Welcome to my Ann Arbor City Council newsletter, where you can connect with primary sources to understand the work of your local government. My goal is to provide clear explanations of all the issues your elected representatives will be discussing at their next meeting and alert you to local policy and decisions that have been assigned to unelected Mayoral appointees.
This week’s Ann Arbor City Council meeting includes five public hearings: four related to fee changes (water, stormwater, public services, community services) and one for the City budget.
According to the City charter, an annual budget must be approved by the second Council meeting in May. In past years, discussion of the budget has taken place in multiple public meetings: “work sessions” that included public presentation of proposed allocations by department and open public comment. This year, City Council eliminated those work sessions; information about the budget was shared in YouTube videos. Those videos can be found here:
So far this year, the only public discussion of the budget occurred at the April 17 meeting, when City Administrator Dohoney presented highlights to Council.
- Mr Dohoney’s budget presentation can be found here: http://a2gov.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=6122664&GUID=6B3491D0-5C3A-45CC-90E4-3FFE304AA06B
- The whole of the proposed city budget can be viewed on the City’s Financial Reporting page (along with previously adopted annual budgets): https://www.a2gov.org/departments/finance-admin-services/financial-reporting/Pages/default.aspx#annualbudgets
- This is a direct link to the proposed FY2024 budget: https://www.a2gov.org/departments/finance-admin-services/financial-reporting/Documents/Draft%20Budget%20Book%20FY24.25.pdf
Due to the elimination of both open public comment and budget work sessions, this week’s hearing is the first open opportunity for community members to offer feedback in a public meeting. The City budget will be considered and approved by City Council at their May 15th meeting.
In Case You Missed It…
On my YouTube channel, you can find recordings of public meetings that are open to attend live (online or in-person) but are not made available by the City to view later. Please reach out if you have suggestions about public meetings that should be recorded. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you would like to be alerted to new content as it gets added.
Northside Corners Citizen Participation Meeting: April 27, 2023
This is my Zoom recording of a public engagement meeting held on April 27, 2023. The meeting was led by Midwestern Consulting and architect J Bradley Moore to review the proposed “Northside Corners” mixed-use development at the intersection of Dhu Varren Road and Pontiac Trail.
Ann Arbor City Council Meeting Agenda
Below is my summary of issues on the City Council Agenda this week, with links to more information about each of them. If you have comments about any of these issues, you can email all of Council at CityCouncil@a2gov.org
Ann Arbor City Council Meeting
Monday May 1, 2023 7:00PM
Ann Arbor City Hall (2nd Floor)
301 E Huron St, Ann Arbor 48104
The full agenda (including a link to the latest published PDF agenda, and instructions for dialing into the meeting) is on the A2Gov Legistar website:
City Council meetings are broadcast live by CTN on Comcast (channel 16) and AT&T (channel 99) and online at a2gov.org/watchCTN
Meetings are also streamed live on the CTN YouTube channel:
How to reserve public comment
People that wish to comment at a City Council meeting must sign up with the City Clerk’s office in advance. Speakers are allotted 3 minutes, with the first 15 speakers allowed to speak in a 45 minute session near the beginning of the meeting. Remaining speakers will speak at the end of the Council meeting. Public comment can be made either in person or remotely via phone/Zoom audio.
To sign up for public comment, please go to or call the City Clerk’s Office at 734-794-6140 on the day of the meeting between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM. At 1:00 PM, all speakers that have signed up are randomly ordered in “priority groups”. After 1:00 PM, speaking times are granted on a first-come, first-served basis. No new speakers will be added to the list after 5:00 PM. For more information, visit the City Clerk’s webpage about electronic meetings, section “City Council Public Commentary Time”
Questions to the Agenda
In preparation for a Council meeting, Council members can ask questions of staff about scheduled agenda items. Questions must be submitted by noon on the Wednesday before a Council Meeting, and answers are returned the next day (Thursday) by 5pm.
AC-1 (23-0757) Agenda Response Memo and eComments – May 1, 2023
This agenda item has a PDF attachment with all questions raised by Council Members, and the answers provided by staff.
