The debate over Ypsi’s proposed Water Street debt reduction millage

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On August 2, voters living in the City of Ypsilanti will be asked to weigh in on a 2.3 mill tax that, if passed, would raise approximately $10,006,548 over the next 14 years in order to pay down debt related to the City’s purchase of 38 acres of riverfront property, referred to collectively as Water Street. Following are my rough notes on the subject, as typed during a public forum on the subject hosted by The League of Women Voters and the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti Regional Chamber earlier this evening. If you’re not the reading type, feel free to scroll to the end, where you’ll find video of the entire event courtesy of Jesse Miller.

• Three people are sitting at the front of the room. Steve Pierce is representing the anti-millage side. Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds and Jelani McGadney are representing the pro-millage side. [McGadney is a legislative aide to Jeff Irwin, who, prior to that, worked for both John and Debbie Dingel.] Susan Smith, of The League of Women Voters, is standing to their right. She’s moderating. After allowing opening comments, Smith ask two questions of each side, and then opens things up to questions from the audience, many of which, to be honest, don’t seem all that relevant to the matter at hand… but I’ll get to that later.

• Before we get into what was covered during the forum, here, by way of background, is a little of the history… In the late 1990s, Cheryl Farmer, who was Ypsilanti’s mayor at the time, and members of the Ypsilanti City Council, decided that it would be in the City’s best interest to begin buying up downtown riverfront property from the scrap yards, manufacturing companies, foundries and auto repair shops that owned it, in hopes that a developer might be persuaded to come in and partner with us to build something that, in their opinion, would better serve us in the long term. While we were successful in acquiring the parcels, the redevelopment of the brownfield never happened. While we were able to secure grants to tear down the buildings, and do some degree of remediation, developers never came forward, and the property remained vacant. By 2006, when the associated bonds were consolidated, we were $15,740,000 in debt. And, when interest was included, the payments owed for the life of the 25 year loan totaled $29,434,535. Since 2009, the City has paid $8,761,810 on this debt. And, just this past spring, the debt was refinanced again at a much more favorable interest rate. This time, by applying a $3 million grant, and making a lump payment from City savings, we were able to get the total debt down to $14 million. And that’s where we are right now as a community. We’re facing $14 million in debt, and we need to find a way to pay it.

• Edmonds, in her opening statement, stresses the fact that this proposed millage is supported unanimously by the members of City Council. This, she tells us, rarely happens. She also mentions that, if passed, homeowners won’t see a net increase in their taxes. This, she says, is because the proposed 2.3 mill tax will be replacing a 2.3 road repair millage that will be expiring after 14 years. This new millage, she goes on to say, is absolutely necessary, as the debt associated with Water Street threatens to bankrupt the City at a time when we’re just starting to get our footing again. Edmonds says that we’ve cut what could be cut in the City budget, and that we’ve done good work to lessen the burden, but that passing this millage is the only way to put the debt behind us once and for all and move on as a community to focus on things that really matter.

• Edmonds says that we’ve gotten our annual debt payments down from $1.38 million to approximately $924,000, by paying off some of the principle, and refinancing the rest at a much better interest rate, but that we still can’t afford to pay that out of our annual operating budget. If this millage passes, she says, it will raise between $600,000 and $700,000 a year to put toward that debt. The rest, she says, can be paid from our general fund budget, which is about $14 million a year.

• It’s not mentioned during the debate, but this Water Street debt reduction millage, according to MLive, “would mean a homeowner with a property assessed at $50,000 would pay $115 annually, or $9.53 a month, for the next 14 years,” if approved.

