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, ebonsall@marquettemi.gov, 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 ebonsall@marquettemi.gov. Here are the video recordings of both City Commission meetings:

May 31, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5jiBkkLkZ4

June 13, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MkYOePRXqw

June 15, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S61gzJJyKMY

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.

04-25-22 Vote Explanations

These are my vote explanations from the Monday, April 25, 2022 Marquette City Commission meeting. As always, please reach out to me with any questions at (906) 236-0247, ebonsall@marquettemi.gov, or on Facebook. You can watch the meeting HERE.

Switch to Mandatory Universal Recycling Cart System: NO (Passed 4-3)

This was a vote to accept two grants from EGLE and the Recycling Partnership (totaling $355,200) to fund a significant change to the City’s residential curbside recycling collection system. Under this new system, all residents will be required to use 64-gallon recycling carts (rather than their own smaller recycling bins), which will be provided for free to each household using grant funds. About half of City residents have already switched to the recycling carts, and they will no longer have to pay the small fee (less than $2/month) to use the carts. Several neighboring townships have already switched to a mandatory free recycling cart system, the grants did not require matching funds from the City, and this change is projected to significantly increase the City’s recycling rate and the total volume of recyclables produced by Marquette.

However, although I understood these potential benefits, I voted “No” for several reasons. First, many residents contacted me to express legitimate concerns about accessibility. For many seniors and people with disabilities who are able to bring a small recycling bin to the curb, it will likely be difficult or impossible to do the same with a heavy, cumbersome 64-gallon cart. It is possible for City residents with disabilities to call the Dept. of Public Works (DPW) to be placed on an “accessibility list” – people on this list may have their trash and recyclables collected from their door, garage, backyard, etc. However, based on the discussion in the meeting on Monday night, it was clear to me that it will likely not be possible for the City to provide this accommodation to everyone who needs it. On a related note, part of the justification for switching to a universal recycling cart system is that it will make curbside recycling collection much more efficient, but these efficiency gains will likely be partially negated by a large influx of residents signing up for the accessibility list, as it will take Waste Management employees much longer to collect recyclables from seniors and people with disabilities on this list (and again, there is a logistical limit to how many people can be on this list, regardless of the actual need for accessibility accommodations).

Second, I felt that the proposed universal recycling cart program was very inflexible – in order to comply with grant requirements, all City residents will be required to use 64-gallon carts regardless of actual need and with no option to use a smaller cart; there is no clear plan to make accommodations or exceptions for residents who genuinely do not have space to store a 64-gallon cart or who live in condo associations and HOAs that prohibit outdoor storage of refuse containers; and there is no way for City residents to decline to accept the cart and simply opt out of the curbside recycling program if they choose.

Finally, every single household living on every residential property containing 1-4 residential units will receive their own recycling cart, but this doesn’t really make any sense and seems to me to be an egregious waste of resources. For instance, I live in a fourplex with 8 other people, and in the more than 3 years that I have lived there, we have never once even come close to filling our two 64-gallon recycling carts in a week – in fact, we usually don’t even fill one. Yet under this new system, we will be required to accept four 64-gallon carts. This might make more sense if, as is the case in most communities with mandatory recycling cart systems, the City only collected recyclables once per month or every two weeks, but it doesn’t make any sense with weekly curbside recycling collection. Sure, these grants technically don’t cost the City anything directly, but that doesn’t make this new system any less wasteful.

All that being said, I certainly hope that I’m wrong, and that the new universal recycling cart program proves to be extremely successful. I’m not opposed to this policy in principle, and without all of the onerous requirements imposed by EGLE and the Recycling Partnership, I might have voted Yes. The new recycling carts will be delivered to Marquette residences in September or October.

