Meeting Watch Section

County Considers Road Funding Options

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (April 17, 2014): For more than two hours, county commissioners discussed the future of the road commission and appeared to reach consensus that no major structural changes will be made at this time.

Gene DeRossett, Manchester Township, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Several Washtenaw County road commission employees attended the county board’s April 17 working session, as did some township officials. In the foreground is Manchester Township supervisor Gene DeRossett. (Photos by the writer.)

More likely, though not yet determined, are efforts to find additional funding sources for road maintenance – including a possible countywide road millage on the Nov. 5, 2014 ballot.

Keeping the road commission unchanged had been the recommendation of a board subcommittee that met for several months to discuss available options, including the possibility of dissolving the road commission and making it part of county operations, rather than operate as an independent entity. Most county commissioners oppose that approach. The board’s May 7 agenda includes a resolution accepting the subcommittee recommendations, which also rejects making the job of road commissioner an elected position. The three road commissioners are currently appointed by the county board.

State legislation enacted in 2012 allowed for: (1) a county board of commissioners to exercise the powers and duties of a road commission; and (2) the functions of a road commission to be transferred to the county board. A sunset clause means that the laws expire on Jan. 1, 2015. That deadline prompted the county board to examine these options.

The board’s May 7 agenda includes a letter to the state House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, urging passage of HB 5117 and 5118 – bills that would eliminate the current sunset clause and extend the options for changing the road commission functions.

Much of the focus of the April 17 working session was on funding options and long-term strategy for maintaining the county’s road network. Several township representatives who attended the session voiced support for special assessment districts, known as SADs, which are being used in Scio Township to pay for road maintenance.

But Conan Smith, an Ann Arbor Democrat who’s been vocal in urging the county board to take responsibility for the road commission, argued that SADs shouldn’t be a long-term approach. The road network is an asset to the entire county’s economy, he said, and the burden of maintaining it shouldn’t rest on the smaller communities.

Smith also noted that the economy is changing. Telecommuting, for example, might change the way people use the roads, he said. Later in the meeting, road commissioner Barb Fuller noted that other infrastructure needs are important to achieve the vision that Smith had described. “I would suggest that you folks look at making broadband ubiquitous across the county,” she said. For those commissioners who take access to broadband as a given, she said, “trust me – there are parts of the county where they can’t get a signal at all.”

Yousef Rabhi, another Ann Arbor commissioner, also spoke of the need for a broader vision. Roads should serve not just drivers, but also bicyclists and pedestrians. Potholes are a serious safety issue for cyclists, he noted. “We have to keep in mind that not every taxpayer drives a car.”

Regarding funding for roads, Rabhi wanted the discussion to be about the structure of a millage – not whether there should be a new road tax. “I think it’s pretty obvious that we need more money,” he said.

The May 7 agenda includes a discussion item on options for road funding. A draft resolution was circulated at the April 17 working session to put a countywide road millage on the Nov. 5, 2014 ballot. The draft resolution calls for a four-year, 0.5 mill tax – from 2014-2017 – that would raise $7.15 million in its first year. It would earmark 50% of the gross revenues to be used in the municipality in which the revenue was generated. Beyond that, 10% would be used for non-motorized transportation needs – like bike lanes and pedestrian paths – with the remainder to be allocated “based on use, need, and impact to the traveling public.”

Another possibility is for the county board to levy a millage under Act 283. The law allows the county board to levy a millage to cover those costs, without voter approval. A draft resolution that’s been circulated among commissioners calls for levying a 1 mill tax in December 2014, which would generate $14.34 million “to repair 2013–14 winter damage to the roads, streets and paths in Washtenaw County.”

On April 17, commissioners also discussed the possibility of expanding the road commission board from three to five members. That discussion will be continued at a May 8 working session agenda.

For additional background on this process, see Chronicle coverage: “No Major Change Likely for Road Commission” and “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.[Full Story]

Public Art Projects Move Forward

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (April 23, 2014): A major public art project for East Stadium bridges will be moving to the city council for approval, following a recommendation made at this month’s Ann Arbor public art commission meeting.

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

KT Tomey is working on a project to develop maps for walking or running tours of public art in Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

“Arbor Winds” by Massachusetts artist Catherine Widgery features elevated, stand-alone louvered glass columns that are etched with images of trees – three on each end of the bridges, on the north side of Stadium Boulevard. The same type of louvered glass panels will also be used under the bridge along South State, affixed to the wall of the underpass – five sets on each side of South State Street. The overall project has a budget of $400,000 and has been in the works since 2011. If approved by council, it will likely be installed in 2015.

Commissioners also expressed enthusiasm for a new effort proposed by KT Tomey, who hopes to develop a mobile app for walking or running routes that highlight public art in Ann Arbor and on the University of Michigan campus. As a runner herself, she noted that people look for running routes when they visit new towns. So the app could be used to promote public art both to visitors and residents alike. Her first step is putting together .pdf maps that will be downloadable from AAPAC’s website.

Another new proposal prompted concerns about process. On the day of the meeting, John Kotarski – AAPAC’s vice chair – circulated an email to commissioners proposing that the city accept three pieces of donated art from Jim Pallas, an established Michigan artist and friend of Kotarski’s. The pieces are proposed to be located in the lobby of the Justice Center, in the atrium of city hall, and outside of city hall. Although commissioners seemed supportive of the idea, some expressed concern that the proposal wasn’t following AAPAC’s guidelines for accepting gifts of art, which include setting up a review committee.

Kotarski pointed out that Pallas is 75 years old. He noted that if artists donate artwork before they die, they can deduct the cost of materials from their taxes. But after they die, their estate is taxed on the market value of that artwork. “So these artists, at this point in their lives, have a financial incentive to find a good place for their artwork,” he said. “If we can make that process simple and easy for Jim – and pleasant – then I’m sure he’s willing to go to his friends” and encourage them to donate too.

He reported that the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has offered a $500 honorarium to Pallas for each donated piece. Kotarski said the three pieces have a total estimated value of $100,000. He also mentioned that Pallas’ daughter, a law professor, knows city attorney Stephen Postema and that they’ve “made arrangement to resolve any legal issues necessary to facilitate this donation.”

Kotarski told commissioners that he’s tried to assure Pallas that this will work out, but “that’s why I’m a little nervous giving him these assurances, only to have this fall through at the last minute. That’s not going to be pleasant.”

Marsha Chamberlin said she recognized the benefits of encouraging Michigan artists to donate their work. “But we are a public body, and we have procedures. I just think it’s important that we observe those rules because we don’t want to make an exception for one thing, then hold someone’s feet to the fire for something else.”

Commissioners agreed that AAPAC chair Bob Miller would work with Aaron Seagraves, the city’s public art administrator, to set up a gift selection committee to review this proposal and make a recommendation to AAPAC.

In other action, the commission approved its annual art plan for fiscal 2015, which begins on July 1, 2014. The plan includes projects that are already underway, as well as proposed capital projects to be enhanced with public art. The ongoing projects are: (1) artwork for East Stadium bridges; (2) public art at Arbor Oaks Park; (3) Canoe Imagine Art; and (4) the Coleman Jewett memorial. The proposed enhanced capital projects are street and sidewalk stamping, painting or stenciling in four locations to be determined, for a total cost of $30,000. The city council would need to approve these projects before they would move forward.

Commissioners also approved applying for a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America Fast Track grant. The money, if awarded, would require matching funds in an equivalent amount from other sources for a public art project at Arbor Oaks Park in southeast Ann Arbor, located near Bryant Elementary School and the Bryant Community Center.

Fundraising continues for the Coleman Jewett memorial at the Ann Arbor farmers market, but Canoe Imagine Art has stalled. The community art project is intended as a temporary art display in downtown Ann Arbor using old canoes from the city that would be repurposed as public art. The city had hoped that the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau would take administrative responsibility for the project, but the CVB has declined. Chamberlin, who’s taking the lead on this effort, said that if workarounds can’t be found for some of the administrative issues, “we have to kiss this project good-bye.” [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Taxi Board Reacts to Uber

Ann Arbor taxicab board meeting (April 23, 2014): In its one action taken at the meeting, the board approved making a request of the city attorney’s office to come up with a draft of an ordinance amendment – that would require all drivers for hire to be registered in the city.

April 23, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor taxicab board.

April 23, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor taxicab board at city hall. (Photo by the writer.)

The action comes in response to Uber‘s entry into the Ann Arbor market. Uber is a service, based on a mobile app, that coordinates prospective passengers with drivers who are willing to make the trip. Currently the city’s taxicab ordinance covers only taxicab drivers – not limousine drivers or any other drivers for hire. The board wants to see a draft ordinance that would include all drivers for hire – so that Uber’s drivers would need to be registered in the city of Ann Arbor.

Stephen Kunselman, who serves as the city council’s representative to the taxicab board, put it this way at the meeting: “The number one issue of regulating drivers in the industry is for public safety, alright? I want to know who these drivers are who are driving around picking up people in our town, okay? Number one issue.”

A change to the city’s ordinance could come only after approval by the city council.

