending not to pursue that option. The sense was that elections would be dominated by urban voters who are heavily Democratic, but who would be electing commissioners to oversee road projects in rural communities.

Also discussed on March 1 were possible funding options, focused primarily on (1) a countywide voter-approved millage, or (2) a levy by the county board under Act 283 of 1909, without voter approval. No recommendations were made on either of those options.

All subcommittee members agreed that action is needed to address the condition of roads, which Superior Township supervisor Ken Schwartz described as resulting from “inexcusable neglect from Lansing.” If the county board does intend to levy a millage for road projects, he urged them to act as soon as possible. Dan Smith noted that after the spring thaw, poor road conditions will be ”unlike we’ve ever experienced in our lifetime.”

Two of the three road commissioners – Doug Fuller and Barb Fuller, who are not related – attended the March 1 meeting but did not participate in the discussion. The third road commissioner – labor leader Fred Veigel, who was first appointed in 1990 – was in hospice and died the following day, on March 2.

For additional background on this process, see Chronicle coverage: “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.[Full Story]

March 3, 2014 Council Meeting: Live Updates

Editor’s note: This “Live Updates” coverage of the Ann Arbor city council’s March 3, 2014 meeting includes all the material from an earlier preview article published last week. The goal is to facilitate easier navigation from live-update material to background material already in the file.

The council’s first regular meeting in March will include several items of business leftover from previous meetings, including one resolution on affordable housing, an ordinance on outdoor smoking, and several matters related to public art.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

New to the agenda are several items related to non-motorized issues, most prominently a funding request to support the activity of an already-established task force on pedestrian safety and access.

The council will also be asked to fund requests related to city parks and other facilities like city hall and the airport. Eighteen new vehicles will also be added to the city’s fleet, contingent on council action on March 3.

The council will also consider a resolution that urges full funding of the state of Michigan’s fire protection grant program – for cities like Ann Arbor that host state-owned facilities like the University of Michigan.

In somewhat more detail, one public art issue, embodied in two different resolutions, was postponed from the council’s Feb. 18, 2014 meeting, when councilmembers could not agree on an approach to transferring money out of the public art fund back to the funds from which the money was originally drawn. The specific point dividing the council was not so much the transfer of money but rather a plan to fund the transition to a new approach to public art – after the council eliminated the Percent for Art funding mechanism last year.

Between council meetings, those issues have been separated out. The resolution ordered first on the agenda has been altered for consideration on March 3 so that it focuses exclusively on the public art program transition issue. The second resolution incorporates changes to reflect the council’s deliberations on Feb. 18: It transfers a total of $943,005 of Percent for Art money to its funds of origin, an amount that defunds the art project at Argo Cascades, but keeps funding for the Coleman Jewett memorial and for a project called Canoe Imagine Art. [public art resolution (1) for consideration on March 3, 2014] [public art resolution (2) for consideration on March 3, 2014]

That disagreement over funding of the new approach to public art – created by the council last summer when it eliminated the Percent for Art funding mechanism – is also related to another public art item on the agenda. That’s a six-month contract extension for the city’s part-time public art administrator. The item first appeared on the council’s Jan. 21 agenda, but the council postponed that vote until Feb. 3, when it was defeated. On Feb. 18 it was then brought back for reconsideration, but immediately postponed until the March 3 meeting.

Also postponed from Feb. 18 is an item that would direct the city administrator to prepare for the council’s approval a budget resolution regarding affordable housing. The resolution would allocate $600,000 from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to support the Ann Arbor housing commission’s plan to renovate its properties. That allocation would be contingent on the closing of the sale of the former Y lot to Dennis Dahlmann, as the net proceeds of that sale are to be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

Postponed from the Feb. 3 meeting was the first reading of an ordinance that would regulate smoking outside of public buildings and also potentially in areas of some city parks. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5), sponsor of the new proposed local law, appeared before the park advisory commission at its Feb. 25 meeting to brief commissioners on the proposal and solicit feedback.

New items on the March 3 agenda include a funding proposal for the pedestrian safety and access task force established by the city council late last year, with members appointed in late January. The $122,250 item also includes a $77,500 contract for facilitation services from Project Innovations. That’s the same firm contracted for similar work in connection with the city’s sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation – which is expected to conclude in the summer of 2014. [The total amount being appropriated for the task force project budget in the item is $197,250. The stated “estimated $122,500” is the approximate cost of the anticipated staff effort for this project. The total project budget includes $77,400 for the professional services agreement with Project Innovations, Inc.]

Other issues on the March 3 agenda with a non-motorized connection are three stretches of sidewalk. In the context of sanitary sewer design work that Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc. is being hired to do, two sidewalks are included: a stretch along Barton Drive, and a stretch along Scio Church Road. The council will also be asked to pay for the construction of a stretch of sidewalk along Ann Arbor-Saline Road near the I-94 bridge – as part of a road reconstruction project that the Michigan Dept. of Transportation is handling.

Another new item is a resolution that Jack Eaton (Ward 4) had announced at the council’s Feb. 18 meeting that he’d be bringing forward. It would waive the attorney-client privilege on a staff memo about laws governing the assessment of homes. The resolution indicates that the memo addresses the effect that reducing the assessment for one year would have on the property tax assessment for the subsequent year, based on action by the Board of Review and/or the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

In other action, the council will be asked on March 3 to approve the purchase from Signature Ford of 18 new vehicles – most of them for use by the Ann Arbor police department. Total cost of the purchase is $457,393.

City parks factor into three agenda items: (1) a resolution to establish an urban park on part of the surface level of the Library Lane underground parking structure; (2) a paving contract for the replacement of basketball and tennis courts at Clinton Park; and (3) a grant application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Grants Management to support a universal access playground at Gallup Park. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor has already pledged $250,000 toward such a playground.

The city hall (Larcom Building) is featured in two agenda items – to pay $160,923 for a secondary chiller unit and $28,469 for new light fixtures. An amendment to an agreement with MDOT for an already-completed fence project at the Ann Arbor municipal airport also appears on the agenda, and will cost the city $425.

After authorizing significant equipment purchases to support water main repair activity at its Feb. 18 meeting, the council will be asked to approve two additional items related to water main repair. One item is a $44,702 emergency purchase order to buy more aggregate material used for backfilling water main repairs. A second item authorizes an emergency purchase order for repairing and making a new connection for the water main at 1214 S. University. In both cases, the emergency purchase orders were authorized by the city administrator, and the work was done.

Street closures for two events are on the council’s March 3 agenda: Take Back the Night and the Monroe Street Fair.

Also on the agenda is a resolution that would encourage Gov. Rick Snyder, state senator Rebekah Warren, and state representatives Jeff Irwin and Adam Zemke to explore creative ways to fund the state’s fire protection grant program for municipalities like Ann Arbor, which host state institutions. In the last three years, the program has been only 40-55% funded.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Monday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network starting at 7 p.m.

The Chronicle will be filing live updates from city council chambers during the meeting, published in this article below the preview material. Click here to skip the preview section and go directly to the live updates. The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

Process Debated for Platt Road, Act 88 Funds

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 19, 2014): A broad community planning process for the future of Platt Road property owned by Washtenaw County is moving forward, after the county board approved a set of recommendations made by a citizens advisory group.

Jason Morgan, Washtenaw Community College, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jason Morgan, director of government relations for Washtenaw Community College, was appointed to the county’s community action board during the Feb. 19 meeting of the county board of commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

The vote was unanimous, but came after Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) raised concerns about the affordable housing component of the project. The planning process will use a $100,000 grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), with a stipulation that planning for the 13.5-acre property – south of Washtenaw Avenue – include consideration of affordable housing.

When debate was cut short through a procedural move, Peterson criticized commissioners for not spending more time on the topic – though it had been discussed at length during the board’s Feb. 5, 2014 meeting. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who is helping to lead the project and who serves as chair of the board’s working sessions, indicated support for discussing it further at an upcoming session.

Peterson also voiced concerns about a new Act 88 advisory committee, which resulted in a postponement of the first appointment to that group until March 19. The committee had been created at the board’s Nov. 6, 2013 meeting, as part of a broader policy to help the board allocate revenues levied under Act 88 of 1913. No appointments have been made, however. The county levies the tax to fund economic development and agricultural activities, including Ann Arbor SPARK.

As he has in previous board discussions, Peterson expressed concern that the board was abdicating its responsibility to allocate funding. Other commissioners assured him that the committee will deliver recommendations, but the board retains authority for making the allocations.

In other action, the board gave authority to the Washtenaw County clerk/register of deeds office to reduce the fee for expediting marriage licenses under certain circumstances – from $50 to 1 cent. The vote came over dissent from Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1), who argued that fees should be applied equally to all applicants – whatever the amount. He also didn’t think the criteria for applying the waiver were clear. County clerk Larry Kestenbaum cited some examples of when this fee reduction might be used. As one example, he noted that the vital records office anticipates moving later this year to the space where the deeds office currently is, so the office will likely be closed for more than three days.

Kestenbaum also reported that last year, his office had anticipated that a lot of people would want to get married right away because of a possible change in the state’s same-sex marriage law. He said he announced at that time that he intended to waive the fee, but “my authority to do that has been questioned.” He subsequently looked at the state statute, which requires a fee to be set by the county board and charged – whether it’s $5, or $50, or 1 cent. “It’s your authority to do this,” he told commissioners.

During the Feb. 19 meeting, commissioners also gave final approval to create a new dental clinic in Ypsilanti for low-income residents, and heard public commentary regarding the importance of the GED (general education diploma).

Updates and communications included news that the Sharon Township board of trustees had passed a resolution urging the board to keep the road commission as an independent entity. At the county board’s Oct. 2, 2013 meeting, commissioners had created a seven-member subcommittee to “explore partnerships and organizational interactions with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.” State legislation enacted in 2012 opened the possibility of absorbing the road commission into county operations, which would give county commissioners direct control over funding and operations now administered by the road commission.

However, it’s unlikely that will happen. During a 2.5-hour meeting on March 1, the subcommittee voted to recommend that the duties and responsibilities of the road commission should not be transferred to the county board of commissioners. Alicia Ping (R-District 3), who chairs the subcommittee, told The Chronicle that she’ll be bringing the recommendation to the board at its meeting on March 5. [Full Story]

Lawsuit Filed on City Footing Drain Program

A lawsuit has now been filed in Washtenaw County’s 22nd Circuit Court challenging the legal foundation of the city of Ann Arbor’s footing drain disconnection (FDD) ordinance.

A lawsuit has been filed in the 22nd circuit court challenging the constitutionality of the city of Ann Arbor's footing drain disconnection program.

A lawsuit has been filed in the 22nd Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of the city of Ann Arbor’s footing drain disconnection program. (Illustration by The Chronicle.)

The ordinance was enacted in 2001. It establishes a program under which property owners can be required to disconnect their footing drains from the sanitary sewer system. Its intent is to diminish the risk of sanitary overflows into the Huron River and of sanitary sewage backups in homeowners’ basements.

In connection with that lawsuit, a motion for a preliminary injunction has also been filed, asking that the court order the city immediately to stop enforcement of its ordinance.

[FDDP-Complaint-Feb.27.2014-OCR] [FDDP-Motion-Feb.27.2014-OCR]

In September 2012, the Ann Arbor city council already took action partially to suspend the FDD program. That council decision of nearly 18 months ago came not in response to a formal legal action, but rather coincided with complaints from residents in the southeastern part of the city.

Then about a year ago, in February 2013, the city authorized a contract with an engineering firm to undertake a sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation (SSWWE) – in part to determine the impact of the FDD program to date. At a public meeting on the SSWWE held two weeks ago, on Feb. 6, 2014, the future status of the FDD program was portrayed as dubious: Even if the SSWWE study eventually identified an ongoing risk of sewage backups in Ann Arbor basements, the FDD would probably not continue “as is.”

The lawsuit claims the city’s FDD ordinance violates: (1) the Michigan state law setting forth the requirements for a government to take private property for public use; (2) the Michigan state constitutional prohibition against taking private property for public use without just compensation; (3) the corresponding U.S. constitutional prohibition against taking private property, which is a Fifth Amendment claim; and (4) the prohibition against violating the federally protected rights of others, which is a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

The lawsuit asks that the court declare the FDD ordinance is “unconstitutional, on its face and as implemented.”

Plaintiffs in the case are Ann Arbor residents John Boyer, Mary Jean Raab and Anita Yu. They are represented by attorneys Dan O’Brien, who’s chair of the litigation department at Woods Oviatt Gilman in Rochester, New York; Irvin Mermelstein, a local Ann Arbor attorney in private practice; and Mark Koroi, a Plymouth attorney.

