Sam’s got the video of the mayoral debate up on Google Video now. The sound quality isn’t great, but it’s cool to be able to see what I missed as I was running around collecting questions from the audience and attending to various little problems. (I haven’t tried it yet, but I think it should be fairly easy to mute the video and sync up the audio from the podcast, which is clearer.)
This is going to be an enormous bore to the 90% of my audience that doesn’t find itself within the boundaries of Ypsialnti, but It’s still too hot to fucking blog, so I’m just going to cut and paste a few items from today’s inbox concerning the proposed Ypsilanti income tax. The first is a letter from our current, pin-wielding Mayor, Cheryl Farmer.
Dear Friends and Neighbors,
I hate the idea of a city income tax. Everyone on Council hates the idea of a city income tax. All of the Mayoral candidates hate the idea of a city income tax. So why are we still talking about a city income tax?
A city income tax is the only tool the state gives us that would be powerful enough to overcome our anticipated $800,000 budget deficit in 2007-2008.
The Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances studied this issue at length last year. They recommended a number of additional budget cuts, which have been made. They recommended regionalization of some services, which we are pursuing. They concluded that a city income tax is the only tool the state gives us that would be powerful enough to overcome this predicted $800,000 budget deficit .
The Blue Ribbon Committee anticipated that it could be several more years before enough cities would be on the brink of financial ruin to force the state legislature to take action, and so suggested that a temporary income tax be put on the ballot for up to 5 years to give us some budgetary breathing room The members of this committee include Tom Biggs, Fred Davis, Peter Fletcher, Ingrid Kock, Dr. James Hawkins, Christian Overland, Steve Pierce, Timothy Robinson, Deborah Strong, and Paul Tait (Chair). You know these community leaders. Call them for details.
The present state tax structure rewards sprawl in the townships and fails to provide adequate funding for the older built-out cities that anchor them – to the long term detriment of both. I spoke to members of the State Legislature about this deplorable situation at the Michigan Municipal League forum on May 10, 2006, and have attached my remarks for your information.
As your Mayor, I do not have the authority to impose an income tax on us. Neither does any future Mayor nor Council have that authority. We the residents are the only ones who can impose an income tax on ourselves through a vote. No Mayor and Council will ever put an income tax issue on the ballot unless they think it is necessary in order to preserve the jobs of our tireless, dedicated city staff. We know how important their services are to our quality of life, and even to life itself.
Serious cuts have already been made to our police force, fire department, DPW and administrative staff. The only reason these cuts have so far been relatively invisible to you and me is because our remaining committed employees have worked their hearts out to pick up the slack and do more and more with less and less. This cannot continue indefinitely. Further staff cuts would be devastating.
The only way to avoid a terrible choice between a temporary 5 year city income tax and devastating cuts to services is to change the assumptions regarding anticipated revenues. If Visteon reverses its decision to close our plant; if we elect more Democrats and Milliken Republicans to the state legislature in November; if the state adopts the recommendations of the Governor’s task force to change the tax structure so that it is more equitable, if the state economy recovers, then we may be able to avoid this terrible choice.
Some candidates have been saying on the campaign trail that they totally oppose an income tax. They say that new residents won’t come to a city with a temporary 5 year income tax. Will new residents come to a city with inadequate police protection? Will current residents want to stay? They say new businesses won’t come to a city with a temporary 5 year income tax. Will new businesses come to a city with inadequate fire protection and higher insurance rates? Will existing businesses want to stay?
As you can see, this is a complex issue, not well explained or understood through sound bites.
If the assumptions regarding anticipated revenues don’t change, and if circumstances present us with two terrible choices in the next budget cycle, I hope we will have a Mayor and Council with the courage to put the issue to a vote so that the whole community has the opportunity to participate in the decision. Additional deep cuts or a temporary 5 year income tax? If it comes to that, let the people decide at the polls. Meanwhile, let’s continue to work to change the assumptions.
P.S. You may want to take a look at Peter Luke’s excellent article in today’s Ann Arbor News discussing the issue of taxes and services. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”
The second letter comes from a Michigan Avenue business owner. (I should add that, unlike the first email, this one was not sent to me directly, but forwarded by mayoral candidate Steve Pierce. That’s why I’m printing it anonymously.)
The truth is that if these are the only choices then the income tax is still the wrong choice. I am an Ypsi business owner, real estate broker and have lived in or owned property in Ypsi since 1976. When I talk to people in the surrounding areas and tell them that Ypsi has the highest property tax rate in the county the reaction is “Why”!?!
My answer is “Beats me”?!
Then I say, but wait it’s going to get worse because now they want to impose a city income tax. The reaction goes from comical to utter disbelief.
Why would I start a business in Ypsi when the taxes put me at a competitive disadvantage even before I open the doors? I would be at a disadvantage with hiring, fixed cost of real estate, and most important the impression that the City is anti-business.
Now why would I buy a home in Ypsi when the property tax rate is the highest in the county and I have to pay a city income tax? Do you realize that the difference in taxes for a $300,000 home in the City vs. a $300,000 home in the township is $2,700 per year? Now add $500. for the income tax and I can move to the township and save $266. PER MONTH thank you very much.