Purchase Replacement Fire Truck: YES (Passed 6-1)

On Monday night I also voted to purchase a new Pierce fire truck to replace one of our two aging 2004 Pierce fire truck units. These trucks have served us well for many years, but they are nearing the end of their useful lives, and frankly the City has already delayed purchasing replacements for these trucks for years longer than it should have. As you can see in the images above, these trucks are not in good condition – they are experiencing severe frame corrosion issues (in many places the frame on these trucks is now thinner than the frame for a half-ton pickup truck), and many other components are also deteriorating and in need of repair or replacement. Our Motor Pool and Fire Dept. staff estimate that the risk of catastrophic failure of these trucks is now “very high,” and they expressed that it is a constant challenge just to keep them running. To make matters worse, there is a 22-month waiting list for new trucks, and the cost of new fire trucks is rising exponentially – if we did not order a new truck before May 1, the price would have gone up 7%, with a similar price increase later this year. At a time when the City is facing a structural budget deficit, a massive capital expense like a new fire truck is very difficult to bear. However, by ordering at least one new truck now, we can save hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and we can also use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to pay for the new truck. In total, the new fire truck will cost $829,000 – ARPA funds will cover 100% of this cost, avoiding any impact to the City budget and leaving over $1 million in remaining ARPA funds for the City to use in the future. The City will save up to $150,000 by ordering the truck before May 1, and another $40,000 by paying upon order rather than upon delivery. The new fire truck will also have significantly greater capabilities than the 2004 model it is replacing, and will have a 25-year expected lifespan (with a 25-year frame warranty) vs. 15 years for the 2004 model. Given the high risk of catastrophic failure and the human and financial risks that come with that, I did not feel that it would be responsible to delay the purchase of at least one new truck even further – after all, maintaining public safety needs to be our top priority as City Commissioners, the trucks have already outlasted their expected 15-year lifespans by several years (each truck has about 450,000 miles on it) and in the likely event that one of our fire trucks were to break down in the next two years we would be forced to order a new truck anyway, and at a much higher cost and in a position even further down the waiting list. That is why I voted Yes.

Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Week Proclamation: YES (Passed 7-0)

I voted in favor of a City proclamation recognizing April 29-May 5 as Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Week in the City of Marquette. Marquette is located on the ancestral homelands of the Anishinaabe Three Fires Confederacy and is home to hundreds of Indigenous women, and Indigenous women are murdered at a rate nearly 10 times the national average and are far more likely to be victims of violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, and human trafficking. It is incredibly important that we shed light on this often-overlooked crisis, and while this proclamation is admittedly a very small step, it will hopefully at least raise awareness of the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.P. and the rest of North America, and encourage further study and concrete action to address the systemic root causes of widespread violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Marquette Symphony Orchestra 25th Anniversary Proclamation: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a proclamation recognizing the 25th anniversary of the Marquette Symphony Orchestra and acknowledged the MSO’s incredibly valuable contributions to the Marquette community. I feel that the MSO is a wonderful community asset which I hope we can all enjoy for another 25 years and more, and I happily voted Yes.

Vote Explanations: 03-14-22, 03-28-22, & 04-11-22

Here are my explanations for all of the substantive votes I took on the City Commission in the month of March 2022, and the one vote I took at the City Commission meeting on April 11, 2022. My apologies for taking several weeks to upload the March vote explanations – I normally try to post public vote explanations online within one week of the City Commission meeting in question, but sometimes life, school, and work get in the way, and the past several weeks have been very busy for me in all three of those departments. I hope you understand, and I will post my vote explanations for the April 25 City Commission meeting in the normal timely fashion. 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 ebonsall@marquettemi.gov. Here are the video recordings of both City Commission meetings:

March 14, 2022 Meeting Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPTRgu0mRbw

March 28, 2022 Meeting Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6KSnywb53U

April 11, 2022 Meeting Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVXC46eVkhs

March 14, 2022 Vote Explanations

Create City Commission Fmr. Hospital Redevelopment Subcommittee: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a motion authorizing the Mayor to appoint 3 City Commissioners to a subcommittee which will act as observers while the NMU Foundation reviews proposals and selects a master developer for the former hospital property in central Marquette. The subcommittee will serve in a non-voting, advisory capacity to both the NMU Foundation and City Commission throughout this process, although it is important to reiterate that the NMU Foundation will need majority support from the full City Commission to obtain a Brownfield Plan, which will be necessary to make any redevelopment of the former hospital property financially viable. I voted Yes to provide City Commission oversight over this process, and Mayor Smith appointed herself, Mayor Pro Tem Mayer, and Commissioner Davis to the subcommittee.