Background leading up to the filing, as well as a description of the filing, has been tracked on a2underwater.com. Mermelstein is the resident agent for a2underwater, LLC.

The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 27, 2014. It has been assigned to judge Donald Shelton.

Some of the legal theories on which the lawsuit is based have already surfaced in correspondence that’s become public. And some aspects of the city’s potential defense against a lawsuit may have already been described publicly by assistant city attorney Abigail Elias. That description came at a recent meeting of a citizens advisory committee that is supposed to make a recommendation sometime in the summer of 2014 on the future of the FDD program. For additional background on the topic of the footing drain disconnection program, see Chronicle coverage: “Backups: Lawyers, Sewers, Pumps.” [Full Story]

March 3, 2014: Ann Arbor Council Preview

The council’s first regular meeting in March will include several items of business leftover from previous meetings, including one resolution on affordable housing, an ordinance on outdoor smoking, and several matters related to public art.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor online agenda management system. Image links to the next meeting agenda.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor’s online agenda management system. Image links to the March 3, 2014 meeting agenda.

New to the agenda are several items related to non-motorized issues, most prominently a funding request to support the activity of an already-established task force on pedestrian safety and access.

The council will also be asked to fund requests related to city parks and other city facilities like city hall and the airport. Eighteen new vehicles will also be added to the city’s fleet, contingent on council action on March 3.

The council will also consider a resolution that urges full funding of the state of Michigan’s fire protection grant program – for cities like Ann Arbor that host state-owned facilities like the University of Michigan.

In somewhat more detail, one public art issue, embodied in two different resolutions, was postponed from the council’s Feb. 18, 2014 meeting, when councilmembers could not agree on an approach to transferring money out of the public art fund back to the funds from which the money was originally drawn. The specific point dividing the council was not so much the transfer of money but rather a plan to fund the new approach to public art – after the council eliminated the Percent for Art funding mechanism last year.

Updated March 1, 2014: The first resolution has been altered for consideration on March 3 so that it focuses exclusively on the public art program transition issue. The second resolution incorporates changes to reflect the council’s deliberations on Feb. 18: It transfers a total of $943,005 of Percent for Art money to its funds of origin, an amount that defunds the art project at Argo Cascades, but keeps funding for the Coleman Jewett memorial and for a project called Canoe Imagine Art.  [public art resolution (1) for consideration on March 3, 2014] [public art resolution (2) for consideration on March 3, 2014]

That disagreement over funding of the newly created program is also related to another public art item on the agenda – a six-month contract extension for the city’s part-time public art administrator. The item first appeared on the council’s Jan. 21 agenda, but the council postponed that vote until Feb. 3, when it was defeated. On Feb. 18 it was then brought back for reconsideration, but immediately postponed until the March 3 meeting.

Also postponed from Feb. 18 is an item that would direct the city administrator to prepare for the council’s approval a budget resolution regarding affordable housing. The resolution would allocate $600,000 from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to support the Ann Arbor housing commission’s plan to renovate its properties. That allocation would be contingent on the closing of the sale of the former Y lot to Dennis Dahlmann, as the net proceeds of that sale are to be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

Postponed from the Feb. 3 meeting was the first reading of an ordinance that would regulate smoking outside of public buildings and also potentially in areas of some city parks. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5), sponsor of the new proposed local law, appeared before the park advisory commission at its Feb. 25 meeting to brief commissioners on the proposal and solicit feedback.

New items on the March 3 agenda include a funding proposal for the pedestrian safety and access task force established by the city council late last year, with members appointed in late January. The $122,250 item includes a $77,500 contract for facilitation services from Project Innovations. That’s the same firm contracted for similar work in connection with the city’s sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation – which is expected to conclude in the summer of 2014.

Other issues on the March 3 agenda with a non-motorized connection are three stretches of sidewalk. In the context of sanitary sewer design work that Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc. is being hired to do, two sidewalks are included: a stretch along Barton Drive, and a stretch along Scio Church Road. The council will also be asked to pay for the construction of a stretch of sidewalk along Ann Arbor-Saline Road near the I-94 bridge – as part of a road reconstruction project that the Michigan Dept. of Transportation is handling.

Another new item is a resolution that Jack Eaton (Ward 4) had announced at the council’s Feb. 18 meeting that he’d be bringing forward. It would waive the attorney-client privilege on a staff memo about laws governing the assessment of homes. The resolution indicates that the memo addresses the effect that reducing the assessment for one year would have on the property tax assessment for the subsequent year, based on action by the Board of Review and/or the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

In other action, the council will be asked on March 3 to approve the purchase from Signature Ford of 18 new vehicles – most of them for use by the Ann Arbor police department. Total cost of the purchase is $457,393.

City parks factor into three agenda items: (1) a resolution to establish an urban park on part of the surface level of the Library Lane underground parking structure; (2) a paving contract for the replacement of basketball and tennis courts at Clinton Park; and (3) a grant application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Grants Management (MDNRGM) to support a universal access playground at Gallup Park. The Rotary Club has already pledged $250,000 toward such a playground.

The city hall (Larcom Building) is featured in two agenda items – to pay $160,923 for a secondary chiller unit and $28,469 for new light fixtures. An amendment to an agreement with MDOT for an already-completed fence project at the Ann Arbor municipal airport also appears on the agenda, and will cost the city $425.

After authorizing significant equipment purchases to support water main repair activity at its Feb. 18 meeting, the council will be asked to approve two additional items related to water main repair. One item is a $44,702 emergency purchase order to buy more aggregate material used for backfilling water main repairs. A second item authorizes an emergency purchase order for repairing and making a new connection for the water main at 1214 S. University. In both cases, the emergency purchase orders were authorized by the city administrator, and the work was done.

Street closures for two events are on the council’s March 3 agenda: Take Back the Night and the Monroe Street Fair.

Also on the agenda is a resolution that would encourage Gov. Rick Snyder, state senator Rebekah Warren, and state representatives Jeff Irwin and Adam Zemke to explore creative ways to fund the state’s fire protection grant program for municipalities like Ann Arbor, which host state institutions. In the last three years, the program has been only 40-55% funded.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Monday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network starting at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

Edwards Brothers Vote: Town-Gown Relations

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Feb. 24, 2014): Mayor John Hieftje welcomed high school students attending the meeting to satisfy course requirement by telling them they were probably getting off easy compared to other nights.

The Ann Arbor city council declined to exercise its right of first refusal on the Edwards Brothers Property at its special session on Feb. 24, 2014. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) compared the process of reviewing the options over the last few weeks to riding a "see saw." (Art by The Chronicle.)

The Ann Arbor city council declined to exercise its right of first refusal on the Edwards Brothers Malloy property at its special session on Feb. 24, 2014. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) compared the process of reviewing the options over the last few weeks to riding a “see saw.” (“Art” by The Chronicle.)

That’s because the meeting was a special session, dealing with just one substantive issue: a resolution to exercise the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the 16.7 acre Edwards Brothers Malloy property on South State Street, and a closed session to discuss that issue.

The council’s 5-6 vote on the land acquisition fell short of a simple majority, let alone the 8-vote majority it needed. That vote came after the closed session, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. The council then deliberated for about an hour and 10 minutes.

The council’s decision came four days after the University of Michigan’s board of regents had authorized proceeding with a purchase of the property for $12.8 million. The site is located at 2500-2550 South State Street, immediately adjacent to existing UM athletic facilities. It’s assumed the university would use the land at least in part to support its athletic campus.

Voting to exercise the right of first refusal were: Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Jane Lumm (Ward 2), Margie Teall (Ward 4), and mayor John Hieftje.

Voting against exercising the right of first refusal were: Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Jack Eaton (Ward 4), Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

Deliberations focused on two main issues: (1) the financial risks and benefits; and (2) the city’s relationship with the university.

The motivation for the city to exercise its right of first refusal on the property was based in large part on a desire to protect the city’s tax base. The property current generates roughly $50,000 in annual real property tax revenue to the city’s general fund. But the city’s total revenue from the parcel is just 28% of the total taxes levied by all jurisdictions. The net present value over the next 25 years of the levy from all jurisdictions is roughly $6 million. That was weighed by the council against a purchase price of $12.8 million that reflected a “premium” over the appraised value of around $8 million.

Also a factor weighed by the council was a $218,000 annual holding cost for the land, which reflected a 1.7% interest rate that Flagstar Bank had offered. That’s about half the rate the council was assuming in its earlier review of its options.

Another piece of the financial equation was that the some of the tax abatement previously granted by the city to Edwards Brothers would be coming back to the taxing jurisdictions. That’s because by selling the property, Edwards Brothers would not be meeting all the terms of the tax abatement. There’s a clawback provision in that case – which returns taxes to jurisdictions amounting to a total of $200,000. Of that total, the city’s portion is $90,000. It’s under the terms of that tax abatement that the city had obtained a right of first refusal on the sale of the property.

The deal would have been financed from the general fund. According to the city’s year-end audited statements for FY 2013, the general fund unassigned balance stood at $14,392,854 as of June 30, 2013.

Councilmembers like Eaton and Kailasapathy were clearly opposed to exercising the city’s right of first refusal, based on the substantial risk they thought the city would be taking. Everything would need to go right, in order for the city to come out ahead, they said. Kailasapathy indicated that the “premium” price to be paid by the city for the real estate was a significant reason to vote against it.

Kunselman, in voting against the resolution, relied on what’s become for him a familiar criticism of “speculative development.” He cited in part what he’d learned taking a course on real estate from local developer Peter Allen, a lecturer at UM.

Councilmembers like Warpehoski and Taylor were less adamant about their no votes. Warpehoski thought the odds were “better than even” that the city would come out ahead long-term. But because the city would be gambling with public funds, he wondered if “better than even” was good enough. “Right now, I’m thinking maybe not,” he concluded. Earlier in the meeting Taylor had offered similar sentiments, saying that he’d “regretfully” vote no. “We could have pulled it off; we had a reasonable shot at pulling it off. In light of our mission, I think a reasonable shot is not good enough,” Taylor said.

The sixth vote against the resolution came from Anglin. He responded to one of the arguments made by those who supported the resolution – that by exercising its right of first refusal, the city could leverage some collaboration with the university on the future of the parcel. For Anglin, the price was too high just to sit at the same table with the university.

Petersen, Briere and Lumm specifically mentioned the ability to leverage some cooperation from the university on the future of the land as one argument for exercising the city’s right of first refusal. Kunselman called that trying to take the parcel hostage and holding a gun to the university’s head. But some who supported the resolution saw the possibility that exercising the right of first refusal could lead to improved city-university relations.

Hieftje ventured that the city-university relationship is as good now as it has ever been, adding: It’s a good relationship as long as things happen the way the university wants them to.

Those voting yes generally felt that the risk to the city posed by exercising the right of first refusal justified the potential benefit to the city’s tax base. They also cited the opportunity to control the future of the parcel, and to influence development in that part of the city. Responding to a remark from Warpehoski earlier in the meeting – that the South State Street corridor did not give him “warm fuzzies” – Teall said: “I like it. It’s my neighborhood.”

Some background information on the possible acquisition of the property by the city was released last week, on Feb. 18, the day of a regular council meeting. [Edwards Brothers chart] [Additional offer for Edwards Brothers] [Feb. 18, 2014 memo to council]

This article provides more background on the council’s handling of the issue, a sketch of the deliberations, and a more detailed presentation of the deliberations. [Full Story]

Planning Bylaws Clarify Council Interactions

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Feb. 20, 2014): Wrapping up a process that began last year, planning commissioners voted to revise their bylaws related to two issues: how city councilmembers interact with the commission; and public hearings.

Eleanore Adenekan, Diane Giannola, Bonnie Bona, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor planning commissioners Eleanore Adenekan, Diane Giannola and Bonnie Bona. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners had debated the proposed revisions at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session. Some of the same issues were raised during the Feb. 20 discussion, which was relatively brief.

One revision clarifies the limitations on a city councilmember’s interaction with the commission. The revised section states: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.” The intent is to prevent undue influence on the commission, and to avoid the possibility of legal action against the city.

Other revisions affect speaking turns at public hearings. The intent is to clarify how many turns the same person can speak at a public hearing, and how public hearings are continued if an item is postponed.

