Issues Update from Mayor Christopher Taylor
Friends,

During my six years on City Council, I would write occasionally to residents about matters of interest, sometimes to inform, other times to seek advice. Some of these communications have explored a single topic, others have discussed a wider range of issues. I look forward as Mayor to continuing this practice.

With 2015 under way, it seems like as good a time as any to give you a brief update and my current thinking on various city issues.  If I have left something off that interests you, please just let me know.

Finances

Ann Arbor’s finances are solid, with a recently affirmed AA+/Stable bond rating from Standard & Poor’s. We ended FY2014 with a $2.1M surplus and an unallocated General Fund balance of 17%.

As many of you know, Ann Arbor approves a budget every year, but we operate on a two-year planning cycle. We are beginning a new period this year, so the upcoming budget conversation will include the FY16 Budget and an approval of the plan for FY17.

Staff and Council are in the midst of the planning and forecasting that informs that process. City Administrator Steve Powers will propose a FY2016 budget and FY2017 plan to Council in April and we will vote on the budget in May.  As we get closer to that time, I’ll write with details.

Pension

In 2009 our Pension System was fully funded.  This meant that the City only needed to pay in the “Normal Cost” – the cost each year that is necessary to set aside to pay for future benefits earned by employees for working that year.  After the market collapse of 2009, the Pension system became underfunded, down to a low of 74%. Today, we stand at approximately 83%. To meet this gap, we fund the Normal Cost (the amount needed to cover pension obligations created by current employees) plus a portion of the unfunded liability. We have established a policy that pegs future pension funding to the higher of (i) the Normal Cost plus the amortized unfunded liability; or (ii) the existing level adjusted for future changes in the City's General Fund revenue.  By basically indexing future contributions to General Fund revenue, the City chips away at the unfunded liability and mitigates future cost increases. We expect these policies to result in the system being fully funded in the 2020s.  This is a long horizon, but meeting pension obligations is a long-term operation.

Our retiree health care obligation is approximately 44% funded. Although this compares very favorably to many other jurisdictions, which merely pay-as-you-go, without any advance funding, we still need to and will continue to make additional contributions in order to improve. We have taken important steps to sharply reduce retiree health care obligations with respect to future employees; this will be a substantial benefit over time.

In sum, our external actuary has given Ann Arbor a B/B+ for its Pension/Retiree Healthcare.  Not great, but with diligent effort over time, we will continue to improve.

Roads

Roads in Michigan are awful. Ann Arbor is no exception. As you probably know, most of our road money comes from the State, and Michigan is 50th out of 50 in per capita road spending. If voters this May pass an increase in the sales tax from 6% to 7%, this will change, but in the meantime resources remain scarce.

We are fortunate, however, that the County Board of Commissioners has passed a supplementary road millage in 2014 to raise nearly $2.5M in Ann Arbor, for Ann Arbor roads.  Although the County did this on its own authority, City Council passed a resolution 10-1, requesting that the County Board take this step.

Using this money from the County, we will be able to repair an additional 6.4 miles of roads in 2015.  These repairs will be in addition to the $9M in Ann Arbor- and State-funded repairs that are already scheduled.

Next year Ann Arbor will see a lot of road construction. Major arteries. Corridors. Locals. Crack Sealing. Chip Filling. Drivers will experience inconvenience, but road repair is not possible without some disruption.  This one construction season won’t change all our roads at once, but come next fall, we all should see some improvement.

Snow

This year, we’ve purchased approximately 9000 tons of salt to help keep our roads clear.  Everything we dump on the road finds its way into the Huron River, so for years now we have used a 95% sand, 5% salt mixture to emphasize for traction control over ice melt.  Last year’s snow was record breaking and although crews worked and worked, some areas of the City proved difficult to maintain.

This year we are taking a number of approaches to improve snow removal service.  We have in the past, not plowed unless the snowfall exceeds 4 inches.  We are revisiting that figure on a case-by-case basis and expect that we’ll see broader treatment after smaller storms.

When plows are out, parked cars are the largest obstacle to cleared streets.  Depending on how this winter progresses, we could consider whether to limit street parking in an area of our city on a pilot basis.  This limit could run to an outright prohibition of nighttime, on-street parking, as is common in many northern jurisdictions, or it could be some alternate-side-of-the-street parking arrangement.  It would be very interesting to compare the plowing-success benefits against parking-headache burdens.

