City Budget & Operating Millage Q&A

These statements are made by City Commissioner Evan Bonsall on his own behalf. They reflect his own personal beliefs, and are NOT official statements made on behalf of the City of Marquette or any other members of the Marquette City Commission. This website is Evan Bonsall’s personal website – it is NOT the City of Marquette website or a news organization.

UPDATE: The City Commission approved a 2.6379 mill operating millage increase at the June 21, 2022 special meeting, raising the City’s of Marquette’s operating millage rate from 14.9225 mills to 17.5604 mills. The vote was 7-0 in favor of the increase. You can watch the official meeting video by clicking HERE.

For over a year now, the City has been dealing with significant budgetary challenges – after millions of dollars in cuts and cancelled or delayed projects, we are still facing a roughly $2 million structural deficit (out of an annual General Fund budget of around $20 million), and the only remaining alternatives are deep, long-term cuts to City services or raising new tax revenue. Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 21, at 5:15pm at City Hall, the City Commission will be holding a special meeting at which we will discuss and likely vote on an increase in the City’s property tax rate (a.k.a., our operating millage), potentially raising the City’s property tax rate from 14.9225 mills to 17.5604 mills (an increase of 2.64 mills, or 17.7%). This would equate to a property tax increase of about $226 per year or $18 per month for the average homeowner in the City of Marquette, with a similar effect on the average renter if landlords passed down 100% of the cost of the proposed increase to their tenants.

Here I have included answers to some of the most common questions that I have been asked by Marquette residents over the past few months. You can attend the meeting on Tuesday, June 21 or watch it live on Charter Channel 191 or the City of Marquette YouTube channel. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me as well at (906) 236-0247, [email protected], or on Facebook – I am happy to answer your questions and I want to hear your perspectives and ideas! Finally, I encourage everyone to check out the City’s FAQ page on the proposed operating millage increase, and watch the presentation from the May 9 City Commission meeting – they are both very informative and eye-opening. You can view them by clicking HERE.

Q: Why is a tax increase necessary? Can’t the City just make some cuts here and there?

A: I completely understand why folks are concerned, and I certainly don’t want property taxes to go up, either – although I am a renter, a large portion of my rent goes to pay my landlord’s taxes, and increases in non-City property taxes were partially responsible for an increase in my rent this year. I and everyone else at the City have been working very hard on this issue for the past year. Last fall, the City was looking at a $4.5-6.0 million deficit going into FY2022. We made a lot of cuts (including virtually eliminating overtime and delaying numerous capital expenditures on things like vehicles, roads, etc.) and negotiated very minimalistic new contracts with most of our employees (raises in City contracts over the past 2 years have generally ranged from 0-3%) – that got us down to a $1.9 million structural deficit. A structural deficit is a deficit that exists not because of extravagant new spending, but because the City does not have enough revenue to maintain current basic services.

Further cuts to eliminate this deficit would have required drastic reductions in those basic services – furloughing or laying off numerous employees in every department (a loss of human resources that it would take many years to recover from), major reductions in snow plowing and routine road and park maintenance, potential closure or major hours reductions for key parks and community centers like Lakeview Arena, the Senior Center, and Peter White Public Library, delaying urgently needed capital projects (like the purchase of a new fire truck), and so on. As a result, for FY2022 (the current fiscal year) the City Commission covered the remaining deficit with $1.9 million from reserves (we still have about $8 million in reserves, down from $14 million in 2018). This was not intended to be a permanent fix – those reserves won’t last forever – but merely to the buy the City Commission and City staff enough time to look at every possible solution to the City’s budgetary problems and leave no stone unturned. We knew that tough decisions would probably have to be made this year.

At the end of the day, the closure of the Presque Isle Power Plant cost the City $1.5 million in annual tax revenue starting in FY2020, Tax Tribunal/dark store appeals have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars more, state revenue sharing has declined significantly, and Proposal A has seriously limited the taxable values of properties (even as true cash values have increased dramatically). Without new revenue, the City will either have to enact deep cuts to City services (which I don’t think most City residents would be willing to tolerate), or we will spend down all of our remaining reserves by FY2025. This last option is terrible policy & would just be delaying the inevitable hard choices.

The City will likely still have to enact additional budget cuts this year, but there is very little “fat” left to trim after over a year of working very hard to minimize General Fund spending. If we’re going to maintain the City services and infrastructure that we already have, we will need to find a combination of spending cuts and new revenue this year.

Q: But didn’t the City just raise property taxes recently? My taxes keep going up every year!

A: No, the City has not raised our property tax rate since 2006. In fact, the City actually cut taxes in 2009 during the Recession, and never raised them again. In the meantime (especially in the past year), inflation and rapidly increasing material and fuel costs have hit the City hard, just like every business, family, and government entity in the country. Consider that in 2006 (the last time the City raised property taxes), a dollar had the same buying power as $1.44 today. That means a dollar only has about 70% of the buying power it did the last time the City raised its property tax rate, so adjusting for inflation, the City has about 30% less tax revenue per dollar of taxable property value today than it did in 2006! And that’s not even accounting for the fact that state revenue sharing is a lot lower today than it was in 2006, and that Proposal A has severely limited the growth of the taxable value of most properties in the City even as the true cash value of most properties has skyrocketed in that time. This is because the taxable value of a property can only change in Michigan according to an extremely conservative formula that always fails to keep pace with inflation, or when that property is sold, transferred, or substantially improved in some way. If your taxes have gone up substantially in recent years, this is because 1) your property was sold or transferred, 2) you made major improvements to your property, 3) it was previously undervalued and was re-assessed by the City Assessor, or 4) other local taxing entities (Marquette County, Marquette Area Public Schools, Peter White Public Library, the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, etc.) approved millage increases of their own – it is NOT because the City raised its millage rate.