In other action, commissioners recommended rezoning a parcel on the city’s north side to public land (PL). The 2.2-acre site at 3301 Traverwood Drive, donated to the city by developer Bill Martin, is being added to the adjacent Stapp Nature Area, near the Leslie Park golf course. It was originally zoned R4D (multi-family dwelling) and had been part of a larger site that’s being developed with an apartment complex.

During communications, Kirk Westphal reported on a project that the environmental commission is working on: a neighborhood mini-grant program. Volunteers would coordinate a competitive grant program for community groups, who could apply to fund projects that address one of the city’s goals in its sustainability framework. That’s in the planning stages, he said.

Westphal also distributed a copy of a resolution recently passed by the city’s energy commission. It supports a recommendation to hire a full-time employee to focus on projects that help achieve goals in the city’s climate action plan. Westphal indicated that the planning commission’s executive committee would be discussing it. The energy commission would like a supporting resolution from the planning commission.

Commissioners also heard from two Skyline High School students, who spoke during public commentary as part of a class assignment. They talked about the importance of the Huron River and of the Huron River Watershed Council‘s River Up project. The planning commission’s work plan includes looking at how to implement recommendations from city’s North Main Huron River corridor task force. [Full Story]

Tax Question Focus of Transit Board Meeting

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (Feb. 20, 2014): The audience for the board’s regular monthly meeting was the largest in at least five years, as 35-40 people attended to show support for the main item on the agenda.

CEO of the AAATA Michael Ford

Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, just before the start of the Feb. 20, 2014 AAATA board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

That main item was a board vote to place a millage request before voters on May 6, 2014. The request – on a 0.7 mill tax that would be levied to pay for additional services over the next five years – would need a majority of votes across the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to be approved.

The millage is supposed to pay for a set of service improvements over a period of five years. Those improvements include increased frequency during peak hours, extended service in the evenings, and additional service on weekends. Some looped routes are being replaced with out-and-back type route configurations. The plan does not include operation of rail-based services.

The AAATA has calculated that the improvements in service add up to 90,000 additional service hours per year, compared to the current service levels, which is a 44% increase.

The board’s vote to put the question on a May 6 ballot was unanimous, and came after more than a dozen people spoke during public commentary at the start of the meeting, urging the board to take the step of making a funding request of voters.

Elected officials as well as leaders of the faith, labor and disability communities all spoke in favor of making the request of voters to fund the service expansion, citing arguments based on economic and social justice. They pointed to the long period of planning that had begun about three years ago with a much more ambitious effort to expand service countywide. The current, more limited approach – focused just on the “urban core” area of the city of Ann Arbor and the two Ypsilanti jurisdictions – was a way to meet urgent transportation needs, they said.

After the board’s vote, during public commentary at the end of the meeting, one Ypsilanti resident recalled her own history marching with Rosa Parks down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Although she’s been involved in activism for many years, she told the board, she could not think of anything that she was in the room to witness that was this important to her personally and to the city in which she lives.

Compared to typical AAATA board meetings, the atmosphere was relatively boisterous, as supporters at times chanted, “More buses, more places, more often!” But one speaker at the end of the meeting cautioned against the celebratory mood, saying there was now a lot of work to do. A counterpoint to the solid support the board heard from most of the speakers had been offered by the very first speaker of the evening. He asked the board to delay the election until November, arguing that it would save the roughly $80,000-$100,000 cost of holding the May election, and result in broader participation in the vote. Another point raised by that speaker was concern that everyone pay an equitable share for the additional transportation.

Although the main event was the resolution that placed the millage question on the ballot, the board’s agenda featured nine other items, many of which were at least tangentially related to the millage question.

For example, in other action the board approved a change to its budget to allow for up to $100,000 to be spent on the cost of holding the special election. The board also approved a funding agreement with Ypsilanti Township, to make explicit what will happen to the township’s existing purchase of service agreement (POSA) if the millage is approved. And as part of the board’s routine annual business, it approved a funding request to the state of Michigan – but did not factor in an increased level of service in the budget submitted to the state. That was done on the instruction of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. That request can be amended if the millage succeeds.

Also at the Feb. 20 meeting, the board approved changes to its bylaws. Those changes were prompted by a change in governance to the AAATA last year – the addition of the two Ypsilanti jurisdictions. With the increase from seven to 10 members, the definition for the number of board members constituting a quorum or a majority needed to be modified. Out of that review of the bylaws came a decision to increase public speaking turns from a two-minute time limit to three minutes.

In other business, the board approved the hiring of a consultant to help the AAATA with a planned upgrade to its computer-aided dispatch and vehicle locating software. The board also approved the recently completed audit report for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2013.

Another item approved by the board was a new contract for unarmed security services. And finally, the board authorized a contract for an insurance broker.

Among the various operational updates received by the board was the announcement that the newly constructed Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor would be open by March 17, 2014. [Full Story]

Redesign Planned for Library “Front Porch”

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Feb. 17, 2014): Work on a significant redesign to the front entrance of the downtown Ann Arbor library is moving forward, following action this month by the AADL board.

Ann Arbor District Library, InForm Studio, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rendering of proposed new entry at downtown Ann Arbor library, located at 343 S. Fifth Ave. (Image by InForm Studio.)

A vote to continue with the project followed a presentation by Cory Lavigne of InForm Studio, the architecture firm that previously designed AADL’s Traverwood branch. A final design will likely be brought forward for approval at the board’s April 21 meeting, after a public forum in mid-March. Update: The forum is scheduled for Thursday, March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the downtown building.

The entrance would continue to be oriented to South Fifth Avenue, with new doors into the building. The plan described by Lavigne includes replacing the existing teal strip that wraps around the front of the building – above the doors and windows – with a “concrete skin” panel. Wood paneling would be used in the ceiling of the outside walkway adjacent to the building. Sloping entry walkways would be located on the north side from the Library Lane parking structure and on the south side from William Street, with steps in front leading to South Fifth Avenue. Additional elements include landscaping, a bench, handrails and other features that visually link the library to the adjacent city-owned Library Lane.

The north side of the front facade, closest to Library Lane, would also include a large, translucent sign – made of glass or cast resin – that would be placed between existing brick columns, creating a screen along part of the walkway on that side of the building. The sign would be lit from the inside, with additional lighting along the walkway, to create a glowing effect.

It was that sign element that drew some criticism and concern at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting, primarily from Ed Surovell. He cautioned against creating any kind of shelter, saying it would simply be “an inviting nuisance.” AADL director Josie Parker acknowledged the concern, saying that she had discussed the issue with the library’s security staff as well. She told the board that no matter how the area is designed, security issues will always be a factor and would be handled as they are now, by security staff.

In other action at the board meeting, trustees approved revisions to more than a dozen sections of the AADL policy manual, and voted to create a new committee to help develop the next strategic plan, for 2015-2020. That planning effort had been the focus of a Feb. 3, 2014 board retreat.

Board members also got a brief update on the agreement for a new bike share program called ArborBike, which trustees will likely be asked to approve at their March 17 meeting. It relates to a bike station that will be located on the northern end of the downtown library’s property.

During her director’s report, Josie Parker told the board that the downtown library will be a site for the Living Lab Initiative, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. AADL will be the first public library to be involved in this project, and researchers will be working in the youth department through the end of September.

The board also heard from two people during public commentary: Changming Fan of TiniLite World Inc., who expressed interest in working with the library; and Jamie Vander Broek, a University of Michigan librarian and homeowner who described several reasons why she appreciated AADL. She concluded her remarks by saying: “I love paying my taxes for this library.” [Full Story]

County Board Briefed on Shelter Services

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Feb. 6, 2014): Following a large turnout of homeless advocates at their Jan. 22, 2014 meeting, county commissioners received an update from the leader of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which operates the Delonis Center shelter near downtown Ann Arbor.

Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Delonis Center, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Billboard on West Huron, facing eastbound traffic, to seek support for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. The Delonis Center homeless shelter is located across the street. (Photos by the writer.)

Ellen Schulmeister, the Shelter Association’s executive director, called this season “The Winter of Great Effort,” with harsher weather and more demand for services. She described efforts to shelter the homeless in the short term, but noted that the broader goal is to find housing and provide support services to eliminate chronic homelessness.

Schulmeister reported that the county’s funding to the Delonis Center had been cut during the economic downturn, and she hoped that levels would increase. ”We need you to do that,” she said.

Washtenaw County government owns the building where the Delonis Center is located, and pays for maintenance. In addition, the county provided $51,230 for the Delonis Center in 2013 and increased that amount to $160,000 this year. The county funding is set to increase again to $200,000 in 2015 and remain at that level through 2017. The Shelter Association’s annual budget is $2.583 million.

Yousef Rabhi, chair of the county board, called the Delonis Center’s work ”inspirational,” but noted that the issue needs to be addressed by the entire community. He’s working to organize a summit, bringing together stakeholders from the government, nonprofits and other entities working to end homelessness. Rabhi said the effort should include representatives from the Ann Arbor District Library – because the downtown library serves as a de facto shelter during the day, even though that’s not the library’s purpose.

Schulmeister agreed on the importance of partnerships, adding that the barriers also include a lack of affordable housing and jobs. “It takes a community to house someone – it really does,” she said.

The Feb. 6 working session also included an update from Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. As with the Delonis Center, the county also owns the SafeHouse building and pays for maintenance, as well as providing funding for the nonprofit’s services.

Niess-May told commissioners that she’s been doing this work for 20 years, but this is the worst time for funding she’s seen for these kinds of programs. She pointed out that funding from the county has dropped to $48,000 annually through 2017, and she hoped that the amount could be increased. The total SafeHouse budget is $1.4 million.

Dan Smith (R-District 2) noted that the number of people that SafeHouse serves each year – more than 5,000 – represents almost 2% of the county’s population. He highlighted the fact that Washtenaw County has fewer domestic violence homicides per capita than any other county in the state. To him, a statistic like that directly connects to the county’s mandates because of the clear reduction of work load on the court system and jail, as well as the number of lives saved. He considered SafeHouse part of the county’s mandate for public safety and justice.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) observed that the board has discussed the option of a human services millage that would support services like those that SafeHouse offers. He encouraged Niess-May to include the county’s funding cuts as part of her communications to others in the community. It might lead them to support raising additional revenue for SafeHouse and other organizations, he said.  [Full Story]

Feb. 18, 2014 Council Meeting: Live Updates

Editor’s note: This “Live Updates” coverage of the Ann Arbor city council’s Feb. 18, 2014 meeting includes all the material from an earlier preview article published last week. We think that will facilitate easier navigation from the live updates section to background material already in the file.

The council’s Feb. 18, 2014 agenda is highlighted by public art policy issues leftover from its previous meeting, as well as several items related to acquiring various pieces of basic equipment – from a garbage truck to a wood chipper.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

The possible acquisition of land is also on the agenda, in the form of a resolution postponed from an earlier meeting. The resolution would exercise the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the 16.7-acre Edwards Brothers Malloy property on South State Street. This process began when the University of Michigan offered to buy the property. An item authorizing the $12.8 million purchase is on the Feb. 20 UM board of regents agenda, based on the assumption that the city won’t exercise its right of first refusal earlier in the week.

In other action, the council will consider an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance for a second and final vote on Feb. 18, having given initial approval to the item on Feb. 3. The ordinance amendment would allow the council to transfer money that accumulated in the public art fund through the (now demised) Percent for Art funding mechanism in previous years. The money would be transferred back to the funds from which it was originally drawn – but that transfer would require a separate council action. To be approved, the ordinance change will need a six-vote majority on the 11-member council. The enactment of an ordinance can be vetoed by the mayor, but a veto can be overridden by an eight-vote majority.

Dependent on the public art ordinance amendment are two competing resolutions that would return money from the public art fund to the funds from which that money was drawn. That includes funds like the sanitary sewer fund and the street millage fund. Based on the Feb. 3 council deliberations, the debate on such a resolution would likely center on the amount to be returned to funds of origin, not the question of returning at least some of the money. And that point of possible disagreement is reflected in the amounts specified in the two resolutions. A resolution sponsored by Jane Lumm (Ward 2), Jack Eaton (Ward 4) and Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) would transfer $819,005 back to the funds of origin.

A resolution added later to the agenda is sponsored by Sabra Briere (Ward 1). Briere’s proposal would eliminate funding for the stalled Argo Cascades art project and would return $957,140 to the funds of origin. Briere’s resolution also directs the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for both the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years. [An initial list of requests from department heads for FY 2015, released by the city on Feb. 10, shows an $80,000 request for arts administration, which includes funds for a full-time art administrator.]

