Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

A2 Spending Priorities

8. March 2009 • Nancy Shore
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In a recent column in the Ann Arbor News, Judy McGovern highlights four recent City budget decisions and the tension surrounding those decisions.

  1. Police Layoffs: As part of cutting costs at the City, the police department may cut as many at 20 jobs, including 14 officers and 6 civilians.
  2. East Stadium Boulevard Bridges: This bridge project has been delayed because of lack of federal funds. Because of safety concerns, the bridge has now been reduced to one lane in each direction.
  3. Police-Court Building: The Police-Court Building project is now underway and will be paid through borrowed bonds, cash on hand, and money from the DDA.
  4. Public Art: The City Council recent ok’d the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission’s plan to pay a German Artist to develop a proposal for an installation as part of the new City Hall. This funding for this art comes from a City Council Program that sets aside 1% of public building projects for public art.


  1. If you go by the comments after the article, there’s a contingent of people who don’t buy into the idea that some tax dollars may be limited for specific purposes and can’t be spent elsewhere. They think it’s all one giant pot and can be spent anyway the city wants. If that’s the general view of the public, the city needs to work harder on explaining to the public how those funds are restricted and that money just can’t be diverted from one fund to another.

       —John Q.    Mar. 9 '09 - 12:14AM    #
  2. I am thrilled that AA News actually ran this column. It’s about time. I agree with the comments over at the AA news site.

    We’re laying off cops, struggling to pay for basic services, but building a new city hall and buying art. Nice. And we have a greenbelt. Terrific. Thank you Mayor and Council. Let’s tax people more and maybe we can come up with some zoning and land use issues that will drive away density and small businesses. The city will be a better place, right?

       —it's a miracle    Mar. 9 '09 - 12:20AM    #
  3. I’m sure it’s been said a billion times, and I’ve just ignored it, but WHY do we need a new court building? And if we need a new one, why can’t we build it like the old, historic one?? (I know, I know—to expensive and impractical, but I’ve been bitter about losing that big beautiful old courthouse ever since I read my “Ann Arbor in the 19th Century” book).

       —TeacherPatti    Mar. 9 '09 - 01:41AM    #
  4. “We’re laying off cops, struggling to pay for basic services, but building a new city hall and buying art.”

    Thanks for making my point. Whether you support the ideas of building a new city hall or buying public art, not doing those things is not going to keep police on the street or pay for other basic services.

       —John Q.    Mar. 9 '09 - 01:59AM    #
  5. I am distressed that so many police emploees may be laid off.

    I am, however, gratified that City Council members are taking “heat“over these confused priorities.

    Let’s vote Marcia Higgins and the rest of these bozos out of office.

       —Kerry D.    Mar. 9 '09 - 05:13AM    #
  6. Kerry D & It’s a miracle-

    Did we read the same article? The point of the article was that the public is outraged because they have incorrect information; their assertions are not based on fact.

    Just because you want the city financial system to work a specific way (where you can move money around from one pot to another) doesn’t make it possible. For example, federal and state money is supposed to pay for most of the stadium bridge repair. Do you really expect the city council to say, “Since the feds are too slow at sending the funds, we will just pay for 100% out of the general fund?” Give me a break. THAT would be financially irresponsible.

    I understand that you and many others will probably never get over the police/court building project being approved, but try and find another argument. This one is soooo old. You cannot blame every future expense that the city will have on the cost of the police/courts building. Believe it or not, many of us are for this project.

    The cost of the PD building is supported from a bond that will be paid for from the savings in rent that the city was paying to the county. This has nothing to do with the police salaries. In councilmember Briere’s words from the article:

    “You can argue about which capital improvement project is valuable or important, but you can’t bond for the ongoing expense of salaries,” said Briere, a critic of the police-court project.

    “I don’t want to lose any police. But whether the city should be building that facility or should have planned better for the bridges has nothing to do with payroll,” she said.

    The city definitely needs to work harder explaining the truth to the public. It doesn’t help to have people who have vendettas against council to continuously blame everything on the PD/court building.

