Archive for January, 2013

Planning Group Postpones 413 E. Huron

Following a public hearing that drew 21 speakers – nearly all of them opposed to the project, sometimes making emotional pleas to halt the project – the Ann Arbor planning commission voted to postpone action on a site plan for 413 E. Huron, a 14-story residential development proposed for the northeast corner of Huron and Division streets. The vote took place at the commission’s Jan. 15, 2013 meeting, acting on staff advice for postponement. Staff had recommended postponing the vote because input on the project hasn’t yet been received from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, which must weigh in because of the building’s location along a state trunkline – Huron Street.

The project, estimated to cost $45 million, calls for combining … [Full Story]

624 Church St. Project Moves Ahead

A 14-story apartment building at 624 Church St. is moving forward, after Ann Arbor planning commissioners unanimously recommended approval of its site plan and development agreement at their Jan. 15, 2013 meeting. It will next be considered for approval by the city council.

The move came despite objections from representatives of the adjacent Zaragon Place apartments, who had earlier emailed the city to raise concerns about how Zaragon – located at 619 E. University – will be impacted by construction at 624 Church. Zaragon opened a few years ago and is marketed to University of Michigan students. The developers of 624 Church intend to market their apartments to the same demographic. [.pdf of letter from Zaragon attorney] [.pdf of ... [Full Story]

Devonshire Lot To Be Annexed into Ann Arbor

The Ann Arbor planning commission recommended approval of the annexation for 2925 Devonshire Road, which is one of  several Ann Arbor Township “islands” within the city. The action occurred at the commission’s Jan. 15, 2013 meeting, when commissioners also recommended zoning the 0.66-acre site as R1A (single-family dwelling district). The zoning and annexation require Ann Arbor city council approval.

The property – owned by Keith Kocher and Sara Saberi – is vacant, but within a residential neighborhood south of Geddes. [.pdf of aerial map showing property location] The owners plan to build a new house there, and would be required to pay an estimated $41,337 to connect to the city’s water and sewer mains. A storm sewer improvement charge of … [Full Story]

Plymouth Rd. Retail Project Gets Planning OK

A proposed retail development at 3600 Plymouth Road, just west of US-23, is moving ahead following a recommendation of approval at the Jan. 15, 2013 meeting of the Ann Arbor planning commission. The project – called The Shoppes at 3600 – was previously postponed by the commission on Nov. 7, 2012.

On Jan. 15, commissioners recommended that the city council approve the project’s original site plan as well as rezoning for the land – from R5 (motel-hotel district) to C3 (fringe commercial district). The site is located in the same complex as the Holiday Inn North Campus. [.pdf of aerial map showing project's location] Responding to some commissioner concerns voiced at the November 2012 meeting, the developer had provided an … [Full Story]

Process Halted for Dog Park at West Park

The recommendation to locate a dog park in West Park, across from New Hope Baptist Church, will be removed from the Ann Arbor city council’s Jan. 22 agenda. The Ann Arbor park advisory commission, which had recommended the location off of Chapin Street, was informed of the decision at its Jan. 15, 2013 meeting. Parks staff and PAC will regroup and select a new location for a dog park more centrally located to the downtown.

Several members of the church had spoken at PAC’s December 2012 meeting, objecting to problems with noise, smell and safety. The African American church is located directly across the street from the proposed dog park location. At that meeting, PAC voted to recommend that city … [Full Story]

A2: Entre-SLAM

Writing for Fortune magazine, Vickie Elmer describes the genesis of Entre-SLAM, a monthly Ann Arbor-based storytelling competition for entrepreneurs that was founded last year by Jeannie Ballew and Christa Chambers-Price. Ballew is quoted on plans for expanding the concept: ”The stories that evolve from these gatherings are meant to be told again and again. We envision building a thriving, online community of entrepreneurs but also we plan on releasing a series of books….I keep visualizing Entre-Slam in Japan. We have every reason to believe it can be international.” [Source]