The action requesting the city attorney’s office to begin work on an ordinance amendment was not actually on the board’s meeting agenda. The one item for discussion had been to consider possible deregulation of taxicab fares in the city – a topic the board has been considering for about a year. As board chair Michael Benson put it, “It’s time to address it one way or the other.” Currently the maximum rate is $3 to get in, $2.50 per mile, and $0.40 a minute waiting time.

Those rates were last adjusted upwards on May 16, 2011, in response to gas prices that had nudged past $4 per gallon. With one exception, representatives of taxicab companies at the April 23 meeting were not looking for the kind of $0.25 adjustments that have been made in the past. Instead, they’re looking for a high maximum – along the lines of $5 to get in and $5 per mile – so that a competitive market could develop under that cap.

Benson and Tom Crawford – the city’s CFO and an ex officio member of the board – steered the conversation toward identifying ways to measure success of any change in the city’s approach to regulating fares: “What is it that you want to achieve? Let’s get some clarity on that so that we can identify whether we have succeeded or not. That’s the real point,” said Crawford.

What came out of that board discussion was that the measurement of success should include the number of taxicabs being operated in the city. At the meeting, Ann Arbor police officer Jamie Adkins told board members that for the three years from 2008 to 2010 there were 177, 193, and 179 taxicabs operating in the city, respectively. But when Yellow Car converted all but one vehicle to limousine, that number dropped to 111 in 2011. In 2012 there were 132 taxicabs, she said, and the current figure is 124.

The board’s past effort to regulate the entire livery industry – including limousines, which are supposed to take only pre-arranged, not hailed rides – has included recommendations to revise the city’s ordinance so that limousine companies cannot hold themselves out as taxicab companies. And the city council enacted those changes in 2011. But according to officer Adkins, AAPD has learned that those aspects of the ordinance can’t be the primary reason for a police traffic stop. [.pdf of Ann Arbor taxicab ordinance] [Full Story]

Equalization Report Shows Stronger Economy

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 16, 2014): Most local governments in Washtenaw County will see increases in tax revenue this year, according to the 2014 equalization report that county commissioners approved on April 16.

Raman Patel, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, equalization, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Washtenaw County equalization director Raman Patel with commissioners Conan Smith (D-District 9) and Dan Smith (R-District 2) at the April 16, 2014 board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.

The report was presented by Raman Patel, the county’s long-time equalization director. “Washtenaw County is showing improvements in the market,” he told commissioners. “We are slowly regaining our county’s equalized base. It appears that the worst part of the decline in market value is behind us.”

For 2014, taxable value in the county increased 2.02% to $14.18 billion. That’s a greater increase than the 1.68% climb in 2013, and an improvement over declines seen in recent years. Patel cautioned that several factors are impacting revenue for local governments, including the phase-out of personal property taxes, a variety of exemptions, and tax capture from entities like downtown development authorities.

More of the tax burden is also being shifted to residential property owners, he noted, compared to other categories, like commercial property. The category of residential property accounts for 67.34% of total property value in the county. Five years ago, in 2009, it was 63%.

In other action on April 16, commissioners gave initial approval to distribute proceeds from a countywide tax on hotels and other accommodations. For 2013, $472,846 was available for distribution. If the resolution is given final approval, the county will keep 10% ($47,285) to pay for enforcement of the accommodation ordinance. The remainder will be divided between the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau ($319,171) and the Ypsilanti Convention & Visitors Bureau ($106,390).

During public commentary, Mary Kerr, president of the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Jason Morgan, director of government relations for Washtenaw Community College, highlighted the union training programs that will be coming to the area this summer. The CVBs have been instrumental in recruiting these kinds of events to Washtenaw County.

Commissioners also gave initial approval to the annual Urban County action plan, which outlines proposed projects funded by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. The Urban County is a consortium of Washtenaw County and 18 local municipalities that receive federal funding for low-income neighborhoods. Members include the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline, and 15 townships.

Final authorization was given to a two-year pricing proposal – for 2016 and 2017 – to provide police services to local municipalities through contracts with the county sheriff’s office. And commissioners gave final approval to a new brownfield redevelopment plan for the Thompson Block in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town.

In other action, the board passed a resolution declaring April 13-19 as National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week in Washtenaw County. They also honored Dr. Eugene Glysson, who had served on the county’s board of public works (BPW) since 1986, and was its chair since 1996. He died on April 2.

Several issues were raised during public commentary, including concerns about emergency sirens installed by a pasture in Scio Township. The owner told commissioners that the sirens spook his horses, causing a dangerous situation if anyone is riding them or standing nearby. Other topics discussed by the public included the creation of a new group to help end homelessness, called Our 2020 Vision, and efforts by University of Michigan students to reduce the use of plastic bags by imposing a per-bag usage fee. They’re garnering support in part through a petition. [Full Story]

AADL Board Reviews Budget, New Entrance

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (April 21, 2014): Two items were the main focus of this month’s AADL board meeting: a review of the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, and action on the redesigned entrance to the downtown library.

Ken Nieman, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ken Nieman, AADL’s outgoing associate director of finance, HR and operations, has taken a job as CFO of the public library in Sonoma County, California. His last day at AADL is May 2. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposed fiscal year 2014-15 budget – for the 12 months starting July 1, 2014 – is based on a levy of 1.55 mills, unchanged from the current rate. The library is authorized to levy up to 1.92 mills, but in recent years the board has set the millage rate at lower levels. The $12.568 million budget assumes a 2.4% increase in the district’s property tax base.

The board is expected to vote on the budget at its May 19 meeting.

Related to the redesigned downtown library’s front entrance, the board authorized the library director, Josie Parker, to hire a construction manager for the project. Board members also allocated $18,580 from the fund balance to pay InForm Studio for construction documents. InForm Studio, the architecture firm that previously designed AADL’s Traverwood branch, has been working on this project for several months. An update was given most recently at the board’s March 17, 2014 meeting.

Before taking action, the board heard from InForm Studio’s Cory Lavigne, who presented a revised design for the project, based on feedback from board members and the public. A large translucent sign that had previously been part of the design is now eliminated, after some board members voiced concerns about security issues that it might cause. A bench in front of the building – originally part of the proposed design – has been removed. Instead, a sign that’s low to the ground is proposed in that location.

The existing teal porcelain panels that wrap around the front facade, part of architect Alden Dow’s original design from the mid-1950s, will be replaced with a “concrete skin” panel. The entrance will continue to be oriented to South Fifth Avenue, with new doors into the building. Leading from the front of the building into the vestibule will be two balanced double doors, which will be easier to open than the existing entry, and a single automatic door. A matching set of these doors will lead from the vestibule to the interior of the building.

Lavigne reviewed several other changes, some of which addressed accessibility concerns that were raised in the preliminary design. A heated sidewalk is proposed along the exterior edge of the steps.

The board spent several minutes discussing a suggestion from Ed Surovell, who wanted more than just one flagpole in front of the building. Trustees reached consensus for the details to be worked out by the architect and the facilities committee, on which Surovell serves. Other members of the facilities committee are Margaret Leary and Jan Barney Newman.

The April 21 meeting also marked some transitions in top administrative positions. Associate director Ken Nieman, who has worked at AADL for 14 years, has taken a job as CFO for the public library in Sonomo County, California. His last day at AADL will be May 2. That will also be the last day for human resources manager DeAnn Doll, who’s been with AADL for about 15 years. She has accepted a job as director of human resources for Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida.

Earlier this year, Celeste Choate – AADL’s former associate director of services, collections and access – was hired as executive director of the Urbana Free Library in Urbana, Illinois. She started that position on April 1.

At the April 21 meeting, AADL director Josie Parker noted that change is a constant, “and while we miss people, we look forward to the opportunities that change brings us.” [Full Story]

Art Commission Weighs Transitional Role

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (March 26, 2014): At its first meeting since the city council transferred most of the money out of the public art fund, public art commissioners discussed their role as the city transitions to a new model for managing public art. The former Percent for Art program had set aside 1% for art in capital project budgets, drawing on a range of different funds. The council’s March 3, 2014 action transferred that money back to its funds of origin.

Jim Simpson, Ann Arbor public art commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jim Simpson, the newest member of the Ann Arbor public art commission, attended his first AAPAC meeting on March 26. (Photos by the writer.)

Before the council’s action on March 3, about $943,000 had been available for future public art projects. The council had halted the Percent for Art funding mechanism last year, and subsequently directed city staff to develop a transition plan for public art. The plan will be delivered to the council in October, and will likely include an emphasis on partners in the private sector and fundraising from the community. Meanwhile, future city public art will be “baked in” to selected capital projects and approved by council on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed 2015 budget – for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2014 – includes $80,000 to cover transitional costs for public art administration. The contract for the current part-time public arts administrator, Aaron Seagraves, runs through June 30, 2014. At AAPAC’s March 26 meeting, Craig Hupy – a senior city staff member who’s drafting the transition plan – mentioned the need for a consultant to help guide this process.

Commissioners questioned what their role might be during this interim period, now that former Percent for Art funding is unavailable for future public art projects. After the discussion, AAPAC chair Bob Miller said he had initially considered suggesting that they just shut down the commission, but he’d heard input to the contrary from other commissioners. The consensus was to move forward with meetings, at least for now. AAPAC’s next meeting is on April 23 at city hall.