Q: Why don’t you just cut Arts & Culture, Parks & Recreation, and tourism subsidies and promotions? Those aren’t essential services and they must cost a lot of money!

A: I’ve heard a few people suggest this, but it just doesn’t make much sense when you actually look at the City budget. Putting aside the fact that every City department has already had to make sacrifices this year, and ignoring the fact that the City’s Arts & Culture and Community Services (i.e., parks & rec) departments add tremendous value to Marquette and help make it a place people want to live (which I think is undeniably true and certainly not a secondary consideration when we’re talking about budget priorities), from a purely dollars-and-cents standpoint, Arts & Culture, parks, and tourism promotion are simply not the places you would look to fill a $1.9 million budget deficit.

Arts & Culture accounts for less than 1% of the City budget ($231,000 in FY2022), and in recent years they have not only been one of the most active and cost-efficient City departments, but they have actually generated almost as much revenue for the City as they cost the City through grants, fees, and events ($115,000 in FY2021 and a projected $164,000 in FY2022). Similarly, Community Services (i.e., parks & rec) accounts for only 3-4% of the City budget (~$500,000). In fact, many of the City’s parks and recreation services generate revenue and some even pay for themselves – for instance, we receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from Tourist Park each year, which has actually made a net profit for the City in recent years. Regardless, the City is not a business, it is a service provider – our parks system doesn’t pay for itself because it’s not designed to, and it frankly shouldn’t be. Parks exist for everyone in Marquette, and they cost money and require skilled, hard-working staff to maintain. Deep cuts to these two departments would be a tremendous loss for the Marquette community which would be felt by every resident, and even the complete elimination of these departments would only fill a small fraction of the City’s $1.9 million budget deficit, especially when accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

As for tourism, the City does not spend any significant amount of money on “tourism subsidies or promotions.” We cut funding for “Community Promotion” from $45,000 to $4,500 in this year’s budget, and this money generally isn’t spent on promoting tourism. The City spends about $80,000 per year on special events, but these events are enjoyed by thousands of locals as well as tourists, and in reality they almost pay for themselves by generating about $60,000 in revenue for the City. Similarly, the DDA spends $30-60,000 per year on “Promotion & Marketing,” but brings in more than $30,000 per year in promotional revenue. In comparison to a $1.9 million deficit and a $20+ million budget, this is relatively insignificant.

Q: But what about all these big projects the City’s doing right now? It seems like the City is spending beyond its means on extras, and now they’re raising our taxes!

A: I completely understand how someone might get this impression, because the City has been able to do some really cool, highly impactful projects in the past few years. However, this isn’t because we are irresponsibly spending beyond our means or because we’re rolling in money – rather, this is a testament to the expertise, creativity, and extremely hard work of our City staff and other community members and organizations that have made these projects possible. To cite some of the big ones:

  • Lakeshore Blvd. Relocation & Shoreline Restoration Project ($8-10 million project to move Lakeshore Blvd. 300 feet inland and prevent erosion and coastal flooding, paid for mostly through grants and Capital Improvement Bonds, with a small fraction of the road relocation funded through General Fund expenditures a couple years ago – also important to consider that the City was spending ~$300,000/year in General Fund money fixing up Lakeshore Blvd. and minimizing erosion after major storms devastated the shoreline almost every year).
  • Kids Cove Playground (~$1 million playground at Lower Harbor Park funded entirely through grants and charitable contributions raised by Marquette Playgrounds for All – no cost to City taxpayers).
  • Hurley Field Playground (refurbished playground at Hurley Field built using charitable contributions, volunteer labor, and a grant from the Marquette Public Art Commission – negligible cost to City taxpayers).
  • Founders Landing Pier Project (two new public piers built south of the Lower Harbor Ore Dock at Founders Landing, a $5.6 million project funded entirely through Brownfield TIF revenue from the Founders Landing development, without a single taxpayer dollar from the rest of the City – this was part of the Founders Landing Brownfield Plan since its inception in 2009).
  • Williams Park Repairs (funded almost entirely through grants and $40,000 in matching funds provided by the Marquette Tennis Assn. – the City only provided $8,000 in matching funds).

We have accomplished all of this in spite of our budgetary challenges, not because those challenges aren’t real or because were spending extravagantly. Foregoing these projects would have done virtually nothing to minimize the City’s current budget deficit, and would have cost Marquette some fantastic opportunities to improve our community. Even within very tight budgetary constraints, we can still do great things in Marquette if we’re creative and willing to put in the work.

Q: If the City needs new revenue, why can’t you just implement a ________ tax instead?

A: I have heard many reasonable and creative arguments from City residents that instead of raising property taxes, the City should implement some other tax. But after exhaustive research (believe me, I and many other folks at the City have lost a lot of sleep over this), there is simply no realistic alternative to a property tax increase, at least not for the near future. We have considered alternatives to a property tax increase, but these are very limited. For instance, a small City income tax (say, 1%) might make more sense in the long run than a millage increase, but it would not be possible to implement until at least 2-3 years from now, by which point our reserves will be completely exhausted without new revenue.

