Since voters overwhelmingly passed the public safety and mental health millage in November 2017, there has been some debate about how Ann Arbor should spend the rebate it receives for already providing police services.
There are many unmet needs in Ann Arbor: affordable housing, climate resilience, pedestrian safety, mental health, road conditions, etc. Since the rebate is unrestricted funding, any of these are appropriate uses for the rebate.
While there is a strong case for any of these uses, I believe that it is important that Council keep its promises to voters and not walk back commitments about how funds were to be used that were made prior to the election.
Background: Members of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners have been discussing some combination of a public safety and/or mental health/human services millage since before I was first elected to Council six years ago. After much wrangling, the plan that emerged was:
- 38% Mental Health to be administered by Community Mental Health with input from an advisory board.
- 62% Public Safety, dividing into two pools:
- 38% paid directly to the Sheriff’s Department to maintain road patrol services out county and to “1. Maximize the impact of their existing community based diversion, treatment and support programs; and 2. Plan, implement and sustain nationally recognized “best practices” criminal justice alternative/diversion programs for individuals suffering from mental health/substance use disorders” (as described in the use ordinance).
- 24% paid as a rebate to communities that have their own police departments (such as Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline, Northfield Township).
The structure of the 62% to public safety was the most controversial element of the millage structure. The rebate is in place to prevent “double charging” in which residents of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would be subsidizing sheriffs patrols in Dexter and Manchester. The funds were unrestricted from the County both because the County did not have a method to restrict the use by the policing jurisdictions and because many of the policing jurisdictions would have opposed the millage if the funds had been restricted in their use.
Ann Arbor’s Use Resolution
In advance of the millage, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution of intent to specify that the City would use its portion of the millage:
- 20% to improve Pedestrian Safety
- 40% for housing affordability
- 40% for the Climate Action Plan
Some criticized the decision on the argument that we should not specify the usage of the funds prior to the election or budget process, but I supported the resolution for the following reasons:
- Voters deserved to know what the rebate would be used for before the vote. This headed off the concern that the millage rebate would be an unaccountable “slush fund”
- Address Unmet Needs: The three areas specified represented three areas where there has been strong and consistent public demand for improved City leadership but where there have not been adequate funds to address the issues.
- Expand the coalition. The use resolution brought in housing, environmental, and pedestrian safety organizations and voters to build a stronger campaign for passage of the millage.
- These three areas have a connection to the core millage. Affordable housing is a public safety and mental health issue. It’s not safe to sleep outside all winter long. Homelessness is both a symptom and a cause of mental illness. Pedestrian safety is a public safety issue. The recent pedestrian death of an EMU professor in the 5th Ward reminds us all of this.
Climate change is also public safety issue. My first election season was the year of the Dexter Tornado, and I saw first hand how the increased storm strength that comes with climate change is a threat to public safety. Climate change will impact Michigan in two primary ways – significantly more precipitation, and more intense heat waves. Heat waves, in particular, present immediate dangers for the lives of the most vulnerable among us – the poor and the elderly. Setting aside this funding, as our use resolution does, creates equity by establishing recurring annual finding that allows the city to help provide these residents with the increased security of safe homes. .
Public Bodies Should Keep Their Promises (even when the individual officials didn’t make them)
Elected officials are often attacked for breaking promises and flip flopping. In this context, I think it’s very important that government does keep its promises.
Here’s an example. In 2010, Ann Arbor City Council passed a “parks fairness resolution” directing that the parks budget be increased at the same rate as general fund expenditures. This was a promise to the voters as Council proposed a Parks Operation millage to give voters certainty that approving the parks millage would not reduce the general fund allocation to parks.
Mayor Taylor is the only person now on Council who was on Council when that resolution was passed. There are times at Council when I chafe at this resolution. Do we really need to increase parks funding every time we allocate new funds for streetlights, traffic studies, etc? But even though I question the way the resolution forces our hand at budget time, I and everyone else on Council always vote for the parks fairness amendment because we all see the importance of keeping promises to the voters, especially the promises made in conjunction with a tax increase.
Now, some people argue that not very many people know about the promises in the resolution of intent. Only a few people made their decision on voting or campaigning for or against the millage based the City’s use resolution. I don’t think that gives us a pass. Only a few voters know about the parks fairness resolution, but I can’t in good conscience use this as a justification to vote against the budget adjustments it requires. Integrity is about keeping promises–no matter how few people know about them.