    I suggest that this discussion concentrate on what items should be cut from the budget vs. what should not be touched.

    What should the future spending priorities BE, rather than what should have been the past priorities?

       —Diane    Mar. 9 '09 - 06:47AM    #
  7. $27.66 million of the $47 million cost of the police/courts building is coming from bonds. The remaining amount is coming from accumulated savings, nearly all of which could be used for any purpose, including paying for police or bridges.

    Even some of the money used to make the bond payments, like the tower rental fees, could be used for police or bridges. I have not researched the issue, but it would not surprise me if the $500,000 per year the DDA is paying on the bonds could be used to retain downtown patrol officers.

    The police/courts building is not something for nothing. Just like adding an addition that doubles the size of of your house means less money in your budget for other things, doubling the size of city hall means less money in the city’s budget for other things

       —karen sidney    Mar. 9 '09 - 08:02PM    #
  8. Um … up until this article in the NEWS I’ve been pretty solid behind our mayor, but my faith in him is beginning to slip.

    “But there are also areas where city officials have flexibility. And there’s always opportunity to revisit decisions made in a different economic climate.”

    One would hope so! When confronted by apparent economic disaster — like the City’s million-dollar shortfall from UM buying buying once-tax-paying Pfizer property — one would hope that the City would revisit those decisions pronto. And the responses from concerned citizens to what was covered in the A2 NEWS article reflects that.

    “We could change course on the public art program,” said Mayor John Hieftje. “But that would give us one-time money that really wouldn’t solve the problems we’re talking about.”

    The “problem” is an amazing, terrifying shift in the economic culture of the United States, even the world, and it is going to affect absolutely everyone. In light of that, no, Mr. Mayor: solving the overall problem is not within our reach. BUT putting that money toward programs that really affect the CITIZENS of this City: yes, that would be a better choice. Are there no other projects that would be a wiser use of that money, that would answer immediate needs?

    “I really think that being green, artsy and tech savvy is the way to attract the folks we need to come to Ann Arbor,” [the Mayor] said. “And hopefully we’re going to end up with something the whole community will be proud of.”

    This is what scared me the most, because I’ve heard it before.

    I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan; and before I ever volunteered to write for the Flint VOICE with Michael Moore, the Flint economy was in dire straits. The 70s oil crunch had cast doubt on the long-term viability of the automotive industry … “white flight” had led to, and was perpetuated by, the cordon of malls that sprang up around Flint: you could live in Flushing, or Davison, or Swartz Creek, and never once set foot in downtown Flint unless you were called to jury duty. The easy access to freeways facilitated it all. Flint’s downtown began to wither, and was progressivelt bought up by the University of Michigan-Flint.

    THEN someone decided that what Flint needed was a huge car-oriented museum/theme park. It would attract the “right sorts” to downtown Flint! Business would be rejuvenated … restaurants, hotels would spring up, and thousands — MILLIONS! would visit Flint every year and pour undreamed-of amounts of cash into the local economy.

    The Flint DDA and City Council and various investors removed the roadblocks and the great IMA became the site for Autoworld. But it was never completed, the millions never came, and Flint went into receivership under Mayor Woody Stanley (as I remember).

    That’s what happens when you put more into attracting outsiders to come into a City and spend money, rather than enhancing the basic quality of life of your citizens.

    I don’t think being green, artsy and tech-savvy is going to save Ann Arbor by attracting … who? How many thousands of wonderful jobs was Google going to create here? As many as are now being cut by Borders?

    So if our expenditures hang on strategies to attract the unknown solvent saviors to our downtown … color me very skeptical — and sincerely disappointed.


       —Liz    Mar. 9 '09 - 09:36PM    #
  9. Maybe I missed something but green, artsy and tech-savvy describes a lot of people already in town. Maybe the Mayor’s point is that he wants to move the city in a direction that meets the needs of people who already live in town while also attracting more people who share the same values. Or do you think that Ann Arbor is not green, artsy and tech-savvy and the Mayor is trying to move the city in a direction that doesn’t represent the views of the majority of residents?