Lodging/hotel taxes would be a great source of revenue, but with very few exceptions they are essentially illegal under Michigan state law – and yes, that includes taxes on Airbnbs and other short-term rentals. The same is true of local sales taxes, which is another idea I’ve had a few people propose to me – they are simply prohibited by Michigan law. A voted bond levy could help with one-time capital expenses, but wouldn’t solve the core structural budget deficit issue the City is facing. DDA parking revenue goes directly towards paying for the maintenance of downtown parking, sidewalks, etc. – similarly, utility bill revenue goes directly towards paying for City water and sewer pipes and stormwater infrastructure. As a result, these funds cannot just be raided to cover the City’s budget deficit. This is what happens when the state government cuts revenue sharing, passes on unfunded mandates, and ties local governments’ hands to keep corporate lobbyists and partisan ideologues happy.

Q: What about making money from tourism? Can’t the City just raise fees for events or for non-City residents using our parks, or tax hotels and motels?

A: As mentioned above, Michigan state law prohibits the City of Marquette from charging sales or use taxes of any kind – this means that we cannot tax hotels, motels, campgrounds, Airbnbs, etc., like local governments can in most other states. We do already charge non-City residents higher user fees than City residents for many of our parks & recreation facilities, but according to Michigan state law, the City cannot just set user fees, permit fees, etc. as high as we want. In Michigan, local government fees may only be high enough to cover the cost of providing a particular service, and may not be any higher. As a result, raising fees is not a solution to the City’s budgetary problems. The City also cannot profit directly from tourism – whether a hotel is 100% full every night of the summer, or mostly empty most of the time, they pay the same amount of property tax to the City, and that’s it.

Q: What about marijuana? The City must be making a ton of money from all these new marijuana businesses moving into Marquette!

A: Aside from the relatively small amount of property taxes that marijuana businesses pay just like any commercial business, the City only gets revenue from marijuana sales through state revenue sharing – in FY2021, we received $28,000 from the state from the one marijuana retailer that existed in Marquette at that time, and in FY2022 we are receiving $225,600 in marijuana tax revenue ($56,400 per retailer). Again, according to Michigan state law, it is illegal for local governments to charge any sales/use tax, including excise taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Marijuana is also an incredibly unstable source of revenue – consider that the amount of tax revenue the City receives from each marijuana retailer nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022 – and as such, the City does not even factor it into our budget planning. This might change at some future date when Michigan’s marijuana market eventually stabilizes, but until then, marijuana is simply too unreliable as a revenue source, and it certainly could never generate enough revenue to significantly reduce the City’s budget deficit.

Q: Haven’t Brownfields and/or the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) TIF District caused all these budget problems? If we didn’t have to deal with TIF, the City would have way more property tax revenue!

A: There have certainly been some Brownfield Plans approved by the City that I felt were unnecessary, and I have voted against multiple Brownfield Plans in my time on the City Commission. It is true that past decisions about Brownfield Plans are part of the City’s current budgetary challenges, and some of these decisions (the DDA TIF District, the Founders Landing & UPHS-Marquette Brownfield Plans, etc.) go back many years or even decades, before most current City Commissioners were elected or even old enough to vote. However, I have heard some residents suggest that the City should just cancel some of its current Brownfield Plans or “reassess” these properties to pay off the Brownfield Plans and get them paying taxes into the General Fund more quickly. This is simply illegal. The City cannot arbitrarily reassess the taxable value of any property, nor can we get rid of the Brownfield Plan which was approved for the new hospital in south Marquette in 2014 or any other Brownfield Plan, as Brownfield Plans are legally binding contracts which require the consent of both parties (the City and the developer) to amend.

It is also important to consider that the City did not just hand out these Brownfield Plans because we were feeling generous. Most of these Brownfield redevelopment projects would not have happened at all if it weren’t for the availability of Brownfield TIF to reimburse the developers for major eligible expenses like environmental assessments and clean-up, vapor mitigation, parking, infrastructure, demolition and site preparation, lead and asbestos abatement, etc. The owners of Brownfield properties still pay taxes – most of those taxes are captured by the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority to reimburse the developer for eligible expenses, and in some cases to reimburse the City for issuing bonds for public infrastructure associated with a Brownfield redevelopment project. In the coming years, these Brownfield Plans will be fully paid off and start paying millions of dollars in property taxes into the City General Fund. For instance, the former Marquette General Hospital redevelopment will produce $1.5-2 million per year for the City starting 10-15 years from now, enough to completely eliminate the City’s current budget deficit all on its own. The new UPHS-Marquette hospital will start paying $1.24 million/year into the General Fund as soon as the late 2020s, and in the 2030s the City General Fund will start receiving taxes from the UP State Bank ($55,000/year), Founders Landing ($314,000/year), and Liberty Way ($169,000/year) – that brings the total future tax revenue from Brownfield projects by the 2040s to $3-4 million each year, a 15-20% increase in revenue for the City General Fund. All of these projects would have been impossible without a Brownfield Plan to make them financially viable for developers. In the long run, this revenue will be the solution to the City’s financial challenges, but it is impossible for the City to unilaterally cancel Brownfield Plans that have already been agreed upon.

Similarly, we cannot just cancel or revise our current TIF agreement with the DDA at any time – these agreements can only be renegotiated when they are up for renewal or when both parties (the City and the DDA) agree, and the DDA is facing budgetary challenges as well. I am certainly very skeptical of recent DDA proposals to expand their TIF district onto Third Street, but the DDA does provide important services to the downtown district (sidewalk plowing and de-icing, parking maintenance, promotions and events, etc.), and the City would have to pay for most of those services anyway in the DDA’s absence. In short, “defunding the DDA” is also not a realistic or desirable solution to the City’s budgetary problems.

Q: The City Commission has been talking a lot about affordable housing lately, but won’t raising taxes make housing much more expensive for both homeowners and renters?