• Pierce, who identifies himself as a “lifelong Democrat”, Obama supporter, and mass transit loving LGBT advocate, responds by saying that we have to reject higher taxes, as they threaten our long term viability as a community. Our property taxes, he says, are already the 7th highest in the State, and they continue to rise. Since 2007, he says, they’ve gone up by 22%, and it’s driving away families and businesses. The City, he says, has attempted to raise taxes in the past to pay off the Water Street debt, claiming that not doing so would be catastrophic. In each case, though, he says, we’ve survived. He goes on to say that passing this millage would negatively effect property values, and force property owners to raise rents on their tenants. This, he says, will disproportionately hurt people who are already struggling financially. He says that we should prioritize paying off our debt without a millage, instead of spending money on things like train platforms, riverside trails and pedestrian bridges. He says that we’re spending more now than we did three years ago, which illustrates how little discipline City Council has. And, he says, this will only get worse if we pass the millage. If we do, Pierce says, City leaders won’t have any incentive to rein in costs.

• Edmonds points out to Pierce that, yes, we did spend more this year than in years past, but that was because we made a large payment toward our debt principle, as doing so would save us a considerable amount of money in the long run. She also pointed out that much of what the City has done recently has been made possible by grants, not by a desire on the part of City Council to spend indiscriminately, as Pierce had suggested.

• Pierce says that, several years ago, when the City tried unsuccessfully to pass an income tax to pay off the Water Street debt, those behind it warned that, if the attempt should fail, our police and fire departments would be decimated. The fact that this never came to pass, he says, proves that the City exaggerates in such instances. Edmonds responds by saying that we did, in fact, lay off several public safety employees, and that it would have been much worse if not for federal public safety grants, which we won’t have access to much longer. We’ve been able to shield ourselves from the wurst of it for a few years now, she says, but we won’t be able to do it forever.

• Pierce is asked how he would solve the problem. He responds by saying that, if the City were more transparent, and more open to the suggestions of the people, it would be easy. He doesn’t, however, offer any specifics. At some point toward the end, he says something to the affect of, “We can pay off this Water Street debt with what we have right now.” If Pierce was referencing the $5.3 million or so we currently have in the City’s savings account, he apparently wasn’t listening to what Edmonds said earlier in the evening, when she made it clear that, according to State law, we have to keep a certain amount in savings. If we drop below that floor, she said, it would trigger action from the State. On our current trajectory, Edmonds says, we have two years until our debt payments will cause our savings to fall below that level.

• Pierce says that much of this could have been nipped in the bud, if only the City had listened to residents. In 2003, he said, a lot of residents stood up against the Water Street development vision put forward by the City. He says a member of City Council responded by saying, “We can’t stop this project, we’ve spent too much already.” They should have listened, he said. The same, according to Pierce, happened in 2007, and in 2012, when the people stood up against tax increases. They could have brought everyone to the table and made a new plan, he said, but they stayed on the same path.

• When it comes time for questions from the audience, a number of people in red “Stop City Increasing Taxes” t-shirts line up behind the mic. For the most part, they share anecdotal stories intended to reinforce the notion that our City leaders are incompetent and untrustworthy. One points to a quote from a member of City Council during a budgeting meeting, as reported by MLive, about the City Manager not being able to immediately account for $1.2 million in the City budget. Another points to the fact that a City Council member recently filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the City, as he couldn’t otherwise obtain information that he was looking for. The underlying implication was clear… Our City leaders think they know better than you. They’re secretive. Everything is handled behind closed doors. No one cares what you think. They just want your money. And they’re both inept and wasteful… All of this, by the way, could very well be true. I just would have rather we spent more time talking about the facts relative to our current debt situation, and the options available to us as a community, and less on selling a narrative about how secretive and inept our elected officials are.