Kids Cove Playground Budget Amdt.: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a minor amendment to the current City budget. First, it is important to note that this budget amendment did NOT increase the City of Marquette’s spending on the new Kids Cove playground at Lower Harbor Park – in fact, the new universally accessible playground will still be completed without spending any City taxpayer dollars. Essentially, due to design revisions and cost increases, the City Commission was asked to raise the budget for the Kids Cove Playground to $1.5 million, up from $1 million. Marquette Playgrounds for All, a local nonprofit, has already raised the $300,000 match for the $300,000 grant the City obtained to fund this project, and they are well on their way to raising the remaining funds from private donors. We are still planning to begin construction this summer. This budget amendment was necessary to achieve our vision for this amazing new playground, and it has essentially zero actual impact on the City budget, so I voted Yes.

MiNextCities Memorandum of Understanding (MOU): YES (Passed 7-0)

This is an agreement between the City of Marquette and the MiNextCities Program. MiNextCities is working on a roadmap for small to mid-size cities like Marquette to help make Michigan a leader in the deployment of “smart city” policies, capturing the benefits of next-generation smart energy and mobility solutions. This does not cost the City anything, and over the next 3 years MiNextCities will identify local energy solutions backed by research, policy, and urban planning to benefit Marquette residents. Marquette has been selected to serve as a test case to help create a roadmap for other small cities in Michigan, and there is no cost for us to participate. This will also help us achieve our goal of reducing the City’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050, and yield other benefits like helping our government operate more efficiently. This is a very low-risk, high-reward opportunity which doesn’t cost a single taxpayer dollar, and I felt this was a common-sense Yes vote.

March 28, 2022 Vote Explanations

Appoint New Chief of Police & Harbor Master: YES (Passed 7-0)

Marquette’s new Chief of Police Ryan Grim.

Our former Police Chief Blake Reiboldt retired after a lifetime of service to the City of Marquette, and after honoring his impressive service and achievements, we appointed Ryan Grim as Marquette’s next Chief of Police & Harbor Master. Chief Grim has 20 years of experience in law enforcement, and is a truly exemplary officer and leader in Marquette Police Department. I am extremely happy for him and his family, and I gladly voted to confirm his appointment.

Amend WM Solid Waste Collection Contract, Switch to Garbage Tag System: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was an amendment to our contract with Waste Management (WM) which will allow us to switch to a tag/sticker system for trash collection, discontinuing the green City garbage bags. Now City residents can use their own trash bags, and must purchase tags or stickers at the same location where green City garbage bags were previously sold. The tag/sticker system is already used by most other municipalities in Marquette County, will be more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable than the bag system, will resolve major supply chain issues that have led to repeated City garbage bag shortages, and will also save residents money, with the tags/stickers costing $1.35 each versus $1.50 for each green City garbage bag. This is a very sensible change and an elegant solution to the City garbage bag shortage issue, and I voted Yes as a result.

Adopt New Fire Safety Ordinances: Tabled (7-0)

This was a vote to consider ordinance amendments which would have adopted new versions of the NFPA Life Safety Code and NFPA Fire Code, known as “NFPA 1.” However, these changes were extremely complex, and my fellow City Commissioners and I did not feel that we had received enough information on the details and potential effects of these changes to cast an educated vote. We tabled the motion, and asked City staff to gather further information and report back to the City Commission in the near future with additional analysis and alternatives. I am confident that we will be able to adopt new codes which make much-needed updates to our City codes and keep all City residents safe no matter where they live and work, while also avoiding any excessive regulatory burdens that could further increase housing costs and discourage future development in Marquette.

Tourist Park Grant Application: YES (Passed 7-0)

Illustration of the planned access road & parking area in north Tourist Park.

This was a vote to apply for a grant to build a day use access road and parking area at Tourist Park. The grant would provide $250,000 in funding, and require $250,000 in matching funds – however, the entire match would be provided from the Tourist Park Enterprise Fund (which is intended solely to fund capital projects like this at Tourist Park), and would not require a single dollar from the City General Fund. The total cost of the project would be $500,000, and it would be completed in 2023. I felt that this was a very important and fiscally responsible project for Tourist Park, and I voted Yes.

Lions Lakeside Park Grant Application: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote to apply for a grant on behalf of the Marquette Lions Club, who have adopted Lions Lakeside Park on South Front Street. Grant funds would be used to make accessibility improvements, enhance the view of Lake Superior, and interpret both the natural and cultural assets of the park. The grant would provide $110,000 in funding, with a $35,000 match provided by the Marquette Lions Club. As with the Kids Cove Playground, zero City funds will be used. As a result, I felt this was a great opportunity and a common-sense idea for our community, and I voted Yes. 