Communications from Council
CC-1 (23-0727) Resolution to Reappoint Maisie A Weyhing, Brooks Curtis, Sara M Nedrich, Rita L. Mitchell, and Bridget L Gruber to the Environmental Commission (7 Votes Required)
These re-appointments are from CM Akmon and CM Disch, who serve on the Environmental Commission. These are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting.
- Brooks Curtis
- Bridget Gruber
- Rita Mitchell
- Sara Nedrich
- Maisie Weyhing
CC-2 (23-0728) Resolution to Reappoint Elizabeth Riggs and Jason Boggs to the Greenbelt Advisory Commission
These re-appointments are from CM Radina, who serves on the Greenbelt Advisory Commission. These are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting.
- Jason Boggs
- Elizabeth Riggs
CC-3 (23-0753) Resolution to Appoint Kimmeka Pipkins and Stefani Carter to the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission (7 Votes Required)
These re-appointments are from CM Ghazi Edwin (who serves on the Human Rights Commission), CM Harrison (who serves on the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission) and CM Song (who serves on both the Human Rights Commission and Independent Community Police Oversight Commission). These are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting.
- Stefani Carter
- Kimmeka Pipkins
Communications from the Mayor
MC-1 (23-0662) Nominations and Reappointments for May 1, 2023
These 29 appointments from the Mayor are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting. See the Legistar link for details.
MC-2 (23-0661) Resolution to Reappoint Non-resident Electors to Ann Arbor Boards and Commissions (7 Votes Required)
This 12 appointments from the Mayor are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting. 7 votes are required because the appointees are not registered electors of the City. See the Legistar link for details.
MC-3 (23-0748) Appointments and Nominations for May 1, 2023
These 5 appointments from the Mayor are being presented at this meeting, and will therefore be voted on at the next Council meeting. See the Legistar link for details.
Below is the list of items included on the Consent Agenda. If no one on Council specifically requests that an item be pulled for discussion, the whole of this list will be approved in a single vote. I encourage you to look at this list and offer suggestions to me about anything you would like to see pulled for discussion.
CA-1 (22-2147) Resolution to Approve a Contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation for the State and Hill Streets Improvements Project ($6,909,800.00) and to Appropriate $250,000.00 from the Street, Bridge, and Sidewalk Millage; $3,208,700.00 from the Major Street Fund; $302,700.00 from the Water Supply Fund; $252,850.00 from the Stormwater Fund; $67,750.00 from the Sanitary Fund (8 Votes Required)
CA-2 (23-0559) Resolution to Approve a Construction Contract with Ajax Paving Industries, Inc. for the Research Park Drive Resurfacing Project. (RFP No. 23-10, $3,372,459.43)
CA-3 (23-0635) Resolution to Approve a Construction Contract with Bailey Excavating, Inc. for the Brooks Street Improvements Project ($3,445,709.21) and to Appropriate $2,834,500.00 in Contributing Funds (8 Votes Required)
CA-4 (23-0653) Resolution to Increase Purchasing Authority on the Construction Contract with E.T. MacKenzie Company for the Stadium/Washtenaw Area Utility Improvements Project ($5,343.54 Increase; $2,018,243.54 Total)
CA-5 (23-0608) Resolution to Approve a Construction Contract with Fonson Company, Inc. for the West Madison – Madison Place Water Main and Resurfacing Project ($2,122,850) and to Appropriate $1,133,000 in Internal Contributing Funds (8 Votes Required)
CA-6 (23-0639) Resolution to Approve Construction Contract Change Order No. 2 with CB Asphalt Paving for Street Cut and Miscellaneous Pavement Repair – ITB No. 4624 and to Amend the FY23 Budget and Appropriate $750,000.00 from the Water Supply System Fund Balance ($1,300,00.00 increase, total contract $2,300,000.00) (8 Votes Required)
CA-7 (23-0555) Resolution to Approve Sewer Televising and Cleaning General Services Agreements with Rogue Industrial Services, LLC (Not-to-Exceed $1,400,000.00) and Taplin Group, LLC (Not-to-Exceed $1,400,000.00) for Two-Years (RFP #23-14)
CA-8 (23-0584) Resolution to Approve a Construction Contract with A.F. Smith Electric Inc. for the Wheeler Center Lighting Improvements Project ($484,736.22)
CA-9 (23-0223) Resolution to Approve Amendment Number 2 to Ekos – Software License Agreement with GE Software, Inc dba EKOS for Upgrading the City’s Fuel System Hardware and Annual Software Maintenance and Support for FY 2023 – FY 2027 (not to exceed $27,000)
CA-10 (23-0592) Resolution to Assess Certain Delinquent Municipal Utility Charges as a Tax and Ordering Collection Thereof
CA-11 (23-0596) Resolution Levying Certain Delinquent Municipal Solid Waste, Board Up, Clean Up, Vacant Property Inspection Fees, Housing Inspection Fees, False Alarm Fees, and Fire Inspection Fees as Special Assessments and Ordering Collection Thereof
Anyone wanting to comment on these issues may speak for 3 minutes, without having specifically reserved time. Issues subject to public hearing will also be up for a vote by Council later in the meeting.