• Jelani McGadney had the final word. Here’s some of what he had to say… “I heard the statements that have been made… (What the Mayor has offered) is a solution. Tonight, this is the only solution that has been discussed. This is the only solution that has been put on the table. And that’s something very important. When you’re having a debate, it’s always best, when you don’t agree with one side, to have a solution to pair it with, so we can have further discussion about what is meaningful and what will move us forward. And tonight the only solution that has been offered is the one that has been offered by our Mayor and by our City Council… Our ability to be nimble, to be thoughtful, to have the mechanisms to move us forward, is going to be on the basis of this millage. I’m not somebody who believe in discussing doom and gloom, because ultimately I believe that we do have a positive future. But I also know what happens when cities do start having to cut, and to cut, and to cut. In my day job, I work in Lansing. I know what happens when cities go into bankruptcy, insolvency, or experience an emergency manager. Those are not solutions that Ypsilanti should, or needs to, experience. Because those solutions, from my understanding, and from the way that I’ve seen things, have not produced a bright future for those communities.”

As I said, these notes are both rough and incomplete. If you were there, please leave your own thoughts. It would be much appreciated.

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The Dead Music Capital Band is going to be visiting from Texas. Where shall we have them play?

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My friend Dan Gillotte, when he’s not managing the shit out of the award-winning Wheatsville Co-op in Austin, plays in an un-dead brass band called the Dead Music Capital Band. Well, he and his bandmates will be making the long trip north to Michigan in a few weeks to participate along with a number of other similarly minded street bands at a festival called Crash Detroit, which is set to happen across various venues over the weekend of July 16… But here’s the really interesting thing. Dan and the band will be free for a while on Sunday, and they’ve asked us where, between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, they can play that afternoon. So, if you know of something happening that afternoon that you’d like to have a big, loud group of Texas zombie musicians crash, let me know. [I was hoping that they’d be here during Ann Arbor’s Art Fair, but it looks like they’re going to miss it by a week.]

Here, to give you a taste of their “Swingin’ Sound From 6 Feet Down”, is the Dead Music Capital Band playing their song Ax Grinder live in the Wheatsville Co-op office.

This is the first I’ve heard of Crash Detroit, but it sounds pretty incredible. The entire lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but it sounds like they’ll have over a dozen different street bands playing, including our own Detroit Party Marching Band, and Environmental Encroachment from Chicago. It should be an awesome time. And it’s absolutely free… And, if you can’t make it, like I said earlier, there’s a good chance that you might catch the Dead Music Capital Band just wondering around Ypsilanti on Sunday afternoon, playing for people as they leave church. [If I’m not mistaken, they’ll also be playing somewhere in Chicago on the Thursday before Crash Detroit, and somewhere in Hamtramck Sunday night.]

OK, so if you can think of a cool place for them to play around town on Sunday afternoon, leave a comment… If no one comes up with anything better, I’ll just let them loose in an EMU dorm. Or, better yet, maybe we’ll throw an impromptu city-wide picnic in Riverside Park. How does that sound? Would you pack a picnic basket and come down to the park with your family to hear an undead Texas brass band?

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Posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture, Detroit, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Public forum on the Water Street debt reduction millage this Thursday

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The last time we, the citizens of Ypsilanti, were asked to pass a tax increase in order to pay down the debt associated with the 38-acre Water Street redevelopment project, there was an attempt to bring representatives from both sides of the debate together for a fair, neutral forum on the subject. Unfortunately, as you might recall, that attempt failed, and the public never got to hear the facts. Sure, there were a few articles here and there, but, for the most part, we just saw the “anti tax” and “pro tax” yard signs. Individuals representing the two campaigns were never on a stage together, responding to questions, and really discussing the issue the depth. Well, this time around, thanks to the leadership of The League of Women Voters and the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti Regional Chamber, we’re actually going to get the fair, honest, and public forum that we deserve.

This Thursday, June 30, at 5:30 PM, there will be a forum about the proposed Water Street debt reduction millage at the Eastern Michigan University student center. The event is free, and open to the public. As space is limited, however, I’d suggest that you register online, if you’re planning to attend. Representatives from both the pro-millage and anti-tax sides will be present, responding to questions from the audience and League of Women Voters moderator Susan Smith.