In other action, commissioners postponed adopting an annual public art plan, and directed Seagraves to make revisions to the draft he had proposed. They’ll consider a new version at their April meeting.

Updates about ongoing projects focused on efforts that had started before the city council pulled funding. The funds for those projects were not affected. Sculptures for a rain garden at Kingsley & First will be installed in May, and more contributions are being sought for a Coleman Jewett memorial at the Ann Arbor farmers market. A public forum to seek input on the final design for artwork at East Stadium bridges will be held on Monday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth. And work on Canoe Imagine Art – a temporary art display in downtown Ann Arbor using old canoes from the city that would be repurposed as public art – continues to move forward.

It was the first meeting for Jim Simpson, who was appointed to AAPAC in February. He works for the Ann Arbor start-up Duo Security, and is an assistant at Baron Glassworks in Ypsilanti. [Full Story]

Transit Board Acts on Policy, Infrastructure

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (April 17, 2014): The board had two voting items on its agenda: a policy on determining disproportionate impacts of fare and service changes on disadvantaged populations; and a contract for small concrete work associated with pads for bus stops, approach walks and ramps. Both items were approved.

Eric Mahler

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board member Eric Mahler was discussing the potential for disparate impacts on different populations as a result of service changes. (Photos by the writer.)

The issue of the May 6 millage vote came up during public commentary. In addition, CEO Michael Ford delivered some prepared remarks meant to dispel what he called myths about the AAATA that are being promoted by opponents of that millage. [.pdf of press release from opposition campaign]

One myth is that the AAATA is inefficient, Ford said, when in fact the AAATA has 17% lower cost per passenger and has 18% fewer employees per passenger than its peers. Another myth, Ford said, is that the AAATA has 52 managers. “It’s just simply not true,” he said. Ford explained that the AAATA has 52 employees who are non-union – 11 of whom are managers. That includes administrative assistants, IT staff, customer service, human resources, safety and security personnel, dispatchers and others, Ford said.

The assertion that the AAATA will use millage revenue to fund a train service is untrue as well, Ford continued. The AAATA had intentionally not put rail service in the ballot language. AAATA has been acknowledged in USA Today, by CNN, and by independent transportation associations as one of the nation’s best-in-class in terms of ridership, operational efficiency, fiscal stability, and technological innovation, Ford said. And that’s why he was hopeful that voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township would say yes when they go to the polls on May 6.

The concrete work contract was awarded to Saladino Construction, for a one-year period and the possibility of four one-year renewals. Board members subjected the item to a relatively lengthy discussion as far as AAATA board discussions go – as they had questions about the amount of future work there would be, how workmanship is verified, and how pedestrian flow at bus stops is maintained during the work period.

Also given a fair amount of discussion was the policy on service equity required under Title VI. Board members had several questions, including one about the action that is required if a disparate impact on low-income riders is found as a result of a fare increase. AAATA staff stressed that there is not currently a fare increase on the table. [Full Story]

Brigham Home To Get Upgrade, Expansion

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 15, 2014): A revised version of renovations and expansion at 515 Oxford – a house originally designed by architect George Brigham in 1940 – will move to the city council for approval, following action by the city’s planning commissioners.

Robb Burroughs, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Robb Burroughs, architect for renovations at 515 Oxford. (Photos by the writer.)

At a meeting with a third of the nine-member commission absent, the group voted unanimously to grant a special exception use that will allow the building to be used by the Delta Gamma sorority. It will be limited to 20 residents, and will be used as an annex to the main sorority house down the street.

The commission also recommended approval of a “planned project” site plan, which will now be forwarded to city council for consideration. Unlike a preliminary version of the project – when the architect had been unaware of the building’s historical significance – the current proposal works to preserve the integrity of the original design. The new design keeps the existing structure, but nearly doubles the square footage with an addition in the back.

During deliberations, some commissioners mentioned the relatively large amount of correspondence they’d received about this project, including letters from several preservation groups – a2modern, Detroit Area Art Deco Society, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Board, and the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission. The house is not located in an historic district, and is not protected by any other historic designation.

City planner Jill Thacher, who serves as support staff for the city’s historic district commission, said she appreciated that the renovations are sensitive to the history of the structure, keeping the front design in tact and minimizing the overall visual impact of the rear addition.

This was the only major agenda item in a relatively brief meeting that lasted about an hour. The commission’s next regular meeting is on May 6 and will be held at the county administration building at 220 N. Main. The second floor of city hall, where the commission’s meetings are typically held, will be used by election staff for the May 6 transit millage vote.

Before then, the commission will hold a retreat on April 29 starting at 3 p.m. at the NEW Center, 1100 N. Main. It will likely last until about 8:30 p.m. and will include a walking tour of the area. [Full Story]

Homeless Issues Emerge on County Agenda

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 2, 2014): Responding to several homeless residents who spoke during public commentary, commissioners spent about 90 minutes on April 2 discussing how to address short-term and long-term needs of the homeless.

Yousef Rabhi,  Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, talked with an advocate from the homeless community before the April 2 county board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The board ultimately voted to direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to work with community partners to address immediate needs of the homeless. In general, McDaniel has budgetary discretion to spend up to $50,000 on professional services contracts, and up to $100,000 for any proposed goods, services, new construction or renovation. Later in the week, she allocated $35,000 to the Delonis Center – which is run by the nonprofit Shelter Association of Washtenaw County – to keep its nighttime warming center open through April 30. The warming center had originally been slated to close for the season on April 6.

The resolution also directed the administration to develop a plan by May 7 for updating the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, which was adopted in 2004 but appears to be dormant. The process of updating that plan is to be completed by Oct. 1, 2014.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) had initially suggested allocating $40,000 to the shelter to keep the warming center open another month. Other commissioners had concerns about throwing money at the shelter without any input from shelter staff, and without knowing specifically how the money would be used. Because the item hadn’t been included on the agenda, representatives from the shelter staff didn’t attend the meeting.

Some commissioners thought there should be a strategic plan in place before any additional funding is given – and they seemed to assume that such a plan doesn’t already exist. Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community & economic development, noted that the city of Ann Arbor and several other entities are working on this issue, in partnership with the Shelter Association. The board had received a briefing from the association’s executive director, Ellen Schulmeister, at their Feb. 6, 2014 working session.

The vote on the resolution was 6-2, over dissent from Republicans Dan Smith (District 2) and Alicia Ping (District 3), who both objected to the process. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent.

Dan Smith called it “completely and entirely inappropriate” to be making policy and budgetary decisions on the fly, in response to a few people who showed up to speak during public commentary. He supported updating the Blueprint to End Homelessness, but thought it was a discussion that should take place at a working session before taking action at a regular board meeting. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) responded by saying that commissioners are elected to work for the people. When people come to the board, it’s important to address their concerns in a serious manner, he said.

Because of the length of the meeting, some men who were staying at the shelter missed the 9:30 p.m. curfew. Typically, anyone showing up after that time isn’t allowed inside. Greg Dill, the county’s director of infrastructure management, contacted the shelter staff and made arrangements for the men to be accommodated.

In other action, commissioners gave initial approval to a two-year pricing proposal – for 2016 and 2017 – to provide police services to local municipalities through contracts with the county sheriff’s office. Some commissioners expressed concern about the financial sustainability of this approach to funding police services, and cited the need for new revenue sources for public safety. Sheriff Jerry Clayton was on hand to present the pricing proposal, and supported suggestions to seek a new funding source. As he’s done in the past, Clayton characterized the issue of public safety as one that encompasses economic development, human services and other aspects of the community.

Commissioners also gave initial approval to a new brownfield redevelopment plan for the Thompson Block in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, and took final action to add autism coverage to the health care benefits for employees. They postponed action on a resolution related to the county road commission until May 7, following an April 17 working session that will focus on that issue. The board also was briefed on the 2013 audit and comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), and received an award for financial reporting from the national Government Finance Officers Association.

During communications, Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) reported that the review of applications is underway for the current cycle of coordinated funding, a partnership to fund social service agencies that involves the county, city of Ann Arbor, and several other entities. For this cycle, 105 applications were received, representing $8.7 million in requests. The amount of available funding this year from all partners is $4.4 million. “So it’s a difficult, difficult process,” she said. Funding recommendations will be brought to the board in May.

On April 2, the board also honored five local businesses and institutions with “healthy workplace” awards, and recognized the Ann Arbor Community Center for 91 years of service. [Full Story]

Sustainability Action Plan Takes Shape

Ann Arbor planning commission and energy commission joint working session (April 8, 2014): Continuing a process that began more than four years ago, members of the city’s planning and energy commissions received an overview of the draft sustainability action plan and gave feedback toward finalizing the document.

Jamie Kidwell, Wayne Appleyard, Ann Arbor energy commission, sustainability, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jamie Kidwell, the city’s sustainability associate, and Wayne Appleyard, chair of the Ann Arbor energy commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The action plan identifies steps to implement 16 broad goals in a sustainability framework that was added to the city’s master plan last year. The goals are organized into four categories – resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community – that were culled from existing city plans and reorganized into this new framework.

The intent is to track efforts toward achieving the 16 goals, which cover a wide range of issues – from increasing renewable energy use and developing a resilient local economy to eliminating pollutants and maintaining Ann Arbor’s unique sense of place. The action plan includes specific indicators that measure progress in each area.