A: I share these concerns about housing costs – I am the only renter on the City Commission, and I worry about the impact of a millage increase on people like me and many of my friends, family, and neighbors who are also renters or homeowners on limited incomes. I also believe that we need more affordable and mid-range housing in Marquette. That is why I chaired the Ad Hoc Housing Committee in 2020-21 and why I recently voted to designate a City-owned property at 600 W Spring St. for low-income/workforce housing development, for zoning reforms that will allow more “Missing Middle Housing” to gradually develop in our community, and for the redevelopment of the former hospital property which will lead to the creation of 300 new housing units (including dozens of senior housing and affordable/workforce housing units) over the next few years, and eventually generate $1.5-2 million in new tax revenue for the City. I believe that the City needs to implement further pro-housing zoning reforms (such as legalizing duplexes City-wide) and set aside as much surplus City-owned land as possible for affordable housing. My hope is that this can dramatically increase the supply of low- and middle-income housing in Marquette over the next few years – I believe the future of our community depends on it.

Regardless, the average renter in the City should only see about an $18-20 increase in their rent per month if their landlord passes down 100% of the cost of a millage increase to their tenants. My rent just went up $25/month and I am on a tight budget, too, so I understand that this is not easy for Marquette residents who are on limited incomes. But would it be preferable to degrade vital City services, see our parks and community spaces close down or fall into disrepair, let our roads and sewers crumble, or lose many of the City’s firefighters, police officers, and the people who maintain our parks, roads, sewers, and water system? Personally, I don’t think it would be, and I don’t think most Marquette renters (or City residents in general) think it would be, either.

That being said, it is important for renters to ask their landlords to justify any significant rent increases to them – I received a letter from my landlords explaining my recent rent increase, and good landlords will be willing to do the same. Some landlords may use a City property tax increase as an excuse to justify a large, sudden rent hike, but remember that the average renter should only see about an $18-20/month increase – of course, this amount will vary quite a bit depending on the size of your apartment and the taxable value of your rental property, but renters would be wise to be skeptical of a sudden large increase being explained away as resulting primarily from increased property taxes.

The impact on homeowners would be similar to that on renters – the average homeowner would see a property tax increase of $226 per year, or $18-20 per month. There would of course be a lot of variation, but the vast majority of Marquette homeowners own a house that falls close to the average home value. Any homeowner, regardless of income, can contact the City and make a payment plan if they are struggling to pay their property taxes. City staff are ready and willing to work with you – what is most important is that you communicate proactively with the City and pay what you can afford, even if it’s not the full amount owed to the City. Many City residents are also eligible for rental assistance, Homestead Property Tax Credits, and/or for disabled veteran or poverty property tax exemptions, and do not even know it. There is help available if you need it.

Q: If approved, when would an operating millage increase affect my tax bill?

A: The increase would take effect July 1, 2022 and would be incorporated into your summer tax bill – winter tax bills will not be affected by an operating millage increase. You do NOT need to pay your summer taxes right away – the deadline for 2022 summer taxes is Sep. 14, 2022, and you can submit summer tax payments with only a small late penalty (1% per month) through Feb. 28, 2023. As a result, all other things being equal, the average homeowner in Marquette could expect to see their summer taxes go up $226 and see their winter taxes remain essentially the same. Again, if you need help paying your taxes, please contact the City of Marquette – we can work with you to set up a payment plan that works for your budget.

Q: What if I pay my taxes using an escrow account?

A: Sometimes mortgage holders overcorrect with escrow withholdings. If the City Commission approves an operating millage increase, you should contact your mortgage company to make sure that the escrow is adjusted to the correct amount.

Final Thoughts

I have serious concerns about an operating millage increase, but the more I study this issue the more it seems that it may be the only realistic option, at least for the near future. If the City has to raise the operating millage rate, I believe we should commit to bringing property taxes back down in a few years once we can get a different, long-term source of new revenue and/or start seeing new tax revenue from the various Brownfield developments around town, which will start hitting the tax rolls in the late 2020s and 2030s. 

I hope I was able to address some of the question and concerns that you may have about the proposed City operating millage increase that the City Commission is voting on tomorrow evening – I know it’s not what anyone wants to hear, but I’m just trying to be honest with the people who elected me to do this difficult job. The can has been kicked down the road for many years by past City leaders, and it has landed in the current City Commission’s lap. It is our responsibility to listen to our constituents, and then do what is necessary to put the City back on a fiscally sustainable path. If there are specific City services that you would rather see cut instead of seeing a property tax increase, please let me know – I want to hear from you and I am willing to listen to any and all ideas.

Vote Explanations: 05-31-22, 06-13-22, & 06-15-22

Here are my explanations for all of the substantive votes I took at the City Commission meetings on May 31, June 13, and June 15, 2022, including my vote in favor of the Former Hospital Property Brownfield Plan on May 31 and my votes on proposed City land sales and in favor of affordable housing development at the June 15 special meeting. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns – you can call/text me at (906) 236-0247 or email me at [email protected]. Here are the video recordings of both City Commission meetings:

May 31, 2022:

June 13, 2022:

June 15, 2022:

May 31, 2022 Vote Explanations

Former Hospital Site Redevelopment Brownfield Plan: YES (Passed 7-0)

Veridea’s preliminary site plan for the former hospital site, including higher-density, multi-story apartments in the center of the property, senior housing on the west side, some commercial space (red), a public “greenway” & pedestrian avenue, and ~70 medium-density townhomes and small single-family homes along the edge of the property (a significant portion of which will be workforce housing affordable for households earning less than 120% of the Area Median Income (which is ~$44,000). The future of the space to the north labeled “P.A.C.” is yet to be determined, and the existing multi-level parking structure will most likely be renovated and preserved. The rest of the existing buildings will most likely need to be demolished due to the prohibitive cost of renovation. Total investment over the next 5-7 years will be at least $160 million and ~300 new housing units will be created.