For those of you not familiar with the millage proposal, and its intended purpose, the following clip comes by way of an article written by Tom Perkins for MLive this past April:

The city of Ypsilanti took the next step toward asking voters to pay off around $10.6 million in Water Street debt.

That represents about half of the $20 million Ypsilanti owed at the beginning of the year.

Officials are proposing a 2.3-mill tax that, if approved, would mean a homeowner with a property assessed at $50,000 would pay $115 annually, or $9.53 a month, for the next 14 years.

At its Tuesday meeting, council unanimously approved the language calling for the millage, which will appear on the Aug. 2 primary ballot.

Council Member Pete Murdock noted that a 2.3-mill road tax is coming off the books in 2017 so residents wouldn’t see a net tax increase if they approve the proposed Water Street millage…

In February, the city took advantage of low interest rates to save around $3.7 million by refinancing the debt. That, combined with a $2.2 million payment from its savings, knocked out about a third of the approximately $20 million in principal and interest Ypsilanti owed.

The city also plans to continue making payments out of its general fund over the next 15 years to cover $2.8 million of the remaining debt. City Manager Ralph Lange said he is planning to find another $700,000 to pay toward the debt by the end of this budget year, and that will save the city an additional $300,000 in interest. Additionally, Michigan Economic Development Corporation converted a $3 million loan into a grant…

By a wide margin, voters rejected a proposed Water Street debt retirement millage and city income tax increase in 2012, but city council members say this proposal is different.

The previous measure included an accompanying income tax and a 4.94 mill Water Street tax. The new proposal doesn’t include an income tax and the millage rate is less than half what city leaders asked voters to approve in 2012…

So, if you’re planning to vote come August 2, please consider coming out on Thursday and hearing both sides. A lot of good people, like my friends Lindsay Garinger and Shoshanna Wechter, have worked their asses off to make this happen, and I think we probably owe it to them to invest an hour of our time to become better educated on the subject… For those of you can’t make it, I should mention, we’re trying to find someone to shoot video of the proceedings, so hopefully there will also be footage online at some point as well.

As for the current status of Ypsilanti’s Water Street redevelopment project, I’d encourage those of you who haven’t done so already to read my recent interview with Ypsilanti Director of Economic Development Beth Ernat. I think you’ll find it pretty informative.

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That moment when you realize that you’ve just purchased Ypsilanti’s most popular public restroom

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We’ve known for quite a while that people piss against our building. It’s painfully obvious on hot summer days like this. If you attempt to enter the building from the back, you have no choice but to navigate through a low-hanging cloud of excited urine molecules anxious to take a trip up your nose to the part of your brain whose job it is to make you want to vomit on yourself.

I’d like to be mad, but, to be honest, it’s actually a nice place to take a piss. Aside from the late night prostitution, it’s a quiet, peaceful alley, and, given how the door is recessed, it’s relatively private.

Given all of the liquor bottles we find there, I’d just assumed that most of the pissing happened late at night, as people drank in the alley before heading in to see the strippers next door. [I have it on good authority that Deja Vu just serves juice boxes.] But, over this weekend, we got to know some of the urinators, and they’re not who you might think. A few days ago, Jesse left the building in the later afternoon and was nearly pissed on by an older fellow, who, as if to explain himself, said something like, “This is an old school piss spot,” as Jesse swung his leg back into the building to keep from getting sprayed. And, this afternoon, I just happened to stick my head out of an upstairs window and see two gentlemen conducting some kind of transaction while I female associate of theirs squatted down and pissed against the building directly below me. So it’s not just a late night thing. It’s an all day, every day, kind of thing.

Oh, and it’s not just piss. Today I got to remove a small, shit-covered vodka bottle, and an old paper bag that had been used as toilet paper. [I think the person in question probably pooped on the bottle, but I suppose it’s possible that the bottle had been inserted like a cork until such time that the individual in question could get to his or her favorite outdoor pooping spot.]

