Budget Round 1: Community Services

Possible reductions in mowing, planning projects

In the first of a series of meetings on the budget, the Ann Arbor city council on Monday heard from community services area administrator Jayne Miller, who gave a presentation on her part of the city budget, based on information councilmembers had requested at the council’s Dec. 5, 2009 budget retreat.

Mary Jo Callan Jayne Miller

Mary Jo Callan, left, head of the city/county community development office, and Jayne Miller, the city of Ann Arbor's community service area administrator.

As to possible measures that could affect the FY 2011 budget, which begins July 1, 2010, Miller focused on several areas: (i) reorganizing the housing commission; (ii) reducing the scope for planning projects and outsourcing planning review and/or collaborating with other municipalities for construction inspection, (iii) cutting human services funding, (iv) reducing maintenance for specific parks and changing the parks maintenance/improvements millage resolution, which specifies how the millage money is allocated.

Some possibilities that were mentioned – but described as unlikely to have an impact on the FY 2011 budget – included allowing a private vendor to operate Huron Hills Golf Course as a combination driving range (where the front nine holes are currently located), plus a 9-hole golf course.

Specific parks were also identified in Miller’s report that would be recommended for sale – if parkland sale were to be used as a strategy. However, that too, said Miller, would be unlikely to have a short-term impact for two reasons: the sale of parkland requires a voter referendum, and the market for land is currently uncertain, given the overall economic climate.

The presentation also served as a bit of a tutorial on which parts of the city’s operations Miller administers, in a job she’ll be leaving on Feb. 11. Sumedh Bahl, unit manager of the water treatment plant, was also on hand Monday night – he’ll be filling in for Miller on an interim basis.

Housing Commission

Jayne Miller reviewed for the council the key point from a Jan. 11 work session regarding the housing commission: a $228,163 gap for the commission that would result from additional staffing and outsourcing of maintenance. [.pdf file of cover memo and materials for housing commission]

Of that amount, the city had already specified $90,000 in its FY 2011 plan, which would still leave a shortfall of $138,163 above and beyond what’s been planned for. As Miller reiterated on Monday, the beefed up staffing was expected over the next two years to recoup an investment in the form of additional grants they’d have staff time to apply for. Further, the housing commission had a variety of strategies it would be using to bridge the gap – but the bottom line was that council could be getting a request for additional funds beyond the $90,000 it had already planned for. [See Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Reorganizes"]

Planning and Development

Miller ticked through the basic services provided by planning and development: administration of rental housing inspection, administration of the construction code, and administration of the planning program. [.pdf file of cover memo and materials for planning and development]

Of these, the last item has the highest profile, as it involves site plan review for various projects, as well as the various planning initiatives that entail public engagement: A2D2 (downtown zoning), ZORO (comprehensive zoning code review), AHP (revisions to area height and placement requirements), as well as the current review of the R4C/R2A (residential housing) districts.

Of the various planning initiatives underway, Miller said, some were deemed too far along to consider modifications in schedule or scope. But in order to keep staffing at an already reduced level, she said, reductions in scope of other projects were a possibility. Projects that could be reduced in scope, she said, included the  second phase of master plan consolidation, which could be narrowed in focus to consider just those elements that were outdated.

And the review of the R4C/R2A zoning areas could, said Miller, be reduced in scope by eliminating the R2A (two-family dwelling) from consideration and truncating the review period at six months, instead of taking the entire year originally scheduled. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who is the council’s representative to the planning commission, did not embrace the idea of truncating the work of the R4C/R2A task force, saying there were groups that had already expressed some concern about their lack of inclusion in the process.

Other sources inside the task force have indicated that in the 3-4 months of work done to date, they’re really only at the point of gathering stakeholder input – including landlords who had perceived they were being excluded. It seems unlikely that the task force’s work could be wrapped up much short of the originally scheduled year.

In addition to the possibility of reducing the scope of projects, Miller outlined the possibility of outsourcing activities – plan review services, for example. One consideration is that all clerical and inspection staff is unionized, and union contract language would guide any outsourcing.

In the past, the city has had agreements with Washtenaw County and Pittsfield Township for mutual aid in construction inspection services. Those arrangements have been re-implemented, with ongoing discussions of additional opportunities for maximizing service, while minimizing costs.

