Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (Feb. 1, 2009): The four Ann Arbor councilmembers who convened for caucus on Sunday night heard voices of dissent from the public on the police-courts facility, plus the expression of discontent from some of their own on a range of issues – from as-yet unapproved zoning standards to fiscal policy. Based on the Sunday night caucus, possible outcomes from Monday’s council meeting could include the elimination of the new council/public meeting space from the police-courts project and the tabling of the Farmers Market renovation.
Municipal Facility (Police-Courts)
Three members of the public appeared in order to express their opposition to the construction of the police-courts facility. On the council agenda for Monday is a resolution to approve the $35.87 million contract with Clark Construction, which carries a guaranteed maximum cost of $38,148,745. Construction would begin later this month and be completed in the spring of 2011.
The arguments against it from the public included an analysis of what the community would be sacrificing financially in other areas in order build the project. These members of the public also provided the view based on professional experience on the engineering side, that the “value engineering” process in which city staff are currently engaged always cuts cost to the client, but never cuts profit to the builder. One person compared the situation to a dysfunctional family where one of its members has expensive habits – drugs, alcohol and gambling. When that member is in a bind and has no money for heat in the wintertime, he said, a sob story gets told in order to get relatives to donate money to the cause. In this case, the sob story is that the city of Ann Arbor won’t have money for police and fire protection or trash collection, and the expensive habit is the police-courts facility.
Those members of the public found sympathetic ears in the form of councilmembers Sabra Briere and Mike Anglin, who have long been on record as opposing the project. As an aside, Anglin has already taken out petitions for his re-election and he circulated them Sunday night. On Sunday, Anglin expressed his disappointment that the project had come this far and said he was not in favor of proceeding: “You can’t predict the future, but you can act on the present.”
But it was councilmember Marcia Higgins who led off councilmembers’ discussion of the municipal facility and seemed to express a certain weariness by rubbing her eyes. She said that she’d be pushing for a resolution from council to eliminate the new public meeting space and council chamber from the design: “I would like to suggest that we give Roger [Fraser, city administrator] direction that we don’t spend any more on design.” She stressed that council had never said that this additional space would be paid for out of the bond, and that this was why she was surprised to hear councilmember Leigh Greden (not present on Sunday) suggest at a previous council meeting that it could be – if the bids for the rest of the project came back low enough. The idea that the new space for council chamber and public meetings will not be built is consistent with the memo accompanying the agenda item for Monday’s meeting approving the construction agreement: “As the base project will require virtually the entire budget, we do not recommend further consideration of the New Community Meeting Room alternate.”
Briere said she would not vote for the building but would vote for the elimination of the construction of new council chambers, noting that she had not seen a contingency plan developed.
Stimulus Package and Other Major Construction Projects
The new municipal center project also came up in the discussion of the federal stimulus package wish list. Briere noted that the city of Ann Arbor’s wish list included the new municipal center ($65 million), plus the waste water treatment facility renovations ($94 million), projects for which the city had budgeted and for which the council had been informed there was money to fund. She said that to ask for money for those projects would make Ann Arbor look greedy, and that she was dismayed by the list. After caucus, Briere clarified that she was not against asking the federal government for money, but that in choosing to list projects for which we’ve said we can pay for ourselves, we miss the opportunity to fund other projects.
During caucus discussion, Briere said that Mayor John Hieftje had given her a wish list of Ann Arbor environmental projects to convey to Michigan representatives on her trip to Washington, D.C. After caucus, she said that she’d managed to talk about the projects with Rep. John Dingell’s staff, Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s staff, as well as Lt. Gov. John Cherry.
One project that Higgins would have liked to have seen on the wish list was the replacement of the Stadium Boulevard bridges across State Street and the railroad tracks. She said that a very recent inspection of an exposed beam on the State Street bridge would necessitate a $0.5 million repair. This, after a plan to replace both bridges, incorporating non-motorized amenities, had been delayed due to lack of funding. Higgins said she was frustrated that a “basic bridge” had never been designed as part of the city’s approach to the need to replace the State Street bridge. This means that it doesn’t appear on the stimulus wish list – which contains “shovel ready” status columns for 90, 120 and 180 days. Higgins said that Sue McCormick, the city’s director of public services, had told her it would take up to 8 months to design the bridge.