UM: Ben Bernanke

The Wall Street Journal is among several national news organizations that reported on Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s lecture and Q&A on Jan. 14 at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. From the report: “The Fed chairman cited bright spots for the economy, including the energy boom that is lifting output in some states, an improving housing market and resilient consumer confidence. He defended the effect of Fed policies on the economy. The programs helped drive down long-term interest rates to support growth, he said, as evident from ‘incredibly low’ mortgage rates. That, he added, was a factor making housing more affordable and helping the sector recover.” [Source]

Blake Transit Center

Yellow backhoe is starting demolition of transit center canopy in preparation for construction of new Blake Transit Center, which will front Fifth Avenue, not Fourth, like the current center. [Final approval of budget and design came Oct. 18, 2012] [photo]

UM: TEDx 2013

The theme for this year’s TEDxUofM will be “Untapped_” according to a recent post on the event’s website. From the post: ”With our theme Untapped_ we are looking for individuals to share untold stories of undiscovered potential. This theme was chosen based on the desire to demonstrate the unknown capacity of our vast and diverse campus, while highlighting the importance of every individual and their unique, important ideas.” The day-long event is scheduled for April 5. [Source]

DDA Sends William Street Project to Council

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Jan. 9, 2013): The first meeting of the year for the DDA’s board featured a packed agenda – with items ranging from budget adjustments to the adoption of recommendations on the Connecting William Street project. Also voted on by the board were grants to the nonprofit Dawn Farm, an allocation of funds for the DDA’s energy grant program, and two monthly parking permits for The Varsity residential development.

Walkable City is a volume brought to the Jan. 9, 2013 Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting by local developer Peter Allen.

Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City” was a volume brought to the Jan. 9, 2013 Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting by local developer Peter Allen. (Photos by the writer.)

The budget adjustments to FY 2013 were made in order to account for roughly $2.6 million in construction costs associated with the Library Lane underground parking garage. They had been allocated in the previous year’s budget, but not paid last year – because the completion of the construction extended into this fiscal year.

The FY 2012 audit report, which the board also approved at its Jan. 9 meeting, shows that for FY 2012, the DDA spent about $2.5 million less than anticipated for that year – because the construction invoices were not all submitted to the DDA by the time books closed for the year.

The result of those changes leaves a budget with $22,237,924 in revenues against $26,339,555 in expenses for the year – which translates to a planned use of the DDA’s fund balance reserve of $4,101,632. That’s about half of the existing fund balance.

Not a part of the revised budget was the approval of two allocations made by the board – one of $50,000 in connection with the DDA’s existing energy grant program, and another of $150,000 for a grant to Dawn Farm, a nonprofit offering both residential and out-patient services supporting recovery for alcoholics and drug addicts. The energy allocation will essentially attempt to leverage energy audits completed through the DDA’s program for use in the Michigan Saves program, which offers low-interest financing for energy improvements.

The board also approved recommendations to be forwarded to the city council on the future redevelopment of five city-owned sites currently used for parking. The project, which is now named Connecting William Street (CWS), began with an April 4, 2011 city council resolution that directed the DDA to seek “robust public input” from experts, stakeholders and residents to develop a plan for those parcels.

In connection with the parcels in that area, the board also adopted a policy on possible grants from the DDA’s tax increment finance (TIF) funds to support development of the CWS properties. The policy makes clear that the DDA would not forgo its TIF capture on any property – but the amount of the grant would be calculated based on TIF revenue.

Also in connection with the CWS project, the board heard remarks during public commentary from representatives of the city’s park advisory commission as well as the State Street Area Association. The board also invited Doug Kelbaugh, a University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning, to share his thoughts on parks versus plazas – and why he thinks the site on top of the Library Lane parking garage is more likely to succeed as a plaza instead of a park. [Full Story]

Housing Commission Selects Co-Developer

Ann Arbor housing commission special board meeting (Jan. 10, 2013): Taking another step toward a public/private partnership, Ann Arbor housing commissioners unanimously voted to choose Norstar Development USA as co-developer for a major new public housing initiative. The action took place at a special board meeting on Jan. 10 called solely to hear presentations from two finalists: Norstar and MHT Housing Inc.

