October 25, 2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Here are my vote explanations for the City Commission meeting on Monday, October 25, 2021. You can watch the meeting video on the City of Marquette YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1k-p0KJxUo. As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns at ebonsall@marquettemi.gov or (906) 236-0247 (my personal cell number). Without further ado, here we go…

Approve City Supervisors’ Contract: YES (Passed 7-0)

A different version of this contract was previously rejected by the City Commission at our meeting on August 30 on a 5-2 vote – that previous version would have provided the City’s 8 supervisory employees with 3% annual raises over the course of 5 years. Although I was one of the two Commissioners who voted in favor of that contract, I understood my colleagues’ concerns that this contract had been negotiated before we knew that the City would be facing a steep budget shortfall in FY 2022. Most of my colleagues and I did not disagree with the idea of a 3% annual raise (which is fairly modest by today’s standards), but we did have concerns about locking in these pay increases for a 5-year period given the current uncertainty regarding City finances. Instead, we decided to go back to the negotiating table with the supervisors’ AFSCME bargaining unit, and we were able to come to a compromise which was acceptable to all parties. The new supervisors’ contract which we voted on at Monday night’s meeting was a 2-year deal with a guaranteed 2% raise in 2022 and a wage reopener in 2023, with the addition of the day before Thanksgiving as a paid holiday. I was grateful to City staff and the bargaining team and members of AFSCME Local #1852 for coming to a new agreement and I felt that this was a fair compromise given the unfortunate circumstances, so I voted yes. Hopefully we will be able to get the City in a stronger financial position over the next year, and be able to provide our supervisors with a raise that more adequately reflects their contributions to the City in the second year of this contract. The 2% raise in 2022 equates to $10,839.52 in additional wages, which has been budgeted for in the FY2022 budget approved by the City Commission last month.

Approve City Hall Employees’ Contract: YES (Passed 7-0)

This is another contract negotiated with AFSCME Local #1852, this time with the City Hall employees’ bargaining unit. This contract was largely modeled after the renegotiated supervisors’ contract – in this case, it was a 3-year contract but with a 2% raise guaranteed only for 2022, with wage reopeners in 2023 and 2024 and the addition of the day before Thanksgiving as a paid holiday. The 2% raise in 2022 equates to $30,000 in additional wages, which has been budgeted for in the FY2022 budget approved by the City Commission last month. This contract affects 28 City employees. I voted Yes because I felt that this was a fair agreement given the City’s current fiscal constraints – as with the supervisors’ contract, hopefully the City Commission will be in a financial position to offer these hardworking employees a more adequate raise in a year or two. After all, our people are our most valuable asset, and if we don’t invest in them just like we invest in our roads and our parks, the quality of the City services that our people provide will inevitably decline.

Bring City Attorney Services Back “In-House”: YES (Passed 7-0 as Amended)

Amendment to Require Final Contract to Be Approved by Subcommittee: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was another item brought back from a previous City Commission meeting. The 3-member subcommittee of the City Commission established at our October 12 meeting met and quickly returned to the Commission with a recommendation for how to proceed with bringing the City Attorney back “in-house” and hiring Suzanne Larsen (our current City Attorney) as a full-time City employee. This was technically two separate votes – one vote to approve the City Attorney position as a City employee and terminate our contract with Kendricks, Bordeau, Keefe, Seavoy & Larsen, P.C., and a second vote to formally appoint Suzanne Larsen as the City Attorney and approve the negotiated terms of her contract. The contract itself was still being finalized as of Monday night, but Ms. Larsen, the City, and the Commission subcommittee had agreed upon a $115,000 annual salary, a $50,000 term life insurance policy, and the same benefits package that would be given to City department heads, and an initial contract term of January 1 – September 30, 2022. This is a fair compensation package, and bringing City Attorney services back in-house will increase the City Attorney’s availability to City staff and the number of hours that Ms. Larsen can spend on City business, while saving at least $50,000 per year which can instead go towards balancing the City budget and maintaining critical public services and infrastructure in Marquette. It is also worth noting that Commissioner Davis offered an amendment requiring that, in the interest of Commission oversight and transparency, the previously established subcommittee of 3 City Commissioners should have the opportunity to review and approve the final contract before it is signed by the Mayor and City Clerk. Especially given the City’s current budgetary constraints, this was a common-sense vote to improve the quality of legal services provided to the City while also saving a large amount of taxpayer dollars, and I voted Yes as a result.