       —John Q.    Mar. 9 '09 - 11:14PM    #
  10. As for moving aroubd “pots of money,” the one thing I am sure of is that the money to fill all of the pots is coming out of my wallet.

    I would hope that the mayor and council (and Diane and John Q) remember that budgeting and funding laws may earmark money for projects, operating expenses, but it’s all paid for by voters. And some of us are annoyed at the fact that bridges are falling down by sculpture is on its way.

       —it's a miracle    Mar. 10 '09 - 01:03AM    #
  11. While the city cuts critical services, th epowers that be are spending time and study money on light rail.

       —anonymous observer    Mar. 10 '09 - 06:29AM    #
  12. “some of us are annoyed at the fact that bridges are falling down by sculpture is on its way.”

    This recent public art project is $77,000. The bridge repair is $20-$30 million. (Both numbers from the News article.) Turning down the art project wouldn’t do much for the bridge construction.

       —Bruce Fields    Mar. 10 '09 - 06:39AM    #
  13. John,

    Those descriptors do not apply to the residents of the various co-ops and housing projects around town, nor to the commuter-migrant working population of the hospitals. It certainly does not apply to most of the residents of my neighborhood, and probably not several neighborhoods around me in the not-quite-old West Side.

    In fact, I don’t think it applies to most of A2 at all. And I think it does a disservice to the residents who are here, have been here, have paid their property taxes or do most of their shopping in Ann Arbor. And may not ever be tech-savvy or appreciative of public art … but use the roads and depend on regular garbage collection and curbside recycling.

    That’s where MY values are.



       —Liz    Mar. 10 '09 - 04:29PM    #
  14. Green artsy and tech savvy IS what this town is about.

    When you ask people around the country what their image of Ann Arbor is, they usually start out with how liberal it is and then move on to how progressive it is in their thinking. It is places like Ann Arbor that raise the bar for personal responsibility and consciousness. This town has the guts to try things that other places only dream about. No matter what you are looking for, whether it is a certain religion, a minority political group a different sort of hobby, you can find it here. We are spoiled here becuase we actually represent a true democracy where the MINORITY viewpoint is always respected. In other places, the MAJORITY viewpoint is what is always prevalent. This is whatmakes Ann Arbor special. Other towns do not have this. Try living in another part of the country and you will see the difference.

    We do not live in a quiet little Midwestern town. That describes Chelsea, or Milan or Manchester etc, which are places that have much lower taxes but do not offer such things as green initiatives, the arts on the same level as A2 or other tech advances. In fact many of these places (around the small towns) do not have access to high speed internet yet (dial up only) and would love to have a wi-fi system in their area. They would love to live in such a tech savvy area.

    People are drawn to Ann Arbor because of the uniqueness not because they want a quiet Midwestern town. There are other places close by where they can live that will give them this, so I completely disagree that most people in this town are not green, artsy or tech savvy. That is why most of us choose to live here.
       —Diane    Mar. 10 '09 - 05:43PM    #
  15. As for the public art issue I am torn on this. Having lived in Philadelphia where they also had an ordinance that required 1% public art investment (I think it was that percentage??) for every new public or private construction project, I have seen the actual benefits. It really does make a difference in the city landscape over time, especially if the art is different and provacative. If you ever travel to Philly, go look at the murals (some are stained glass, others are tile or paint) or other statues in some of the building plazas or lobbies. After fifty years of requiring public art, the city has outstanding public art in areas that probably would have been nothing more than bicks and cement. It makes the city more beautiful not only for the tourists but also for those residents who live there.

    That being said, I recognize the dire economic times we are in and that this might not be the time for public art investment. How can we cut the police budget and then pay for art? Is the amount of money we are currently spending on the “public art” so minimal (compared to total budget), that it does not really matter that we spend the money on some art? Art IS an investment, whether it is for tangible or intangible art, and effects the reputation of our city which then can effect our economy. But should we do it now? I don’t know.