This was a vote on a Brownfield Plan which was necessary to facilitate the redevelopment of the former hospital property in central Marquette by Veridea Group, a local development firm, and the NMU Foundation. At the meeting on May 16, one of the residents who offered public comment said something about this project which really stuck with me: “Rather than being divisive, we need to work together toward a positive outcome for the whole community.”

Prior to the construction of Marquette General Hospital, this property was a middle-income neighborhood. The Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report, which was unanimously approved by the Ad Hoc Housing Committee (AHHC) in June 2021, accepted by the City Commission in November 2021, and incorporated into the City’s Community Master Plan in 2022, contained numerous references to the former hospital property. Housing experts interviewed by the AHHC “recommended using Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF), 4% Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, MSHDA 9% tax credits, New Market Tax Credits, and other federal, state, and local incentives to attain affordability.” The AHHC Final Report also cited examples of successful redevelopment of former hospital sites into affordable, Missing Middle, or mixed-income housing using Brownfield TIF, such as the Mason Run project in Monroe, MI, the Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, and Jasperlite Senior Housing in Ishpeming. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and the NMU Foundation (NOT Northern Michigan University, but an independent 501c3 non-profit affiliated with the university) which was approved Feb. 28, 2022 includes “affordable and workforce housing as described in the City’s Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report” as a minimum requirement for this project. A review of the minutes from previous City Commission meetings clearly shows that the intent of this MOU was for “affordable and workforce housing” to be a “significant component” of this project.

At the public input sessions hosted by the NMU Foundation on May 3, housing was clearly the top priority for City residents and neighbors and the most desired future reuse of this property, and we all know that residents weren’t just talking about housing at any price point, but primarily about affordable housing or moderately priced “Missing Middle” housing. Higher-priced housing will certainly be a significant part of this development, but so will workforce housing, senior housing, and “Missing Middle” housing that may not technically be “affordable” for everyone, but which is certainly far more affordable than the $600,000 condos that have been developed in Marquette using Brownfield TIF in recent years.

In their response to the NMU Foundation’s Request for Qualifications, Veridea Group includes a preliminary site plan, and states that they will build “177 multi-family apartments … [at] a mix of price points and unit types [that] will … appeal to a wide income range and support University goals related to housing for students, faculty and staff.” Common sense dictates that you can’t sell $600,000 condos or rent luxury apartments to NMU students, faculty, and staff – even if these apartments are not in the “affordable” or “workforce” housing price range, they will still provide a much-needed increase in rental housing supply, and many of them will certainly be available at mid-range price points.

Veridea’s RFQ response further states that they will build approximately 70 townhomes and bungalows for “households earning up to 120 percent the Area Median Income, and are willing to commit to selling a percentage of these units at a price point attainable by those income earners.” This is literally the definition of workforce housing. Mr. Mahaney stated at the meeting on May 16 that, “We strongly support the City’s desire and the community’s desire to include an attainable housing component … and I will commit here on behalf of Veridea that we will work collaboratively with the City, with the Foundation, and with other stakeholders to achieve the goal of attainable housing on this site … we will commit some of our capital towards achieving that.”

I understand that many folks don’t like seeing any additional high-end or high-density housing construction – many others, myself included, wanted to see more commitments on affordable housing for this project. But the reality is that today we are faced with two alternatives: One in which hundreds of new housing units are built, dozens of them in the workforce housing price range and many more likely at still-attainable mid-range prices, including badly needed senior housing, multi-family apartments, and smaller single-family homes. In fact, the workforce housing units and other small single-family homes will likely be the first part of this project to be built. And by the way, the City will get $4.25 million to fix up College Ave. and improve other City infrastructure in the neighborhood that we otherwise wouldn’t get, and in 15 years we will receive $1.5-2 million in additional tax revenue from this site every single year. That would be enough to fill the City’s current budget deficit all on its own. This would allow us to maintain and improve City services, cut taxes for all City residents, or both. Duke LifePoint will also be contributing $10 million to this project, accepting at least a portion of their moral responsibility for the future of this site.

The other alternative is that nothing is built at this site, most likely for many years. Duke LifePoint could sit on it indefinitely, and likely reduce their tax liability on the site to near zero, and the City couldn’t legally to do anything about it. Marquette County will not acquire this property.

I grew up in a working-class family – my dad was a cop and my mom was a secretary – and when I was growing up in Marquette my family was forced to move several times to find housing we could afford. When I got a job in Marquette after college, I called every low-income housing complex in town and was told that their waitlists for studio and one-bedroom units were up to a year long, and I searched for over 6 months before finding a simple one-bedroom apartment that I could afford. I am a low-income individual, I’m the only renter on the City Commission (even though 51% of City of Marquette residents are renters), I spend nearly half of my income on housing, and my rent just went up this year, too. So as someone who understands the urgency of Marquette’s affordable housing crisis first-hand, while I wish we could somehow have 300 affordable housing units built at this site, I think we all know that’s not realistic, and I will happily take, say, 30 affordable units over zero affordable units. Voting “No” on this Brownfield Plan would do absolutely nothing to address Marquette’s housing needs, but voting “Yes” at least does something.