Jamie Kidwell, the city’s sustainability associate, is taking the lead on this project, and fielded questions from commissioners. Part of the goal is for each of the city’s commissions to incorporate these sustainability efforts into their own work plans, she noted. But the action plan is primarily to guide staff efforts. The action plan is also coordinated with the city’s budget process, tying in to the city council’s budget priorities.

Commissioners expressed interest in more collaboration – both among the city’s various commissions, and with other jurisdictions. One start will be to share their work plans, though not all commissions have those.

Commissioners also discussed the idea of holding an annual joint meeting of multiple commissions, possibly in September. Planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that the kick-off for developing the sustainability framework had begun with a joint meeting – with the planning, energy and environmental commissions – in April 2010. [Full Story]

Park Commissioners Question Council Action

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (March 18, 2014): The main discussion at PAC’s March meeting focused on implications from city council action the previous day regarding the Library Lane site – the surface of an underground parking garage.

Tina Rosselle, Becky Gajewski, Erika Pratt, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Tina Rosselle, Becky Gajewski, Erika Pratt. All three are city staff who are involved in volunteer and outreach efforts for the parks & recreation unit. (Photos by the writer.)

But the council followed up at its April 7 meeting by considering a total of four resolutions on the Library Lane site – including the reconsideration of the two March 17 resolutions. At the end of the April 7 meeting, a portion of the site was still reserved for an urban park, and the city administrator was still directed to hire a broker to list the property for sale. A vote on how to use the proceeds of a possible sale was put off until June. For more details on the council’s April 7 actions, see Chronicle coverage: “Council Wrangles on Library Lot – Proceeds, Process.”

On March 17, the city council had passed two resolutions regarding the site: (1) reserving a portion of the west side, along South Fifth Avenue, as the site for an urban public park; and (2) directing the city administrator to hire a broker to explore the sale of development rights on that site. The council’s meeting, which adjourned at about 1 a.m., included debate that lasted more than 2.5 hours on the future of this city-owned property, located north of the downtown library.

The following day, at PAC’s March 18 meeting, commissioners were briefed by the two councilmembers who also serve on PAC as ex officio members: Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).

Anglin, who had co-sponsored the park resolution along with Jack Eaton (Ward 4), told commissioners that he’d been comfortable with both resolutions, and that he had voted for both of them.

Anglin said he hoped PAC would now start working on guidelines for developing a portion of the site, and to make sure all stakeholders are well-represented. “Feelings were hurt last night,” he said, “and so now we’re in damage control, and we’re also in the idea of further discourse. And we need to do that.” There needs to be a real dialogue, including the library, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, PAC and others in the community, he said – all stakeholders need to help decide what to do as a town.

For his part, Taylor pointed out that the council’s urban park resolution doesn’t actually ask PAC to do anything. The “resolved” clauses make no mention of PAC. He said he didn’t know the rationale for that – whether it was an attempt to go around PAC, or whether there’s an expectation that PAC will be brought in. “There’s a measure of uncertainty there,” Taylor said, so PAC’s role is unclear.

Taylor also noted that there’s complete consensus on the idea that there will be public space on the Library Lane parcel, to which the public has full access. “There is not complete consensus on who owns that element of the parcel,” he added. “Nor, I think, is there complete consensus on who will maintain and provide security for that part of the parcel.”

Ingrid Ault, PAC’s chair, noted that the commission had developed recommendations for downtown parks, adding that it was “very disappointing to feel that we weren’t listened to” as the council resolution was developed. If that had happened, she added, “we wouldn’t have hurt feelings.”

Though Anglin had supported the council’s March 17 actions, subsequently – at the council’s April 7 meeting – he co-sponsored another resolution that would have delayed hiring a broker until additional public process had been undertaken, including the possibility of reserving the entire site for a park. After a 40-minute debate and a recess to discuss a possible compromise, the council unanimously voted down that resolution – though it could be brought back for future consideration.

Anglin also supported another action on April 7, which passed, that increased the amount reserved for a park to 12,000 square feet, along the entire west side of the South Fifth Avenue parcel. Previously, the council had indicated a range for the space – between 6,500 and 12,000 square feet, with a northern boundary to be determined. A range, instead of 12,000 square feet, had been the result of an amendment made at the council table on March 17. During deliberations on April 7, Anglin said he hoped for an even larger park at the site.

PAC’s March 18 meeting agenda also included a resolution to recommend that the city apply for a grant to help renovate the Gallup Park pathway, which is part of the countywide Border-to-Border Trail. The grant application is to the federal transportation alternatives program (TAP), which is administered in this region by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and statewide by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT). At its April 7 meeting, the city council authorized the grant application.

Also on March 18, Dave Borneman, parks and recreation deputy manager, gave an overview of volunteer efforts within the parks, recreation facilities and natural areas, and talked about how people in the community can participate. Ault encouraged others to volunteer, saying she’s taken part in the frog and toad survey for the past couple of years. “I’ve gone to places that I didn’t really know existed,” she said. “And I can tell you what a spring peeper and a leopard frog sound like.” [Full Story]

DDA: Transit, Housing, Parking

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (April 2, 2014): On a day when most of the routine work of local government was overshadowed by a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama, the Ann Arbor DDA board approved over $1.2 million in grants.

City administrator Steve Powers was game enough to don as a hat the "meter moon" he was presented during the meeting by Shary Brown of Wonderfool Productions.

City administrator Steve Powers was game enough to don as a hat the “meter moon” he was presented during the April 2, 2014 DDA board meeting by Shary Brown of WonderFool Productions. (Photos by the writer.)

A $674,264 grant to support the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s getDowntown program will allow employees of participating downtown Ann Arbor businesses to use their go!passes to ride the bus for another year, without themselves paying a fare for any of their bus boardings. That’s a program the DDA has funded out of public parking system revenues for over a decade

In other transportation-related business, the board approved a resolution that expresses notional support, but not does not commit any funding, for the third phase of a study for a high-capacity transportation system – stretching from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street, then further south to I-94. The third phase of this connector study will be an environmental review. The resolution of support will be used as part of an application, due April 28, for a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER 2014 (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant.

A $600,000 grant to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission will be invested in capital improvements to two properties in or near the DDA tax capture district: Baker Commons and Miller Manor. Baker Commons is a 64-unit building located at the southeast corner of Packard and Main, within the DDA district. Miller Manor is a 103-unit building on Miller Avenue outside the DDA district, but within a quarter-mile of the district boundary. That conforms with the DDA’s policy on use of its tax increment finance (TIF) funds for housing. The $600,000 is to be paid in three $200,000 annual installments starting this year.

The board also approved a policy that provides guidelines for defining a “community benefit” – when it comes to evaluating the elimination of on-street parking spaces in downtown Ann Arbor. That policy comes in the context of a related city council-approved policy setting the fee for permanent removal of an on-street metered parking space. If a new development requires the elimination of an on-street parking space, the developer is required to pay $45,000, plus some of the projected future revenue the space would have generated. But an exception can be granted by the DDA – which operates the city’s public parking system under contract with the city – if it’s determined that the parking space removal is a “community benefit.” Exceptions could include new developments that meet or exceed goals laid out in various existing plans or public health and safety codes.

In other business, the DDA board denied the appeal of a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, affirming a decision to redact a portion of a public document that had been available for several years in un-redacted form on the city of Ann Arbor’s website.

The board also held a closed session lasting about a half hour, citing a desire to review the written opinion of legal counsel.

During public commentary, the board heard a pitch from Alan Haber for the DDA to be a partner in creating an Earth Day (April 22) celebration on the surface of the Library Lane underground parking structure. Also during public commentary, the board heard from Shary Brown, thanking the DDA for its past support of FoolMoon and FestiFools. This year’s events, held in downtown Ann Arbor, take place on the first weekend in April.

Among a range of various updates, the board received a presentation from public art commissioners on the status of the East Stadium bridges public art project. It’s a presentation that the art commission is providing to several boards and commissions, including the planning commission at its April 1, 2014 meeting. [Full Story]

Planning Agenda: Art, Eats, Drive-Thrus

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 1, 2014): Ordinance revisions, site plan approval and a look at proposed artwork for the East Stadium bridge filled the planning commission’s first meeting in April.

Catherine Widgery, Ann Arbor public art commission, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

An image by artist Catherine Widgery for artwork on the East Stadium bridge. This night view shows how the structures would be lit from below, illuminating the images of trees that are etched into louvered glass panels.

John Kotarski and Bob Miller of the city’s public art commission presented images of a revised design for public art on the East Stadium bridge, a $400,000 project that includes columns of louvered glass panels on the bridge as well as underneath it, along South State Street. The artist – Catherine Widgery, who’s based in Massachusetts – had changed her original proposal at the request of a selection committee. The public art commission is seeking feedback on this new design, including at a public forum on Monday, April 21 at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.

The public art commission likely will vote on a recommendation at its April 23 meeting. The proposal would then be forwarded to the city council for approval.

Also heading to city council is the site plan for a new Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which planning commissioners voted to recommend on April 1. The plan involves major renovations to the existing building at 314 S. Fourth Ave., which most recently housed the Dream Nite Club that closed in 2012. The renovations include adding a second-floor mezzanine level to the front of the building.