Tim OBrien, Rick Higgins, Norstar Development, OBrien Construction, Ann Arbor housing commission, public housing, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Tim O’Brien, president of O’Brien Construction, and Norstar Development USA president Rick Higgins, at the Jan. 10 special board meeting for the Ann Arbor housing commission. (Photos by the writer.)

Norstar – based in Buffalo, N.Y. – will help AAHC convert about 275 of Ann Arbor’s 360 public housing units into public/private developments. Residents in those units will receive rental assistance through long-term Section 8 subsidy vouchers that are tied to the buildings. It’s part of a new rental assistance demonstration program, known as RAD, offered by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). AAHC was accepted into the program late last year, and faced a Jan. 30 deadline to submit its selection of a co-developer to HUD.

The process eventually will entail that ownership of some Ann Arbor public housing properties – to which the city of Ann Arbor holds deed – would be transferred to a new entity. The city, via the AAHC, would retain a small ownership stake in the new entity – likely 1% or less. The arrangement would give AAHC access to private financing to renovate the current public housing properties, using tax credit financing, loans, equity or grants that are not otherwise available to the housing commission.

Executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission Jennifer L. Hall will be making a presentation on this process to the Ann Arbor city council at its Feb. 11 working session.

AAHC also faces a Feb. 15 deadline for the next round of the state’s low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program, in the category of permanent supportive housing. AAHC officials hope that tax credit financing will provide the bulk of investment for this RAD initiative, but much work is needed to complete the application in time. “You can’t even imagine how much work it will take for us to get into that Feb. 15 round,” Hall told commissioners. They need to hire an appraiser, do a fiscal needs assessment and environmental review, and take a range of other actions.

The goal of this complex set of transactions is not at this point to increase the number of public housing units in Ann Arbor. Instead the goal is to enable AAHC to tap private financing for capital improvements in its existing housing stock, which is aging. Many properties were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Norstar will be one of at least four entities working with AAHC on this project. The AAHC also has hired Avalon Housing, an Ann Arbor nonprofit, as a consultant to help seek low-income housing tax credits from the state. Avalon’s contract runs through Dec. 31, 2013 for an amount up to $32,000, to be invoiced hourly at $180 per hour.

Two others who are working on the effort are: (1) Tom Davis, a senior vice president of advisory services at Recap Real Estate Advisors, based in Boston; and (2) Rochelle Lento, a real estate attorney with Dykema’s Detroit office. The cost of Dykema’s service is estimated at no more than $40,000. Recap’s compensation could include more than $70,000 for helping AAHC complete the RAD transactions.

Both Davis and Lento attended the Jan. 10 meeting. Also attending his first meeting as the newest housing commissioner was Christopher Geer, an accountant and finance director with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Geer was appointed by city council to replace Andy LaBarre, who resigned last year after being elected to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. [Full Story]

City Council Acts on Wind Power, Park Items

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Jan. 7, 2013): Most of the council’s first regular meeting of the year was taken up with discussion of a U.S. Department of Energy grant of nearly $1 million for construction of two wind turbines, likely to be constructed on Ann Arbor Public Schools property.

This apple on a city council desk reflects the fact that part of the meeting was devoted to core priorities.

This apple on a councilmember’s desk could reflect the fact that part of the meeting was devoted to core priorities. (Photo by the writer.)

Councilmembers established a concern about the possible financial risks associated with the project, and a desire that public input be solicited on the ultimate decision for a site. But the vote was unanimous to accept the grant, which includes an obligation to provide roughly $480,000 in matching funds. That match is expected to be provided by Wind Products Inc., a company located in Brooklyn, New York.

At a meeting of the city’s energy commission held the following night, commissioners expressed their dissatisfaction that the proposal had not been brought to that body for review.