Based on emails The Chronicle has seen circulated among building tradespeople in late November 2009, there is dissatisfaction in Ann Arbor with the performance of Pittsfield Township construction inspectors – failure rates of 50% are cited, which is high.

A somewhat more dramatic possibility outlined by Miller on Monday night was the possibility of transferring the authority for the enforcement of construction code to the state of Michigan. That would require the city to  substantiate a claim that administering and enforcing the rules would cause certain hardships and undue burdens on it.

Human Services

When the city council last allocated human services dollars – nearly $1.3 million worth in April of 2009 – it did so using a new scoring rubric. There was then already a sense that the following year, this year, things could be grim. From Chronicle coverage:

[Mayor John] Hieftje expressed concern that it was only going to get tougher next year and that to hold the human services funding level this year (as compared to last) was difficult.

For FY 2011, the coming budget year, the number $260,000 crops up multiple times throughout the cover memo on human services issues from Miller to the council. To appreciate the significance of that number, it’s important to understand that the city of Ann Arbor adopts a budget one year at a time, but plans two years at a time.

So when the council adopted the FY 2010 budget, there was a plan for FY 2011 accompanying it as well, even though that FY 2011 plan was not formally adopted.

In that FY 2011 plan, there was a reduction of $260,000 for human services support. So the various alternatives – discussed by Miller on Monday night and outlined in her cover memo – are portrayed in terms of this $260,000 reduction. Among the alternatives would be to restore the $260,000 to bring funding levels up to FY 2010 levels. That would be accomplished by allocating staff costs to federal funds and by not making a $100,000 contribution to the Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund.

In response to a question from Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Miller reported the current fund balance of the Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund is $393,000.

Also among the alternatives sketched out by Miller was the possibility of reducing human services funding by more than the $260,000 in the FY 2011 plan.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) – who was one of the chief architects of the scoring metric for human services allocations – wanted to know if the various nonprofits that had previously received money were aware of the potential for cuts. Miller said they were aware of what had been proposed.

Mayor John Hieftje appeared somewhat dissatisfied with Miller’s comparative portrayal of Ann Arbor materials in the context of five other cities: Lansing, Mich.; Austin, Texas.; Boulder, Colo.;  Fredericksburg, Va.; and Madison, Wisc. Those five cities fund nonprofits at an average rate of 1.45% of their general fund, compared to 1.7% for Ann Arbor. [.pdf file of cover memo and materials for humans services]

[That 1.7% is more than the other five cities – but the average of 1.45% did not include three other cities in Michigan, none of which allocate any of their general fund money to nonprofits: Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo. Inclusion of those three zeros in the average would put the contrast at 0.9% average for eight other cities versus Ann Arbor's 1.7%.]

Hieftje concluded that Ann Arbor, compared to other cities in Michigan, was still quite strong with respect to its human services funding.


Discussion of parks took up more of the council’s time than other parts of the community services area covered on Monday night. [.pdf file of cover memo and materials for parks]

Parks: Open Space Millage

One of the questions that the city council had asked city staff to explore was the possible re-purposing of the open space (a.k.a greenbelt) millage to support the city’s park system. The city issued $20 million in bonds based on the millage, which was passed in 2003 and last through 2033. The debt service on those bonds is roughly $1.2 million to $1.4 million per year through 2033. Revenue from the millage is projected to be a little over $2 million, leaving an estimated $700,000 to $900,000 in available funds per year.

The current fund balance for the open space millage is $18,266,602, of which $6,318,071 has either been recently spent or approved to be spent by the council, leaving a practical balance of $11,948,531.

Neither in the cover memo or during council discussions on Monday night did there seem to be any great enthusiasm for exploring the possibility of re-purposing the open space millage in support of the city park system.

Parks: Do You Golf?

However, the idea of issuing an RFP (request for proposals) to convert part of the Huron Hills Golf Course to a driving range with just a 9-hole course was fairly warmly embraced. Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) described the notion as “intriguing” and said that to pursue it, the timing would be “the sooner, the better” in order to get the proposal before the golf advisory task force as well as the park advisory commission.