    Then there is the question of whether ALL new construction/renovation should be required to include public art such as Philly. Currently, I think Ann Arbor is only requiring public projects to include it. Why not require that all projects (public and private) include some public art?

       —Diane    Mar. 10 '09 - 05:52PM    #
  16. “Let’s vote Marcia Higgins and the rest of these bozos out of office.”

    Higgins is my rep in the 4th Ward. If anyone is running against her, let me know and I’ll work on your campaign.

       —Alan Goldsmith    Mar. 10 '09 - 06:22PM    #
  17. Well Diane … I came to Ann Arbor because that’s where the job was.

    I imagine I’m not alone.

    The several properties for sale in residential neighborhoods around town, plus the generally high foreclosure rate, seem to belie that people are coming from all over the nation to live here.

    My mom moved here to be near her kids. My brother moved here because he, too, found a job here. He cares nothing about green, artsy, etc.

    Jobs draw people. To the degree that green and artsy draws jobs, I guess you could say that they might draw people.

    To the degree that Ann Arbor can keep some kind of job creation going, people will move here.

    But maybe you can prove me wrong. After all, I grew up in Flint, and we looked south down US-23 to all the boojy wannabe Marxists in A2 who were going to come preach the Workers’ Revolution once they put down their cappucinos … They were the one with degrees who knew how it was all supposed to be.

    Power to the people!

       —Liz    Mar. 10 '09 - 06:34PM    #
  18. Liz,

    I wasn’t claiming that every person who lives in Ann Arbor is green or tech or art oriented. I’m sure there are people in town who reject or hate one or all of those ideas. But as a community, I think Ann Arbor does embrace those ideas. It’s also the image it projects to the outside world. That image does help to draw residents and employers to the city. Jobs do draw people but the reasons companies move here is because they know that Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas can provide a labor force that meets their needs. The companies that are providing those jobs often are staffed by people who’s focus is on technology and who have an interest in the environment and culture.

    You provided a perfect example with your own experience. Why are you here? Because there’s jobs available in Ann Arbor, not Flint. Ann Arbor is thriving because it has embraced 21st century industries. Flint is dying because it’s business core was 20th century manufacturing, which is less and less a part of our modern economy. Should Ann Arbor be more like Flint? Or should it follow the same path as other successful cities?

       —John Q.    Mar. 10 '09 - 07:01PM    #
  19. Liz- You may have moved here for the job, but you chose to live in the city of Ann Arbor when you could have chosen to live elsewhere and still had the same job.

    You could have chosen to live more rural, more suburban or more city-like with less green and artsy initiatives. But you did not.

    John Q.‘s point is correct. The green, artsy, initiatives do have an impact on jobs.

    “The companies that are providing those jobs often are staffed by people who’s focus is on technology and who have an interest in the environment and culture.”

    This impact on jobs benefits everyone even if these things (green, artsy, tech initiatives) do not benefit specific individual’s lives. I realize that some people only move here to this area for the jobs and could care less about some of the other stuff that make Ann Arbor…. well Ann Arbor. However, remember that your job may have only been created in this area due to the green, artsy, tech savvy-ness of the area.

    Also, not everyone relocates just for a job. Sometimes people actually choose quality of life when choosing where to live in general or choosing between to job offers.

       —Diane    Mar. 10 '09 - 07:26PM    #
  20. John and Diane —

    Actually, Diane: I moved “back to” Ann Arbor from “God’s Country” (the U.P. north of the Keweenaw Bay Native Community) because, well … ya just can’t get good hummous in the U.P.!!! :)

    I spent two years in Flint teaching before I was offered a job in the ISR here, and then found a full-time job that was back to what I was doing, mostly, before I moved to the U.P. in the first place.

    I “choose” to live in the City because I do not own a car. Options for folks who can’t afford to drive (and some of us have to choose between driving and buying a house, on our incomes) are extremely limited, vis-a-vis employment in Ann Arbor.