PH-1/B-1 (23-0532) An Ordinance to Amend Section 2:63 of Chapter 29 (Water Rates) of Title II of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor (ORD-23-12)
Water rates will be increased. City staff estimate that the average residential customer will see an increase of 6% and share this historical chart of recent changes:
PH-2/B-2 (23-0534) An Ordinance to Amend Section 2:69 of Chapter 29 (Stormwater Rates) of Title II of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor (ORD-23-13)
Stormwater rates will be increased. City staff estimate that the average residential customer will see an increase 4% and share this historical chart of recent changes:
The following public hearings will NOT be voted on at this meeting. These are part of the FY 2024 budget that will be voted on at the May 15th Council meeting.
PH-3 (23-0599) Resolution to Approve Fiscal Year 2024 Fee Adjustments for the Public Services Area – Engineering, Public Works, Systems Planning, Water Treatment Units and the Fleet and Facilities – Airport Unit of the City Administrator’s Office
Fees for the Public Services Area – Engineering, Public Works, Systems Planning, Water Treatment Units and the Fleet and Facilities – Airport Unit will be adjusted for FY 2024, effective July 1, 2023. Most fees will be increased, some reduced, some newly created, and some eliminated because those services are no longer provided. Changes are expected to increase revenue by $283,340.
PH-4 (23-0600) Resolution to Approve FY 2024 Fee Adjustments for the Community Services Area
Fees for the Community Services Area will be adjusted for FY 2024, effective July 1, 2023. Anticipated changes will increase fees for boat rentals at Argo and Gallup Liveries as well as various golf fees at Leslie Park and Huron Hills Golf Courses. In Planning Services, small fees are eliminated, e.g. Comprehensive Plan surcharge for planning petitions ($10), alternative stormwater management ($135), and revision of approved natural features protections ($200). Two new fees are introduced: $2800 for Planning Manager approval of a site plan and $3100 for Site Plan Revisions, Extensions, and Administrative Actions from the Planning Commission.
PH-5 (23-0706) Resolution to Adopt Ann Arbor City Budget and Related Property Tax Millage Rates for Fiscal Year 2024
As part of the annual budget process, this is a public hearing on the City’s proposed budget for FY 2024, which will be voted on at the May 15th Council Meeting. General Fund recurring expenses have increased by $6,822,146 (+5.8%) compared to FY 2023’s adopted budget; recurring revenues have increased by $7,554,357 (+6.4%). The FY 2024 budget includes a total of 27 additional full time employees (FTE) in City departments: Parks & Rec (1), Planning (1), Public Services (6), Human Resources (1), City Administrator (3), Sustainability (8.5), Police (1.75), Housing Commission (4) and Downtown Development Authority (2).
Ordinances – Second Reading
In order to amend the city code, Council must vote to approve the change, via ordinance, at two Council meetings. The following proposed ordinances were approved at a previous Council meeting, and are also subject to a public hearing as listed above.
B-1 (23-0532) is the same as PH-1 above.
B-2 (23-0534) is the same as PH-2 above.
Ordinances – First Reading
In order to amend the city code, Council must vote to approve the change, via ordinance, at two Council meetings. The following proposed ordinances are being introduced for “first reading”. If approved, the ordinance will be voted on at a subsequent Council meeting (“second reading”), where it will also be subject to a public hearing.