Finally, as you know, residents are responsible for sidewalk snow removal in front of their property. We have in the past operated exclusively on a complaint-driven system to address areas where sidewalks are not kept passable.  We will continue to respond to these reports, but in response to residents’ concerns regarding walkability, we will now take proactive measures to remind residents of their obligation to clear sidewalks in priority areas – routes to elementary schools, for example.

During major snowfalls crews are out 24 hours a day, on 12-hour shifts. We address major roads first, and continually, then corridors, and then locals, prioritized on the basis of the solid waste/recycling pickup schedule.

Pall-Gelman Plume

No 1,4 dioxane from the Gelman Plume has ever been detected in Ann Arbor’s drinking water. We need to do absolutely everything we can to keep it that way.

Right now the state standard of 85/ppb is weaker than what the federal government says is safe. We need to continue to push the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt the Federal standard of 3.5/ppb.

The state has been reconsidering its position for some time now – 1,4 dioxane is only one of hundreds of chemicals under safety review. I have spoken recently with the DEQ Director and have his assurance that we are nearing the end of that process. Nothing is of course set in stone, but we should have a preliminary revised standard in the spring/summer.

Police

Crime in Ann Arbor is at historic lows.  Although final figures for 2014 are not yet in, our rates will be below 2013 figures for major crimes, the FBI’s so-called Part 1 crimes.  Part 2 crimes, including transgressions such as neighborhood code violations, disorderly conducts, and MIPs, are up over 2013.  In my view both these trends are positive – the former suggests that we are becoming a safer community, the other reflects more proactive enforcement of quality of life issues.

This past year, we added three new police officer positions for community engagement and traffic enforcement.  Each new police officer position costs approximately $100K per year.  With crime at historic lows, I am not convinced that this year we need to hire additional officers for crime prevention purposes, but I am open to consider how AAPD can increase community engagement and traffic enforcement.  These quality of life functions are important and require sworn officers.

The Death of Aura Rosser

With the death of Aura Rosser in November, our community experienced its first fatal police shooting in decades.

Reflecting upon the event, I believe that two things are true. I believe, even as our culture has improved over the decades, that appalling racial injustice and disparity continue to degrade our society and must be fought at every turn. I also believe, after reading the prosecutor’s report, that Officer Ried's actions were justified. He and his partner acted professionally and properly in defense of Mr. Stephens and in defense of themselves. The plain facts show this to be true.

The events of that night of course were a tragedy, but not a tragedy of racism, which is loathsome and unacceptable and contrary to everything Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Police Department stands for. The events of November 9 were a tragedy of mental illness untreated and drug use unabated. They were a tragedy of a society that does not devote the resources necessary to give help to those who require it.

So many lives were changed that evening. Ms. Rosser of course, her children, family, friends, and neighbors, and also too the officers on the scene. No one touched by the somber events of that night will ever be the same. They each deserve our thoughts, sympathy, and support.

This event has caused some residents to inquire about body-mounted cameras and resident/AAPD engagement. With regard to this last point, our Human Rights Commission is currently considering the need for formal resident-AAPD interaction and will report back to us when their inquiry is complete. As to body-cameras, their use and the resulting video requires a fairly complex set of policies to ensure public/officer safety and to respect privacy rights.  We have been working since late summer 2014 with neighboring jurisdictions and civil liberties groups to develop these policies, and I’m pleased to say that City Council has recently approved the purchase of body-mounted cameras for AAPD officers. We expect to fully deploy this equipment by summer 2015.

Fire-Medical Response

In Ann Arbor, fire safety professionals provide fire and medical functions.

In 2013 (the last year with complete statistics), AAFD went out on an average of 535 service calls per month.  Of these, 285 were medical calls and 25 were fire related.  Of these fire calls, 12 were commercial/residential structure fires, with the others being vehicle fires or brush fires.  The balance in the average month includes Fire Alarms (75), HazMat (37), and Good Intent Service (104).

