Ann Arbor Budget: Council Cashing In

May 19, 2024 | City Council

This week, City Council will consider the annual budget for Fiscal Year 2025, which will allocate public funds of $55,000 to subsidize travel for Council Members. A budget amendment proposes that the City spend $100,000 on mailers to promote current Council Members to City residents. 

Also this week: the Mayor and at least one Council Member voiced their opposition to two progressive election reforms. They oppose local elections that would engage more voters (including university students). They also oppose campaign finance reform to level the playing field for grassroots candidates who do not accept large donations and PAC money. You can find information about both of these reforms here:
A2Nonpartisan.com
A2Future.com

MONEY FOR POLITICIANS

Since the election of a unanimous Council in 2022, the rate of absenteeism at meetings has tripled. See https://a2elnel.com/post/insider-democracy-in-washtenaw-county/

Meanwhile, Council has eagerly reduced its own oversight responsibilities and eliminated opportunities for the public to engage with local decisions. See https://a2elnel.com/post/one-full-year-of-unanimous-government/

Local commitments and local representation are a low priority for the current City Council.

That is context for one allocation in the FY 2025 Budget proposed by the City Administrator:

“Beginning July 1 of FY 2025, each policymaker will have up to $5,000 available to attend conferences or take a city government related trip for fact finding or training. The intent of this funding is to support policymakers being able to gain additional knowledge and insight into subject matter that is relevant to the City of Ann Arbor.”

This allocation highlights a fact that is obvious to many: current elected representatives are less interested in serving City residents and more interested in expanding their own personal network of political contacts. The FY 2025 budget asks taxpayers to fund this preference, with an annual budget of up to $5,000 per Council member.

New this week: a budget amendment proposed by Council Member Jen Eyer would allocate yet more money to individual elected leaders. Eyer proposes that the city spend $100,000 to fund paper mailers to residents to facilitate “Council communications” and help residents “know how to contact their elected leaders.” This is framed as “critical” to reaching over the ‘digital divide’ for “low-income households, senior citizens, minority groups, and people with disabilities.”

This idea, also, has context. In years past, residents impacted by the “digital divide” often wrote letters to their elected representatives. Home addresses for City Council members have always been public, among elected representatives who understood and accepted the obligation and commitment of local public service. A new Council sees things differently. Shortly after elections in November 2022, the City website was quietly edited to remove home addresses for elected representatives. In just the last week, I received a letter in the mail from someone concerned about City Council decisions. Presumably, they could not find an address for their current Council Member.

MONEY FOR DEMOCRACY

This week, MLive reported on Mayor Taylor and Council Member Jen Eyer’s opposition to election reforms that would include more voters in local elections and potentially more candidates running for our local offices. Both Taylor and Eyer explained their opposition to a ballot question for public funding that would level the playing field for local grassroots candidates who refuse PAC money and agree to much lower contribution limits.

Programs for local “small donor matching” have already been implemented in progressive communities like Berkley (CA), Portland (OR), Denver (CO), and Evanston (IL). A proposal for Ann Arbor would invest a tiny portion of the City general fund (three tenths of one percent— less than $400,000 a year) towards addressing the explosion of PAC and out-of-town money flooding our local elections since 2020. 

Ryan Stanton of MLive quoted Mayor Taylor:

“Money doesn’t win elections — shoe leather, ideas and teamwork win elections,” he said. “I think using taxpayer money to support the campaigns of losing political candidates is not a good use of public funds.”

And Jen Eyer:

“Yes, funding is helpful for staff, signs and mailers, but candidates can literally knock every voter’s door in their ward and connect with folks directly,” she said. “In 2020, I wore out my shoes knocking doors, and I’ll do it again this year. Candidates with the best ideas are the ones who win.”

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2024/05/should-city-funds-be-used-to-support-political-candidates-ann-arbor-voters-may-decide.html

HEADS I WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE

This week, Council Member Eyer proposes a budget amendment to fund $100,000 in mailers to help residents “connect” with current Council Members. She argues that this is necessary and important because “Printed materials are still a critical way to reach residents regardless of their Internet access or tech proficiency.” Also this week: Council Member Eyer argues that, in political campaigns, money to fund mailers is not necessary because anyone trying to win an election can “literally knock every voter’s door” and “connect with folks directly.” 

As an elected representative with influence over the City budget, Eyer argues that taxpayer dollars are necessary to help her “reach” residents. As a candidate who relied on PACs, wealthy donors, and money from outside the City to get elected, Eyer argues the opposite: candidates don’t need money because they can easily reach residents directly.

CONCLUSION

The FY 2025 budget asks taxpayers to fund up to $55,000 in travel for elected leaders who would rather network outside of our community than meet local responsibilities. By budget amendment, Council Member Eyer asks taxpayers to subsidize $100,000 in mailers to help her “connect” to the community. Anyone who cannot access networks of wealth and PAC money should, according to Eyer, simply reach the community “directly.” 

This is what democracy looks like when elected leaders are motivated by self-interest rather than public service.