C-1 (23-0700) An Ordinance Authorizing the Issuance and Sale of Water Supply System Revenue Bonds, Series 2023, ($40,000,000.00) (Roll Call Vote Required – One Reading Only)
The City will issue and offer for sale $40,000,000 in water supply revenue bonds to fund “acquiring, constructing, installing, furnishing and equipping additions and other improvements to the City’s water supply system, as well as refurbishing, repairing or maintaining the same.”
On April 3, 2023, Council approved publication of intent to issue up to $45 million of these bonds, starting a 45 day “referendum period” during which a petition could be filed against it. State law describes such a petition: as “signed by not less than 10% or 15,000 of the registered electors, whichever is less, residing within the limits of the borrower.” A successful petition would force a vote on the question of whether to issue the bonds.
Watch highlights of the Council meeting on April 3rd here:
A2Council Update video for April 3, 2023 (timestamp 8m6s)
Relevant details from the ordinance:
The Bonds shall bear interest at a rate or rates to be determined on public sale thereof, but in any event not exceeding the lesser of 7.00% per annum, or the maximum rate permitted by law, payable on April 1 and October 1 of each year, commencing October 1, 2023
I wrote about this issue previously: Revenue Bonds & Debris Cleanup: When Council Asks No Questions
Motions and Resolutions
The following agenda items are motions and resolutions, which are approved or rejected in a single meeting. Agenda items marked “DC” are proposed by Council members, items marked “DB” are proposed by City boards and commissions, items marked “DS” are proposed by City staff.
DC-1 (23-0705) Resolution Updating the City of Ann Arbor City Council Policy Agenda Committee
A resolution updating the City Council Policy Agenda committee mostly mirrors a similar resolution from 2016, which first established the committee. The 2016 resolution included direction that the Committee would “compile recent Council resolutions requesting state or federal action.” That directive has been removed. The 2016 resolution directed presentation (and Council approval) of a policy agenda every year. This updated resolution directs presentation (and Council approval) of a policy agenda every two years.
DC-2 (23-0754) Resolution to Enter a Lease with Lee Maulbetsch to Farm the Maisel Property (8 Votes Required)
A lease between the City and Lee Maulbetsch will allow the organic farming of a 54.3 acre parcel, previously acquired through the Greenbelt Program in 2022. That purchase anticipated the eventual sale of the property to land-insecure farmers. The terms of that 2022 acquisition can be found here:
Lee Maulbetsch farmed this property prior to its acquisition by the City. This nine month lease runs from May 1, 2023 to December 31, 2023 with an option to renew for the entirety of 2024 by mutual agreement. He will not be charged rent, but his cultivation of the soil (in accordance with USDA organic farming regulations) is considered a benefit to preserve soil quality.
DB-1 (23-0605) Resolution to Dissolve the Brownfields Plan Review Committee
The Council Brownfields Plan Review committee will be dissolved. This City Council committee is an additional step of review for tax abatements requested by developers. Funds awarded through the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (WCBRA) compensate developers for cleanup and redevelopment of environmentally-distressed properties in the City of Ann Arbor. Requests for these funds are currently reviewed approved by the Brownfields Plan Review committee and then sent to the whole of City Council. After City Council approval, brownfield funding requests are reviewed and approved by the Washtenaw County Commission. See my “Additional Thoughts” section below.
I also published this on my website:
Dissolving Brownfields Plan Review Committee: “Streamlined” Process to Give Money to Developers
At the May 1, 2023 meeting, City Council will consider a resolution (DB-1) to dissolve the Council Brownfields Plan Review committee.
DB-1 (23-0605) Resolution to Dissolve the Brownfields Plan Review Committee
The Brownfields Plan Review Committee is tasked with reviewing developer requests for tax abatement through a program administered by the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (WCBRA). This program uses public dollars to fund the rehabilitation and redevelopment of parcels that are environmentally distressed.