We have made important strides to achieve “box-alarm” cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions.  Often, the closest fire equipment is located in the townships.  Now, they’ll be called in when and where needed.

Finally, we have hired a new Fire Chief, Larry Collins. I'm very excited about his arrival in Ann Arbor and I look forward to working with him and dedicated men and women of the AAFD to ensure that our fire-medical response system continues to keep Ann Arbor safe.

Ann Arbor Train Station

Expanded rail service is vitally important to the future of Ann Arbor.  A multi-state consortium of state transportation agencies projects Amtrak ridership through Ann Arbor to increase from 150K/year to 1M+/year. East-west commuter rail service (trains already purchased by the State) would provide substantial traffic-mitigation and be an environmental game changer. The current train station cannot accommodate either.

We are undertaking an environmental and site review to determine the station location that best meets federal standards – either on Depot Street, on the site of the current station, or to the south of Fuller Road, on the site used by the University of Michigan as a parking lot.

Some have objected to the Fuller Road site on the grounds that it is within the boundaries of Fuller Park.  Although I understand this concern, I have not been persuaded by it. I want a station that works. If the Fuller Road site is preferred according to the federal criteria, then that’s where I’d want to place the station; if the federal criteria give the nod to the Depot Street site, then that’s where I’d want to place the station.

I have previously believed that the Fuller Road location would likely work best – it has more space for the necessary parking, better access for the mass transit that will be necessary to move commuters from the station to other areas of the City, and it is right next to the highest employment center and most visited location in the County, the UM Hospital.

Recently, however, DTE has been open to discuss whether some of its land could be used to augment the Depot Street site. This is an interesting change and I’m looking forward to seeing what site fits best with federal requirements so that we can move this important project forward.

Climate Change

To state the obvious, we will not stop climate change here in Ann Arbor.  We can, however prepare ourselves for its effects and do our part to reduce our community use of greenhouse gases.  We are already altering the mix of our new street trees in anticipation of a warmer climate, and our storm water system will need to evolve to accommodate even greater precipitation.

We adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2012.  To move to implementation, we recently engaged the Clean Energy Coalition to (i) promote the City's Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program; (ii) support Energy Star benchmarking for commercial/multi-family energy efficiency programs; (iii) develop a model to support community solar initiatives; and (iv) educate the public about the climate changes measured to date and the practical steps available to both mitigate and adapt to expected changes.

Recently we have approved an agreement with DTE to site a 13-acre, 1MW+ solar field at the Ann Arbor Airport.  This is an incredibly exiting project. If it is successful, we may be able to expanded it over time and use some of the acreage to support community solar.

Storm Water

Our storm water system was designed and developed decades ago to meet the needs of a smaller, dryer city. Expanded impervious surfaces and increased precipitation have strained the system.

The Footing Drain Disconnect program has removed millions of gallons of storm water from our sanitary system and has substantially reduced sewage backups that used to plague our residents.  Although in this respect it has been a plain success, I know that many residents still have questions about the sump pumps that are required after disconnection.
 
We are in the process of evaluating whether the program should continue in its current form.  The current draft report indicates that the program has met its goals and may no longer be needed.

Trees

Ann Arbor’s trees beautify our city, clean our air, and provide substantial and sustained storm water benefits.  We have approximately 54,000 street trees and park trees (in mowed areas). There are in addition, around 5,000 sites that are suitable for planting.

The Emerald Ash Borer crisis and the Great Recession combined to increase need and decrease resources for Ann Arbor’s urban forest.  As a consequence, we have over the years fallen behind in tree maintenance and plantings.  Now that our economy has turned the corner, it is important that we focus needed attention on this critical area.

We have already taken steps in this direction. We recently approved an Urban and Community Forest Management Plan, and in this past year’s budget we allocated a supplemental $1M to catch up on pruning and removals. Looking forward to 2015, we should be in a position to plant approximately 1,200 trees.

We will need to ensure that we have adequate funding to meet the goals of our long term Management Plan.  For my part, I believe that Ann Arbor’s trees are such an important part of our community’s quality of life, that I am willing to consider new funding to meet this crucial need.