Some of the council’s deliberations on the wind turbines included the question of whether the effort was consistent with the council’s priorities for the next two years – ones that were formally adopted at the Jan. 7 meeting. The priorities, which had been identified in a Dec. 10 planning session, included the basic areas of: fiscal responsibility, public safety, infrastructure, economic development and affordable housing.

The council had three parks-related voting items on its agenda, neither of which prompted extended deliberations. One was approval of a design for the new skatepark in the northwest corner of Veterans Memorial Park, which is expected to start construction in the spring and be completed in the fall. A second voting item was the approval of another contract with the Conservation Fund, which helps manage operations for the city’s greenbelt and parkland acquisition programs.

A third parks-related voting item was authorization of a contract to replace roofs on two buildings at Cobblestone Farm.

Another agenda item – related to parks, but not requiring a vote – was a presentation from the council-appointed task force that’s been asked to make recommendations for a future vision of the North Main Street corridor, extending to the Huron River, including the MichCon property. They focused their presentation on the 721 N. Main property, for which the council had authorized two grant applications at its Dec. 17, 2012 meeting. The group has a summer 2013 deadline to make recommendations for the whole area.

Also on the topic of parks, the council heard from representatives of New Hope Baptist Church during public commentary, regarding a planned new dog park. Members of the congregation oppose the location of the dog park inside West Park, because it’s immediately adjacent to the church on Chapin Street. Also during public commentary, the council again heard calls for the top of the Library Lane parking garage to be designated as a park.

Some other items on the agenda could be grouped under land use and planning. The council gave approval to changes to the site plan for Packard Square, a proposed redevelopment of the former Georgetown Mall. The council had postponed the item from its Dec. 3, 2012 agenda.

And the council gave initial approval to a zoning request in connection with the proposed Summit Townhomes project site, just east of Stone School Road. The land was recently annexed into the city from Pittsfield Township.

Also as a result of council action, Ann Arbor residents could have some additional flexibility for parking cars on their front lawns – beyond just the occasions of University of Michigan football games.

In other business, the council approved the appointment of Carrie Leahy to the board of the local development finance authority (LDFA). The LDFA is a tax-increment finance (TIF)-funded entity that comprises the geographic area of the city of Ann Arbor’s downtown development authority, as well as the city of Ypsilanti’s DDA.

Other public commentary heard at the meeting included remarks opposing continued investment in companies that provide military hardware to Israel.

One hour immediately preceding the regular meeting was a special session of the council. Its agenda consisted only of a closed session, to discuss labor negotiations – which is an allowable topic for a closed session under the Michigan Open Meetings Act. [Full Story]

Liberty & Ashley

The Fleetwood Diner crowd seems to be enjoying dining outside. Saturday afternoon and the tables are up and nearly full of people outside enjoying the warm day.

W. Huron & Third

The sign for the HAWK crosswalk activator – on the southwest corner of Huron & Third – has become a graffiti magnet. [photo]

A2: Pall 1,4 Dioxane

In a column posted on the Forbes magazine website, Kai Petainen highlights ongoing problems related to the 1-4 dioxane  plume in the Ann Arbor area underground aquifers, caused by contamination at the former Gelman Sciences facility in Scio Township that’s now owned by Pall Corp. Because Pall is a publicly traded company, Petainen looks at the issue in part from the perspective of socially responsible investing: “But perhaps one of the most insulting ways that Pall could insult those who are concerned about the dioxane problem in Ann Arbor, is best illustrated by what it doesn’t say in the annual 10-K report. What word does the annual report neglect to mention? What word is missing from the section that talks … [Full Story]

City To Seek Feedback On Public Art Program

Ann Arbor city council public art committee meeting (Jan. 7, 2013): The five councilmembers on a committee looking at the future of Ann Arbor’s public art program will likely seek feedback on public art funding using the city’s online A2 Open City Hall.