Part of the planning commission’s discussion focused on whether there might be outdoor dining in front of the restaurant. The project’s architect, Stephen Fry, indicated that at this point, outdoor seating wouldn’t be appropriate, in part because of bus traffic. The building is located near the Blake Transit Center, a hub for public transportation. “Ruth’s Chris is about a known and consistent dining experience,” Fry said, “and we just don’t feel we can control it out there.”

Fry also reported that the restaurant will likely be using valet parking, with valets positioned in front of the building. “So we’re going to activate the street with humans that are dressed up and looking good,” he said.

Commissioners also reviewed proposed ordinance revisions related to drive-thrus, and recommended that the city council approve the changes. The amendments would add a definition of a “drive-thru facility” to Chapter 55 of the city code. Currently, the term used throughout the code is “drive-in,” which is not explicitly defined in the code.

In addition, the changes would require that drive-thru projects obtain a special exception use from the planning commission, and would be allowed only in the O (office), C2B (business service) and C3 (fringe commercial) zoning districts. Basic layout requirements would also be added to the ordinance. Currently, drive-thrus are allowed in C3 districts without a special exception use. They are allowed as special exception uses in the C2B district.

The changes will give planning commissioners more discretion in approving drive-thru businesses, including restaurants, banks, pharmacies and other types of drive-thrus. [Full Story]

County Board Handles Budget, Policy Items

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 19, 2014): Budget and finance issues were the focus of several items at the March 19 meeting, including a report that the county saw a $3.92 million surplus for its general fund in 2013. The county’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. Total general fund revenues were $105.797 million, with total expenses of $101.876 million.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Pat Kelly, former Dexter Township supervisor, talks with county commissioner Conan Smith and finance director Kelly Belknap before the March 19, 2014 county board meeting. The board passed a resolution of appreciation for Pat Kelly during the meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The board also heard from county treasurer Catherine McClary, who reported that foreclosures are decreasing, as are delinquent taxes. Delinquent taxes are a leading economic indicator for both mortgage foreclosures and tax foreclosures, she noted, so the decreases are good news. Commissioners gave initial authorization to the treasurer’s office to borrow up to $30 million against the amount of delinquent property taxes in all of the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions, an annual process.

Commissioners also authorized the county administrator to hire a contract employee who will support budget-related work this year for the county board and administration. The vote came over dissent from Rolland Sizemore Jr., who felt the work could be absorbed by existing staff.

The budget was also the focus of an update from lobbyist Kirk Profit and his colleague Gary Owen at Lansing-based Governmental Consultant Services Inc., who talked about how action in the state government might impact Washtenaw County. GCSI is the lobbyist for the county and several other local governments, including the city of Ann Arbor. Their updates included the fact that legislation has been introduced to repeal Act 88, which the county uses to levy taxes for economic development and agriculture. This year, the county has budgeted $973,000 in revenues from an Act 88 levy.

In other action, the board appointed former Superior Township supervisor Bill McFarlane to the county road commission board, to fill the seat left vacant by the recent death of long-time road commissioner Fred Veigel. The remainder of that six-year term runs through Dec. 31, 2014.

Commissioners supported McFarlane, but also discussed the possibility of changing the process so that interviews with applicants would be held at a public meeting. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), who as board chair makes these nominations, described the process of nominating a new road commissioner as a difficult one, and highlighted the need for a five-member road commission. Currently the road commission board consists of three members. It’s an issue that Rabhi plans to bring up at an April 17 working session.

The board also took a step toward allowing employees to get health insurance coverage for the treatment of autism. Commissioners gave initial approval that would authorize adding an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) rider to existing active employee and retiree benefits.

And a resolution to oppose a mineral mining operation in Lyndon Township drew criticism from Dan Smith (R-District 2), who objected to the county board weighing in on an issue that’s not within its purview. Other commissioners felt the county had a vested interest in formally voicing an opinion, both because of broader economic and environmental impacts that would affect residents, and because the county parks & recreation commission owns property in the township. Smith’s decision to state “present” – rather than casting a yes or no vote – resulted in brief discussion about board rules. [Full Story]

Planning Group Gives Advice to Council, UM

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 18, 2014): The planning commission has weighed in with advice on the use of two publicly owned sites: the city-owned Library Lane in downtown Ann Arbor, and the former Edwards Brothers property on South State that’s being bought by the University of Michigan.

Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters, Paras Parekh, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor planning commissioners Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters and Paras Parekh. (Photos by the writer.)

One day after the Ann Arbor city council took action related to the Library Lane site, planning commissioners made recommendations to the council about how to develop that South Fifth Avenue property. The council’s action on March 17 included asking the city administrator to hire a brokerage service to sell development rights to the Library Lane surface, on top of an underground parking structure. The council also voted, after a long debate, to designate part of the surface for an urban public park.

On March 18, the commission’s advice focused on conditions for developing the site that would garner economic benefits to the city, such as a mixed-use development that generates foot traffic, with an entry plaza or open space and a design that “creates an iconic addition to the skyline.” The recommendations drew on material in several existing documents, including the Connecting William Street report that was completed by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority about a year ago.

After the vote, Sabra Briere – who serves on both the planning commission and the city council – noted that many members of council don’t believe that the Connecting William Street project was successful in its public outreach. She also said that many councilmembers “do not believe that maximizing density, scale and mass of a building on that site is in the public interest.” Briere said she hadn’t raised these issues during the commission’s deliberations because she didn’t want anyone to feel that she was trying to tell the planning commission what to do.

In separate action on March 18, commissioners passed a resolution with recommendations on uses for the Edwards Brothers site on South State Street, which the University of Michigan is acquiring. The intent is to encourage representatives from the city and UM to discuss their mutual interests in that area – weighing the university’s need to expand its facilities against the city’s interest in strengthening its tax base. Issues include the possible private development of the section that fronts South State, impact on the park-and-ride lot in that area, and the extension of Oakbrook Drive from South State to South Main, through UM property. The city council is expected to consider the same resolution at its April 7 meeting.

Further south on the State Street corridor, at the intersection with Eisenhower Parkway, a proposal to renovate the Shell station, tear down the car wash, and add a drive-thru restaurant was recommended for approval by the commission on March 18. The existing convenience store and gas station would remain open during construction. The specific drive-thru restaurant to be located there is still being negotiated, according to the owner.

Some of the discussion on this project related to upcoming ordinance revisions that the commission will consider on April 1 regulating drive-thru restaurants.

Also recommended for approval on March 18 were an expansion to an office on Collingwood near West Stadium Boulevard, and an easement related to a new Belle Tire on West Ellsworth. [Full Story]

County Parks Commission Gives Trail Grants

Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission meeting (March 11, 2014): Commissioners approved an application for state funds to develop a major new recreation area just northeast of Ann Arbor. They also awarded $600,000 in grants for trail projects throughout the county.

Staebler Farm, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Site plan for Staebler Farm.

Commissioners approved an application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources trust fund for a grant to help develop Staebler Farm for recreational use. WCPARC has owned the 98-acre property in Superior Township since 2001, and Donald Staebler – who is 103 years old – still lives there in a lifetime agreement with WCPARC. The plan calls for adding fishing piers to the property’s two ponds, as well as putting in a trail system and other features. A second phase might involve developing a farm incubator program.

Commissioners also awarded $600,000 in grants through WCPARC’s Connecting Communities program, which supports trail projects throughout the county. Grants were given to projects in Ann Arbor Township, Northfield Township, Pittsfield Township, and the village of Manchester.

In non-voting business, WCPARC director Bob Tetens gave an update on the east county recreation center, a proposed partnership between the city of Ypsilanti and WCPARC in which the city would supply the property and WCPARC would provide the building. The center would be located on part of the 38-acre Water Street redevelopment area. Tetens said they’ve been working with the city of Ypsilanti on a development agreement.

Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and city councilmember Pete Murdock both spoke to the commission about Water Street during public commentary. Schreiber told commissioners that he wasn’t aware of any “show-stopping” issues. He also gave an update on Water Street Flats, an apartment project that’s planned for the site. The complex would be rental apartments for residents with between 50-90% of area median income.

In other action, commissioners approved about $500,000 for repairs at the Rolling Hills water park, and were briefed on several financial reports and project updates.

An issue that had been raised during public commentary at the Feb. 11, 2014 meeting emerged again on March 11: How should deer overpopulation be managed? Two residents – Maurita Holland and Barb Lucas – urged commissioners to play a role in dealing with the issue, which is affecting WCPARC parks and preserves. “We know there’s a lot of political fallout and a lot of education that needs to be done,” Holland said. She reported that a new group has formed – Washtenaw County for Ecological Balance. Members of WCEB include Larry Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County’s clerk/register of deeds, and Chris Graham, who serves on Ann Arbor’s environmental commission.

Commissioners discussed the issue at length. Jan Anschuetz advocated for a cautious approach, noting that it’s a complex problem that needs to be addressed by multiple entities, not just WCPARC. She also expressed concern that action by WCPARC could affect the 10-year renewal of the operations millage that WCPARC expects to be put on the November 2014 ballot. “If we do something that displeases our public, we will not have a millage and will not have a parks commission and we will not have a preserve,” she said.