Homelessness

We have outstanding services to assist the homeless in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, whether offered by the City, County, faith-based or private organizations. Even so, the problem is greater than can be fully addressed by our combined resources.  This challenge is compounded by our reputation as a caring community.  This results in individuals coming to Washtenaw County in search of services – whether they come on their own volition, or are delivered intentionally by organizations.  Last winter, “out-of-county” residents at the Delonis Center topped 50% and averaged above 40% for the season.

Although we will never turn anyone away for the night for being an out-of-county person, we cannot provide human services for all of Southeast Michigan.  I am working with our partners at the County and in the Washtenaw Shelter Association to reduce the number of out-of-county persons receiving long-term services provided by the County and the City.

During winter months, especially, we are going to work with the Project Outreach Team to expand substance outreach to better link services with people in need. Additionally, the Shelter Association will hire ten new staff members to support its five month winter program, which will include a warming center at Delonis and rotating shelter provided by local faith communities. We have worked with the County to provide the additional funding necessary to get this off the ground.

Affordable Housing

The simple fact of supply and demand makes housing in Ann Arbor difficult for many people who work in Ann Arbor.  No matter your income, the lack of affordable housing hurts your quality of life.  It reduces economic growth in a community, impedes diversity, and increases traffic congestion

Our recent Affordable Housing Needs Assessment indicates that we need 2700+ units of affordable housing in Ann Arbor over the next 20 years to meet demand.  To meet this need, we will need to substantially increase affordable units for working people and families who earn at or below the 60% area median income level – these are our preschool teachers, retail employees, cashiers, food service works, clerks, research assistants, and so on.  Right now, these folks are priced out of Ann Arbor.

If we want these women and men to be able to live in Ann Arbor, we must be open to development outside the downtown to increase supply of affordable units.  This change will be disruptive.  It will require a lot of planning and even more conversation and community involvement, but the fact of the matter is that we will not meet even modest affordability goals if we do not explore and experiment.

One geographic area that I’m focused on now is on Platt Road – the site of the former Juvenile Justice Center.  This location is well suited for 60% AMI affordable housing – it’s near public transit, employment centers, and open space. I’m looking forward to working with neighbors and the County to see if we can find a plan for this location that meets the community’s substantial affordable housing need without adverse neighborhood impact.

We also can address affordable housing by continuing to invest in the Ann Arbor Housing Commission.  We have recently reorganized the Housing Commission in a manner that permits private investment in Housing Commission properties in exchange for federal tax credits.  This will result in tens of millions of dollars of needed capital improvements.

Library Lot

City Council recently instructed the City Administrator to retain a broker to explore a sale of the air rights over the Library Lane underground parking structure.

That area is at the very center of our downtown, and, as we all know, the area is underutilized – a transition zone between Main Street and State Street.

A substantial and successful project on the Library Lot could have the effect of activating that location and giving that mid-town area a real and sustainable boost. Many have expressed a need for additional office space downtown, but I have no preconceived notion of what sort of structure and/or use should be sited there. I am interested in an anchor project to change and improve that area of our city.

Pedestrian Safety

Ann Arbor supports the right of pedestrians to cross roads safely. I continue to support our local ordinance that obligates drivers to stop for pedestrians who are stopped at the curbside. Simply put, it is a driver’s obligation to be vigilant and the pedestrian’s duty to only enter the roadway when it is safe to do so.

We have an active and dedicated Pedestrian Safety & Access Task Force working on the interlocking issues of crosswalks, sidewalks, snow-removal, Complete Streets implementation, education, and enforcement.  I expect this group’s work to be completed in Fall/Winter 2015.

Traffic Calming

As I knocked on doors throughout the campaign, many residents expressed concerns about traffic, in particular, neighborhood traffic. We have a number of traffic mitigation strategies that we can utilize to reduce speeding on neighborhood streets.

Implementing these strategies requires neighbors to work together to ask for a traffic study and if the data demonstrate speeding, work with staff to develop a resident-friendly solution. In the end, any solution must be approved by residents.

We were unable to fund several traffic calming projects during the Great Recession and are just now working through the backlog.  I hope, going forward, that we will be able to continue these efforts.

Closing

Those are some of my thoughts on some issues of interest. There are many more of course. Thanks for reading and letting me know what you think about these topics and any I missed.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Best,

Christopher




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