Ms. Farmer you stopped by my restaurant 2 years ago and I explained the successful program that Fargo North Dakota has used to revitalize downtown and RAISE their tax base. You dismissed the idea without any consideration at all saying that I should research the idea and take to the city manager. You said that any temporary tax breaks would not work because the city couldn’t afford it. I tried to explain that it’s not a tax break but a temporary delay in the tax increase that would occur when properties are improved and thus increase in taxable value. You were not interested in the program at all.
It kind of reminds me of when the median was put out on Michigan Avenue. There was a big meeting to share the plan with local business owners. When we were shown the site plan the business owners at the meeting all had the same reaction. “Hey you can’t block all the left turns downtown, no one will be able to get to the parking lots!” The answer from the engineer hired by the city and the city’s representative was “well Mr. Brickley I ‘m not sure what you were told but this is already approved and construction starts in a month.”
Like my six year old says, OH GREAT!
I will say it again. My biggest request of local government is, if you can’t help me at least don’t hurt me. The delays in road construction, water main work and parking lots hurt us deeply. To the tune of $20-30K a couple of summers ago. Yes it had to be done but the process was slow and poorly managed. A city income tax will cause people to go elsewhere to live, to work to shop.
An income tax will add yet one more straw to the camels back. And the camels pretty tired. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Then if you follow this logic all we have to do is tax everyone 100% and we will be 100% civilized!!
(No one, you’ll notice, has acknowledged my “third way” – to immediately change our city’s name to “Googlanti” in desperate hope of attracting the internet giant away from Ann Arbor.) And, then there was this comment left here at MM.com today by Ol’ E Cross. Here’s a clip:
…The much maligned blue ribbon committee was charged with finding creative solutions and could only find the income tax. The chair of the committee was long-time Ypsi resident Paul Tait, the executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, our regional planning agency. SEMCOG’s role is to foster regional cooperation. SEMCOG runs the Center for Joint Public Services and gives out awards every year for the most creative intergovernmental partnerships. Frankly, if anyone in Michigan is qualified to recommend regional solutions to Ypsi’s problems, it’s Paul Tait.
So I’ll come out. I’m voting for Schreiber because, from my limited perspective:
1) he has the integrity/kahonies to speak the inconvenient truth and run for public office on a pro-tax platform
2) his public service was the difficult, glory-less assignment of overseeing public housing rather than appointments that appear linked to his economic interests
3) I don’t believe government should follow businesses’ example of downsizing. Their objectives are different. You don’t cut busses or public safety because they’re not cost effective.
Change is not, by nature, good or bad. (Change gave us George W.) The status quo isn’t always bad. (Maintaining busses is maintaining the status quo.) We could tweak it here and there, but by enlarge, I like Ypsi just the way it is. I’m a little freaked by candidates who offer vague solutions, promise no new taxes, and are willing to cut services until the budget is balanced. Joe Ohren, director of the master’s program in public administration at EMU said in Focus EMU: “The city, I think, is doing the right thing. It’s saying to the community, ‘If you want these services, the only way that we can provide these services is if we adopt the income tax.'”
Even renegade east-cross.com blogger turned candidate Brian Robb admits the city is decently run: “though I may bitch about inefficiencies in local government, the City of Ypsilanti is not mismanaged. … Ypsilanti is going broke through no fault of their own.” (11/11/05)
The question really is cuts or taxes. Schreiber is the only candidate who is calling us to look at the facts and make the sober decision. For that, he’s got my vote…
So, let’s say for a moment that we take Lois out of the mix and just look at the difference between Paul and Steve on this one issue – Paul being for the city income tax and Steve being against it — who gets your vote?
Much like a super-model, I’m too hot to think tonight, so let’s hear what you have to say for a change, OK?
I don’t feel like writing anything. It’s intolerably hot right now and the palms of my hands are melting into the surface of my laptop, like grilled cheese sandwiches forgotten in a Foreman grill… I did want to close the loop relative to the Ypsilanti Mayoral Debate, however. So, here I go, typing fast, like I’m running barefoot across white-hot asphalt.
As I mentioned the other day, it went pretty damn well, especially given how politically charged our current environment is. In the days running up to the debate, I’d been vacillating between two scenarios in my mind. In one, only the candidates, and a few elderly people looking for free cookies, showed up. (In this scenario, the candidates would invariably be pissed at me for wasting their time.) In the other, it was absolute mayhem. (Imagine the Rolling Stones show at Altamont.) There were gangs of hired goons, multiple incidents of slander, and the deployment of SWAT teams — you name it. The reality of it, as is typically the case, was somewhere right in the middle. The house was packed, and no blood was shed. What’s more, none of the candidates either went after one another, or, for that matter, even raised their voice to interrupt.
I wished that there were more back-and-forth between the candidates, but, I guess, as I’m the one that read them the rules, and since I told everyone in attendance that they shouldn’t vote for candidates that either ran long or interrupted, I share some of the blame… Next time, however, if we do this again, I’d like to set it up so that there’s more give-and-take between the candidates. (Of course, that means that fewer questions can be asked in the same amount of time though.)