Either of the two proposed resolutions related to public art funds would require eight votes to pass.

Also expected back from the Feb. 3 agenda is a resolution that was defeated at that meeting – to extend the contract for the part-time public art administrator by six months and to appropriate funds to cover that $18,500 contract. It would need eight votes to pass. The result of the Feb. 3 council vote was that public art administrator Aaron Seagraves cannot currently be paid. The contract is supposed to be back on Feb. 18 for reconsideration – as part of the political bargain among councilmembers on the overall question of how the Percent for Art money that accumulated in the public art fund will be handled.

The council’s Feb. 18 agenda also features several pieces of equipment essential to core services. One of those core services is the repair of water main breaks, which have increased in frequency in recent weeks as the ground moves due to deeper and deeper penetration of frost. The council will be asked to approve the $441,535 purchase of a combination sewer truck, which is outfitted with a vacuum device – often used to control water in an excavation during the repair of a water main break. Also deployed when repairing water main breaks is a hydraulic excavator. So the council will be asked to approve the purchase of one for $176,472. Both of those authorizations are replacements of existing city equipment.

The council will also be asked to approve the purchase of a new garbage truck for $93,800. The purchase of two vans for a total of $50,320 is also on the council’s Feb. 18 agenda. The vans will be used by the parks and recreation staff to shuttle passengers when they start a river trip at one of the cities liveries on the Huron River. Rounding out equipment purchases is a $83,208 wood chipper.

Another piece of equipment shows up on the agenda in the form of a grant application the council is being asked to approve. The $334,140 grant application is being made to the 2013 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – to acquire a mobile training facility to train firefighters. The 48-foot-long unit will allow live fire and tactical simulations.

In addition to the Edwards Brothers deal, several other real estate matters are on the Feb. 18 agenda. The council will be asked to approve the acquisition of development rights for two properties, using funds from the greenbelt millage. The first is a 24-acre parcel just north of the Huron River in Scio Township. The city of Ann Arbor will be contributing $25,200 to the total $84,000 cost of purchasing development rights, with the township contributing the difference. The second greenbelt property on the agenda is a 64-acre property on Zeeb Road, also in Scio Township. For that deal, the city is contributing $39,000 to the total purchase price of $130,335.

Related to land use, council will also be asked to give final approval to the zoning of the Hofmann property on South State Street – to C1 (local business district). The property houses Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky.

On the consent agenda is a contract with MDOT for reimbursement to the city for a portion of the cost to install rectangular rapid flashing beacons at three locations: on Geddes Road at Gallup Park; Fuller Road 400 feet east of Cedar Bend Drive; and on South University Avenue at Tappan Avenue. The city’s cost for the $47,971 project would be $14,179.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items for the Feb. 18 meeting, which was shifted to Tuesday because of the Presidents Day holiday on Monday. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Tuesday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network.

The Chronicle will be filing live updates from city council chambers during the meeting, published in this article below the preview material. Click here to skip the preview section and go directly to the live updates. The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

Planning Group Weighs Council Interactions

Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Feb. 4, 2014): Continuing a discussion that began last year, planning commissioners debated two aspects of their bylaws, in preparation for a vote on proposed revisions to those rules at their Feb. 20 meeting.

Eleanore Adenekan, Jeremy Peters, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor planning commissioners Eleanore Adenekan and Jeremy Peters at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session in the basement of city hall. (Photos by the writer.)

Most of their discussion at the Feb. 4 working session focused on how the city council interacts with the commission. The issue stems from an episode last year when councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) began to speak during a public hearing on a project in his neighborhood. He hadn’t been aware of the bylaws governing whether councilmembers can formally address the commission.

A similar situation occurred at an ordinance revisions committee meeting later in the year, when councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) started to address the commissioners during public commentary. In both cases, the councilmembers were told that the commission’s bylaws prevented them from speaking.

The current bylaws state: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission as a petitioner, representative of a petitioner or as a party interested in a petition during the Council member’s term of office.”

Jack Eaton (Ward 4) weighed in during the council’s Feb. 3 meeting, stating his view that if councilmembers are involved in a petition that would prevent them from voting on the item at the council meeting, they should be allowed to address the planning commission. “When we get elected, I don’t think we give up our right to petition government,” he said. Eaton asked Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who serves on the planning commission, to convey his point to commissioners as part of their discussion.

During the working session on Feb. 4, some commissioners expressed concern that any time a councilmember addresses the commission, it can be an undue influence on the process. Another concern is whether councilmembers, by forecasting their view in advance of a council vote, could put the city at legal risk. But at least one commissioner had a different view on the issue of constraining councilmembers from addressing the commission. Eleanore Adenekan told commissioners: “It’s like somebody telling me that ‘You can’t walk into this room because you’re black.’”

There seemed to be general consensus that the current bylaws are unclear, and a proposed revision is intended to simplify the issue: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.”

Briere advocated for additional training of councilmembers, regarding what’s appropriate in these contexts. When the council takes up ethics issues later this year, she said, the issue of communicating with city boards and commissions will be one of the topics. “I call it How to Behave in Public,” Briere said.

Commissioners also discussed revisions to the bylaws related to public hearings. Some of the changes relate to whether someone can speak more than once at the same public hearing, when it is continued over multiple meetings. This situation arose last year during a public hearing on the downtown zoning review. Bonnie Bona cautioned other commissioners against changing the bylaws in ways that are “just making ourselves look more closed.” Some commissioners countered that the bylaws also allow for a majority vote to modify or waive the limitations, if necessary. [.pdf of current planning commission bylaws] [.pdf of Feb. 20 staff memo and proposed revisions]

The commission’s Feb. 20 meeting – held on a Thursday, rather than the typical Tuesday, because of scheduling due to the Presidents Day holiday – has a light agenda. In addition to the bylaws, the only other action item is a proposed rezoning of 2.02 acres at 2225 Traverwood Drive, adjacent to the Stapp Nature Area. Developer Bill Martin is donating the land to the city, and the proposal would rezone it to public land. [Full Story]

Column: Learning Governance from Legistar

Last spring, The Chronicle began systematically publishing detailed previews of Ann Arbor city council meeting agendas. Part of that effort includes pointing readers to the city’s online agenda management system, which is hosted on a software platform called Legistar.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

Extracted screen shot of Legistar interface that allows search of Legislative items by category.

Legistar is an information-rich archive for upcoming as well as past meetings. I’ll grant you, it is not perfect. Legistar can at times be sluggish to respond or counterintuitive in its user interface. But Legistar will mostly cough up what you’re looking for.

The city of Ann Arbor has been using Legistar as part of its record management for Ann Arbor’s government for six years. By now I’d guess residents have figured out for themselves as much as they need or want to know about Legistar. So my purpose in writing is not to provide a tutorial on its use.

In this column, I’d like to focus on one feature of Legistar: the ability to classify meeting agenda items by category. The city of Ann Arbor’s Legistar system is set up so that an agenda item can be classified as: appointment, introduction, minutes, ordinance, proclamation, public hearing only, report or communication, resolution, resolution/public hearing, work session. Of those categories, I’d like to focus on just one: introduction.

I think that a more robust and meaningful use of “introductions” by the city council could lead to better public notice of upcoming council work, and more efficient use of limited city staff resources.

The change I have in mind wouldn’t be difficult to implement, and wouldn’t require changing the city charter to do it. But I’ll wrap up this column by noting how a change to the council’s approach to “introductions” could help get the ball rolling on a possible effort to review the city charter. [Full Story]

Feb. 18, 2014: Ann Arbor Council Preview

The council’s Feb. 18, 2014 agenda is highlighted by public art policy issues leftover from its previous meeting, as well as several items related to acquiring various pieces of basic equipment – from a garbage truck to a wood chipper.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor online agenda management system. Image links to the next meeting agenda.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor’s online agenda management system. Image links to the Feb. 18, 2014 meeting agenda.

The possible acquisition of land is also on the agenda, in the form of a resolution postponed from an earlier meeting. The resolution would exercise the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the Edwards Brothers Malloy property on South State Street.

The meeting is shifted to Tuesday because of the Presidents Day holiday on Monday.

Having given initial approval to an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance at its Feb. 3 meeting, the council will consider the item for a second and final vote on Feb. 18. The ordinance amendment would allow the council to transfer money that accumulated in the public art fund through the (now demised) Percent for Art funding mechanism in previous years. The money would be transferred back to the funds from which it was originally drawn – but that transfer would require a separate council action. To be approved, the ordinance change will need a six-vote majority on the 11-member council. The enactment of an ordinance can be vetoed by the mayor, but a veto can be overridden by an eight-vote majority.

Dependent on the public art ordinance amendment is a resolution that would return $819,005 from the public art fund to the funds from which that money was drawn. That includes funds like the sanitary sewer fund and the street millage fund. That kind of  resolution is typically analyzed as needing an eight-vote majority to pass, but it’s not yet indicated as an “eight-voter” on the online agenda. [Updated 1 p.m. Friday: It's now recorded as needing eight votes.] Based on the Feb. 3 council deliberations, the debate on such a resolution would likely center on the amount to be returned to funds of origin, not the question of returning at least some of the money.

Also expected back from the Feb. 3 agenda is a resolution that was defeated at that meeting – to extend the contract for the part-time public art administrator by six months and to appropriate funds to cover that $18,500 contract. It would need eight votes to pass.  The result of that council vote was that public art administrator Aaron Seagraves cannot currently be paid. The contract is supposed be back  on Feb. 18 for reconsideration – as part of the political bargain among councilmembers on the overall question of how the Percent for Art money that accumulated in the public art fund will be handled.

The council’s Feb. 18 agenda also features several pieces of equipment essential to core services. One of those core services is the repair of water main breaks, which have increased in frequency in recent weeks as the ground moves due to deeper and deeper penetration of frost. The council will be asked to approve the $441,535 purchase of a combination sewer truck, which is outfitted with a vacuum device – often used to control water in an excavation during the repair of a water main break. Also deployed when repairing water main breaks is a hydraulic excavator. So the council will be asked to approve the purchase of one for $176,472. Both of those authorizations are replacements of existing city equipment.

The council will also be asked to approve the purchase of a new garbage truck for $93,800. The purchase of two vans for a total of $50,320 is also on the council’s Feb. 18 agenda. The vans will be used by the parks and recreation department to shuttle passengers when they start a river trip at one of the cities liveries on the Huron River. Rounding out equipment purchases is a $83,208 wood chipper.

Another piece of equipment shows up on the agenda in the form of a grant application the council is being asked to approve. The $334,140 grant application is being made to the 2013 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – to acquire a mobile training facility to train firefighters. The 48-foot-long unit will allow live fire and tactical simulations.

In real estate matters, the council will be asked to approve the acquisition of development rights for two properties, using funds from the greenbelt millage. The first is a 24-acre parcel just north of the Huron River in Scio Township. The city of Ann Arbor will be contributing $25,200 to the total $84,000 cost of purchasing development rights, with the township contributing the difference. The second greenbelt property on the agenda is a 64-acre property on Zeeb Road, also in Scio Township. For that deal, the city is contributing $39,000 to the total purchase price of $130,335.

Related to land use, council will also be asked to give final approval to the zoning of the Hofmann property on South State Street – to C1 (local business district). The property houses Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky.

A bit south of Biercamp on State Street is the topic of the most significant land acquisition matter on the Feb. 18 agenda. A resolution postponed from the council’s Feb. 3 meeting would approve the city’s exercise of its right of first refusal on the 16.7-acre Edwards Brothers Malloy property. The University of Michigan has offered $12.8 million for the land.

On the consent agenda is a contract with MDOT for reimbursement to the city for a portion of the cost to install rectangular rapid flashing beacons at three locations: on Geddes Road at Gallup Park; Fuller Road 400 feet east of Cedar Bend Drive; and on South University Avenue at Tappan Avenue. The city’s cost for the $47,971 project would be $14,179.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Tuesday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network starting at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

Future of County’s Platt Road Site Debated

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 5, 2014): Two items drew most of the debate during the county board’s recent meeting: Dealing with the future use of county-owned property on Platt Road, and hiring a contract worker to help with the budget process.

Jeannine Palms, Andy LaBarre, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jeannine Palms, who served on a citizens advisory committee to make recommendations for the county-owned property at 2260-2270 Platt Road, talks with commissioner Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who helped lead that effort. Palms spoke during public commentary to praise the process and urge commissioners to adopt the recommendations. (Photos by the writer.)