Sabra Briere, Sally Petersen, Ann Arbor city council, public art, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor city councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Sally Petersen (Ward 2) at the Jan. 7, 2013 council public art committee meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The group discussed this approach at its second meeting since being appointed by the full council on Dec. 3, 2012. Sally Petersen (Ward 2) had proposed a survey at the committee’s first meeting on Dec. 11, but the idea had gained no traction then. She reintroduced the proposal on Jan. 7, saying she felt the committee needed better direction about public art and the types of funding residents might support.

A2 Open City Hall allows users to give open-ended responses to questions, to select priorities, and to give votes of support to comments left by others. It’s a relatively new system, and committee members talked about the need to promote it so that more people will participate. They plan to invite Lisa Wondrash, the city’s communications manager, to come to the next committee meeting and give advice on crafting questions for Open City Hall, as well as ways to publicize it. The Open City Hall system wouldn’t be the only way to get input, Petersen stressed.

Committee members include Peterson, Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3). At this point, the consensus of the committee appears to be for a continued public art program that would not rely exclusively on the current Percent for Art funding model. That approach sets aside 1% of the budget for each of the city’s capital projects – up to a cap of $250,000 – for public art. The ordinance was enacted in 2007, but has been controversial for a variety of reasons. [.pdf of public art ordinance] It is now being evaluating in light of a public art millage that was rejected by 56% of voters on Nov. 6, 2012.

The council has asked this committee to make recommendations about the city’s public art program by Feb. 15, 2013. The group is exploring several options, including possible public/private partnerships and hiring a full-time administrator. There seems to be general agreement that if a Percent for Art approach is kept in place, it should be modified and only provide a portion of funding for public art. Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, attended the Jan. 7 meeting and reported that the accounting for Percent for Art is “very detailed and very difficult. It’s very administratively heavy.”

Moving away from Percent for Art funding would also give the city more flexibility on the types of public art it can pursue. Currently, because funding comes from capital projects, the artwork must be permanent and linked thematically to the fund paying for the project. That means that temporary installations, or events like the annual FestiFools parade, can’t be funded in this way.

Taylor wasn’t confident that the committee could craft a new plan by its February deadline. Instead, he suggested that the committee could provide concrete direction, but perhaps the city should hire a consultant or ask city staff to review the current program and make further recommendations.

During the Jan. 7 meeting, Kunselman gave a brief update on his plan to make a request of the state attorney general’s office for an opinion about the legality of Ann Arbor’s current Percent for Art program. The request must come from a state legislator, and Kunselman said that state Rep. Jeff Irwin – a Democrat from Ann Arbor representing District 53 – has “reluctantly” agreed to help if the council passes a resolution to seek the AG opinion.

Also at the meeting, committee members heard from four people during public commentary, who gave suggestions on how to proceed: Marsha Chamberlin and John Kotarski of the Ann Arbor public art commission; former AAPAC chair Margaret Parker; and Sarah Gay, an arts administrator who grew up in Ann Arbor. Kotarski, Parker and Gay all recommended hiring a full-time administrator for Ann Arbor’s public art program.

The committee’s next meeting is set for Monday, Jan. 14 at 5:30 p.m. in the first-floor conference room at city hall, 301 E. Huron. These meetings are open to the public. This Chronicle report also provides links to online resources that are being used by the committee, including information about public art programs in other cities nationwide. [Full Story]

Liberty & South Seventh

A FedEx truck stops (parks) in the southbound lane just after the stoplight.  This means that traffic turning south has to pass in the next lane, which is the left turn lane, already filling up.  No accidents noted yet because people backed up and let traffic through.

A2: New Bookstore

Publishers Weekly reports on plans to open a new independent bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor – Literati Bookstore – in the spring. One of the owners, Hilary Lowe, told PW: “There are a number of great niche bookstores in downtown Ann Arbor. The only thing they’re missing is a general bookstore. We’ll try to fill the void left downtown by Shaman Drum [which closed in 2009] and Borders’ flagship store closing [in 2011]. Trade bookstores are thriving here. Shaman Drum and Borders’ flagship store closed for reasons other than the trade book market here.” [Source]

Varsity Allowed to Purchase Parking Permits

The Varsity residential development has been granted the right to purchase two monthly permits in Ann Arbor’s public parking system, in order to satisfy the project’s 76-space parking requirement under the city’s zoning regulations. The project, located on East Washington Street, is a 13-story, 173-unit, 178,380-square-foot apartment building for approximately 418 people. Construction on the project is well underway.