Another thing I’d change, if we did this again — I’d ask a seemingly lighter question, like, “Would you vote legislation allowing people to keep chickens in the city?”, earlier in the evening. After that question was asked, the mood of the debate shifted somewhat toward the more honest and unscripted, and I think we should have asked it half-an-hour earlier.
Other regrets? Again, it’s a matter of time, but I wish we would have given our moderator the power to interrupt candidates half-way through some of their answers to say, “We asked for two examples and so far we haven’t heard one.” We’d gone out of our way to craft questions that would get to concrete examples, and the candidates still found a way, for the most part, to talk around the issues. I was particularly let-down by the responses to the question, “You’ve heard Dr. Fallon, the President of Eastern Michigan University (EMU), say tonight that he was open to partnering with the city. What’s the first thing you would ask that EMU do to help turn things around in Ypsilanti?” I’d expected to hear about things like programs to incentivize the University’s faculty to live within the city, or free consulting services offered by Business School students to local retail establishments, but we heard nothing. Not one idea was suggested by anyone on the panel. They all just said that they wanted to work more closely, as though that means anything.
The fact that we didn’t hear many criticisms afterward tells me that we did a pretty good job of staying “fair and balanced,” but there were a few. I read one comment on another website that said we should have made sure that a question was asked concerning the encouragement of EMU student involvement in local life. For what it’s worth, I agree with the criticism. I think, given the fact that we were at EMU and had students in the audience, we should have probably taken the question concerning the involvement of children in civic life out of the mix, and replaced it with the one we had concerning college student involvement. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
The only other kind of negative comment that I’ve heard was from a candidate for City Council who wished that we would have kept the tape running to capture the two-minute stump speeches given by the non-mayoral candidates. And that’s probably my fault. When I asked Sam to do our audio/video, I told him that we only needed the mayoral debate. If we had it to do over again, I would have lobbied to have done it differently. I would vote to either drop the non-mayoral piece altogether (to make more time for the debate), or somehow do more to incorporate them (like adding them to the podcast). (My concern is that if we have events go longer than 2-hours, that we’ll see turnout drop precipitously.)
Anyway, those were the only two negatives I’ve heard thus far. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that we skewed our questions to either favor, or unnecessarily skewer, any specific candidate. No one has suggested that we blew an opportunity to initiate substantive dialogue. A few people commented that they didn’t hear a lot of content from the candidates, but they didn’t seem to hold us responsible for that.
I’m tempted to edit the audio into some kind of news piece, drawing attention the most telling exchanges, but I’m afraid that doing so might tip my hand as to who I’m voting for, and, in the current environment, where it seems like everyone is lobbying on behalf of their favorite candidate or slate of candidates, I’ve decided to stay mum… I don’t know how long I can keep this little promise to myself, but I’m thinking that I’d like to stay outwardly impartial when it comes to local politics. Sure, I might be able to help sway a person or two if I jumped into the fray, but I think that there’s a value to having a place or two online where there isn’t necessarily an agenda operating behind the scenes. And, I think that if we decide to continue doing things under the “YpsiVotes” banner, impartiality is important.
So, if you want to know which candidate took responsibility for the Water Street fiasco, or who made the assumption that our prostitutes are black, or who answered “the gay question” disingenuously, you’ll have to find out elsewhere. I’m not going to tell you.
If you’re interested, several other local bloggers were present. You can find their posts at Loose Tea, Ypsi-Dixit, and East Cross. And, if you want to listen to the whole thing and draw your own conclusions, the audio is on Sam’s site.
Ypsialnti is facing one hell of a hard fight in the months and years to come, as revenues dry up and as the multiple, sever cuts begin to take their toll, but the good news is that those of us who live here are beginning to engage at a level we hadn’t before. I’d like to think that it speaks well to the democratic spirit being alive and well in Ypsi, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that we’re so close to the brink. (Nothing motivates people like the prospect of not having a Fire Department.) Whatever the reason, it’s an exciting time to be here and I look forward to working alongside all of you to find creative solutions to our problems… Ypsilanti is the little lifeboat that Linette and I chose for our family, and I intend to do everything that I can to make sure that it stays afloat.
Oh, one last thing… During the debate, I mentioned the fact that we wouldn’t be able to ask every question submitted by the citizens of Ypsilanti and challenged the mayoral candidates to come to the YpsiVotes site and address the concerns of their neighbors. To my knowledge, none of them, however, have taken the time to do that over the past few days. I realize that they’re busy knocking on doors and looking for votes, but I think they should at least do us the courtesy of stopping by the site and commenting on a few of the questions. And, over the next few days, I plan to write a formal letter, restating the challenge, and asking that they all take five hours between now and the August 8 primary to leave their comments… I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
“…we recognize a divine plan that stands above all human plans and continue to seek His will.”
– President George Bush
“I came over here because I wanted to kill people.”
— Private Steven D. Green
The debate went very well last night. There should be a podcast and video of it available soon. From our informal counts, there were anywhere from 275 to 350 people there. There’s lots more to say, but that’s all I have time for now. If you were there and have thoughts, please leave a note.