A citizens advisory committee made recommendations for the 13.5-acre site at 2260-2270 Platt Road, and included the desire to use a portion of the land for affordable housing. Inclusion of affordable housing is a condition for accepting a $100,000 planning grant from the state, and that condition worried some commissioners. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was particularly vocal in disagreeing with this approach. He suggested selling the land instead, then using the proceeds to pay for repairs and renovations of existing houses in the county, including those for sale through tax foreclosure auctions.

The board voted to give initial approval to the Platt Road recommendations, over dissent from Sizemore. A final vote is expected on Feb. 19. If approved, the county would then launch a much broader community planning process to determine the future use of that site.

Also debated at length was a proposal to hire a contract worker who would support budget-related work for the county board and administration. Commissioners had also discussed this issue during the board’s Jan. 22, 2014 meeting, when Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) questioned the process for hiring this kind of staff support. On Feb. 5, several commissioners expressed concern about spending money on this position and wanted more details about funding and duties. Those concerns led to a unanimous vote to postpone the item until March 5.

A proposal to create a dental clinic for low-income residents received initial approval on Feb. 5, over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2). The $1.5 million project includes partnering with the nonprofit Michigan Community Dental Clinics Inc. to run the clinic and with St. Joseph Mercy Health System, which would contribute space at its Haab Building in Ypsilanti at little to no cost. A final vote is expected on Feb. 19.

In other action, the board gave final approval to two items with no significant discussion: (1) creation of a new countywide program to help finance energy-efficiency projects for commercial properties – the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program; and (2) a new ordinance that allows the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog. The county treasurer’s office – which is responsible for administering the dog licenses – expects to implement the changes in June or July, following an educational outreach effort.

Commissioners also passed a resolution urging Gov. Rick Snyder to use the state’s budget surplus in part for road repair, and approved a resolution honoring local attorney Jean Ledwith King for her service on the county’s historic district commission.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) gave an update on efforts to address services to the homeless community. Advocates for the homeless had attended the board’s previous meeting, on Jan. 22, 2014. The board received a more detailed update on this situation at its Feb. 6 working session. That session will be covered in a separate Chronicle report. [Full Story]

DDA Mulls Role: Events, Marketing?

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Feb. 5, 2014): Highlights of the board’s hour and a quarter meeting were communications and transportation, on an agenda that featured no substantive voting items. The meeting consisted of various reports and discussion points.

more-less-retreat-300

A poster generated at the Jan. 30, 2014 Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board retreat. (Photos by the writer.)

A communications and marketing strategy for the downtown was the focus of Rishi Narayan’s report from the board’s partnerships committee, which had invited representatives from the four downtown area merchant associations to it most recent meeting. The message from those groups, Narayan reported, was a desire to see more events take place downtown.

A desire to see more signature events take place, especially during the winter, had been one of several items identified by board members at a recent retreat, held on Jan. 30, 2014 in the jury assembly room of the Justice Center, from noon to about 3:30 p.m. At its Feb. 5 monthly meeting, the follow-up discussion about the retreat also focused heavily on the idea of events and the possible role the DDA might play in facilitating more frequent events downtown. An initial reaction that appeared to be shared by several board members was this: The DDA should not necessarily be in the event-hosting business, but rather provide assistance to those organizations that are already hosting various events.

Board chair Sandi Smith also floated the idea of hiring an additional staff member to focus on marketing. City administrator Steve Powers stressed the importance of having a clear idea of the financial basis for the DDA’s capacity to undertake various projects on the list of its five-year plan. That five-year project plan, which Smith characterized as always in draft form, will be a focus of discussion when the board continues its retreat on Feb. 19. In addition to the five-year project plan, the board will focus on its 10-year financial projections at the Feb. 19 session. [Updated: The board has decided to continue its retreat on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. at the DDA offices.]

Transportation was a topic addressed by the sole speaker during public commentary at the Feb. 5 monthly meeting, as Martha Valadez, an organizer with Partners for Transit, asked the DDA board to support a millage proposal that’s expected to be placed on the ballot by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Late last month, the board’s operations committee had been briefed by AAATA staff on the five-year transit improvement plan – the set of service increases that are driving the likely request that voters approve an additional 0.7 mill tax.

Also related to transportation was a report from the board’s operations committee that included an update on the go!pass program, which the DDA has funded historically. Last year, the DDA granted the AAATA about $560,000 to pay for rides taken by downtown employees through the go!pass program. A request will be coming up soon for this next year’s funding.

In another transportation-related topic, the board also received an update on a possible part-time conversion of downtown on-street loading zones into taxi stands. Somewhat related to on-street right-of-way, the board was briefed on city council action to impose a fee on developers who cause the removal of on-street parking meters – unless the development has a more general public benefit. It will be up to the DDA to define what constitutes a public benefit – a task the board will now take up.

Related specifically to the public parking system, which the DDA manages under a contract with the city, the board reviewed the parking revenues for the second quarter of the fiscal year, compared to last year. It was the first full quarter for which the year-over-year comparison was for periods that did not include any parking rate increases. Revenue was essentially flat, showing just a 0.7% increase.

It’s not clear how much longer the former Y lot – located on William between Fourth and Fifth avenues – will continue to be used as a surface parking lot. Not mentioned at the Feb. 5 board meeting, but discussed at the Jan. 29 operations committee meeting, was a proposal from Dennis Dahlmann about leasing the lot back to the DDA after he completes the purchase of the city-owned land. The idea would be for the DDA to lease the property and continue to operate a surface parking lot on the parcel until Dahlmann is able to move a site plan forward. At the operations committee meeting, the idea was not warmly embraced.

Other updates included the regular report from the downtown area citizens advisory council. Chair of the group, Ray Detter, reported that the CAC was generally supportive of an effort now being made by Will and Mary Hathaway to work with some city councilmembers on a resolution about the future of the surface level of the Library Lane underground parking structure. The resolution would establish a significant part of that level – but not all of it – as an urban public space. [Full Story]

AADL Retreat: Prep for Next Strategic Plan

Ann Arbor District Library board retreat (Feb. 3, 2014): For more than three hours, AADL trustees heard staff updates on industry trends, were briefed on challenges that the library faces – as well as opportunities – and discussed the kind of information and data that’s needed to prepare for AADL’s next strategic plan for 2015-2020.

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A skeleton – wearing an Ann Arbor District Library T-shirt – was part of the non-traditional collections on display at the Feb. 3, 2014 AADL board retreat. (Photos by the writer.)

Discussion during the retreat, held at AADL’s downtown location on South Fifth Avenue, often touched on issues specific to that area. Dealing with the chronically homeless is one of the biggest challenges there, AADL director Josie Parker told the board, because during the hours that it’s open, the library is the shelter of last resort for many people.

“We are not a social service agency, yet we act as a de facto one,” Parker said. “We have a lot to contribute to this conversation because of our experience over the last 15 years.” The board discussed the need to define the library’s advocacy role in general for issues that trustees think are important, though Parker noted that the first responsibility for both the AADL administration and the board is to advocate for the library.

Other challenges faced by AADL include urban development, changes in the education system, issues related to providing Internet access, and “blurred lines” – instances where AADL is providing services to people who don’t live within the district’s boundaries. Also related to work outside the library’s boundaries, Parker reported that she’s talking with other directors of district libraries in Washtenaw County about the possibility of doing a study on the economic development impact of libraries.

The retreat began with a review of AADL’s non-traditional collections, and items from those collections were on display in the meeting room. The library has circulated art prints for more than 30 years, but has been expanding into other areas more recently, including science kits, musical instruments, home tools and craft equipment.

Parker told the board that the public library’s mission – to distribute materials that support the reading, education and even entertainment of the public – isn’t limited to bound volumes. The items for AADL’s non-traditional collections aren’t generally available to rent elsewhere, and are usually expensive to buy, she noted. “What are the limits of sharing? That’s what we’re pushing on.”

The final portion of the retreat was facilitated by local consultant Sandra Greenstone, who has played a similar role at previous retreats. Trustees generated a list of questions that they’d like to answer to help inform their work on the next strategic plan. Many of the issues related to the downtown library, but there was no discussion about putting another ballot proposal before voters. In November 2012, voters defeated a bond proposal that would have funded a new downtown library.

How all of this fits into the next strategic plan is a work in progress. The board will be handling the next steps at the committee level, with an update expected at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Group Briefed on Bioreserve

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Feb. 6, 2014): Kris Olsson, an ecologist with the Huron River Watershed Council, was on hand at GAC’s meeting to provide commissioners with an overview of the HRWC’s bioreserve project.

Kris Olsson, Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Kris Olsson, a watershed ecologist with the Huron River Watershed Council, at the Feb. 6, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The aim of the project is to map, prioritize and encourage protection of the remaining natural areas in the Huron River watershed. The entire watershed covers about 994,000 acres. Of that about 247,000 acres are in the bioreserve. More than 1,700 sites have been mapped as potential natural areas.

The Ann Arbor greenbelt program is one of several partners in the project. Olsson told commissioners that the HRWC hopes this data is used to help land preservation programs like the greenbelt make informed decisions about how to protect natural areas.

Also during the Feb. 6 meeting, Ginny Trocchio – who provides staff support for the greenbelt program – briefed commissioners on the screening and scoring criteria used to review potential acquisitions for the greenbelt program. She reviewed characteristics that result in higher scores for property. For example, sites that receive higher scores have 3-4 natural features (stream corridors, woodlots or rare species), are located within 1 mile of the Ann Arbor city limits, and are located within a township or village that has passed a purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) ordinance.

Trocchio also reported that work on the greenbelt program’s new landowner registry is continuing.

The 90-minute meeting included a closed session lasting about 30 minutes. No votes were taken on potential land deals after commissioners emerged from closed session. [Full Story]

Survey: Majority Favorable on Transit Tax

Results of a survey of 841 registered voters in the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township show a 63% positive reaction to a possible additional transit tax in those communities. Those three jurisdictions are the members of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. [.pdf of Feb. 7, 2014 press release] [.pdf of survey questions]

Fall 2013 AAATA Survey: Of the 841 registered voters surveyed, 63% said they would definitely or probably vote for an additional transit tax, while 31% said they definitely or probably vote against an additional transit tax.

Chart 1: AAATA Millage Vote Survey. Of the 841 registered voters surveyed, 63% said they would definitely or probably vote for an additional transit tax, while 31% said they definitely or probably would vote against an additional transit tax. Half the respondents were asked about a tax at the rate of 0.5 mills while the other half were asked about a 0.9 mill tax. There was not a significant difference in the two groups. The amount of the potential millage request in 2014 is 0.7 mills.

The AAATA’s release of partial survey results on Feb. 7 comes about two weeks before the next monthly meeting of its board of directors, on Feb. 20. At that meeting, the board will almost certainly consider whether to place a millage on the ballot – either for May 6 or later in the fall of this year.

The purpose of the potential millage – which would be the first one ever levied by the AAATA – would be to fund a 5-year plan of service improvements, approved by the AAATA board at its Jan. 16, 2014 meeting. The millage itself would last for five years.

Generally, those improvements include increased frequency during peak hours, extended service in the evenings, and additional service on weekends. Some looped routes are being replaced with out-and-back type route configurations. The plan does not include operation of rail-based services. The AAATA has calculated that the improvements in service add up to 90,000 additional service hours per year, compared to the current service levels, which is a 44% increase.

If a millage were approved in May, those improvements that involve extending the hours of service later in the evening and the weekend could begin to be implemented by late 2014. However, increases in frequency along routes, which would require acquisition of additional buses, would take longer.

The AAATA refers to the plan in its communications as the 5YTIP. The AAATA has calculated that the additional tax required to fund the 5YTIP is 0.7 mills. A draft five-year plan was presented to the public in a series of 13 meetings in the fall of 2013. Changes to the five-year plan made in response to public feedback were included in the board’s information packet for the Jan. 16 meeting. [.pdf of memo and 5-year improvement plan] [.pdf of presentation made to the board on Jan. 16]

The dedicated transit tax already paid by property owners in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is levied by each city and passed through to the AAATA. Those taxes would stay in place if voters in the AAATA’s three-jurisdiction area approved a 0.7 mill tax. For Ann Arbor, the rate for the existing millage is 2.056 mills, which is expected to generate a little over $10 million by 2019, the fifth year of the transportation improvement plan. For the city of Ypsilanti, the rate for the existing transit millage is 0.9789, which is expected to generate about $314,000 in 2019. For the owner of an Ann Arbor house with a market value of $200,000 and taxable value of $100,000, a 0.7 mill tax translates into $70 annually, which would be paid in addition to the existing transit millage. The total Ann Arbor transit tax paid on a taxable value of $100,000 would be about $270 a year.