The vote by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board came at its Jan. 9, 2013 meeting. The DDA manages the public parking system – including parking permits – under contract with the city. The DDA in turn subcontracts out the day-to-day parking operations to Republic Parking.

The developer of The Varsity had originally planned to satisfy its parking requirement through a contract … [Full Story]

DDA Revises FY 2013 Budget

Roughly $2.6 million in changes to the current year’s budget (FY 2013) have been approved by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board. They stem primarily from costs that had been budgeted for the previous year for construction of the Library Lane underground parking garage, but not paid for. The vote on the amended budget came at the board’s Jan. 9, 2013 meeting.

The result of those changes leaves a budget with $22,237,924 in revenues against $26,339,555 in expenses for the year – which translates to a planned use of the DDA’s fund balance reserve of $4,101,632. That’s about half of the existing fund balance. The FY 2013 budget projects a fund balance at the end of FY 2013, on June … [Full Story]

DDA Set to Present Parcel Plan to Council

The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has voted to approve the recommendations related to future development of five city-owned parcels in the DDA district – known as the Connecting William Street project. The recommendations cover: (1) the Kline lot (on the east side of Ashley, north of William), (2) the lot next to Palio restaurant (northeast corner of Main & William), (3) the ground floor of the Fourth & William parking structure, (4) the old YMCA lot (on William between Fourth and Fifth), and (5) the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth, north of the downtown library. [.pdf of presentation made at Dec. 5, 2012 board meeting]

The recommendations stemmed from a directive given … [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Audit Clean, But Issues Identified

News of an essentially clean audit for the fiscal year 2012 was delivered to the Ann Arbor city council audit committee late last year by Mark Kettner, a principal with the auditing firm Rehmann. The audit culminated the work that had begun in preliminary meetings on July 10. The fiscal year 2012 ended on June 30, 2012. [.pdf scan of letter from Rehmann]

From left to right: Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5); Mark Kettner with Rehmann, city CFO Tom Crawford, accounting services manager Karen Lancaster, Sally Petersen (Ward 2).

The Dec. 20, 2012 meeting of the city council’s audit committee, from left to right: Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5); Mark Kettner with the auditing firm Rehmann; city CFO Tom Crawford; accounting services manager Karen Lancaster; Sally Petersen (Ward 2).

The auditor’s report concluded that the city’s financial statements are presented fairly and accurately – but as Kettner stressed, that was not meant to express an opinion on the city’s overall financial condition or anything about what a great place Ann Arbor is. “I never want somebody walking away who says, ‘The auditor said everything’s okay,’ because the auditor doesn’t say that …” Kettner noted.

Also presented to the committee was the comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR). The report included the year-end numbers for the city’s general fund, which were positive. Actual revenues were about $76.5 million, which was $2.2 million more than the budgeted revenues of $74.3 million. And actual expenses were $73.5 million, or $2.1 million less than the budgeted expenses of $75.5 million. That came out to an increased fund balance of $1.6 million – from $13.7 million to $15.3 million. The city had budgeted to tap the fund balance for around $2.7 million. That meant that the general fund did about $4.3 million better than budgeted. [.pdf of CAFR]

Although the audit report was unqualified – that is, clean – some problems were identified with the city’s internal controls. One was deemed to be a “material weakness” – the most serious classification. It related to the representation of the federal portion and state portion of funds involved in revolving loans. A second problem, identified as a “significant deficiency,” involved the reconciliation of subsidiary ledgers for customers’ utility bills with the city’s overall financial system.