I don’t mind the condoms and the liquor bottles, but I really don’t like walking through shit and piss every day, and I’m wondering if any of you might have an idea as to how we politely suggest to folks that they look for a “new school” piss spot. The easy thing to do, I guess, would be to put up a camera. I’d rather not resort to that, though. I’m thinking, instead, we could post directions to better spots, and maybe even outfit these other spots with things like toilet paper and proper piss buckets. Maybe even put out a few magazines….

In all seriousness, though, I know there’s a bathroom at the transit station across the street, but is there a need downtown for a freestanding public restroom? I know, given all of the budget cutting and downsizing that we’ve seen these past several years, it’s unlikely that we could afford to build a public restroom and keep it maintained, but clearly there’s a downtown need that isn’t currently being met.

[note: The areas marked with the words “shit” and “piss” in the photo above were the actual spots where both shitting and pissing took place today.]

Posted in 209 Pearl, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 43 Comments

Exploring the untold history of women in American with Leesta, empowering our daughters with Girls Rock Detroit, the music of Timothy Monger, and a quick visit from Loose Teeth …on this weekend’s Saturday Six Pack

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As you may recall, a few months ago, I told you about some awesome University of Michigan undergrads who, dissatisfied with the fact that women are largely left out of the K-12 history curriculum in the U.S., decided to start an education technology company. Well, the company, called Leesta, launched a little while ago, and our first guest this Saturday will be co-founder Virginia Lozano, who we’ll talk with about the progress they’ve made to date, their mission to “inspire 8-11 year olds by teaching American History through the stories of women,” and their ambitious plans to change the world.

And, later in the show, after a short talk with Gregory McIntosh of the band Loose Teeth, we’ll continue our discussion about super-awesome initiatives to help ensure that our daughters continue to kick ass in life, with Melissa Coppola of Girls Rock Detroit, an organization that seeks to foster girls’ creative expression, positive self-esteem, and community awareness through rock music education and performance. [Loose Teeth, by the way, will be releasing their new record, The Doppler Shift, this Saturday evening at Crossroads, just as our radio show ends.]

Oh, I should also mention that, somewhere in there, we’ll also be playing a new song by our listener in Kenya, Dr. Peter Larson. If you’re interested as to what he looks like when he’s recording, he just posted the following video, which shows him and his friend Colin Crowley recording the song earlier this evening for tomorrow’s show. Pete is playing a shamisen. Colin is playing a clawhammer banjo. The song is called “Center of the World”.

And, after all of that, Timothy Monger will drop by to talk about the new record he’s working on, Amber Lantern. I imagine he might bring a guitar. And, if we run out of things to say, we’ll listen to Loose Teeth songs and point out how they might have been improved. [Monger, as you might recall, was once nice enough to record a Bowie cover for us.]

I could say more about all of these folks, but you should really just listen this Saturday evening. It’ll be a good time, I promise.

FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE NEVER TUNED IN TO THE SIX PACK BEFORE, HERE ARE THE DETAILS ON HOW TO LISTEN:

Unless you live inside the AM 1700 studio, chances are you won’t be able to pick the show up on your radio. As that’s the case, I’d recommend streaming the show online, which you can do either on the AM1700 website or by way of TuneIn.com.

And for those of you who aren’t yet familiar with the show, and need to get caught up, you can listen to the entire archive on iTunes.

Oh, and if you’d like to tell your friends and neighbors about the program, feel free to share the Facebook event listing.

And, here, thanks to AM 1700 senior graphic designer Kate de Fuccio, is this week’s poster, in case any of you want to print copies and leave them at one of your favorite highway rest areas. I have no idea why she chose to portray me as Les Nessman, when everyone knows I’m more of a Johnny Fever type, but maybe she isn’t familiar with the show.

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And do call us if you have a chance. We love phone calls. So please copy down this number and slide it into your sock – 734.217.8624 – and call us between 6:00 and 8:00 this Saturday evening. The show is nothing without you.

Posted in Education, The Saturday Six Pack, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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