The transit improvement program also calls for an additional $1,087,344 to come from purchase-of-service agreements (POSAs), based on increased service hours in Pittsfield, Saline, and Superior townships.

A subset of a financial task force that had formed during an effort in 2012 to expand the AAATA to a countywide authority has concluded that the 0.7 mill would be adequate to fund the planned additional services. At the most recent meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, on Feb. 5, DDA board member Bob Guenzel stated that he had continued to participate on that task force, and reported that the group had forwarded its finding on the currently contemplated 0.7 millage to the AAATA.

Besides Guenzel, who is former Washtenaw County administrator, the current configuration of that group includes Mary Jo Callan (director of the Washtenaw County office of community and economic development), Norman Herbert (former treasurer of the University of Michigan), Paul Krutko (CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK), and Mark Perry (director of real estate services, Masco Corp.) and Steve Manchester.

The survey on voter attitudes toward a millage was conducted for the AAATA by CJI Research with a mixed methodology – of telephone contacts, and a mail invitation to respond online – during October and November of 2013. The sample of respondents was divided into two groups – those who were asked about their attitudes toward an additional 0.5-mill tax and those who were asked about their attitudes toward an additional 0.9-mill tax. According to CJI, the groups showed virtually no difference in the distribution of responses.

Of the 841 registered voters surveyed, 63% said they would definitely or probably vote for an additional transit tax, while 31% said they definitely or probably would vote against an additional transit tax.

The Feb. 7, 2014 press release issued by the AAATA highlighted three of its conclusions from the survey results: (1) that the AAATA is highly regarded by voters in the three member jurisdictions; (2) residents in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township are supportive of transit service expansion even if it means a new tax; and (3) among survey respondents, the best reasons to support a transit expansion are to help retain and attract jobs, generate economic activity by taking customers and workers to area retailers and other employers, and to improve service for seniors and the disabled. The margin of error for the survey was no more than 3.4%, according to the press release. [Full Story]

Rotary to Fund Universal Access Playground

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Jan. 28, 2014): Park commissioners got news at their most recent meeting that the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is making a $250,000 contribution to the city of Ann Arbor for a major new “universal access” playground at Gallup Park, to celebrate the club’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

Bob Buckler, Bernie Lugauer, Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Bernie Lugauer and Bob Buckler of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor talk with Christopher Taylor, an ex officio member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

After a presentation on Jan. 28, commissioners recommended that the city apply for a state Dept. of Natural Resources grant to help fund the remainder of the work, which is estimated to cost $500,000.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, told commissioners that although there are about 80 playgrounds in Ann Arbor, none are universally accessible. It’s a “huge shortcoming” for the parks system, he said. The exact location within Gallup Park hasn’t been determined, but the playground would be about 5,000 square feet and exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The design and equipment is intended to create environments that can be used by all people, with features like ramps, color-contrasting structures, wider bridges and walkways, and playground equipment that makes it easier for people using wheelchairs.

Two Rotary representatives attended the Jan. 28 meeting to help describe the club’s role in the project. Bob Buckler, a Rotary director and co-chair of the group’s centennial committee, told commissioners that in general the Rotary’s primary focus is on supporting children, by funding scholarships, Washtenaw Success By Six and other programs. That’s why the universal access playground is so appealing as a way to celebrate Rotary’s centennial, he said. Buckler indicated that fundraising for this project has already begun. The grand opening is expected to be on Labor Day in 2016.

In other action on Jan. 28, commissioners approved the location for new tennis courts at Windemere Park – a project that’s been in the works for about two years. The location has been somewhat controversial among neighbors, and prompted a review of the previously selected site. The current courts have deteriorated and are in a location where it’s unsuitable to rebuild.

Also on Jan. 28, PAC recommended the purchase of two vans to keep up with the increasing shuttle transportation demands for Huron River trips in 2013, following the opening of Argo Cascades.

The meeting marked a transition of members on PAC. It was the first meeting for David Santacroce, who was appointed by the city council last year to replace Julie Grand. And it was the final meeting for Jen Geer, who has resigned after less than a year on the commission. Paige Morrison was appointed by the council on Feb. 3 to fill the remainder of Geer’s term – through May 19, 2016. [Full Story]

Advocates for Homeless Appeal to County

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 22, 2014): About two dozen people – including members of Camp Misfit and Camp Take Notice – turned out at the county board’s Jan. 22 meeting to advocate for improved services for the homeless.

Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Some of the crowd at the Jan. 22, 2014 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Speaking during public commentary, several people argued that the Delonis Center‘s warming center should be made available when temperatures are lower than 45 degrees. One woman presented a list of specific requests for expanded services at the homeless shelter, including 24-hour access to shower facilities and increased hours for access to laundry facilities.

There was no formal agenda item on this issue, but several commissioners agreed that the community needs to do more for the homeless. Conan Smith (D-District 9) noted that county had a 10-year plan to end homelessness, “and then we got socked by a terrible economy and made pretty dramatic reductions in the county’s spending.” [The Blueprint to End Homelessness was adopted in 2004 but appears to be dormant.]

The board ultimately voted to direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to address issues related to services for the homeless. They’ll be getting an update at their Feb. 6 working session from Ellen Schulmeister, director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which runs the Delonis Center.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) cautioned against the county overstepping its bounds, and pointed out that the shelter is run by a separate nonprofit – although the county owns and maintains the building where the shelter is located at 312 W. Huron in Ann Arbor, and contributes some funding. Ping noted that the county also currently pays the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority for several parking spaces used by Delonis Center employees, and suggested that the money might be better spent on direct services to the homeless. The county is continuing to negotiate its parking contract with the DDA.

Also at the Jan. 22 meeting, the board made a range of appointments, including confirmation of Dan Ezekiel, former Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioner, to replace Nelson Meade on the county parks & recreation commission. And former state legislator Alma Wheeler Smith was appointed to fill an opening on the southeast Michigan regional transit authority (RTA) board. Richard Murphy – one of two RTA board members from Washtenaw County – was not seeking reappointment. Smith was the only eligible applicant and is the mother of county commissioner Conan Smith, who abstained from the confirmation vote.

In addition, during the Jan. 22 meeting the board created a new committee to explore the cost to the county for providing employee health insurance coverage for autism. The board had received a staff presentation earlier in the evening about the possibility of offering such coverage.

In other action, the board gave initial approval to a proposed ordinance that would allow the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog, with a final vote expected on Feb. 5. The ordinance could take effect 50 days after that, in late March, but county treasurer Catherine McClary indicated that her office would be looking to implement the changes in June or July. Several  commissioners advocated for educational outreach to ensure that residents – especially in rural areas – will be aware of the changes.

The board also gave initial approval to establish a countywide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, after hearing from several people during public commentary who supported the effort. A final vote to establish the program is expected at the board’s Feb. 5 meeting. [Full Story]

Feb. 3, 2014 Ann Arbor Council: Live Updates

Editor’s note: This “Live Updates” coverage of the Ann Arbor city council’s Feb. 3, 2014 meeting includes all the material from an earlier preview article published last week. We think that will facilitate easier navigation from live-update material to background material already in the file.

The most significant item on the council’s Feb. 3, 2014 agenda is listed last – a resolution that would authorize the city administrator to exercise the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the 16.7-acre Edwards Brothers property on South State Street. The council could adjust the order of the items at the start of the meeting.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

The sign on the door to the Ann Arbor city council chamber, installed in the summer of 2013, includes Braille.

Two new ordinances will also be given initial consideration at the Ann Arbor city council’s Feb. 3 meeting. One involves public art – which relates to leftover business from the council’s previous meeting. The second proposed new local law involves prohibitions against smoking in some public places.

Background on the possible acquisition of the Edwards Brothers property includes the fact that the University of Michigan has made an offer to Edwards Brothers to purchase the property for $12.8 million. But the city has a right of first refusal on the property as a condition of a tax abatement granted by the city council three years ago, on Jan. 18, 2011.

The resolution on tonight’s agenda approves the exercise of the city’s right of first refusal, appropriates necessary funds, and directs the city administrator to notify Edward Brothers Malloy about the exercise of the city’s right.

This effort began at the council’s Jan. 6, 2014 meeting, when councilmembers had directed the city administrator and the city attorney to explore options and gather information about the Edwards Brothers land. The due date for that gathering of information was specified in the council’s resolution as Jan. 30.

Public art is actually the topic of two separate items on the council’s agenda. One is a contract extension for the city’s part-time public art administrator, which had been on the council’s Jan. 21, 2014 agenda, but was postponed at that meeting.

The postponement took place in the context of a political horse trade offered by Jack Eaton (Ward 4) at the council table on Jan. 21. Eaton indicated he’d support the public art administrator’s contract extension at the council’s subsequent meeting – but only if the council would move toward returning as-yet-unallocated money set aside during the now defunct Percent for Art program to its funds of origin (e.g., sanitary sewer fund, street millage fund etc.).

Both elements of the horse trade are scheduled for the Feb. 3 meeting. The move toward returning money out of the public art fund takes the form of initial consideration of an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance. The ordinance amendment, sponsored by Jane Lumm (Ward 2), would allow the council to return money accumulated under the city’s former Percent for Art program to the funds from which that money was drawn. The ordinance change would need a second and final council vote at a subsequent meeting to be enacted. Any transfer of public art money would require separate council action after the potential ordinance change.

Also getting initial consideration on Feb. 3 will be a new ordinance that would prohibit smoking in specific outdoor public areas. Made punishable through a $50 civil fine would be smoking within 20 feet of: (1) bus stops; (2) entrances, windows and ventilation systems of the Blake Transit Center; and (3) entrances, windows and ventilation systems of any city-owned building. The ordinance amendment would also authorize the city administrator to have signs posted designating certain parks or portions of parks as off limits for outdoor smoking.

In another item on its Feb. 3 agenda, the council will consider approval of a $398,703 contract plus a $40,000 contingency with Hubbell Roth & Clark Inc. to reconstruct Geddes Avenue from Huntington to Huron Parkway. The project, which includes five components, is scheduled to start in the spring of 2015 and may continue through 2016. The five components of the project are: reconstruction of Geddes, sanitary sewer on Geddes, sanitary sewer on Dover Place and Riverview, storm sewer on Geddes, and water main on Dover Place and Riverview.

Also on the council’s Feb. 3 agenda is a proposed expansion for Germain Motors – an auto dealership on South State Street, formerly Howard Cooper Imports.

The council will also consider setting a hearing date for one establishments that could potentially be recommended for non-renewal of its liquor licenses for non-payment of taxes: Banfield’s Bar & Grill.  Also originally on the list were  The Arena,  and Café Zola, but as of Monday morning, Feb. 3 they’d been removed. Those three businesses were also subject to the same scrutiny last year, and all eventually paid their taxes without having their licenses revoked.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Monday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network starting at 7 p.m.

The Chronicle will be filing live updates from city council chambers during the meeting, published in this article below the preview material. Click here to skip the preview section and go directly to the live updates. The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

Column: Let Data Steer Local Transit Policy

Voters in Ann Arbor as well as in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township will be asked sometime in 2014 to approve a transit millage – to be levied by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA). A vote by the AAATA board to place a question on the ballot is likely to come at its Feb. 20 meeting.

Fixed-route AAATA ridership by year by category: no additional subsidy (blue); go!pass downtown employees (red); University of Michigan affiliates (yellow). (Data from AAATA charted by The Chronicle.)

Fixed-route AAATA ridership by year and by category: no additional subsidy (blue); go!pass downtown employees (red); University of Michigan affiliates (yellow). (Data from AAATA, charted by The Chronicle.)

If it’s approved, the five-year millage will be used to pay for a range of service increases, focused on increased frequency for some existing routes, new routes, longer hours of operation and added hours on weekends.

In that context, I think it’s worthwhile to start getting a firmer grip on current ridership levels and historical trends.

In the last 10 years, AAATA fixed-route ridership – the “regular bus,” as contrasted with paratransit services – has grown from 4.2 million in fiscal year 2004 to 6.4 million rides in 2013. That’s about 50% growth.

And ridership in FY 2013 was consistent with that continued upward trend. But the trend this year was just slightly upward: The 6.4 million fixed-route rides provided in 2013 was barely up from 6.35 million rides in 2012 – about a 0.8% increase.