Janis Bobrin noted that in this community, “If we start talking about killing anything, there are people who will just not hear anything after that.” There’s the actual management of the problem, she said, but also a major education piece that’s needed. “How do we begin to get a dialogue that isn’t one camp against another? That would seem to be a productive first step.”

Tetens told commissioners that WCPARC has applied for a $29,960 grant through the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources wildlife habitat grant program. Those funds would allow WCPARC to quantify the deer impact on county parks and preserves more precisely. Everyone agrees that the growing deer population is a problem, Tetens said, but “nobody can solve it on their own.”

Commissioners also authorized Tetens to draft a letter opposing a proposed sand and gravel mine that McCoig Materials wants to start in Lyndon Township, on 189 acres north of Chelsea on M-52. The rural site is located near several parks and nature areas, including Waterloo State Recreation Area, the Pinckney State Recreation Area, Park Lyndon, the Green Lake Camping area, and the Waterloo-Pinckney Hiking Trail. WCPARC has been interested in buying the property for at least two decades, and is hoping to work with the current landowner to add the site to the county’s nature preserves, rather than being mined.

The March 11 meeting began with a moment of silence for Fred Veigel, a long-time parks & recreation commissioner who represented the road commission on WCPARC. He died on March 2. Commissioners also passed a resolution of appreciation for his work. A replacement to WCPARC will be appointed from one of the current three road commissioners: Barb Fuller, Doug Fuller or Bill McFarlane. [Full Story]

AirRide OK’d, State Funding Reviewed

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (March 20, 2014): Board chair Charles Griffith opened the meeting by noting that the agenda was a lot lighter than last month, when the board had passed 10 separate resolutions – including a vote to put a transit millage proposal on the May 6 ballot.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center. (Photos by the writer.)

The only voting item handled by the board at its March 20 meeting was the extension of a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. The board authorized the first of three one-year extensions on the initial two-year contract for the service, called AirRide.

For the third year of the agreement, the not-to-exceed amount is $170,000. That compares with the first year of the contract that was not to exceed $700,000. The drop in the cost to the AAATA stems from a revenue-sharing agreement based on fare revenues – and ridership has exceeded projections.

The board also received an update on statewide transit issues from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. A main theme from their presentation was the need to focus on overall funding increases, as opposed to trying to fine-tune the part of the funding formula that divides public transportation funding among the 78 transit agencies in Michigan.

Harder also described an initiative to provide a non-emergency medical transportation brokerage that would tap public transportation resources. A demonstration program, to be provided through the newly formed Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), could be up and running by Oct. 1, 2015, Harder reported.

Another highlight of that presentation included the idea that the abysmal road conditions – which have resulted from the long and harsh winter – could be a rallying point for more transportation funding. To the extent that additional money for transportation is funneled through the general transportation funding formula, that would lead to an increase in public transportation funding, along with funding for road infrastructure.

The harsh winter and the challenge of clearing snow at the 1,200 bus stops was also a part of another basic theme of the board’s discussion – accessibility of the bus service to those in the disability community. Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living addressed the board to stress the importance of making sure all the bus stops are accessible. She also reiterated the CIL’s support for the upcoming May 6 millage vote.

Other highlights from the meeting included a round of applause for AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black, who managed the Blake Transit Center construction project. The driveways still need concrete to be poured before the project is completed, but the building itself is now open to the public. [Full Story]

Library Board Weighs Urban Park, Survey

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (March 17, 2014): About three hours before the Ann Arbor city council took action on the issue of a park at the Library Lane site, the Ann Arbor District Library board passed a resolution on that same topic.

Eli Neiburger, Prue Rosenthal, Jan Barney Newman, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: AADL associate director Eli Neiburger, board president Prue Rosenthal, and board treasurer Jan Barney Newman.

On a 6-1 vote, the board asked the council to reject designating a portion of that city-owned site – which is adjacent to the downtown library – as a public park or plaza at this time. Nancy Kaplan cast the lone dissenting vote.

In presenting the resolution, Rebecca Head noted that the library hasn’t objected to the concept of open space at the Library Lane site, as part of overall development of that city-owned property. But the AADL board resolution states that the council resolution “does not allocate the City resources needed to create a successful park, such as physical maintenance, programming, and monitoring unsafe behavior; and … the City has not been able to allocate resources for those purposes to the nearby Liberty Plaza park, Wheeler park, Sculpture plaza on North 4th Ave., or the Kerrytown plaza. …”

Several trustees weighed in to support the resolution. Barbara Murphy said she was conflicted, because she supports having a park or plaza on the Library Lane site at some point. But the council resolution seemed to be putting the cart before the horse, she said. She pointed out that the AADL board resolution is not advocating for tall buildings – but some kind of development is needed, she said.

In dissenting, Kaplan described the long history of efforts to put a public park or plaza on the Library Lane site. She didn’t want to cut off that process. Kaplan also raised the point that the library board would be asking the council to reject a resolution without knowing the exact content of that resolution – because the council could amend the resolution during its deliberations later in the evening. [The council did make a significant amendment to the part of the resolution addressing the amount of square footage.]

Board president Prue Rosenthal told Kaplan that “I don’t think we’re trying to cut off anything.” All that the AADL is asking, Rosenthal said, is that issues should first be addressed – like how the park would be used, who’ll take care of it, how the security will be handled – “so that behavior we’ve seen around the outside of the [downtown library] building will not increase in that space and spill over into our library.”

AADL director Josie Parker attended the city council meeting, which started at the same time as the library board meeting but didn’t adjourn until 1 a.m. Parker read aloud the board’s resolution to the council, and described some of the challenges that the downtown library faces with security.

The downtown library was the focus of another part of the March 17 AADL board meeting, as trustees were updated on renovations to the front entrance. Ken Van Tine, an architect from InForm Studio, answered questions about possible design revisions since a March 13 public forum. InForm will be presenting a revised design to the board’s facilities committee, before the design is brought to the full board for approval.

Trustees also received results from an EPIC-MRA survey that the library had commissioned. About 500 respondents were surveyed in mid-February. Bernie Porn – president of the Lansing-based firm – described the outcome as “a great news poll, in terms of results, and I think you all should be very, very proud.” There are a couple areas of concern, he said, “but they’re not the kinds of things that can’t be overcome.”

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. Since 2012, the positive job rating for AADL has increased by 7 points – from 81% in 2012 to 88% in 2014. That’s a significant increase, Porn said. The 2014 survey also showed that only 3 in 10 respondents knew that AADL is “an independent governmental body” funded by its own separate tax assessment. This is one area of concern, Porn noted, adding that it’s certainly something that’s “solvable.”

The current survey results are expected to help guide development of the library’s next strategic plan, which will be completed later this year.

On March 17, the board also passed a resolution authorizing the library director to enter into a bike share program license agreement with the nonprofit Clean Energy Coalition. The CEC is managing the new program called ArborBike, which is launching this spring. It would include a bike station on AADL’s downtown library property on South Fifth Avenue, as well as locations at other sites in downtown Ann Arbor and on the University of Michigan campus. There will be about 14 bikes at the downtown AADL station on the north side of its property. [Full Story]

County Board Briefed on Transit Tax

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (March 6, 2014): Two months before voters will weigh in on a public transit millage proposal, staff with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority briefed county commissioners about the initiative, and answered a wide range of questions.

Michael Benham, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning at the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposal – for an 0.7 mill tax to pay for expanded transit services – was placed on the May 6 ballot by the AAATA board on Feb. 20, 2014. The tax would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), an Ann Arbor commissioner who chairs the working sessions, pointed out that those three jurisdictions touch seven of the nine districts represented by the Washtenaw County board.

The three commissioners representing Ann Arbor – LaBarre, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Conan Smith (D-District 9) – attended the March 6 working session. The two commissioners representing Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) – were absent. A small portion of Ann Arbor is in District 2, represented by Republican Dan Smith. District 4, represented by Democrat Felicia Brabec, includes a small portion of Ypsilanti Township.

Questions during the March 6 session included clarification that the millage revenues would not support rail service, and a query about why the tax proposal was being put forward in May rather than November, when turnout would be higher for the general election. Another issue raised was whether a property tax for this type of activity is fair, considering that residents of apartments don’t see the impact of a property tax as directly as a homeowner does.

Michael Benham, AAATA’s special assistant for strategic planning, noted that the possibility of rail service is part of the authority’s 30-year plan, but it’s not in the current five-year plan for expanded services that would be funded by the new millage. He told commissioners that a May election will focus attention on transit, while there would be many other issues in November competing for attention. Benham also stressed the urgency of moving ahead on more services, which will include increased service hours, greater frequency of buses along some routes, and expanded Dial-a-Ride services.

As for the fairness of a property tax, Benham pointed out that the AAATA has few available options for raising revenue, and that revenues from the new millage will leverage additional state and federal funding.

Most commissioners were supportive of the millage and expanded services, citing reasons of environmental sustainability, social equity and economic development. Rabhi said he wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports using public transit to divide the community based on socioeconomic levels. People should be able to live in downtown Ann Arbor even if they don’t earn above the area median income, he said. The concept of “segregating our community along economic boundaries is one that sickens me,” he said, adding that he didn’t think AAATA’s five-year plan buys into a segregated vision for this area.