The resolution in DB-1 explains the history of the City’s participation in the WCBRA:
“Whereas, The ACT requires explicit consent of each local unit of government included in the Authority, which the City of Ann Arbor joined by resolution R-24-1-02;”
Resolution R-24-1-02 (approved on January 22, 2002) is actually a purchase order for five police vehicles. However, on the same agenda, Council considered resolution R-35-1-02 which is relevant to brownfield funds. That 2002 resolution described how the City Administrator would lead a process for awarding these funds (emphasis added):
RESOLVED, That the City Administrator develop an implementation procedure for project approval for the program in cooperation with the Washtenaw County Brownfield Authority, to be utilized by the City to ensure compliance with the stricter cleanup standards and that such procedure be reviewed by the Environmental Commission and be approved by the City Council prior to the approval of any project
On April 7, 2003, City Council established the Brownfields Plan Review committee. The approved resolution R-127-4-03 explains (emphasis added):
“Whereas, The Plan, as adopted, did not include an adequate process for fact-finding, community input and Council review and/or action as an application progressed through the application process to the Washtenaw County Brownfields Redevelopment Authority to final action, if necessary, by City Council; and
Whereas, It is in the best interest of the City to amend the Brownfields Implementation Plan to revise the application process to include:
1.) Establishment of a Brownfields Plan Review Committee comprised of up to four Council members and staff appointed by the City Administrator, formerly described as and functioning under the Plan as the Brownfields Advisory Group (BAG), and City Attorney, or his/her designee, for the purpose of co-coordinating the application submission process, up to and through, a determination by the Washtenaw County Brownfields Redevelopment Authority. The Committee may conduct any fact-finding it determines necessary to the application process and may recommend specific actions at any stage of the process to Council; and
2.) Development of a community forum on the Brownfields Implementation Plan to be conducted prior to submission of any application to the Washtenaw County Brownfields Redevelopment Authority to provide greater public participation at the initial stages of the process.”
More recently, City Council revisited internal policy around review of brownfield fund awards. On September 16, 2019, Council unanimously approved R-19-419, which enumerated specific policy for brownfield plan review. That review process (in this order):
- Review by Washtenaw County Brownfield staff
- Review by City Staff
- Formal application to and review by the City Council Brownfields Plan Review Committee
- Review and comment from a Sub-committee of the County Brownfield Authority
- Approval from Ann Arbor City Council
- Review by Washtenaw County Brownfield Authority
- Public hearing and approval by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.
That 2019 policy allows reimbursement for non-environmental activities; a staff memo at the time explained why:
“In recent years, the City has put an emphasis on more clearly defining community benefits in exchange for supporting non-environmental brownfield eligible activities, such as affordable housing and public infrastructure.
The adopted 2015 Affordable Housing Study recommends the City adopt a Brownfield Policy that can be leveraged to achieve affordable housing goals.”
“This policy memo is further intended to emphasize that in order to qualify for public financing of brownfield expenses, preferred public purpose goals must be met.”
The 2019 policy established this standard (emphasis added):
3. If a project includes residential land use, and Non-Environmental Eligible Activities are requested, and is not already paying a Fee in Lieu of providing affordable housing as part of a Planned Unit Development, affordable housing must be included. In those cases at least 15% of the total number of units must be provided to households that earn a maximum of 60% of the Area Median Income, with rents established using MSHDA rents and MSHDA PHA Utility Allowances, for at least 99 years.
WHAT IS PROPOSED
This week, Council considers eliminating the Brownfields Plan Review Committee (BRC). As described by staff, eliminating the BRC will provide a “more efficient and streamlined process for Brownfield projects.” Dissolving this committee would “streamline” decisions that have been consistently identified as requiring more consideration, not less.
In 2002, the first brownfield funding policy directed that requests from developers would be reviewed by the City’s Environmental Commission. Policy approved in 2003 created the Brownfields Plan Review Committee (BRC) and emphasized the need for “fact-finding, community input, and Council review.” In 2019, Council approved policy that re-iterated the level of review provided by the BRC. If the BRC is eliminated, requests for this funding will go straight to City Council for a vote.