April 11, 2022 Vote Explanations

Amend Eagle Mine Trucking Corridor Agreement: YES (Passed 7-0)

In 2014, the City of Marquette negotiated a first-of-its-kind Trucking Corridor Agreement with Eagle Mine, LLC. This agreement established firm requirements that Eagle Mine compensate the City on an annual basis for the wear and tear on City infrastructure and other costs imposed by their large mine trucks which operate along a route that runs through the City from Hawley to Sugarloaf to Wright. This was a vote to amend the original Trucking Corridor Agreement to restructure the Eagle Mine’s payment schedule – now, the City will receive a $2.7 million up-front payment this year, with no annual payments from Eagle Mine in the 2022-23 & 2023-24 years as a result. Eagle Mine will then pay approximately $134,000 per year, or up to $621,000 in additional compensation, from 2025 to 2028. This is not reducing Eagle Mine’s obligations to the City – it is merely a restructuring of the payment schedule. It is important to reiterate that this agreement truly was one of the first of its kind, was the result of long, hard negotiations with Eagle Mine, and has served as a model for other communities looking to hold mining companies accountable for their disproportionate impacts on municipal infrastructure. These funds must actually be used for the repair and maintenance of City infrastructure along the Eagle Mine Trucking Corridor, but of course this does offset expenses that would otherwise have to come out of the regular City Budget. I felt that this was a fair agreement for the City, and I voted Yes.

02-28-2022 Vote Explanations (including Fmr. Hospital Property MOU)

Here are my vote explanations from the Monday, February 28, 2022 City Commission meeting. A detailed explanation of my vote on the proposed redevelopment of the former Marquette General Hospital property in central Marquette follows. As always, please reach out to me with any questions at (906) 236-0247, ebonsall@marquettemi.gov, or on Facebook. You can also watch the meeting video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjZ1Tiwc3nc

MOU w/ NMU Foundation on Fmr. Hospital Property Redevelopment: YES (Passed 7-0)

Amdt. to Require Employment of Local Trades Program Apprentices: YES (Passed 6-1)

This was a vote on a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, between the City and the NMU Foundation, which is a nonprofit entity that is NOT the same thing as Northern Michigan University. This MOU is a non-binding agreement which is the first step in the redevelopment of the former hospital property in central Marquette, which is currently owned by Duke LifePoint. Contrary to what some have claimed, this MOU did not include Duke LifePoint as a party, and NMU is not buying the former hospital property. The NMU Foundation is temporarily acquiring the property, assuming significant risk, so that they can work with the City to facilitate its future private redevelopment and return it to the tax rolls – it is NOT being purchased by NMU as many people seem to believe.

Again, this MOU is not a binding contract, and it does not commit the City Commission to approving a future Brownfield Plan. The City Commission and the public will be presented with a detailed, legally binding Brownfield Plan for this site in the next few weeks or months, and we will work with the NMU Foundation as they go through the process of public engagement and selecting a developer for the property. However, as the MOU explicitly states on page 3, “Any future binding contract between the parties [i.e., a Brownfield Plan] will require the approval by resolution of the Marquette City Commission and the City of Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.” This future Brownfield Plan will also include many more concrete details and firm commitments than this preliminary MOU.

This MOU does commit the NMU Foundation to ensuring that, at a minimum, the future master developer of the property builds a significant amount of “affordable and workforce housing as described in the City’s Ad Hoc Housing Committee Final Report.” That Final Report and its definitions of affordable and workforce housing were unanimously approved by the Housing Committee and the City Commission in 2021. I am 100% certain that myself and many of my fellow Commissioners will require more specific, firm affordable housing commitments from the developers and the Foundation before approving any future Brownfield Plan for this project. Thanks to an amendment offered by Mayor Pro Tem Mayer, the future master developer of the property will also have to employ apprentices in licensed local trades programs to help redevelop the site. I also hope that a provision can be included in the Brownfield Plan which requires that the developer pay prevailing wages to workers on this entire project – at the very least, the City has already committed to paying prevailing wages for all City components of the project.

I’ve heard some residents asking why a Brownfield Plan is necessary to redevelop this property; why the developer or the City can’t just pay for the demolition, renovation, and clean-up costs; or why the City can’t simply apply for some grants to cover those costs.