Over the past couple months, I have knocked on every door in every neighborhood surrounding this property – I’ve talked about the future of this property with dozens of people who can literally see it from their backyard or their front porch, many of whom have lived near the hospital for most of their lives. Most of them were curious and cautiously optimistic, but not one of them told me that they were against this project – almost universally, their top priority was seeing the building redeveloped as soon as possible. Indeed, while dozens of Marquette residents (mostly working-class people in their 20s and 30s like me) either showed up to speak at the meeting or wrote powerful and eloquent comments to the City Commission regarding affordable housing on May 31, many of them explicitly stated that they were not opposed to the redevelopment of the former hospital property or this Brownfield Plan – rather, they were demanding fast and meaningful action from the City on affordable housing, be it at this property or elsewhere in Marquette. I share those same priorities, and I can personally relate to many of the experiences, frustrations, and anxieties they shared. Veridea Group has clearly stated that this project will include a significant amount of workforce housing, and the City is taking action right now on affordable and “Missing Middle” housing in other areas as well – see below for the zoning reforms approved on May 31 and the designation of City-owned property at 600 W Spring St. for low-income/workforce housing development on June 15. Are we doing enough? No. But we are doing everything we can.

People who follow Marquette politics will know that I have never hesitated to vote against development proposals that I felt were a bad deal for the City and for Marquette residents and taxpayers. I voted against the Brownfield Plan for the Saving Bank project and against the Gaines Rock Townhomes (which were supposed to be “affordable for the average household in Marquette” and ended up selling for over $450,000). However, contrary to common belief, Veridea has had nothing to do with any of the controversial developments near Founders Landing. I also recently voted against an actual Veridea Group project in south Marquette, in which the City bonded for $2 million for infrastructure costs for a market-rate housing subdivision development with no affordable units.

I voted “Yes” on this Brownfield Plan because I believe that it is clearly a massive win for Marquette. The City, the NMU Foundation, and Veridea Group have all made various commitments regarding this project, and it our responsibility to pull our own weight and hold them accountable. By that, I don’t just mean the City Commission – I also mean everyone in this community. Over the next few years, if we work together, resist cynicism, and continue to have strong public engagement and commitment from the City Commission, the NMU Foundation, and Veridea Group, this project will bring huge benefits to Marquette, including new senior housing, workforce housing, and “Missing Middle” housing, all of which we desperately need right now. It’s on all of us to make that happen.

Pro-“Missing Middle Housing” Zoning Reforms: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote on the latest set of amendments to the City of Marquette Land Development Code (i.e., the City zoning code). These zoning reforms, which were approved unanimously by the Planning Commission in April, were primarily focused on making it easier to build “Missing Middle” housing in Marquette and encouraging incremental increases in residential housing density, all of which will help address Marquette’s housing crisis.

“Missing Middle housing” has a double meaning – it not only denotes housing that is moderate in price and affordable for middle-class households, but a specific kind of housing that will naturally be more affordable – according to the Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report, it “’Missing Middle Housing’ falls between single family lots and urban high density, and is defined as ‘a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units – compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes – located in a walkable neighborhood.’” Marquette needs to significantly increase its supply of Missing Middle Housing if it is to address its current housing crisis, as Missing Middle Housing not only allows for more units to exist within existing neighborhoods without decreasing anyone’s property values or quality of life, but it also produces smaller housing units that will naturally be more moderately priced. The walkability component is important, too, allowing people to live near where they work, shop, and spend their free time, and reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions.

I will share a post on affordable housing very soon which will review these zoning reforms in greater detail, but essentially they legalized Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, a.k.a. “granny flats” or “garage-top/backyard apartments”) City-wide, made it easier to develop smaller single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes where they are already allowed by reducing lot size and setback requirements, streamlined the City’s excessively lengthy and costly Site Plan Review process, and allowed permanent supportive housing as a special land use in certain zoning districts for the first time to help address chronic homelessness in Marquette. These pro-Missing Middle Housing zoning reforms were all recommended by the Ad Hoc Housing Committee and the Planning Commission. I would have liked to see duplexes legalized City-wide as well, but the Planning Commission needs more time to consider that Ad Hoc Housing Committee recommendation – I hope to see that zoning reform included in next year’s Land Development Code amendments.

Other zoning changes included easing up on City regulations on outdoor food and beverage service and off-street parking requirements, supporting Marquette’s small businesses and allowing the various innovations that they brought to our downtown district during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue. I was strongly in favor of all of these zoning reforms, and I proudly voted Yes. It will likely take years to see their full effect, but I am confident that they will have a great positive effect on the community, and especially on the availability and affordability of housing in Marquette.

Rezone City-Owned Property on N McClellan Ave. to Conservation/Recreation: YES (Passed 6-1)

This was a vote to rezone a roughly 10-acre City-owned property along N McClellan Ave. from “Municipal” to “Conservation/Recreation.” Dozens of nearby residents had petitioned the City to rezone the property for Conservation/Recreation after the City began considering selling the property for sale and development last year. This property consists of forestlands and wetlands which have historically been used exclusively for recreational purposes, with the bike path passing through the east side of the property and many residents of the surrounding neighborhoods using it as a de facto park because there are not any City parks nearby. The City’s Community Master Plan also designates this property for Conservation/Recreation, although like many vacant City-owned properties it was zoned “Municipal.” Years ago, former Mayor John Kivela and several former City Commissioners had publicly pledged that, when N McClellan Ave. was extended north to link Fair Ave. with Wright St., the surrounding City-owned property would continue to be preserved as undeveloped green space. After careful consideration, the Planning Commission voted 5-3 to recommend rezoning this property to Conservation/Recreation, and a review of the minutes shows that the Planning Commissioners who voted “No” did so primarily due to concerns with the timing of the rezoning so soon before the creation of a new Community Master Plan, rather than out of opposition to the rezoning itself. As a result, I felt that rezoning the property was appropriate, and voted Yes to rezone the property and preserve it for conservation and recreation.