    WHICH brings me to the topic of light rail …

    Dear Anonymous: What light rail can do for this region is tie it together in a sort of “economic community” in a way the Euro has managed to harness the European Community. A light rail line into/out of Detroit would bring the tech-savvy who don’t want to drive to Ann Arbor … maybe to take advantage of greater employment opportunities offered by employers who don’t have to depend on the downtown area to develop parking for their employees.

    It would also mean that Ann Arborites would have the chance to enjoy aspects of Detroit — enhancing THAT region’s economy — like the Tigers, the Red Wings, the Lions (ouch! okay …) again, without the bother of having to drive/drive/drive and then park/park/park.

    And when you don’t have to drive, you can spend more money on … DRINKING!

    (Say WHAT?)

    … because to attract people with spendable cash to downtowns, you need attractions, and that’s hosting, and THAT’s beer/wine/Martinis. Etc.

    Then Ann Arbor becomes more affordable for folks who don’t have to spend so much time & money driving/driving/driving to jobs in the Detroit area (or so the thinking goes).

    This is vastly oversimplified, and I only had one class on US Urban History, very few in Sociology, and none in Urban Planning.

    John: I do want A2 to avoid the Flint model. I had an interesting visit to Denver back in January, where people rode the light rail into town, ate/drank/bought stuff, and then rode it right back out. Does Denver have a vital downtown? It sure was full of hotels and conference area. Certainly Chicago experiences the same patterns … can it work here?

    What will A2’s vital economic core be in 20 years?


       —Liz    Mar. 10 '09 - 09:07PM    #
  21. I should say:

    The “industry” of Ann Arbor really has always been the University of Michigan, in much the same way that the “industry” of East Lansing has been that land-grant Ag School at MAC and Grand River. What Ann Arbor can “leverage” is the spin-offs of having a premier hospital/health research complex just down the street.

    Once Flint’s core industry was gone — like Hancock’s, which was King Copper in its day — there wasn’t any chance to re-tool. UM-Flint doesn’t have the spin-off potential that the Big “U” has.

    In the meantime, I think the way to attract more people downtown is 1) make it SAFE and 2) make it CLEAN. Downtowns have to have a “curb appeal” themselves. I’m not sure that Ann Arbor has that.

       —Liz    Mar. 10 '09 - 10:44PM    #
  22. I just got my property tax assessment in the mail today. The city says my property went up 4%. Probably to make up for UofM buying up all the taxable land around here. I’m steaming mad. Michigan is in a depression, my salary hasn’t gone up in years, things are more expensive, and my taxes keep going up. It’s nice to see the city keeps building new things on my dime while I have to find ways to cut back. People don’t get it do they. When will they speak up against being taken advantage of. I have had it and it’s time to speak out. I can’t afford to go downtown any more, parking, expensive restaurants. I am going to make sure the country knows of this place, exposing fake cities like others are.

       —Jim M    Mar. 11 '09 - 07:34AM    #
  23. the sculpture is ugly and imo thousands of wasted dollars. there are great artists in aa. spread the $$$ around and have more great around the city rather that one large ugly overrated sculpture

       —sherry    Mar. 11 '09 - 07:42AM    #
  24. “I just got my property tax assessment in the mail today. The city says my property went up 4%.”

    You’re directing your anger in the wrong direction Jim. Property assessments have gone up for some people because Proposal A requires it. Would you prefer that the city act contrary to the law? Did you vote in favor of Proposal A? If so, then you helped have a hand in that outcome.

       —John Q.    Mar. 11 '09 - 06:17PM    #
  25. John Q., your answer lacks your usual precision. I’m guessing that Jim M’s assessment (assessed value or SEV) did not go up, but rather went down. His experience might mirror mine, in which my SEV went down 7%, but my taxable value (TV) went up by about 4.4%. As you state, this is dictated by Proposal A, in which the TV and thus the tax paid increases each year by 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Apparently inflation was about 4.4% this year. And yes, the state’s equalization procedure prohibits municipalities from understating these property values.