In fact, there are potentially millions of state and federal grant dollars that were partially dependent on the City approving this MOU last night. Duke LifePoint has also offered up $10 million to help with the redevelopment of the property once they transfer it to the NMU Foundation for a nominal price of $1.00. However, the reality is that the City could never hope to obtain enough funding from grants alone to cover the massive costs involved in revitalizing the former hospital property.

There is severe lead and asbestos contamination on the property, and it is also “functionally obsolete,” which qualifies it as a Brownfield site under state law. Most buildings on the property are in poor condition and would be extremely expensive to renovate – that is why the hospital relocated to a new location back in 2015, rather than renovate the existing facility. The demolition, renovation, & clean-up costs alone would exceed the entire annual City budget of around $20 million. For the same reason, no private developer could ever profitably redevelop this property without Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to reimburse them for eligible expenses like clean-up, demolition, and infrastructure. In addition, grant funding will also probably be needed to help cover the huge costs involved.

The honest truth is that if we ever want to see the former hospital property redeveloped, private investment and a Brownfield Plan are going to be necessary – there is no getting around that fact, the numbers speak for themselves.

I have also heard other legitimate questions from City residents. Isn’t the City facing a budget deficit right now? Isn’t the City currently getting tax revenue from the old hospital property? Aren’t Brownfield Plans partially responsible for the City’s current budget deficit? The simple answer to all of these questions is yes, but we need to look at the details behind these simple answers before coming to premature and incorrect conclusions.

By delaying the point at which Brownfield redevelopments start paying property taxes into the City general fund, Brownfield Plans do play a role in the City’s structural budget deficit. Any observers of City politics in the past 2 years will know that I have voted against recent Brownfield Plans that I did not feel were in the best interests of City taxpayers and regular Marquette residents, and I have not been the only City Commissioner to do so.

However, the real problem is that the City hasn’t raised taxes in over a decade, while at the same time losing millions in tax revenue from the Presque Isle Power Plant closure and Tax Tribunal and “dark store loophole” appeals. The City Commission has not yet decided how to fill the $1.9 million hole that still remains in our budget even after last year’s budget cuts, and we do need more public input before making any final decisions. But the can has been kicked down the road long enough, and has landed in the current Commission’s lap. The choice we now face is between finding some form of new revenue until these Brownfield projects start paying taxes into the general fund, or making deep cuts to City services for the next decade or more. It is not legally possible for the City to just go back on past Brownfield Plans, as some residents have suggested – that would be an illegal violation of legally binding contracts.

And yes, the old hospital property currently generates about $150,000 in tax revenue for the City each year, but even ignoring other community benefits like affordable housing, new public spaces, and the huge long-term increase in tax revenue from redeveloping the property, the reality is that a Brownfield Plan would give the City over $4 million in new revenue to upgrade City infrastructure in that neighborhood, which is far more than the roughly $2.25 million we would otherwise get from that property over the next 15 years. We also need to consider that, if this property is not redeveloped soon, Duke LifePoint could (and probably would) simply cut their losses, relocate their on-site staff, and claim a property tax exemption, depriving the City of even the minimal tax revenue we currently receive from the former hospital property. Finally, after 15 years, the taxes generated from this property would be far, far greater than they are now – the total private investment in this property will be $160 million (NOT $650 million, as was inaccurately reported by local news media today). This investment is equal to about 12% of the entire City tax base (the total value of all private property in the City of Marquette was about $1.366 billion in 2020). That means taxes for all City residents could potentially be lowered in the future, while still providing enough revenue to balance the City budget, provide better City services, and maintain our City parks & infrastructure.

During public comment, some residents claimed that this MOU would potentially create additional legal liability for the City. These concerns stemmed from a clause in the MOU which states that the City could potentially acquire parts of the property from the NMU Foundation. However, this clause was referring to the potential (though certainly not guaranteed) use of the City of Marquette as a very short-term “pass-through” entity for parts of the former hospital property, in order to unlock potential benefits which require property to be publicly owned, like down payment assistance for low-income homeowners or certain grant funds for affordable housing or public spaces. This would NOT occur until after clean-up, demolition, and development was 100% complete, and would thus create zero liability for the City or City taxpayers. In any case, it is likely that the Marquette County Land Bank would be used as a “pass-through” entity for these purposes if necessary, rather than the City of Marquette itself.