Two programs that offer financial subsidies to passengers – MRide and go!pass – showed a greater increase in ridership than the most recent overall trend. Rides taken on AAATA buses through the University of Michigan’s MRide program showed an increase of about 5% between 2012 and 2013 – from 2.61 million to 2.74 million rides. And rides taken with the go!pass, funded in largest part by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – increased about 4% between 2012 and 2013 – from 604,000 to 629,000 rides.

I’m going to use the term “out-of-pocket ridership” for those rides not supported through an additional subsidy from the go!pass or MRide programs. Out-of-pocket ridership actually showed a decrease of about 3% from 2012 to 2013 – from 3.15 million to 3.04 million rides.

A more detailed look at the historical ridership data by category has implications, I think, for reasonable community expectations for future out-of-pocket ridership – if a millage is approved and service improvements are implemented. And that more detailed look also has implications for a reasonable basis for negotiations between AAATA and the University of Michigan on the financial component of the MRide deal.

Here’s a quick summary of my thoughts. I think the success of the five-year improvement plan should be measured in part by increases in out-of-pocket ridership. I think the MRide agreement between UM and the AAATA should include not just a fare component but also a component to cover UM’s “local share.” And I think the go!pass program should be conceived as a tool to help increase general out-of-pocket ridership, not just serve to benefit people who have a formal affiliation with downtown Ann Arbor.

You’ll find a more detailed analysis of these issues below the fold. This column also includes more charts – and even some maps with colored dots. [Full Story]

Commission Works on Public Art Planning

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (Jan. 29, 2014): In a three-hour session, the public art commission worked on prioritizing capital improvement projects that might be suitable for public art.

Kristin "KT" Tomey, Ann Arbor public art commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

On Jan. 29, Kristin “KT” Tomey attended her first regular meeting of the Ann Arbor public art commission since being appointed by the city council on Jan. 6. (Photos by the writer.)

Some commissioners expressed frustration that they had insufficient information on which to base their evaluation. And after about two hours of discussion – using a scoring rubric with seven criteria – commissioners had evaluated only a few projects: artist-designed street access (manhole) covers, art for the Springwater subdivision, and art for the corridors of Main Street and Plymouth Road. Because there were still several other items on the agenda, they voted to postpone further evaluation of possible capital projects until their next meeting.

In other action, commissioners discussed and approved a draft annual public art plan that’s officially due to the city council on Feb. 1, for projects to be undertaken in the fiscal year that begins July 1. It includes projects that are underway – like artwork for East Stadium bridges and Argo Cascades – as well as a proposal to add some enhanced capital projects, like street access covers on resurfaced roads.

The draft annual plan had been prepared by Aaron Seagraves, the city’s public art administrator. Commissioners asked for some revisions and designated commissioner John Kotarski to work with Seagraves on a final version that will likely be presented to the council on Feb. 18. Kotarski praised the draft, saying “It has as much meat as anyone wants. It shows a lot of work. It shows an art commission that gets the message from an impatient city council.”

Commissioners also discussed a proposal from the Clean Energy Coalition to select and fund an artist who would help incorporate art into a new bike share program. They tabled action on this item, wanting additional information about the CEC’s expectations for funding.

This was AAPAC’s first regular meeting since Oct. 23, 2013, although they held a retreat in December and a planning session earlier in January. Throughout the evening, concerns were raised about the future of the public art program, in light of recent city council discussions. The council had postponed a requested six-month extension of Seagraves’ contract, and will be taking up that item on Feb. 3.

Also on the council’s Feb. 3 agenda is an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance. The amendment would allow the council to return about $800,000 accumulated under the city’s former Percent for Art program to the funds from which that money was drawn, such as the street millage or sanitary sewer fund. It’s the latest in an ongoing transition for the city’s public art program – a transition that’s been unsettling for public art commissioners.

The Jan. 29 meeting marked another transition for AAPAC, which has seen considerable turnover during the past year. It was the first regular monthly meeting for the newest commissioner, Kristin “KT” Tomey, who was appointed by the city council on Jan. 6. And it was the last meeting for Malverne Winborne, whose term ended on Dec. 31. He did not seek reappointment, and was serving until the position was filled. His replacement, Jim Simpson, is expected to be confirmed in a vote at the city council’s Feb. 3 meeting.

Winborne has served as vice chair of AAPAC – but the group held new officer elections on Jan. 29. Bob Miller was re-elected to another one-year term as chair, and John Kotarski was elected vice chair. There were no competing nominations, and both votes were unanimous.

Noting that the Jan. 29 meeting had been especially challenging, Miller thanked commissioners for their work. “This is probably the most belabored meeting I think we’ve ever gone through, aside from maybe one of the retreats,” he said. “I’m tapped out.” He jokingly cajoled commissioners: “Please do come back.”

Miller also encouraged students to return, as about two dozen students from Skyline High School – and some parents – attended the Jan. 29 meeting. “It’s the most amount of people we’ve ever had at any of our meetings,” Miller noted. One student pointed out that they were all from the same government class, facing a Jan. 31 deadline to attend a public meeting. [Full Story]

Feb. 3, 2014 Ann Arbor Council: Preview

Updated Friday, Jan. 31: An item authorizing the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the Edwards Brothers property on South State Street has been added to the agenda.

Two new ordinances will be given initial consideration at the Ann Arbor city council’s Feb. 3, 2014 meeting. One involves public art – which relates to leftover business from the council’s previous meeting. The second proposed new local law involves prohibitions against smoking in some public places.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor online agenda management system. Image links to the next meeting agenda.

Screenshot of Legistar – the city of Ann Arbor’s online agenda management system. Image links to the Feb. 3, 2014 meeting agenda.

Public art is actually the topic of two separate items on the council’s agenda. One is a contract extension for the city’s part-time public art administrator, which had been on the council’s Jan. 21, 2014 agenda, but was postponed at that meeting.

The postponement took place in the context of a political horse trade offered by Jack Eaton (Ward 4) at the council table on Jan. 21. Eaton indicated he’d support the public art administrator’s contract extension at the council’s subsequent meeting – but only if the council would move toward returning as-yet-unallocated money set aside during the now defunct Percent for Art program to its funds of origin (e.g., sanitary sewer fund, street millage fund etc.).

Both elements of the horse trade are scheduled for the Feb. 3 meeting. The move toward returning money out of the public art fund takes the form of initial consideration of an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance. The ordinance amendment, sponsored by Jane Lumm (Ward 2), would allow the council to return money accumulated under the city’s former Percent for Art program to the funds from which that money was drawn. The ordinance change would need a second and final council vote at a subsequent meeting to be enacted. Any transfer of public art money would require separate council action after the potential ordinance change.

A third public art item is expected to be on the agenda as an item of communication – the annual public art plan for fiscal 2015, which was approved by the Ann Arbor public art commission at its Jan. 29 meeting. It lists projects that are underway, as well as potential new projects for the coming year.

Also getting initial consideration on Feb. 3 will be a new ordinance that would prohibit smoking in specific outdoor public areas. Made punishable through a $50 civil fine would be smoking within 20 feet of: (1) bus stops; (2) entrances, windows and ventilation systems of the Blake Transit Center; and (3) entrances, windows and ventilation systems of any city-owned building. The ordinance amendment would also authorize the city administrator to have signs posted designating certain parks or portions of parks as off limits for outdoor smoking.

In another item on its Feb. 3 agenda, the council will consider approval of a $398,703 contract plus a $40,000 contingency with Hubbell Roth & Clark Inc. to reconstruct Geddes Avenue from Huntington to Huron Parkway. The project, which includes five components, is scheduled to start in the spring of 2015 and may continue through 2016. The five components of the project are: reconstruction of Geddes, sanitary sewer on Geddes, sanitary sewer on Dover Place and Riverview, storm sewer on Geddes, and water main on Dover Place and Riverview.

Also on the council’s Feb. 3 agenda is a proposed expansion for Germain Motors – an auto dealership on South State Street, formerly Howard Cooper Imports.

The council will also consider setting a hearing date for three establishments that could potentially be recommended for non-renewal of their liquor licenses for non-payment of taxes: The Arena, Banfield’s Bar & Grill, and Café Zola. The three businesses were also subject to the same scrutiny last year, and all eventually paid their taxes without having their licenses revoked.

This article includes a more detailed preview of many of these agenda items. More details on other agenda items are available on the city’s online Legistar system. The meeting proceedings can be followed Monday evening live on Channel 16, streamed online by Community Television Network starting at 7 p.m. [Full Story]

AADL Board Adjusts Budget, Reviews Policy

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Jan. 20, 2014): Acting in part on recommendations from last year’s communications audit by Allerton-Hill Consulting, the library board authorized budget adjustments totaling $118,000 at its first meeting of 2014.

Prue Rosenthal, Ann Arbor District Library board, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Prue Rosenthal was re-elected to another one-year term as president of the Ann Arbor District Library board of trustees on Jan. 20. (Photos by the writer.)

Two of those items relate to communications and outreach: $63,000 to design, print and mail event postcards, newsletters and other items to all district residents; and $25,000 for a satisfaction survey of 500-600 library district residents, to be conducted by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA. The library previously did a survey in early 2012, in part to gauge public support for financing a new downtown library. The board later put a bond proposal on the November 2012 ballot to fund a new downtown building, but it failed to receive a majority of votes.

The new survey will be used to measure the public’s recognition of the products and services provided by AADL, their regard for AADL as a public institution in the region, and the avenues by which people obtain information about the library.

Results will be ready by this spring, and are expected to help inform the library’s next long-term strategic plan. Trustees have scheduled a retreat on Feb. 3 from 4-7 p.m. in the fourth-floor boardroom of the downtown library, to begin discussions for updating the current strategic plan that runs through 2015.

Also on Jan. 20, trustees elected officers for the coming year. All votes were unanimous with no competing nominations. Prue Rosenthal was re-elected for a second one-year term as board president. Also re-elected for a second one-year term was Rebecca Head, as board secretary. Barbara Murphy was elected as vice president, and Jan Barney Newman was elected as treasurer. Newman had served as vice president in 2013.

The board also established special committees for communications and facilities, and made appointments to those as well as to standing committees for finance and policy.

Work of the policy committee was another item on the Jan. 20 agenda. The committee previously had discussed staff proposals to revise more than a dozen sections of the AADL policy manual. Discussion at the board meeting focused on policy changes to offer free library cards to non-resident students and staff at state-sanctioned schools within AADL’s district. Also highlighted were the library’s behavior rules, which board member Nancy Kaplan called generous and kind. AADL director Josie Parker noted that even though the current policy prohibits sleeping in the library, during the recent extreme cold no one is asked to leave when they are found sleeping. The board will vote on the proposed policy revisions at its February meeting.

The board heard from five speakers during public commentary, including thanks from local cartoonist and teaching artist Jerzy Drozd for services that the AADL provides for the youth of Ann Arbor. Since 2011, Drozd has hosted a podcast called Comics Are Great! that’s recorded in the AADL podcast studio. Drozd called it “The Dick Cavett Show for cartoonists.” Also during public commentary, Kathy Griswold again urged the board to videotape its meetings for broadcast, and to open its committee meetings to the public. [Full Story]

Column: A Reminder on Open Government

As part of an ongoing study of Ann Arbor’s sanitary sewer system during wet weather, a public meeting will take place next Thursday, Feb. 6, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Slauson Middle School auditorium. At that meeting, an update will be presented on the study. Also to be discussed at the meeting are results of a recent survey of participants in the city’s footing drain disconnection program.

Government should not be like an open sewer, but it should at least be open.

Government should not be like an open sewer, but it should be open.

Fact: In local government, it doesn’t get any sexier than sanitary sewers.

The study’s full name is the sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation (SSWWE). As background reading, in preparation for next Thursday’s meeting, readers might find it useful to immerse themselves in this recent Chronicle report: “Backups: Lawyers, Sewers, Pumps.” That report is centered on a Jan. 9, 2014 meeting of the city’s citizens advisory committee (SSWWE-CAC) associated with the study.

But this column does not dwell on the substance of either the Jan. 9 or the Feb. 6 meetings. Instead, it focuses on the nature of meetings and expectations of Ann Arbor residents for local governmental activity: Government shouldn’t be like an open sewer, but it should be open.

First, meetings that are accessible to the public – like the one earlier this month or the one next Thursday – are a part of the fundamental standard set by Ann Arbor residents for the function of our local government. Ann Arbor residents don’t consider the convening of a publicly accessible meeting, with data and information available beforehand, to be some kind of bonus, value-added feature of our local governance. It’s just axiomatic.