How much does this actually matter? At the Council meeting on April 16, 2022, Council Member Linh Song suggested that City review of these brownfield funding requests was less important because such requests are eventually reviewed at the County level (emphasis added):
“If we are on this path of trying to remediate parcels so they can actually be used, I feel like this Council has had the experience and understanding what that means and the impact and knowing that this would actually bring some timeliness to the cleanup and additional dollars that can be leveraged as an additional oversight with the city and the county and the state because we actually have to qualify under state regulations in order to capture these TIFs. So should there be some discontent about how this City Council functions or reviews these projects, there are other authorities who also take a look at this too.“
POLICY IN PRACTICE
On March 6, 2023, City Council considered a request for brownfield funds from the developer of “The Village” at Pontiac Trail and Dhu Varren. The developer requested reimbursement for environmental-related activities ($26,369,633) and non-environmental activities ($5,000,082). At a public hearing, residents pointed out that these non-environmental activities were not eligible for reimbursement, because The Village did not include any affordable housing or payment of fees in lieu (standard 3, above).
Regarding that specific standard and brownfield funding for The Village, a staff memo explained:
“The proposal does not meet this standard. The project includes residential land use, and is not proposing to include affordable housing”
“The Non-Environmental Activities consist of improvements requested by the City Planning Commission. These include construction contribution for roundabout at Dhu Varren and Pontiac Trail, Full Electrification of the for-sale units, solar street lights and clubhouse, and water harvesting through urban stormwater management.”
At the Council meeting on March 6, 2023, Council Member Disch explained that City Council was empowered to set aside policy standards:
“So as the staff report makes clear, it is correct that because a component of Brownfield TIF funding is dedicated to non-environmental uses for this project, the developer would normally be required to provide a 15% affordable housing component or payment in lieu. Now, it is within the discretion of council to refuse to waive this requirement, which was waived by the Brownfield Committee.”
Ultimately, City Council unanimously approved all the brownfield funds requested by The Village (both environmental and non-environmental activities) which moved the proposal forward for review and approval at the County level. Coincidentally, just this past week, that proposal was considered by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. Their meeting highlighted and underlined why these brownfield fund requests should receive more – not less – consideration at the City level.
CITY VS. COUNTY
At their April 19 meeting, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners considered the brownfield funding request for The Village. Former state representative and current County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi questioned the use of brownfield funds for non-environmental activities. He reflected on his previous service as a County commissioner, his experience of the brownfield funding process, and just how much oversight the County is permitted once the City approves a plan:
“Towards the end of my term, my last term in 2016, when I was serving on the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, I put forward a proposal to use a portion of our, what was called at the time local site remediation revolving fund which each project pays into. My proposal would basically have said that every project that received a grant or a low interest loan from the county’s fund would have an affordable component to it, not fully affordable, but just have an affordable component. And I believe that I whittled that requirement down to just a few units. And the argument was made at the time, hey, we don’t have authority, even though we’re called an authority, we don’t have authority because the city gets to decide everything for us. And, you know, and so we just kind of have to rubber stamp whatever they give us.”
When County Commissioner Katie Scott echoed concerns around use of brownfield funds for non-environmental activities, the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Coordinator, Nathan Vought, urged her not to amend the plan, explaining (emphasis added):
“The first stop at any approval is that local unit. We don’t ever see a plan unless that local unit approves it. All the kind of the nuance here that we’ve been talking about was all done at the city of Ann Arbor level. And as stated, there was a lot that went into it. And this is what the planning commission approved and what City Council approved. So I kind of always back up to, I don’t want to make you all feel like this is a rubber stamp. However, we’re providing a service. This is a regional economic development service… I’m really hesitant to start messing with their approved plans right.”
In fact, the Ann Arbor City Planning Commission does not approve brownfield funding plans.The City Planning Commission approved a site plan and requirements for The Village, but it did not ever vote to approve brownfield fund reimbursement for the developer. The Brownfields Plan Review Committee (and eventually the whole of City Council) is where discussion and review of these decisions happens. If DB-1 is approved – dissolving the Brownfields Plan Review Committee – these decisions will land on City Council agendas without any additional review by committee or commission.