There were also some concerns raised about a City commitment in the MOU to fund an environmental assessment of the site at a cost of $52,900 – money which one resident claimed “the City doesn’t have right now” due to the City’s budgetary issues. However, that $52,900 environmental assessment has actually already been completed, and was funded entirely by the Local Brownfield Revolving Fund, a separate, relatively small fund which is directly controlled by the Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, not the City Commission. The Brownfield Revolving Fund is intended to be used specifically for expenses like this environmental assessment, and it cannot simply be “raided” by the City Commission to subsidize the City budget. No general City taxpayer dollars were spent on that environmental assessment.

As I mentioned before, I have voted against Brownfield Plans that I felt were not in the best interest of our community. However, when looking at all the facts, I have found no convincing argument that this project, as currently proposed, would not be fiscally responsible or that it would not benefit the local neighborhood and regular Marquette residents & taxpayers. To summarize:

– This project would dramatically increase City tax revenue in the long run, potentially enabling future tax cuts & improvements to City services, facilities, and infrastructure, and in the short run it would also provide millions of dollars for City infrastructure improvements in the vicinity of the former hospital property.

– It would, at a minimum, produce a significant amount of affordable and workforce housing, which is an urgent community need in Marquette, and would also potentially include other community benefits like new public spaces, senior housing, childcare, and new economic opportunities.

– Rather than “ruining the community” or negatively impacting the local neighborhood, this project would do the opposite – it would meet numerous community needs and improve local property values. Passing up this unique opportunity, and instead letting the old hospital continue to sit vacant and crumble into a blighted eyesore in the heart of Marquette, would actually ruin our community and actually reduce property values in the surrounding neighborhood.

We still need to gather more public input and hold the NMU Foundation and the future developers of the property accountable to their commitments. And as was stated multiple times at the meeting last night, this MOU is just the first step in the process and doesn’t commit the City to anything. But if done correctly, it is clear that this project would be a truly once-in-a-generation opportunity that benefits all Marquette residents, and I see no reason why the City Commission should oppose it if the commitments in this MOU are genuinely met. That is why I voted Yes on this MOU, and why I’m committed to making sure this project is done correctly and with plenty of public input.

If you have questions, concerns, or ideas about the former hospital redevelopment, please come to a future City Commission meeting or one of the future public input sessions that will be hosted by the NMU Foundation, or reach out to me directly at (906) 236-0247 or ebonsall@marquettemi.gov. I want to hear from you so I can make the best decisions possible for Marquette.

Place Iron Ore Heritage Trail Millage Renewal on August 2022 Ballot: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a common-sense Yes vote for me, in which the Commission merely voted to renew the existing Iron Ore Heritage Trail millage, and place that millage renewal on the August 2022 ballot for the approval of City voters. This is a millage renewal, so it will not raise anyone’s taxes, and it will support the incredible regional recreational asset that is the Iron Ore Heritage Trail. I would urge all City residents to join me in voting Yes on this millage in August!

02-14-2022 & 01-31-2022 Vote Explanations

February 14, 2022 Vote Explanations

First, it’s worth mentioning that this meeting was preceded by a special City Commission meeting on the potential redevelopment of the old hospital property in central Marquette – no votes were taken at that special meeting, it was merely a public informational session and discussion by the City Commission. I will make another post soon with a much more detailed discussion of the future of the old hospital property, but in short, the City is working with the NMU Foundation to craft a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) soliciting a master developer for the property and a City Commission resolution in support of the NMU Foundation’s efforts to facilitate the redevelopment of this 23-acre vacant site. This will almost certainly require a sizeable Brownfield Plan from the City, which would be paid off over a period of about 15 years. However, I am optimistic and excited about this proposed project. While many more details still need to be worked out and we need a lot more public input before voting on a Brownfield Plan, at this early stage it seems that the redevelopment of the old hospital would not only grow the City tax base and revitalize a large abandoned property which will otherwise become a blighted eyesore in the heart of Marquette, it would also meet urgent community needs for more affordable housing, lead to the creation of new public spaces, grow the local economy, and provide more than $4 million for much-needed City infrastructure repairs in that neighborhood (much more than the total of $2.5 million in cumulative tax revenue that the City would lose over the 15-year lifetime of the Brownfield Plan). More details and opportunities for public input will be coming soon, and please reach out to me at (906) 236-0247 or ebonsall@marquettemi.gov if you have any questions or concerns in the meantime.