Approve Temporary Marijuana Events Policy: YES (Passed 7-0 as amended)

Amendment to Require Review of Policy After One Year: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote to approve a new City policy which would allow public or private marijuana events to be held at three specific locations within the City of Marquette: Tourist Park (in May and October only), Lakeview Arena, and the Presque Isle Pavilion. These locations were chosen due to expected event size, designated 500-foot marijuana buffers around public schools, places of worship, and substance use disorder treatment facilities, availability of necessary facilities and services, and the relatively isolated location of these three sites. Under this policy, hosting a marijuana event would require the payment of $700 in fees (which is similar to the $1,000 required by the State of Michigan for marijuana events on state property).

Events at Presque Isle and Lakeview Arena would only be able to take place at the Presque Isle Pavilion and inside the arena, naturally limiting them to a reasonable size, and events at these locations would have to comply with the non-smoking ordinance which prohibits smoking in virtually all City parks. As a result, any marijuana events at Presque Isle or Lakeview would essentially be commercial events, where people could purchase products and could only consume non-smokable products. Smoking could take place at a marijuana event at Tourist Park, but the event hosts would have to reserve the entire campground for the event and events could only take place there in May or October to avoid disturbing campers. Commissioner Mayer also introduced an amendment requiring that the City Commission review this policy after one year in November 2022, and this amendment passed unanimously. I felt that this policy met the growing demand for a space for marijuana events in Marquette, while also balancing that appropriately against the needs and desires of the community and putting in safeguards to protect all three of these beloved City recreation areas. We will see how it goes, and will be able to make any necessary adjustments next fall when we revisit this policy per Commissioner Mayer’s amendment. This is the same experimental, flexible approach we have taken when legalizing marijuana businesses and food trucks within the City limits, it has served us well in both instances, and I think it will do so again with this policy.

Approve Contract w/ MDOT for US 41 Project Cost Sharing: YES (Passed 7-0)

MDOT has completed plans for reconstruction of US 41 between the Front Street roundabout and Furnace Street. As part of this project, City utilities under the highway that are in poor condition will be replaced, and this was a vote to approve a contract with MDOT for this work. This contract requires the City to provide $159,900 in a cost-sharing agreement with MDOT, but this is much less than it would cost to replace these utility lines on our own. Also, because this work is taking place right next to the Founders Landing Brownfield Plan area, the Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (MBRA) has already approved the full reimbursement of the cost of these repairs to the City through property tax capture at the Founders Landing Brownfield site, so these repairs will not cost regular City taxpayers anything in the long run. I felt that this was a common-sense vote, and I voted Yes as a result.

October 12, 2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Here are my vote explanations for the City Commission meeting that was held on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. You can watch the meeting video on the City of Marquette YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksGIudoXPRw As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns at ebonsall@marquettemi.gov or (906) 236-0247 (my personal cell).

Create OPRA District & Approve Obsolete Property Tax Exemption at 136 W Washington Street: YES (Passed 7-0)

Image source: Google Maps Street View, 136 W Washington St., Marquette, MI 49855

This was actually two separate votes which both passed 7-0, and which are both intended to facilitate the redevelopment of the old Book World and Nordic Theatre building on Washington Street into a new distillery and bar, which will be called The Honorable Distillery. The first vote was to establish an Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act (OPRA) District at 136 W Washington Street, the former location of Book World and the Nordic Theater which has been vacant for several years. The second vote was to actually provide an OPRA property tax exemption for this property for 3 years – in other words, the property owners will redevelop this vacant, obsolete building into a vibrant new local business, and in return they will only have to pay property taxes on its current (relatively low) value for the next 3 years. After that, the exemption will expire and they will begin paying property taxes as usual in 2025. This is very similar to the 3-year OPRA tax exemption granted to the Marquette Food Co-op, which made it possible for the Co-op to expand into their new location on Washington Street – that exemption expired in 2019, and facilitated the expansion of the City tax base, the creation of a neighborhood grocery store within walking distance of thousands of Marquette residents, and the addition of a new anchor business to downtown Marquette. The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) had already approved the tax exemption for 136 W Washington Street, but final approval was up to the City Commission. I voted Yes because this tax exemption is very short-term and the developers need it in order to make it financially feasible for them to redevelop the property. This $2.6 million investment will result in the creation of a great new business and 26 jobs, rehabilitate a vacant, blighted property in the heart of our downtown, expand the City tax base, and benefit the community as a whole. Aubrie and I can’t wait to buy some whiskey from The Honorable Distillery when they open next year!