    But the city does have other options to relieve its citizens. If (hypothetically) the city were taking in more taxes than needed to run the city, it could simply reduce the millage rate. It has happened in our lifetime that some taxing entities have not taken the full millage to which they were entitled.

    Even better, the city could stop increasing fees and rates for water and stormwater. The general fund could “subsidize” some of those fees and rates rather than charging the full amount needed for improvements to the ratepayers.

    As has been stated by some on city council, funds have been segregated into distinct pots. But what Council can give, Council can take away. With a few exceptions (such as federal and state grants or dedicated millages with explicit ballot language), money remains fungible.

    Thus, Council is indeed spending according to its desires, not its imperatives.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Mar. 11 '09 - 06:58PM    #
  26. Btw, for a nice snapshot of downtown business thinking, have a read:

    I found it VERY very interesting, especially the bit about “perception” of needing parking, rather than truly NEEDING more parking, etc.

    But I’m no expert.

       —Liz    Mar. 11 '09 - 07:00PM    #
  27. And as for how to stay alive “downtown,” this from today’s NEWS regarding the possible move of Tios to the recently vacated Sasalito’s location:

    “Seaver said wherever he moves, he plans to obtain a liquor license, which is the only way he thinks he can grow the business in the current economy. As foot traffic has declined, delivery has helped Tios stay afloat. Seaver said his daytime business is off as much as 40 percent.

    “We are certainly struggling. There is not a restaurant or business that is not doing worse now than they were a year ago,’‘ Seaver said.”

    I think it’s ironic that downtown alcohol consumption will increase while, apparently, the ability of the City to police that area will decrease.

    Plus the State proposal to keep bars open until 4am …

       —Liz    Mar. 11 '09 - 07:19PM    #
  28. “John Q., your answer lacks your usual precision.”

    True. I should have said that taxable values will still go up even as assessments go down.

    “Even better, the city could stop increasing fees and rates for water and stormwater. The general fund could “subsidize” some of those fees and rates rather than charging the full amount needed for improvements to the ratepayers.”

    I don’t know if that is legal or wise. The Michigan Supreme Court decision in Bolt v. Lansing forced local governments to show that water and especially stormwater fees were actually fees and not taxes masquerading as fees. Paying for those from the general fund paid for by a citywide tax millage would undercut the city’s position if those fees were challenged. From the viewpoint of fairness, why shouldn’t those be charged per usage? Why should those who conserve or limit their impact on the system help subsidize the use by those who do not?

       —John Q.    Mar. 11 '09 - 11:42PM    #
  29. John Q.,

    Thank you for bringing up the Bolt decision. It is my belief that the city’s current practices actually violate it – the stormwater fees in particular are not really a usage-by-unit charge for homeowners. (If you examine the fee schedule closely, you will note that businesses are charged on a per-unit basis but homeowners are put into a tiered system that is not really reflective of their usage.)

    You bring up an excellent point, though. I was careless in stating that the general fund could subsidize the fees. What I meant to say was that general funds could pay directly for some of the infrastructure improvements that are currently being paid for by ratepayers. Many of those improvements are the same kinds of charges against ratepayers that were found to be illegal in the Bolt decision.

    An additional note is that drinking water itself is a life necessity and increasing the fees for access to it is a regressive practice.

    I’d like to see the city explore the possibility of property owners installing small wells for irrigation water only. We are currently unable to do this, and it would reduce the necessity to provide pure drinking water used for that purpose. But that’s another story.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Mar. 12 '09 - 12:51AM    #
  30. “Why should those who conserve or limit their impact on the system help subsidize the use by those who do not?”

    This question, which can be framed in various variants, forms the basis of the most fundamental dialectical philosophical dispute underlying the American political system – the neo-conservative individualist society versus the Big Brother socialist welfare state utopia envisioned and championed by the Radical Left.

       —Mark Koroi    Mar. 12 '09 - 12:58AM    #