WHY THIS MATTERS
On March 6, 2023, when City Council considered brownfield funds for The Village, residents participated in nearly an hour of public hearings; they raised concerns that reimbursement for non-environmental activities violated City policy. After this public hearing, City Council discussed the brownfield funding for less than ten minutes before approving it unanimously. When the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners considered the same proposal, they heard a fifteen minute presentation from the developer, then debated the issue for nearly an hour. The County Commission approved it at first reading in a split vote: three opposed and six in favor.
As compared to City Council, the County provided significantly more thoughtful debate of this brownfield funding proposal. County Commissioners pressed the developer for specific explanation of all activities subject to reimbursement, profit margins, the price point of anticipated housing units, and details about a plan to vent methane onto neighboring properties. This level of engagement would be reassuring, except for the fact that County commissioners are strongly discouraged from second-guessing plans approved at the City level. The City of Ann Arbor is recognized as the “local unit” for approval of brownfield funding requests and it is expected that the City review these plans thoroughly before moving them forward. Once City Council has approved a brownfield funding request, it is highly unlikely that any terms will be changed or amended at the County level.
TIME & MONEY
The BRC meets infrequently, only when there is a specific application for brownfield funds. Since November 2020, the BRC has only met three times: 1/31/22, 6/2/22, and 1/6/23. Each of these meetings considered millions of dollars in public subsidy of private development:
- 1/31/22 $1,658,711 3874 Research Park Drive (Sartorius) https://a2gov.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=10670486&GUID=1158D25F-327F-4392-9BA6-9A31E76DAB58
- 6/2/22 $2,674,011 303 North Fifth Ave, 312 & 314 Detroit St. https://a2gov.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=11007083&GUID=5F3B1714-A169-4AA1-AD75-4881CD5ECB8A
- 1/6/23 $31,369,715 Pontiac Trail & Dhu Varren (“The Village”) https://a2gov.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=11664221&GUID=784B18B3-988F-4528-8107-49DAE090AEA7
Current members of the BRC are Jenn Cornell, Jen Eyer, Ayesha Ghazi Edwin, and Cynthia Harrison. Explanation of DB-1 – which would dissolve the BRC – includes this statement:
“At their January 6, 2023 meeting, the Brownfields Plan Review Committee unanimously recommended this action.”
Minutes for the 1/6/23 meeting are not yet posted on Legistar, so there is no record of who may have been absent. However, if all members were present at that meeting, three of them were attending for the very first time – they voted to dissolve the committee in their very first meeting, after considering and approving exactly one plan. (Coincidentally, the BRC meeting on 1/6/23 also approved brownfield funding for the Village.)
If approved, DB-1 will add to a growing list of policy changes designed to reduce Council’s workload, oversight responsibilities, and accountability to residents. Beginning in November 2020, a majority of Council led by the Mayor voted to:
- Eliminate Council approval of traffic reconfigurations on major thoroughfares (Council Responsibility)
- Eliminate Council approval of site plans for developments (Reduced Accountability, Less Debate, Concentrated Power)
- Eliminate open public comment at the end of (and in response to) Council meetings (Competing Interests, Representation, and Public Scrutiny)
In just the last six months, City Council voted unanimously to
- Eliminate Council work sessions (and public comment opportunities) to discuss the budget (New Ann Arbor City Council Removes Work Sessions From Calendar)
- Eliminate Council approval of seasonal downtown street closures (Council Evades Responsibility: Insurance Board, Downtown Street Closures, Brownfield Review Committee)
- Eliminate Council review of claims against the City (Eliminating The Insurance Board Reduces Council Accountability)
City Council is rapidly paring down the role of elected representatives by delegating responsibility to either unelected Mayoral appointees or the bureaucracy at City Hall. The change proposed this week reduces Council consideration of decisions that award millions of dollars in public subsidy for private developments. At least one Council Member thinks that the County Board of Commissioners can compensate for any failures at the City level. It can not.
In the context of brownfield funding discussion last week, County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi shared an approach that I believe should be embraced by every elected official:
“I did not get elected to be a rubber stamp, plain and simple. So when an item is presented before me, I am going to consider the pros and cons and I’m going to vote the way that I believe is in the best interest of the people of our community.”
You can watch the whole Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners’ discussion of “The Village” here (time stamp 2h 8m 46s)
Thank you for taking the time to be informed about our local government!