The RFP would need to be issued by the end of March, thought Rapundalo, in order to be able to factor it into the FY 2011 budget discussion. But Miller cautioned that the end of March would be “pushing it.” City administrator Roger Fraser pointed out that the RFP would ask people to come in with a financial plan and a market analysis. There’d need to be a period of due diligence – he was not sanguine about the expectation that it could be done before the end of the fiscal year.

If it made sense for a private vendor to put in a driving range and operate it, asked Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), why wouldn’t the city undertake that itself? Miller allowed that it was a good question. She explained that the advantage would be that the capital outlay to install the range would be carried by the vendor instead of the city. Miller concurred with Taylor’s conclusion that it would likely be a situation where the risk – but also the reward – would be shared with the private vendor.

It was established through several conversational turns that it’s the front nine holes – near the river – that were candidates for replacement with a driving range. The back nine holes are preferred for play at the course, which was described as more of a community asset used for beginning players. That contrasts with Leslie Park Golf Course, which is more of a “championship” course, said Rapundalo.

Of the two golf courses, it’s Leslie that stands the best chance of eventually breaking even, said Miller. The forecasted losses for both courses in FY 2010 is $517,288. Maintaining (mowing) Huron Hills as open parkland, not as a golf course, would be $320,000.

Parks: Mowing

The materials provided to the council by Miller provide a park-by-park breakdown of possible areas to reduce mowing in order to save money. However, Miller cautioned that it was somewhat difficult to estimate exactly how much money could be saved, because reducing mowing at a site reduced the time spent at a particular park, but the time it took to haul the equipment to the location stayed the same.

Parks: Facility Evaluation

Included in the materials prepared by Miller was a table of data on facilities and their revenue versus expenses, plus number of visitors. It drew praise from Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who described it as providing a lot of very useful data.

The table gives data for facilities starting in 2003 through the present for each year, as well as aggregated data for all years. [.pdf file of cover memo and materials for parks]

Parks: Reallocation of Parks Maintenance and Capital Improvements Millage

One possibility covered by Miller was to revisit the resolution of intent associated with the parks maintenance  and capital improvements millage. The millage was passed in November 2006  and combined two previously separate millages.

Its distribution of funding to maintenance versus capital improvements is governed by a council resolution passed in October 2006. The resolution specifies a range of 60-80% for maintenance, with the remainder going to capital improvements. The resolution also calls for any reduction in the overall general fund to be reflected no more severely in parks programs supported by the general fund than in other general fund activities. For example, if the general fund were to suffer a 7.5% reduction, then parks programs supported by the general fund would suffer no greater a reduction that 7.5%.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) raised the question of whether it would be necessary to go back to the voters in order to revise that resolution – voters had felt that it accompanied the ballot language, she pointed out.

Briere could have been alluding to the controversy after the millage was passed – with its accompanying “hold harmless” clause for parks programs within the general fund – when Leslie Science and Nature Center was spun off as an independent nonprofit. The city initially calculated the baseline for general fund park activity without the Leslie Science and Nature Center, reasoning that the item itself was no longer in the general fund and that it was not a matter of reducing it. However in response to public criticism, funding was put back into parks programs to bring their funding to the level they would have been with Leslie Science and Nature Center as a part of the calculation.

Parks: Use of Volunteers

One of the options presented by Miller was increased use of volunteers – but that, she cautioned, would require some additional staffing in order to coordinate them. One idea for providing that staffing, she said, was to use a still-vacant park planner position [likely Jeff Dehring's position] as a volunteer coordinator.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked about the use of volunteers for creating of outdoor ice rinks – there’s a Facebook group that has formed, calling for the city to bring back the Burns Park outdoor ice rinks. In oversimplified form, the technique could be described as turning on a hose and  letting the water freeze.

Craig Hupy, head of systems planning for the city, was on hand Monday night to report that looking back over the temperature patterns for the last three years, there would have been no good opportunities for creating such ice rinks in those years.