At the end of working session, six commissioners – including the three who represent Ann Arbor districts – announced their official support for the millage in a press release.

For additional background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: “Tax Question Focus of Transit Board Meeting“; “5-Year Transit Plan: Possible Tax Vote Soon“; “Survey: Majority Favorable on Transit Tax“; “Transit Vote for A2 and Ypsi: May 6, 2014“; “Committee to Oppose AAATA Millage“; and “Column: Let Data Steer Local Transit Policy.” [Full Story]

Concerns Voiced over Urban Park Proposal

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Feb. 25, 2014): Of the four briefings given at PAC’s February meeting, drawing the most discussion was a proposal to build an urban park on top of the Library Lane underground parking structure.

Will Hathaway, Library Green Conservancy, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Will Hathaway gave a presentation about a proposal to build an urban park at the Library Lane site. He spoke on behalf of the Library Green Conservancy, which is working with some city councilmembers on the proposal. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners were briefed by Will Hathaway on behalf of the Library Green Conservancy, which has been advocating for a large section of the site to be designated as a park. He described a resolution that was later brought forward by Jack Eaton (Ward 4) at the council’s March 3, 2014 meeting.

Hathaway highlighted aspects of the proposal that drew on recommendations made by PAC to the city council last fall. He said he wasn’t asking for PAC to take any specific action on this proposal, but asked for feedback. Several commissioners raised concerns, including some that focused on the process of bringing this resolution forward without specific direction from the council. Hathaway noted that the resolution is intended to start the process, with council direction, to begin working with stakeholders, PAC, the public and others in the design and development of this park.

Subsequently, at the March 3 council meeting, PAC chair Ingrid Ault and former chair Julie Grand both spoke during public commentary and urged postponement of the resolution. Mayor John Hieftje, responding to the initiative, gave his own presentation on March 3 with a different vision for connected urban spaces downtown.

And Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) told councilmembers that he wanted a postponement to have time to meet with Ann Arbor District Library board members about moving the library over to the surface of the Library Lane structure. He also plans to bring forward a resolution that would move towards hiring a broker to list development rights on the Library Lane surface for sale.

Ultimately, the council voted to postpone action until its March 17 meeting. At that meeting, it’s likely that Eaton will bring forward a revised resolution, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle on March 13. The revised resolution indicates that the area designated as a park would be 12,000 square feet, compared to 10,000 square feet in the original resolution. That square footage reflects the actual dimensions of the proposed boundaries, according to a staff memo. The revised resolution also eliminates an October 2014 deadline for making design recommendations to the council, and deletes any reference to PAC. [.pdf of revised resolution for March 17 council meeting]

In other action at PAC’s Feb. 25 meeting, commissioners heard three other presentations related to city parks. Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) described a proposed ordinance that he’s brought to council regarding outdoor smoking in public places, including parks. Elements of the ordinance include authorizing the city administrator to have signs posted designating certain parks or portions of parks as off limits for outdoor smoking.

Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest & natural resources planning coordinator, gave a presentation to PAC about the urban and community forest management plan. The city recently released a draft and is seeking input. And Doug Kelly, Ann Arbor’s director of golf, gave an update on the city’s two golf courses at Huron Hills and Leslie Park.

In voting items, PAC recommended approval of an amendment to the city’s golf cart lease with Pifer Inc., and supported approval of contracts for work at Windemere and Clinton parks.

Commissioners also got a brief financial update for the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2014. Bob Galardi, chair of PAC’s budget and finance committee, summarized the status this way: “Basically, we’re in great shape.” [Full Story]

County Board Handles Lawsuit, Art, Budget

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 5, 2014): A light agenda at the March 5 meeting was punctuated by a relatively rare closed session to discuss pending litigation. The specific litigation wasn’t cited.

Jim Casha, Mary Jo Callan, southeast Michigan regional transit authority, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jim Casha shows Mary Jo Callan, director of Washtenaw County’s office of community & economic development, a map of the Michigan state fairgrounds. Casha is advocating for the southeast Michigan regional transit authority to develop the site as a regional transit hub. (Photos by the writer.)

However, in the previous week, a jury had awarded nearly $1.2 million to a former Washtenaw County employee, Ali Aboubaker, who had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county in 2011. Responding to a query after the March 5 meeting, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger told The Chronicle that the county would be evaluating its options for appeal. The administration would also be meeting with the county’s insurance carrier to discuss the situation.

In other action, the board gave initial approval to hire a contract position that would support budget-related work for the board and administration. The item had been originally considered, but postponed, at the Feb. 5, 2014 meeting. The vote on March 5 was 7-1, over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2). Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent.

Commissioners also voted to accept a grant from the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs for the Youth Arts Alliance (YAA). Washtenaw County is the fiduciary for this five-county collaborative, which provides creative arts workshops to youth in the juvenile justice system. The county also provides office space for YAA.

The grant will pay local artists to install public art at each of the five county juvenile facilities, made with help from the youth at those facilities. The youth will also work with local musicians to create an original album. The alliance’s director, Heather Wilson, told commissioners: “We are seeing huge transformations with the kids experiencing creative arts as an outlet.”

During his communications to the board, chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) laid out the application process to fill the seat on the Washtenaw County road commission board left vacant by the recent death of long-time road commissioner Fred Veigel. The deadline for submitting applications is Sunday, March 16. Rabhi hopes to make a nomination at the board’s March 19 meeting. The appointment would be to fill the remainder of Veigel’s term, through Dec. 31, 2014. During the March 5 meeting, commissioners passed resolutions honoring Veigel as well as local activist Lois Mayfield, who died on Feb. 21.

Commissioners also scheduled a public hearing to give input for the Washtenaw Urban County 2014-15 action plan. The hearing will be held at the county boardroom in downtown Ann Arbor during the March 19 meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. It’s intended to solicit feedback about proposed projects and programs that the county intends to implement with federal funding – through community development block grant (CDBG), HOME and emergency shelter grant programs – from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015.

The March 5 meeting included an update from Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, about a proposal to offer autism health care coverage for county employees. A formal resolution is expected to be on the March 19 agenda for the board’s consideration.

Public commentary included advocacy from Jim Casha, who has previously addressed the board regarding the southeast Michigan regional transit authority. Washtenaw County is a member of the RTA, and the county board appoints two representatives to the RTA board. Casha’s remarks focused on the benefits of using the former state fairgrounds as a regional transit hub, instead of private development. [Full Story]

Council Ends Art Saga, Postpones Other Items

Ann Arbor city council meeting (March 3, 2014): The most recent wrangling over public art, which began on Jan. 21, has finally been wrapped up – at least for now – by council action on three separate items. But the council postponed final action on three issues fraught with their own controversies: a resolution on an urban park for the top of the Library Lane underground parking structure; a funding proposal for the work of a pedestrian safety task force; and an ordinance regulating smoking in some outdoor spaces.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talked with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (ward 3) before the meeting started.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talked with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (ward 3) before the March 3 meeting started. (Photos by the writer.)

The delays allowed the council to wrap up a potentially long meeting relatively early, by around 10:30 p.m. As a part of the meeting, the council also approved a raft of routine items essential to keeping the city operational – like the purchase of 18 replacement vehicles.

In its three actions on public art policy, the council: (1) directed the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for the next two years; (2) transferred $943,005 out of the public art fund; and (3) extended the contract for the city’s part-time public art administrator by six months.

The transfer of Percent for Art money back to its funds of origin was made possible by an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance given final approval by the council on Feb. 18. The $943,005 total is 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. The art projects at East Stadium bridges and at the Kingsley & First rain garden would also retain their funding. Because the resolution involves a transfer of funds, it required eight votes on the 11-member council to be approved. The vote on the question was 10-1 with Margie Teall (Ward 4) dissenting.

An additional resolution approved by the council focused exclusively on the transition to a new public art program. The resolution directed the city administrator to ask the staff to develop a transition plan, and to present that plan to the council by Oct. 6, 2014. The resolution also prohibits initiating additional projects using pooled Percent for Art funds, and directs the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for FY 2015 and FY 2016. Because it did not transfer any funds, the resolution on establishing a timeline and a budget did not require more than a simple six-vote majority. Dissenting on the vote were: Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Jack Eaton (Ward 4).

The third public art resolution approved by the council on March 3 was one that extended the contract for the city’s part-time public art administrator by six months, appropriating $18,500 for that purpose – drawn from Percent for Art money. The item first appeared on the council’s Jan. 21 agenda.

A resolution that would have established an urban park on a portion of the surface of the Library Lane underground parking structure was delayed, amid the expressed intent by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) to bring forward a companion resolution to hire a broker to sell the rights to build on top of the parking structure. The urban park resolution, which was put forward by Jack Eaton (Ward 4), had resulted from his work with the Library Green Conservancy. It drew on recommendations on downtown parks made last year by the park advisory commission (PAC).

But the resolution drew criticism from both the current and former chair of PAC during public commentary at the meeting, as they said it flouted two of PAC’s eight recommendations: that additional parks not be established as a trade-off to maintenance of existing parks; and that open space on top of the Library Lane parking structure be designed in the context of adjacent development.