Authorize Bringing City Attorney Services Back In-House: Tabled (7-0)

Motion to Establish a Temporary Subcommittee to Determine a Process for Bringing City Attorney Services In-House: YES (Passed 7-0)

For many years, the City Attorney was a direct employee of the City of Marquette, and was one of the only two City employees (along with the City Manager) who was directly hired by the City Commission. However, while the City Commission still has hiring-and-firing power over the City Attorney, for the past 16 years the City has contracted out City Attorney services to a private law firm, Kendricks, Bordeau, Keefe, Seavoy & Larsen, P.C. Suzanne Larsen has been a member of this firm and has done work for the City for many years, and she recently became the lead City Attorney. Now, given the ever-growing need for legal services in local government and the fact that the City is facing a very tight budgetary situation, we have re-evaluated this arrangement and have determined that it makes both practical and financial sense to bring City Attorney services back in-house and hire Suzanne Larsen as a full-time employee of the City of Marquette, rather than continue to contract out these services. In doing so, we will simultaneously increase the City Attorney’s availability to City staff and the number of hours that Ms. Larsen can spend on City business, while saving at least $50,000 per year which can instead go towards balancing the City budget and maintaining critical public services and infrastructure in Marquette.

However, while the Commission agreed with the wisdom of this move, many of us had some concerns about the process and wanted to make sure that the Commission to have a bit more oversight and input into the City Attorney contract and hiring process. As a result, we tabled this motion, and then voted to approve a motion to form a temporary subcommittee of 3 Commissioners, appointed by Mayor Smith, to meet and come back to the Commission with a recommendation regarding bringing the City Attorney in-house at the next Commission meeting in two weeks. This seemed prudent to me, so I voted Yes.

Join Marquette County Intergovernmental Housing Task Force: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a common-sense but important resolution to support the City of Marquette formally joining the new Marquette County Intergovernmental Housing Task Force, and to appoint Assistant City Manager Sean Hobbins as our representative on this Task Force. This Task Force is exactly what it sounds like – a County-wide regional group which brings local governments from all over Marquette County together to discuss housing issues and figure out how we can work together to increase housing quality, availability, and affordability throughout Marquette County. In fact, this is right in line with one of the recommendations made by the City’s Housing Committee in our Final Report – specifically, that the City should work together with other local governments and regional planning entities like CUPPAD and the Lake Superior Community Partnership to continue the conversations about housing affordability that have been taking place in the City of Marquette at a regional level. It’s crucial that the City of Marquette participate actively in these regional housing conversations even as we begin to implement the recommendations of our own Housing Committee at a local level, so I happily voted Yes.

09-27-2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Here are my explanations of all of my votes on substantive, non-Consent Agenda items from the September 27, 2021 City Commission meeting. You can watch the meeting at: https://youtu.be/EYv5_EClHuA?t=264

Approve FY 2022 City Budget: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was easily the most important and complicated item on the agenda Monday night. As such, I will be making an entire separate post in the next few days explaining the details of the FY 2022 City budget and the long-term fiscal challenges the City is facing. In short, it’s important to note that this budget was created in the midst of a $5.6 million budgetary shortfall which was the result of numerous decisions going back decades, and after a lot of hard work City staff and the City Commission are close to having a solid plan for overcoming these long-term challenges. This budget is far from perfect, but given the circumstances, I’m grateful that we were able to maintain current levels of City services and staff, keep utility rate increases as low as possible (much lower than the steep rate hikes approved in 2018 and 2019), and take an important first step towards setting Marquette on a more sustainable fiscal path.

FY 2021 End-Year Budget Adjustment: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a common-sense but very important vote to approve a year-end budget adjustment for FY 2021 (the City’s fiscal year ends on September 30 and begins on October 1). This budget adjustment incorporated critical cost-saving measures into the FY 2021 City budget, allowing us to finish the year “in the black” and carry that balanced budget forward into the current fiscal year, which will be a tough one. Without this budget adjustment, it would have been impossible to balance the FY 2022 City budget without major cuts to City staff and services. This budget adjustment also granted limited discretion to the Chief Financial Officer to make necessary adjustments to ensure that we ended FY 2021 with a balanced budget, as some City bills come due at the very end of the fiscal year, after the last City Commission meeting.