Not rising to the level of an actual deficiency were several other matters that Kettner felt still warranted consideration, including: payroll process (no direct supervisor signatures on timesheets); employee expense reports (instances of “double-dipping” on vehicle allowances and mileage reimbursements); related-party transactions (family member of employee with city contract); internal staff auditor reporting relationship (currently reports directly to CFO); and information technology (password and disaster recovery policies).

The auditor’s report does not include the names or positions of any of the employees involved in those matters of concern. Records provided to The Chronicle by the city, responding to a request made under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, indicate that one of the employees who claimed both mileage and vehicle allowance in violation of city policy was city attorney Stephen Postema. The records indicate he claimed $1,043.37 in mileage reimbursements dating from June 23, 2011, despite his vehicle allowance of $330/month. Postema’s vehicle allowance has since been eliminated by the city council, as a result of his most recent performance review. It’s not clear at this point if the city will require that the mileage money be repaid. [Updated: City administrator Steve Powers has reached a different conclusion from the auditor's on this point. See below.]

Kettner and the city’s chief financial officer, Tom Crawford, indicated to the audit committee that the material weakness and significant deficiency had been corrected so that recurrence would also be prevented. For the other matters, Crawford assured the audit committee that the goal was not to see a repeat of those same items in future years, especially for the most serious issues – involving payroll and expense reports.

The related-party transactions, Crawford told the audit committee, are currently the subject of review in the context of possible revisions to the city’s procurement policy. Kettner suggested that the city’s part-time internal auditor report directly to the audit committee, instead of to Crawford. And Crawford encouraged committee members to share any concerns with the city’s internal auditor, the city administrator, or the auditor himself – if they did not feel comfortable approaching him. Crawford indicated that the city was currently working on a disaster recovery plan for information technology, but didn’t anticipate that it would be completed by the end of this fiscal year.

The presentation by Kettner was delivered to a short-handed committee. Because just two of the five members were able to attend – Sally Petersen (Ward 2) and Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) – the committee didn’t achieve a quorum necessary to vote to recommend the adoption of the audit by the full council. Two audit committee members were out of town – Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) and Margie Teall (Ward 4). The third absentee, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), was suffering from the flu. City staff present were chief financial officer Tom Crawford and accounting services manager Karen Lancaster. [Full Story]

Liberty & 5th Street

Community standards officer out checking for sidewalks that remain unshoveled. I had a chance to wave and say, “Thanks!”

A2: New Bookstore

The owners of the Literati Bookstore have announced that they’ve signed a lease and the business will open at 124 E. Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor, on the corner of Washington and Fourth. ”Our space is directly next door to Amadeus Restaurant and two doors down from our favorite happy hour spot Arbor Brewing Company. We couldn’t be more thrilled about the location! Washington Street is quickly becoming a hotspot for restaurants and businesses and we’re happy to be adding to the vitality of the area.” [Source]

County Board Weighs Right-to-Work Response

Washtenaw County board of commissioners special working session (Jan. 3, 2013): In a wide-ranging discussion – driven in large part by Ann Arbor Democrat Conan Smith – county commissioners addressed how the recent state right-to-work legislation might impact Washtenaw County’s economy as well as the employees of county government.

right-to-work, Nancy Heine, Caryette Fenner, labor unions, AFSCME Local 2733, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Nancy Heine, president of AFSCME Local 3052, Caryette Fenner, president of AFSCME Local 2733, the county government’s largest union. (Photos by the writer.)

The working session included presentations by one of the county’s Lansing lobbyists; labor attorney Paul Gallagher; and Mary Kerr – president of the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau. Kerr told commissioners that Washtenaw County brings in an estimated $12 million annually from the training conferences held here by three major unions. She said the CVB – which is funded through an accommodations tax levied by the county – will work to ensure that the unions feel welcome, but she has not had any conversations yet to gauge their reactions to the new right-to-work law.

Gallagher was less circumspect, saying he’s concerned about the potential loss of business if unions decide to move their training to a state that doesn’t have right-to-work laws.