Of course, Ann Arbor residents don’t have a monopoly in Michigan on an expectation of open government. Two state statutes ensconce a statewide commitment to open government – the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). From the OMA: “All meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public.”

But a group like the SSWWE-CAC is not, strictly speaking, a “public body” as defined in the statute. So in Ann Arbor, we take the OMA a step further. By longstanding city policy established through a city council resolution passed in 1991, even advisory groups like the SSWWE-CAC are expected (to the best of their abilities) to conduct their meetings in accordance with the OMA.

I’ve written a lot about this topic in the past, and don’t really have much to add now.

What prompted me to write this column, more as a reminder than anything else, was seeing a note sent to SSWWE-CAC members via Basecamp – a piece of project management software that allows group collaboration and communication. The note was sent by one of the city’s outside consultants for the sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation – Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations.

Fleetham’s note included the following statement about the Basecamp site that’s been set up for the SSWWE-CAC: “… I believe that the CAC is and would be well served by having a site [Basecamp] to discuss this very complex and emotional issue without fear of public scrutiny.”

While I think that Fleetham’s sentiment was likely well-intended, public scrutiny is part of what Ann Arbor residents sign up for when they serve on one of the city’s citizens committees. This kind of service makes a resident a participant in a quintessential governmental function. As such, that service should be and will be subjected to public scrutiny. [Full Story]

Rezoning for Delta Gamma Moves to Council

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 23, 2014): Only one project was on the agenda for consideration by the planning commission on Jan. 23: rezoning and an area plan for a house that the Delta Gamma sorority wants to convert into a residential annex.

Delta Gamma, Robb Bourroughs, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Members of the project team for 515 Oxford, which will be an annex to the Delta Gamma sorority. (Photos by the writer.)

The 515 Oxford property is near the main sorority house at 626 Oxford, and is currently split into three apartment units. Planning commissioners recommended approval of the request to rezone the parcel from R4A (multi-family dwelling) to R2B (two-family dwelling and student housing).

Additional approvals for the project itself will be required before the project’s construction work can begin.

The proposal for a renovation would accommodate a maximum of 20 residents, including a required resident manager. A special exception use will also be required to allow for a sorority use. That request will be made to the planning commission at a later date, along with a more detailed site plan.

The house was designed by architect George Brigham and built in 1940 as his home and studio. He designed over 40 houses in Ann Arbor, including many in Arbor Hills and Barton Hills. Planning staff reported that they were contacted about this site by a2modern, a group created to highlight mid-century modern architecture in Ann Arbor. On Jan. 23, the group posted a “statement of concern” about the proposal on its website.

At the planning commission meeting, Robb Burroughs, the project’s architect, said that until they were alerted by a2modern, the design team hadn’t been aware of the site’s history. They’ve now done research at the Bentley Historical Library and have met with a representative from a2modern, and are working on the site plan to preserve to the greatest extent possible the exterior view of the house.

The rezoning request and area plan, which commissioners also recommended for approval, will now be considered by the city council.

In other action on Jan. 23, commissioners voted to recommend that the city council reappoint Kirk Westphal as the planning commission’s representative to the environmental commission. Westphal, who chairs the planning commission, did not participate in the vote, and vice chair Wendy Woods led the meeting as the commission acted on that item.

During communications time, planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that the city council had passed a resolution at its Jan. 21, 2014 meeting regarding the downtown zoning review. The council has directed the planning commission to develop ordinance language that would enact the commission’s recommendations for zoning revisions, with a deadline of Oct. 20, 2014. The commission’s ordinance revisions committee will meet on Feb. 4, before the regular planning commission meeting, to start figuring out how to implement these council directions.

In other communications, Bonnie Bona reported that the energy commission plans to propose a commercial energy disclosure ordinance for the city council’s consideration. They’d like the planning commission to consider a resolution in support of that. An energy disclosure ordinance would require owners of certain properties to report how much energy their buildings use. [Full Story]

Public Housing Conversion Takes Next Step

Ann Arbor housing commission meeting (Jan. 15, 2014): Transitions for Ann Arbor’s public housing will continue in the new year, even while the housing commission is also dealing with the aftermath of a major fire in one of its complexes.

Christopher Geer, Ron Woods, Marta Manildi, Ann Arbor Housing Commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor housing commission board members Christopher Geer, Ron Woods and Marta Manildi at the AAHC Jan. 15, 2014 meeting, held at Baker Commons. Not pictured here is Tim Colenback, the newest appointment to the AAHC board. Gloria Black, who represents AAHC residents, was absent. (Photos by the writer.)

At their first meeting of the year, commissioners were briefed about the impact and aftermath of a Jan. 8 fire at Green Baxter Court, a public housing complex on Green Road next to Baxter Park on the city’s east side. They heard from Joan Doughty, executive director of Community Action Network, which operates a community center at that complex under contract with the city. CAN staff are helping AAHC provide support for families who were displaced by the fire.

At their Jan. 15 meeting, board members authorized up to $9,000 in extra funds to help pay for that emergency work. CAN is also seeking additional donations from the community.

In separate action, the board amended Chapter 14 of its housing choice voucher administrative plan to include a preference for families that have been involuntarily displaced due to a fire, natural disaster or any other reason. The vouchers would be used to subsidize rental housing, if no units are available in the city’s public housing system.

The Jan. 15 meeting also included an update from Lori Harris, vice president with Norstar Development, on a major initiative to upgrade the city’s public housing units. Specifically, she presented Norstar’s recommendation for an equity partner to purchase low-income housing tax credits awarded by the state to AAHC late last year. The board approved the recommended firm, Red Stone Equity Partners.

Investors had responded positively to Norstar’s request for proposals, Harris said, with higher-than-expected offers. “You have a very, very good story here, and it’s played very, very well in this process,” she told the board. The tax-credit transaction will provide the majority of funding for renovating five public housing complexes: Miller Manor, South Maple, Baker Commons, Hikone and Green Baxter. These properties make up the majority of public housing units in the AAHC portfolio – 248 out of a total 326 units.

However, AAHC executive director Jennifer Hall told the board that additional funding will still be required. As part of that, the AAHC is requesting $600,000 from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Hall said she expects the DDA board to make a decision on that by March or April. The DDA previously gave the housing commission a $300,000 grant for capital improvements at Baker Commons, which is located within the DDA district. That approval came in March of 2013. And in October 2012, the DDA had provided a $260,000 grant primarily for replacing the Baker Commons roof.

In other action, the AAHC board approved a 3% cost-of-living adjustment for Hall, in line with other COLA increases given to city employees. The board also authorized changing the way its minutes are kept in order to begin using the city’s online Legistar system. The new approach will be less detailed in reporting deliberations, and will primarily provide a report on the outcome of action items. Currently, AAHC board minutes and board packets aren’t part of Legistar, but are provided on the AAHC page of the city’s website. Minutes from the AAHC board meetings are also attached to the city council agenda as an item of communication.

And near the end of the meeting, commissioner Marta Manildi reported that she is not seeking reappointment. Her term ends this spring, but she has offered to step down early. She was praised for her work in helping lead the AAHC through a difficult transition several years ago. Speaking during public commentary, Doughty said Manildi “really led the charge for a turnaround that’s been amazing to witness.”

A week later, at the Ann Arbor city council’s Jan. 21 meeting, mayor John Hieftje nominated Daniel Lee to serve out the rest of Manildi’s term. A confirmation vote is expected at the council’s Feb. 3 meeting. Hieftje described Manildi’s service on the commission as profound and beneficial. [Full Story]

Downtown Items OK’d, Public Art Delayed

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Jan. 21, 2014): Council communications at the start of the meeting highlighted an already-established pedestrian safety task force – and signaled that the evening could be contentious. It proved to be a night featuring some political friction, with the meeting extending past 1 a.m.

From left: Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere (Ward 1); Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm (Ward 2); Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). In color are the only two councilmembers on that side of the table who are not running for mayor. In addition to running for mayor, the four in black and white all served on a council committee last year that developed a proposal to end the Percent for Art program and replace it with a "baked-in" approach to art. (Photo art by The Chronicle.)

From left: Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere (Ward 1); Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm (Ward 2); Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). In color are the only two councilmembers on that side of the table who are not running for mayor. (Photo art by The Chronicle.)

The pedestrian safety and access task force appeared on the agenda because confirmation of its nine members was a question before the council. As part of that vote, as well as during council communications, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) revived the recent controversy over an attempted repeal of the city’s crosswalk ordinance – an effort that mayor John Hieftje ultimately vetoed. The task force was appointed at Tuesday’s meeting, after Kunselman established that he was still interested in revising the city’s crosswalk ordinance so that motorists would be required to stop for pedestrians only if they could “do so safely.”

In other business, the council approved the site plan for a revised, expanded version of the 624 Church St. project, located in the block just south of South University Avenue. The revised plan is for a 14-story, 116,167-square-foot building with 123 units and about 230 bedrooms. The approval came after an hour and a half of debate on the site plan, focusing on the way the project is satisfying a zoning requirement to provide parking spaces – through the city’s contribution-in-lieu (CIL) program. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had approved three five-year extensions for the CIL monthly permits – beyond the standard CIL term of 15 years. When Kunselman’s bid to eliminate the extended term failed – a move that would have jeopardized the project’s financing – he told Sean Spellman, representing the developer: “I’m sorry if I scared you …”

Also related to downtown development, the council moved along a process to revise downtown zoning regulations. The council accepted the planning commission’s recommendations, and in turn tasked the planning commission to develop ordinance language to implement the recommendations. In general, the planning commission’s recommendations were intended to create more of a buffer between downtown development and adjacent or nearby residential neighborhoods. Several other recommendations focused on the issue of “premiums” – certain features that a developer can provide in exchange for additional by-right floor area ratio (FAR).

During its Tuesday meeting, the council added some direction of its own: (1) consider rezoning Huron Street from Division to Fourth Avenue to conform with the East Huron 1 character district, and consider incorporating 25-foot minimum side setbacks and 10-foot front setbacks where feasible in the East Huron 1 character district; and (2) consider whether other D1-zoned areas that do not have buffering from adjacent residential neighborhoods, including some areas of South University and Thayer Street, should be rezoned to D2. A date certain was also added by which the planning commission is to report to the council on all its work on this issue – Oct. 20, 2014.

In other zoning action at its Jan. 21 meeting, the council gave initial approval for the zoning of two unzoned properties on South State Street – 1643 and 1645 S. State. They are proposed to be zoned C1 (local business district). One of those properties houses Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky.

In another item related to South State Street property, the council approved with no discussion a $25,550 contract with Atwell LLC for environmental site assessment services to evaluate 2500 S. State St. That’s the Edwards Brothers Malloy property for which the council is currently exploring options to purchase. The item was added to the agenda on Friday, Jan. 17, after the initial publication of the agenda.

Delayed by the council was a six-month extension of the contract with the city’s public art administrator, Aaron Seagraves, and a proposal to add $18,500 to his compensation to cover the added term. The postponement was made amid concern about the remaining $839,507 unallocated balance in the now-defunct Percent for Art fund. The political horse-trade made at the council table was to postpone the contract extension, with the expectation that it would be supported at the council’s next meeting – but at the same time, a process would start to return the better part of the $839,507 to the various funds from which that money was drawn.

The city’s new public art program relies on the idea of integrated or “baked-in” art for capital projects. It was developed by a five-member council committee, which included all four of the councilmembers who have announced that they’re running for mayor in 2014 – Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). The fifth member of that committee was Margie Teall (Ward 4), who cast the only vote against postponing the contract extension for Seagraves – as she wanted to approve it at Tuesday’s meeting.

Also at its Jan. 21 meeting, the council approved $6,818 of general fund money to build a sidewalk from the northeast corner of Penberton Court and Waldenwood northward – to connect to a path leading the rest of the way to King Elementary School. The item, which has a history of at least four years, drew about 15 minutes of discussion.

Taking a half hour of council deliberations was another sidewalk-related item. The council approved the first of four steps in the process to impose a special assessment on property owners for a sidewalk on the east side of Pontiac Trail, between Skydale and Dhu Varren Road. Debate centered on a proposal from Kunselman to ask the city administrator to consider city funding for 80% of the project.

The council dispatched quickly two liquor-license related items: recommendation of a special downtown development liquor license for The Lunch Room at 407 N. Fifth Avenue, and a change in the classification of Silvio’s Organic Pizza license from a Tavern License to a Class C License.

Public commentary was highlighted by concerns about fracking. [Full Story]