Notice of Intent to Issue $6 Million in Capital Improvement Bonds: YES (Passed 7-0)

This is a vote that the City Commission takes each year to issue Capital Improvement Bonds to finance major infrastructure projects that cannot be cash-funded up front from the City’s General Fund budget. The City’s usual practice has been to limit Capital Improvement Bonds (i.e., debt used to pay for City infrastructure) to roughly $5-6 million each year, as we retire about $5-6 million in City debt each year. This allows us to finance expensive infrastructure projects each year without increasing the City’s overall debt load. In that sense, this year’s Capital Improvement Bonds are nothing out of the ordinary. However, in addition to funding normal street maintenance and improvements, this year’s Capital Improvement Bonds will also fund the Shoreline Restoration Project and infrastructure for a new subdivision in south Marquette, on former Parcel 12 of the Heartwood Forest. The final phase of the Lakeshore Blvd. relocation project, the Shoreline Restoration Project will see Marquette’s northern shoreline east of the new Lakeshore Blvd. restored to natural dunes, swales, coastal vegetation, and pebble and sand beach – this will dramatically reduce out-of-control erosion of our public lakeshore, reduce the risk of damaging coastal flooding, and help restore our public beaches in the long run. I am strongly in favor of this project, and I think most Marquette residents feel the same way. I am much less supportive of issuing $2 million in City bonds to pay for roads and water infrastructure for the new subdivision being built by Veridea Group in south Marquette – I might feel differently if a portion of these units were affordable for working-class families, but this is a market-rate development consisting almost entirely of $300,000+ houses which I do not feel will do much to meet Marquette’s housing needs. Essentially, the City is subsidizing unaffordable housing, and I voted No on this deal when it was proposed, but it passed 4-3. We were also voting on the entire Capital Improvement Bond issue for FY 2022 – we couldn’t pick and choose which projects we liked and which ones we didn’t. As a result, I voted Yes to issue up to $6 million in Capital Improvement Bonds for FY2022.

Select Smith Construction as Shoreline Restoration Project Contractor: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote to select a contractor for the Shoreline Restoration Project mentioned above. This is a large, multi-million dollar project, and Smith Construction came in significantly lower than all other bidders. There was some concern expressed that Smith Construction was possibly cutting corners in their bid, but the City’s contract with Smith Construction is legally binding – they must complete the project to the City’s satisfaction for the agreed-upon price of $4.3 million, or they must obtain an amendment to the contract. They must also follow all local and state regulations regarding paying prevailing wage, safety, and environmental due diligence, and the City will be monitoring this project especially closely due to its unique size and importance to the community. I voted Yes.

Reject UPPCO Utility Franchise Agreement in City of Marquette: YES (Passed 6-1)

This was a common-sense vote in my opinion. The City of Marquette is extraordinarily lucky to have a publicly owned and operated electric utility, the Marquette Board of Light & Power (BLP). The BLP is the only electric utility in the City of Marquette, and provides electricity to the City and some surrounding areas. As a publicly-owned utility, the BLP is governed by an elected board that is accountable directly to the people of Marquette, and is able to keep rates lower than in the rest of the U.P. because they can provide electrical service at cost rather than maximizing profits or satisfying corporate shareholders. Indeed, as everything (including electricity) was getting more expensive virtually everywhere in the country, the BLP was able to cut electric rates last year. UPPCO (a private company) provides electricity to most of the U.P., and they had been supplying power to Marquette Range Coal Services Co. at the Upper Harbor for many years without a legally required City franchise agreement and without the City’s knowledge. In 2019, the City became aware of this, and UPPCO formally asked the City to approve a limited franchise agreement to allow them to continue offering this service. However, this would have gone against the principal that the BLP should be the sole provider of electricity in the City of Marquette, and would have set a dangerous precedent that could have threatened the future viability of the BLP as a publicly owned electric utility. I was also bothered by the fact that we would essentially be overlooking, and indeed rewarding, decades of breaking the rules on UPPCO’s part. As a result, I voted to reject the proposed franchise agreement with UPPCO.

June 13, 2022 Vote Explanations

Confirm Appointment of Dulcee Ranta as City Assessor: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a common-sense vote to appoint Dulcee Ranta as the new City Assessor. Our previous City Assessor resigned several months ago, and this is a critically important role, as the City Assessor determines the taxable value of all property in the City of Marquette (and thus plays a crucial role in determining how much property tax revenue the City will receive). Cities without fair, accurate, and up-to-date assessments are essentially shooting themselves (and their residents) in the foot. Thankfully, the City Manager appointed an extremely qualified candidate to fill this position – Dulcee Ranta has worked as an assessor for 18 years and in local government for 23 years, and is actually a State Tax Commission instructor who trains other assessors. We couldn’t ask for a better City Assessor, and I’m sure she will do a fantastic job.

Vacate Dead-End Portion of Center Street: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was another common-sense vote, in this case to vacate a dead-end block of Center St. next to the Superior Dome. NMU owns all of the adjacent properties, and would become responsible for the street and the former City right-of-way, potentially taking ownership of the property in the future as dictated by state law. There was no public opposition expressed at the meeting (a neighbor actually spoke in favor of the vacation), the Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the City Commission approve NMU’s vacation request, and this would save the City of Marquette a small amount of money by avoiding future maintenance costs for this portion of Center St. I voted Yes as a result.