The Stadium bridge has had its weight-carrying capacity reduced over the years as part of a strategy to deal with the fact that it needs to be replaced, Higgins said, but now we needed to begin to face up to the possibility that lack of action would result in closing the bridge. Higgins said she was not happy with McCormick’s response to her query about contingency planning for emergency response, in the event the bridge is closed on the major east-west corridor. Higgins characterized the response as, “We’ll get to that.”
Higgins also indicated at caucus that there would be a motion to table the resolution for the Farmers Market renovation project indefinitely. Its budget had grown from less than $1 million to over $2 million. She noted that it was important that people understood that the $600,000 that had been described as a “grant” was actually a low-interest loan. The money would go towards the cleaning of storm water retained at the site. At its last meeting, council voted to postpone the resolution.
Fiscal Policy: Capital Improvement Plan and the Budget
Higgins clarified her lone “no” votes at last council meeting on the capital improvement plan and a resolution authorizing the use of around $250,000 of storm water fund money for a tree inventory. She said that she had been working over the last five years or so to make the capital improvement plan a part of the budgeting process, because the CIP is such a huge driver of budget decisions. Now it’s a separate process.
Other matters that Higgins said she wanted to see included in the budgeting process involved fees – storm water rates, sewer rates, water rates. She said that she wanted any fees that were not for recreational activities (which required separate consideration mainly so that publicity materials could be prepared with the accurate amounts printed in them) to be a part of the budget process. Council will be considering a modified fee schedule for golf courses at Monday’s meeting. Briere concurred with the idea that it was important to understand the impact of fee increases on the budget.
Higgins also clarified her vote at the last council meeting against the use of around $250,000 out of the storm water fund to supplement a $25,000 grant to inventory city trees. She said that she would prefer to see that money spent directly on storm water, not on a tree inventory. Briere said that for $25,000, “we could hire Boy Scouts – I’m not kidding.”
Also related to fiscal policy was a question Higgins asked people to start thinking about: Should Act 51 money be tapped to fund street barricades for community events (non-exhaustive list: Rolling Sculpture, Dancing in the Streets, Oktoberfest, 4th of July Parade, Festifools, Taste of Ann Arbor, Art Fairs, Take Back the Night, Summer Festival). She said that state law had required new types of barriers, and that the overhead to transport them from the Wheeler Center had increased slightly, with the overall impact that the cost to community groups for barricading the public right of way had roughly doubled. Tapping Act 51 (transportation) funds was one possibility she saw to help defray those costs.
One Percent for Art? Really??
Higgins also called into question the need for construction projects to allocate a full 1% for public art, noting that around $1 million had already accumulated in the fund in the year since the program was adopted. She wondered if perhaps a half percent would be a more appropriate level.
Councilmember Christopher Taylor noted light-heartedly that “A Half-Percent For Art!” just doesn’t have quite the same ring. But on a more serious note he suggested that monies are being accumulated faster than they’re being allocated because a mechanism for distribution is still getting up and running.
Zoning: Area Height and Placement
Discussion among councilmembers at caucus actually began with consideration of a planned project on the agenda for the Wintermeyer Office Building at 2144 and 2178 South State. Briere reported that the existing setback is 37 feet, what is required by current code is 25 feet, and the developer is asking for 15 feet. The proposed setback would be consistent with the revised area, height, and placement standards on all non-downtown and non-residential properties that came out of planning commission, but which were sent back by council for more public input. So Briere wondered if city planning staff were pushing developers to build to a new standard that had not yet been approved. Along the same lines, Higgins expressed her frustration that planning staff might be saying to developers that council would be approving the new standards and that they should go ahead and build based on them.
Taylor ventured that the new standards had been “vetted to some degree,” but Briere quickly objected that they hadn’t. Taylor rephrased by saying that the standards were not “fresh from the air.” He said that in a situation where the standards are in transition, it seemed reasonable that a developer might hew to the standard that might be approved, if it allowed him to achieve the innovation he had in mind for his project.
Because the project does not meet existing standards, said Higgins, it’s coming before council as a planned project, something that she said council had repeatedly asked planning staff not to do. Planned projects are similar to PUDs in that the city applies certain criteria to projects that do not conform to existing code. But Higgins said that planned projects offer much less flexibility in negotiation than PUDs.