Parkland Sale

At the city council’s request, the staff identified parks where further exploration might be warranted:

  • Arboretum – possible University of Michigan interest
  • Bader – low use, not visible
  • Berkshire Creek – potentially buildable
  • Depot – only a visual resource, has issues with loitering/trash
  • Devonshire – would need to retain path access to Gallup, but may be able to reduce size
  • Dicken Park – low use
  • Dicken Woods – potential developer interest
  • Douglas Park – potentially buildable
  • Eisenhower Park – currently numerous encroachment issues
  • Ellsworth Park – duplicates SE Area Park uses, especially since University Townhouses installed fence blocking off park from residents
  • Foxfire East – low use
  • Fuller Park – small triangle west of park is not usable part of park
  • Garden Homes Park – there has been some interest in smaller sections of the park for private use
  • George Washington Park – property more an extension of right-of-way
  • Glazier Way – sell back access easement to homeowners
  • Manchester – potentially buildable
  • Mill Creek – low use
  • Molin Nature Area – back yards of residents
  • Pittsview – potentially buildable
  • Rose White Park – low use
  • South University – underused, but in an area without many parks
  • Stone School – low use

But the memo accompanying the list is fairly pessimistic and there were no councilmembers clamoring on Monday night for the sale of parks. From the staff cover memo:

Many parks have deed restrictions so further research would have to be done at a park-specific level should Council wish to further explore this option. It is also worth considering that current land value is much lower than it recently has been. It may be difficult to attract buyers and if a sale was achieved, the land could be undervalued given the current market. Finally, prior to the sale of any parkland, an affirmative vote of Ann Arbor voters would be required.

Charter: Budget Procedure

As city administrator Roger Fraser pointed out, part of the timing for what comes next is specified in the city’s charter:

SECTION 8.2. On or before the first day of February of each year, each City officer and department head shall submit to the City Administrator estimates of revenues and expenditures of their office or department for the next fiscal year. The City Administrator shall … present that proposed budget to the Council at its second regular meeting in April.

SECTION 8.6. Not later than its second meeting in May, the Council shall, by resolution concurred in by at least seven members, adopt the budget for the next fiscal year. …

SECTION 8.8. Should the Council fail to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year at or before the second meeting of the Council in May, the budget proposal as recommended to the Council by the City Administrator, shall be deemed to have been finally adopted by the Council and, without further action by the Council, shall constitute an appropriation of the money needed for municipal purposes during the next fiscal year.

On the city’s website, “budget central” is on the Our Town page, where presentation materials and next meeting dates can be found.

Next up will be a meeting on Feb. 8 to revisit the community services area in earnest before Jayne Miller’s departure from that position three days later. Following that will be a Feb. 22 meeting, when public services will likely be on the agenda.


  1. By Bob Martel
    January 27, 2010 at 8:58 am | permalink

    I am amazed at the estimated cost ($320,000) of simply mowing Huron Hills as a park rather than running it as a golf course. I wonder if the mowing was bid out to one of the many private mowing companies we see running around town all summer would result in a significant savings? For that matter, how much could be saved if all City parks were mowed by private contractors instead of City staff?

  2. By Dave Askins
    January 27, 2010 at 9:24 am | permalink

    Re: [1] One of the councilmembers (Sandi Smith, I think) asked whether the idea had been explored of leasing to a farmer to grow food — oversight on my part in not including that in the report. Even if the lease were $0, the city would come out ahead on the farming scenario compared to the cost of mowing. It really is quite striking how much of park maintenance is all about the mowing. The “let it go wild” option is priced out at $3,000 per acre for establishing a grassland or prairie.

  3. By Bob Martel
    January 27, 2010 at 10:18 am | permalink

    I can’t imagine that a farmer would be interested in using Huron Hills for farming as the cost of conversion to be suitable for planting would be high, there would be issues with driving farm equipment through the City to get to the site, and of course, the site’s accessibility and visibility could encourage vandalism and theft. There is so much available and more suitable farmland within minutes of the City border that could be put to productive use with much less cost and hassle. This idea makes no sense whatsoever.

  4. By Cosmonican
    January 27, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    Parks: Facility Evaluation — the link in that section is broken.

  5. By Dave Askins
    January 27, 2010 at 10:38 am | permalink

    Re: [3] Link should now work.

  6. By suswhit
    January 27, 2010 at 10:52 am | permalink

    Re: [3] …not to mention the toxic residue in the soil from years of chemical applications.

  7. January 27, 2010 at 11:39 am | permalink

    I think the view of its rolling hills are one of the amenities of living in Ann Arbor. As much as I like farms and gardens, that is not the place.

  8. By Cosmonican
    January 27, 2010 at 11:46 am | permalink

    Re #’s 3 & 6: How about tree farming under the direction of the city forester, for replenishment of the city trees as needed. That could have educational uses too.