The consideration of the urban parks resolution spurred mayor John Hieftje to counter with an item he placed on the agenda the day of the March 3 council meeting: a slideshow he presented early in the meeting to argue for consideration of several open spaces downtown, including the surface lot on the northeast corner of Main & William. The council will take up the urban park resolution again on March 17.

In other parks-related business on March 3, the council also approved funding for the reconstruction of basketball and tennis courts at Clinton Park in the southern part of town. And the council approved applying for a grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Grants Management to help pay for a universal access playground at Gallup Park. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor has already pledged $250,000 toward that playground.

Delayed at the council’s March 3 meeting was a resolution that would have established funding for a pedestrian safety and access task force. Councilmembers had concerns about the amount of funding, which totaled $197,250. That amount includes approximate costs of the anticipated city staff effort for the project. Councilmembers also had concerns about the use of funds to hire an outside consultant as a facilitator. The council will take up the pedestrian task force funding issue again on April 7, by which time the task force is expected to have held its initial meeting.

Related to pedestrian issues at the March 3 meeting, the council approved funding for the design of two sidewalks – on Barton Drive and Scio Church Road – as well as funds to construct a section of sidewalk on Ann Arbor-Saline Road.

Also on March 3, police chief John Seto briefed the council on increased traffic enforcement activities conducted with a $125,000 allocation the council had made at its Dec. 16, 2013 meeting – in the same time frame as the pedestrian task force was created. Seto also briefed the council on year-end crime statistics for 2013.

Another item delayed until April 7 was an ordinance that would regulate smoking in certain outdoor locations, outside of building entrances and possibly in some areas of some public parks. Councilmembers had various concerns, ranging from the possible disparate impact on the homeless to the difficulty of enforcement. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) expressed some frustration that he was just now hearing about these various concerns from his colleagues, even though he had brought the ordinance forward on Feb. 3 and asked for their comments and questions at that time.

The council did take action to direct the city administrator to develop a budget amendment that would allocate $600,000 from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to help the Ann Arbor Housing Commission pay for capital improvements. Approval of that amendment by the city council would be contingent on the upcoming closing of the sale of city-owned property at Fifth & William streets in downtown Ann Arbor – the former Y lot. Net proceeds of the sale, at around $1.4 million, are to be deposited in the affordable housing trust fund.

In routine business, the council approved the purchase of 18 replacement vehicles, most of which are used by the Ann Arbor police department. And finally, the council passed a resolution calling on state officials to find creative ways to provide full funding to a state program designed to give fire protection grants to municipalities that are home to state-owned institutions, like the University of Michigan. [Full Story]

Concordia Takes Step in Campus Upgrade

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 4, 2014): A gym addition at Concordia University in Ann Arbor is moving forward, following action by planning commissioners to recommend approval of the project’s site plan.

Curt Gielow, Concordia University Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Curt Gielow (right), campus chief executive for Concordia University Ann Arbor, talks with Ann Arbor planning commission chair Kirk Westphal before the commission’s March 4, 2014 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The project signals a larger effort to double the size of the current institution’s enrollment of 740 students and return Concordia – which was near bankruptcy in recent years – to financial stability.

Curt Gielow, Concordia University Ann Arbor’s CEO, told commissioners that because of its distressed financial state, the Ann Arbor campus was absorbed by Concordia University Wisconsin last year. Plans are in place to invest between $10 million to $20 million in the coming years on a variety of improvements, he said.

Gielow estimated Concordia’s economic impact on Ann Arbor is in excess of $10 million annually. “I don’t think anybody wants this university to close.”

The 187-acre campus is located at 4090 Geddes Road, just west of US-23 and north of the Huron River. The Ann Arbor campus is one of the smallest of the 10 Concordias nationwide, which all are owned by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The LCMS Michigan district offices are located near the Ann Arbor campus, at 3773 Geddes.

The site plan will now be forwarded to the city council for consideration. Planning commissioners also granted a special exception use for the project, because the private university is located on a site zoned R1B (single-family residential district). No additional city council approval is required for that.

In other action, commissioners voted to support a resolution passed by the city’s energy commission and environmental commission, recommending that the city fill a vacant full-time position to focus on implementing Ann Arbor’s climate action plan.

During the March 4 meeting, energy commission chair Wayne Appleyard explained the rationale behind the recommendation, noting that one of two positions in the energy office has been vacant for about two years. While the office has been short-staffed, he said, climate change continues. “Greenhouse gases are cumulative, so the faster we can move to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the better off everybody’s going to be.”

Near the end of the meeting, planning commissioner Diane Giannola announced that she and Bonnie Bona would be bringing a resolution forward on March 18 related to the Library Lane site. At recent city council meetings, she noted, there has been discussion about potentially selling the air rights for the Library Lane underground parking structure to a developer. So the resolution would describe the kinds of uses that the planning commission would like to see on top of that site, she said. Giannola likened it to a similar resolution that the planning commission passed prior to the sale of the former Y lot. [Full Story]

County Expands Natural Areas Preservation

Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission meeting (Feb. 11, 2014): After skipping the January 2014 meeting for lack of business, commissioners had a heavy agenda for their meeting in February.

Superior Township, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view of Bloch/Vreeland property in Superior Township. Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission approved the purchase of a conservation easement on this parcel. (Image from WCPARC board packet.)

Action included approving the purchase of a conservation easement on 129 acres in Superior Township – fronting Vreeland and Leforge roads – for $613,500. Purchase of another easement was authorized for $95,731 on the Rogers parcel, 157 acres in York Township.

Commissioners also heard an update on the proposed agreement between WCPARC and the city of Ypsilanti that would result in WCPARC building a new recreation center on 4.1 acres of land in the Water Street redevelopment area, next to the Huron River. Some of the changes in the draft agreement came at the request of the Ann Arbor YMCA, which is partnering on the project and would operate the center. The goal is to complete construction by late 2016.

Grant applications for WCPARC’s Connecting Communities initiative were reviewed. Requests from four townships and the village of Manchester totaled $1.35 million. That’s far greater than the $600,000 available for the grant program, which was created to build non-motorized trails across the county. Commissioners will decide at their March 11 meeting how to award the grants.

During public commentary, three residents spoke to the commission about the ill effects of over-abundant deer in the county, and urged WCPARC to address the situation.

The commission also welcomed its newest member to the group: Dan Ezekiel, a science teacher at Ann Arbor Public Schools and former chair of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. One of the longest-serving commissioners – labor leader Fred Veigel, who has represented the county road commission on WCPARC – didn’t attend the meeting because of ill health. He died on March 2. [Full Story]

DDA Budgets for Transit, Housing, Parking

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (March 5, 2014): Three main business items were approved by the board: submission of its FY 2015 budget to the city council, award of a $50,000 management incentive to its parking management contractor, and a resolution pledging to maintain or increase DDA funding of transportation programs, if the May 6, 2014 AAATA transit millage is approved by voters.

Roger Hewitt, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority

Roger Hewitt, DDA board treasurer. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposed budget shows $19.3 million in revenues from the public parking system and $4.8 million in tax increment finance capture. Overall, it shows $24,237,186 in revenues against $26,531,972 in expenses. The use of fund balance to cover the difference leaves the DDA with an estimated fund balance at the end of FY 2015 of about $3.3 million. FY 2015 runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015. [FY 2015 DDA budget breakdown]

The expenses include $353,344 in salaries and $245,894 in fringe benefits for four staff members, $7,075,571 in payments to Republic Parking for management of the public parking system, and $2.1 million for parking facility maintenance. Accounting for $3.19 million of the expenses is a payment made to the city of Ann Arbor, equal to 17% of the gross revenues to the public parking system.

Included in the budget is a $200,000 grant to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission – as part of a $600,000 request from AAHAC to support improvements to Baker Commons and Miller Manor.

The budget also includes $676,000 for support of the getDowntown program. The board also approved a resolution that pledged to work toward maintaining or increasing the DDA’s support for transportation programs. That resolution came in the context of an approaching May 6, 2014 transit millage ballot question. The 0.7 mill tax was placed on a May 6 ballot by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board on Feb. 20, 2014. The tax would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The DDA board resolution came in part as a response to the fact that the DDA will be capturing a portion of the new millage under its tax increment finance (TIF) funding mechanism.

The board also approved the award to Republic Parking of the full $50,000 annual discretionary management incentive. Republic Parking’s contract with the Ann Arbor DDA covers just actual costs, but also includes a $200,000 annual management fee. Of the $200,000 management fee, $50,000 is awarded to Republic on a discretionary basis. It was last year, at the board’s March 6, 2013 meeting, when the DDA board decided for the first time in five years to award the full $50,000 of the incentive. The year before, at its Feb. 1, 2012 meeting, the board determined to award $45,000 of the discretionary amount. That matched the same figure awarded in 2011, 2010 and 2009.

The board also heard the usual range of reports from committees as well as public commentary. A highlight of announcements included the upcoming closure of the surface parking facility at the old Y lot, as the city-owned property is sold to hotelier Dennis Dahlmann. The closing is expected sometime between March 13-15. The lot is located on William Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, across from the downtown library and south of the Blake Transit Center. [Full Story]

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]

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]

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]