Support Recycling Grant Applications: YES (Passed 6-1)

This was a vote to approve letters of support for two City grant applications which would provide significant additional funding for City recycling operations. Currently, our private trash and recycling hauler, Waste Management, frequently fails to pick up residents’ recyclables when they are left out in small bins and rigid containers, and on glass recycling weeks, the glass recyclables generated by City residents are almost completely unusable by the Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority due to cross-contamination with other recyclables (plastic, paper, cardboard, metal, etc.). At the same time, for several years the City has been promoting the use of City recycling carts, which are more economical for most residents, and more than 40% of City residents have already switched to the recycling carts. These grants would allow the City of Marquette to provide a free cart for every household in the City that lives in a building with 5 or fewer residential units – those residents currently using the carts would no longer have to pay the small additional fee on their taxes. Because these carts would be provided at zero cost to all City residents who are eligible for curbside recycling collection, the City would ask all City residents to switch to using the carts for their recyclables. I live in a fourplex, and all the tenants in my building use the carts, which are provided by our landlords – they are incredibly convenient, can be stored discretely outside or in a garage or shed, and we never have any problems with our trash and recyclables not being picked up by WM. If we accepted these grants, we would also change our glass recycling system starting next year, shifting to a community glass recyclable drop-off site and discontinuing curbside glass collection due to the ongoing contamination issue. Glass recycling would continue – we would NOT get rid of it under any circumstances. We still need to seriously re-evaluate our contract with WM and continue to put serious pressure on them to improve their curbside collection service, but switching to free recycling carts for all residents and a community glass recyclable drop-off site would solve several major problems all at once at no cost to City taxpayers. I voted Yes because this seems like a common-sense, win-win solution for all City residents – that’s probably why Chocolay and Marquette Townships have already made a successful switch to this system using these same grants just this past year.

Waive PUD Minimum Lot Size for Osprey Court Housing Development: YES (Passed 7-0)

This is an exciting one – the City Commission was asked to waive the normal 2-acre minimum lot size for a Planned Unit Development at 1025 Osprey Court (just off 553/McClellan near Econo Foods), which is a roughly 1-acre lot. This will allow the Marquette County Land Bank and InnovaLab Development Group to build two duplexes which will contain a total of 4 owner-occupied housing units. InnovaLab, based out of Grand Rapids and led by housing expert and former Grand Rapids City Commissioner David Allen, specializes in affordable workforce housing development using modular construction techniques. This property was supposed to be the site of luxury condo development, but went into tax foreclosure in 2009 following the housing market crash. The County Land Bank has been trying to sell and redevelop it ever since, to no avail. However, the County Land Bank recently partnered with InnovaLab and the Michigan State Land Bank to build housing on the site, with the goal to get price points within the upper end of the workforce housing price range (80-120% Area Median Income, or a purchase price of less than $210,000). However, Mr. Allen stated at the meeting that even if they cannot get the price points for these units within the workforce price range, InnovaLab is planning to expand its presence in the U.P. and develop many more workforce housing units at lower price points in the City of Marquette and other communities in Marquette County in the near future. This project is the culmination of over a decade of worthwhile efforts to redevelop this abandoned parcel of land, and will hopefully provide a good case-study for future developments and herald the arrival of a responsible developer of badly needed affordable housing in our community – this is exactly the kind of progress Marquette needs right now in the midst of an unprecedented housing affordability crisis, and that’s why I voted Yes.

Approve Lakeshore Blvd. Coastal Restoration Design Contract: YES (Passed 7-0)

The City of Marquette received a $200,000 EGLE Coastal Management Grant in February 2021 for coastal restoration along the lakeshore near the southern portion of the new Lakeshore Blvd. This was a simple vote to approve a $9,600 contract with RES to design this portion of Phase II of the Lakeshore Blvd. project – the total construction budget for the project is set at $140,000, and when complete, the lakeshore between Pine and Wright Street will be transformed into dunes, swales, and coastal wetlands which will mimic the natural environments found along the south shore of Lake Superior to the greatest possible extent. This area will also be 100% open to the public, and this project will not only beautify the area and restore it to its previous natural state, but will prevent the serious erosion and coastal flooding that this area has experienced in recent years due to rapidly rising lake levels and more severe storms on Lake Superior.

Approve City Manager & City Attorney Performance Evaluations: YES (Passed 7-0)

The City Charter requires an annual performance evaluation of the City Manager and City Attorney, who are the only City officials hired directly by the City Commission. At our Aug. 30 meeting, the Commission authorized Mayor Smith to appoint three Commissioners – herself, Commissioner Hanley, and Commissioner Stonehouse –  to an evaluation subcommittee. All Commissioners provided feedback regarding the City Manager and City Attorney’s performance so far in their limited tenure in the position, as both were hired within the past year, and established goals for both of them for FY 2022.

The overall evaluation was very positive for both City Manager Karen Kovacs and City Attorney Suzanne Larsen. No increase in compensation was considered for either of them due to current fiscal constraints. I think they’re both doing a very good job, and I voted Yes.