The Michigan legislation – supported by the Republican-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder – made it illegal to require employees to support unions financially as a condition of their employment. It’s viewed by Democrats as a way to undercut support for labor organizations that have historically backed the Democratic Party. On the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, seven of the nine commissioners are Democrats.

The legislation, which will take effect in March of 2013, received national attention and followed a failed ballot initiative by labor to protect collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution. That effort – Proposal 12-2 – was not supported by a majority of voters in the Nov. 6 election.

At the Jan. 3 working session, Conan Smith questioned Gallagher about details of state and federal labor laws, exploring the latitude that the county might have in supporting unions that represent 85% of the 1,321 employees in county government. He floated several ideas that commissioners might consider pursuing.

For example, most current union contracts expire on Dec. 31, 2013. Because the right-to-work law doesn’t take effect until March of this year, the county has until then to work with the unions and possibly extend their contracts beyond the end of 2013. If that happens before March, then the unions could continue to collect “agency fees” from employees who don’t want to join the union but who are still part of the bargaining unit that the union represents. Though the practice would be illegal for future contracts, it could remain in place for the duration of the extended agreements.

Additionally, Smith said there are items in the union contracts that might set the stage for a division of employees into three distinct groups. Two of those groups exist now: (1) unionized employees, and (2) non-union management employees. There’s the potential for a third group, Smith said: Non-union, non-management workers who have made the choice to opt-out of the union and the benefits that the union provides, be it economic, social, protective or anything else. Those benefits, in his opinion, shouldn’t accrue “to those people who don’t pay to play.”

Smith told commissioners: “I hope we are comparatively aggressive in our stance of supporting our labor partners and finding innovative ways that we can test this new world.” He hopes to make sure that the benefits of union membership are clear before people make the decision about whether to join. The point is not to coerce them to join or discourage them from joining, he said, but just to make sure they understand very clearly what opportunities they have as union members.

Smith said there are a number of places in the current union contracts where the county can make that “imminently clear.” And there are a number of places in the county’s practices where they can make that clear, too, he said. “I think if we do that through practice, undoubtedly we’ll be challenged – and I for one am quite comfortable taking that challenge forward and being the test case to determine the extent to which this law applies to our public employees.”

Smith – who is married to state Sen. Rebekah Warren – does not believe the majority of legislators would be willing to amend the right-to-work law, and that lobbying them to do so would probably be a waste of time.

Commissioners also heard from two labor leaders on Jan. 3: Caryette Fenner, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (AFSCME) Local 2733, the county government’s largest union with about 700 members; and Nancy Heine, president of AFSCME Local 3052, which represents about 50 supervisors. Both Fenner and Heine expressed concerns amid an uncertain future. “What could potentially happen with this law is that it will render us useless,” Heine said. “We will have no resources to defend any of our members.”

It’s unclear how far the majority of commissioners would be willing to go in challenging the right-to-work law. At the Jan. 2 board meeting, the two Republican commissioners – Dan Smith and Alicia Ping – indicated they did not want to debate the issue. However, there was more clear support for sending a signal to the labor unions that do their training in Washtenaw County that they are welcome here. Andy LaBarre, who led his first meeting as chair of the working session, offered to draft a resolution to that effect for the board to consider. [Full Story]

Argo Cascades

Bald eagle in tree.  One, two, three, four crows gather: cawing, swooping, crowding.  Eagle, still for minutes, spreads wings, takes off, pursued by the crows.

Packard Square Revisions Finally OK’d

Approval of changes to the Packard Square project – which is proposed to redevelop the former Georgetown Mall – has now been given by the Ann Arbor city council. The site plan – given original approval on May 2, 2011 – calls for demolition of the existing buildings, and construction of a mixed-use development consisting of 23,858 square feet of retail, up to 230 apartment units, and structured parking.

The changes, given approval by the council at its Jan. 7, 2013 meeting, alter the facade of the building by reducing the number of balconies by one-third, replacing some brick with Hardi-board siding, changing windows, and changing the color of the siding. The council’s approval came after postponing the matter a month … [Full Story]