June 15, 2022 Special Meeting Vote Explanations

Request Proposals for Low-Income/Workforce Housing Development at 600 W Spring Street: YES (Passed 5-1)

Amdt. to Require That Future Development Be Affordable Housing: YES (Passed 4-2)

The City received an unsolicited offer from the Beacon House to purchase a roughly 1-acre City-owned property located next to the new Beacon House facility, on the corner of Spring St. & 7th St. The plans for the property were quite vague, but it seemed likely that the property would be primarily used for additional parking for the Beacon House facility. The property has been appraised at $128,000, which would likely be the negotiated sale price – if owned by the Beacon House (a tax-exempt nonprofit) it would have no taxable value. While the Beacon House is a wonderful charitable organization that provides an incredibly valuable service to our community, I did not feel that this was a desirable future use for this property, which is essentially an undeveloped sandlot with a few trees on it located along the bike path only one block from downtown Marquette, the new hospital, a grocery store, and a park.

The City Commission determined that this surplus City-owned property should be sold for future development, and Commissioner Stonehouse made a motion to deny the Beacon House’s purchase request and direct City staff to develop and publicize a Request for Proposals (RFP) to attract developers for the property. Given Marquette’s great need for both additional affordable housing and additional tax revenue, the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report and the Community Master Plan that the City designate surplus City-owned properties for future affordable housing development, the fact that the property is in an extremely walkable location and adjacent to properties that are zoned for Multi-Family and Medium-Density Residential, and the recommendation of City staff that “from a planning perspective [600 W Spring St.] is a good location for a higher density workforce housing,” I offered an amendment to Commissioner Stonehouse’s motion that the RFP for this property should specifically require that it be used exclusively for “higher-density Low-Income or Workforce Housing as defined in the Community Master Plan and the Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report.” The AHHC Final Report and Community Master Plan define “low-income housing” as housing that is affordable for households earning less than 80% of the Area Median Income (i.e., less than $35,000 per year) and “workforce housing” as housing that is affordable for households earning 80-120% of the Area Median Income (i.e., ~$35-55,000 per year).

Designating surplus municipal properties specifically for affordable housing development is a strategy used by many other communities facing housing affordability challenges, including peer communities like Traverse City, Midland, etc. – in fact, the Marquette County Land Bank has been involved in several affordable housing projects in the West End of Marquette County. Realistically, higher-density development could yield anywhere from 8 to 25 units even on a one-acre parcel like this one. With the hospital, the Beacon House, Snowberry Heights, and the Grandview Marquette low-income housing complex all located within a couple blocks of this property, this would not at all be inconsistent with existing land uses in this neighborhood. My amendment passed 4-2, with Commissioners Stonehouse and Davis opposed, although the motion as amended passed 5-1, with Commissioner Davis joining in support. I hope that the City will receive some promising offers to our RFP, and that this will be the first of several affordable housing developments on City-owned land in the coming years.

Deny Request to Sell City Property in Heartwood Forest: YES (Passed 6-0)

The City received another unsolicited offer from Curran & Company to purchase a large amount of property in the City-owned Heartwood Forest in south Marquette, with much of this property (and all of the property that Curran & Co. planned to develop) actually located south of the city line in Sands Twp. The entire property in question was located west of M-553, Marquette Mountain, the NTN South Trailhead, and Mr. Curran’s existing Rippling River Campground. The proposal was for an unspecified development on 20 acres at the south end of the Heartwood, with the remainder of the property (several dozen additional acres) to be placed into a permanent conservation easement. This area is undeveloped forestland which includes Morgan Falls and many miles of NTN non-motorized trails. The purchase offer was $100,000, and although no appraisal has been conducted for this property, that is certainly far less than the property is actually worth. Additionally, this portion of the Heartwood Forest has been designated for many years exclusively for conservation and recreation – only Heartwood Parcel 35 (i.e., Rippling River Campground) and the northernmost portions of the Heartwood were ever designated for future sale and development. The president of the NTN and other City residents who I spoke with also expressed valid concerns about the potential impact of this land sale on NTN trails, which are regularly used by thousands of Marquette residents and contribute to our local economy and quality of life. As a result, I voted to deny the sale request.

Deny Request to Sell City Property at Founders Landing for Hotel Development: YES (Passed 6-0)

Rough outline of the remaining undeveloped City-owned property at Founders Landing (~4 acres)

The City received a request to purchase a roughly 4-acre City-owned property at Founders Landing which, like those mentioned above, was an unsolicited offer from a private buyer. The offer (for a price to be determined) was from Marquette Opportunity, LLC, the same firm which just developed the new Fairfield Inn at Founders Landing near the intersection of Lakeshore Blvd and S Front St. – their proposal was to build another hotel on the property. The request to purchase it and build another hotel on that property was denied on a 6-0 vote. The City needs to plan for the future of that property and get the best long-term future use out of it, and yet another lakefront hotel at Founders Landing does not meet a pressing community need. The total investment proposed by Marquette Opportunity, LLC was $12-14 million with no Brownfield Plan requested – assuming that the taxable value of the property would be similar to the total investment, this would likely equate to less than $200,000 in new tax revenue for the City. This is certainly not a small amount of revenue, but it is a small fraction of the City’s current $1.9 million budget deficit and roughly $20 million General Fund budget, and it is likely that a different form of development (for instance, medium-density housing or mixed residential and commercial) would yield a significantly higher property value per acre, and thus more tax revenue. Especially when we’re talking about our public lakeshore, we need to be proactive and thoughtful rather than reactive and short-sighted, and I am also certain that most Marquette residents would not have been in favor of accepting this offer. As a result, I voted to deny the sale request.