  9. By Bob Martel
    January 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm | permalink

    I with agree Vivienne that the picturesque views afforded by Huron Hills golf course are part of what defines Ann Arbor. I am a bit wary of the driving range suggestion for this very reason.

  10. By mr dairy
    January 27, 2010 at 12:58 pm | permalink

    The picturesque green hills of a golf course is part of what defines Ann Arbor?

    Good grief. Let’s sell postcards.

  11. By Sandi Smith
    January 27, 2010 at 6:02 pm | permalink

    It was me who had suggested we try to think outside of the box.

    What if we could find a farmer who was interested in doing demonstration farming and educate our citizens about local foods while paying the city a modest lease fee. The land would still serve a public purpose and be available as public land into the future (although probably cost prohibited from returning to a golf course.) There is some interesting work happening in Detroit now. You can read about it here: [link].

  12. By a2DLS
    January 28, 2010 at 5:00 am | permalink

    Miller is just full of great ideas for someone knowing they are leaving the city with a packed pension and then on to another public funded position of double dipping the system.

    She knows half these ideas have no chance of coming to fruition with the union stronghold on our public sector. Consolidation of services? Outsources job duties? Nothing but rhetoric
    as she dances out of the city.

  13. By mr dairy
    January 28, 2010 at 10:41 am | permalink

    Aren’t we happy that Sandi Smith is thinking outside the box? How nice.

    What will she suggest next? A big unnecessary conference center in downtown? Now that’s really creative thinking.

    Farming is hard, dirty, costly and risky work with as good a chance for crop failure as a profitable harvest. Does anyone actually believe that an experienced farmer would relocate his/her operation to a public park to show city folks how to grow corn or slaughter a cow? Does she know what it would require to turn turf grass on hilly terrain to productive farmland?

    Maybe we can get Archers Daniels Midland or Cargill to foot the bill?

    Maybe change the name to Monsanto Hills and hire laborers from Ann Arbor Hills.

    Now get back to work and think outside the box for ways to fix the Stadium bridges.

  14. January 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm | permalink

    Don’t even bother asking me what I think!


  15. By gill
    January 28, 2010 at 9:42 pm | permalink

    What about space for Project Grow (and they pay to maintain the areas they use)?

    Also, lawn is probably the easiest thing to re-establish on the property if there is a desire to restore the land to its “postcard” stature in the future (when the economy recovers).

  16. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 29, 2010 at 6:37 am | permalink

    Great idea–COWS. Why not plow up the Library parking lot and turn it into a petting farm and grow corn. At least the city wouldn’t be putting it’s financial future at risk once again with guaranteeing risk bonds for a private out of state developer.

  17. By jcp2
    January 29, 2010 at 7:43 am | permalink

    We got one already. It’s called Cobblestone Farm in front of Buhr Park.

  18. By Gerry Clark
    January 29, 2010 at 9:15 am | permalink

    Many of the parks listed as potentially for sale could not be sold. Several are part of a platted subdivision and if not used for parks would revert to owners, plus housing density numbers were calculated with park open space as a part of the formula. Several other listed parks are wetlands, others are nearly 100% street and utility easements, finally many others were purchased with State and Federal matching grant funds that may need to be repaid if the granting agencies would OK the sale. If the City did decide to sell parks they should be rezoned from Public Land first, following the required rezoning process.

  19. By Rod Johnson
    January 29, 2010 at 10:00 am | permalink

    I hate it when people undermine political grandstanding with facts.

  20. By Bob Martel
    January 29, 2010 at 10:57 am | permalink

    Selling parks to raise or save money is not a viable option even aside from the facts raised by [18] as it presumes that there is someone who wants to buy the park for some type of redevelopment. There may indeed be a few park sites that would be of interest to developers who might actually be financially capable of making a project work, but I would bet that those sites are also the most desirable ones for community access/use and that any effort to sell those sites would be political suicide for any politician supporting such an effort.

    I’m all in favor of “thinking outside the box” but when such efforts result in time being spent on ultimately impractical solutions (such as a City financed convention center,) I fear that the time needed to find the practical solutions is lost. By all means, explore all options, think outside the box, but please, reject the impractical ideas early in the process and move on!