Support Marquette County Collaborative for Recovery & Homelessness: YES (Passed 7-0)

Nick Emmendorfer of Room at the Inn speaks.

This was a vote on a letter of support from the City Commission for the Marquette County Collaborative for Recovery and Homelessness. The Collaborative is a newly formed coalition of the Great Lakes Recovery Centers (GLRC), Room at the Inn (RATI), and the Janzen House. They are applying for a major state grant to complete three large projects that would meet urgent community needs: 1) Consolidate and expand GLRC recovery and rehabilitation services at a single county-wide facility, 2) Relocate the RATI homeless shelter to a larger facility to meet the growing needs of people experiencing homelessness in Marquette, and 3) Renovate the Janzen House (a 120 year-old building in need of repairs) and expand its capacity by 3-5 beds. Homelessness and substance use are serious and growing problems in Marquette, the U.P., and the rest of the United States, and while none of these projects will solve these problems entirely or meet the needs of every single person struggling with homelessness or addiction in Marquette, receiving this state funding would truly be a game changer for the most vulnerable members of our community. Moreover, none of these projects would cost the City a dime. I wholeheartedly support the Collaborative’s efforts, and I happily voted Yes along with my colleagues.

Ore Dock Brewing Co. Brownfield Plan: YES (Passed 7-0)

Amendment to Remove 5-Year Revolving Fund Tax Capture: YES (Passed 6-1)

This was a vote on a small Brownfield Plan to help revitalize two blighted properties in downtown Marquette and facilitate the expansion of a local small business, the Ore Dock Brewing Company. The owners of the Ore Dock purchased a blighted building next door to their place of business last year, and bought a small adjacent property from the City in August 2021. The vacant building has been an eyesore in the heart of our downtown for many years, and in addition to being unable to be developed or reused for conceivably any other purpose, the former City-owned parcel (the former site of a railroad track) is heavily contaminated with mercury and lead. The owners of the Ore Dock want to demolish the blighted building, clean up the contamination on the property, and use the land to develop a beer garden and expand their current building footprint and brewing capacity. Their total private investment will be $1.5 million, and they will continue paying their current level of taxes on the property. Of this $1.5 million investment, this Brownfield Plan will allow the Ore Dock to be reimbursed for up to $871,000 in “eligible activities” that they would otherwise be unable to complete profitably – these include demolition of the blighted building, environmental assessment and clean-up, lead and asbestos abatement, and infrastructure improvements. The amount to be reimbursed (and the length of the Brownfield Plan) could be reduced considerably if the Ore Dock receives one or more grants that they have applied for to assist with this project. An extension of the City bike path will also be funded through the Brownfield Plan, connecting the Iron Ore Heritage Trail (which currently ends at Marquette Commons) with the Rosewood Walkway and the Lake Superior waterfront.

Public improvements included in the Ore Dock Brewing Co. Brownfield Plan.

The funds for this reimbursement will come from the marginal increase in property taxes paid on this property. This Brownfield Plan will have zero budgetary impact on the City (all new property tax revenue in the downtown district is captured by the DDA anyway) and has also been approved by the State of Michigan, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA). Before voting, the City Commission approved an amendment that cut out 5 years of tax capture for the Local Brownfield Revolving Fund, thereby shortening the length of the Brownfield Plan from 26 years to 21 years and reducing the total tax capture to less than $1 million – I voted Yes, and only Commissioner Hill voted No. The City Commission then unanimously approved the Brownfield Plan as amended, and despite some initial concerns, in the end I happily voted Yes. I am confident that this will prove to be a positive, impactful, and fiscally responsible move for the City of Marquette and our beautiful downtown district.

Rezone City Property on N McClellan Ave. to Conservation/Recreation: YES (Passed 7-0)

In response to a desire (and two signed petitions) from neighboring residents that the City follow through on promises made by a previous City Commission to preserve the City-owned properties on North McClellan Avenue for conservation and public recreation, the City Commission considered a motion to begin the process of rezoning this property from its current zoning status of “Municipal” to “Conservation/Recreation.” This is the same zoning designation that applies to City parks and several other green spaces in the City limits, and the property is currently a mix of wetlands and woodlands which contains several unofficial trails and is used by residents for recreational purposes, as well as being home to several large, old trees and a wide range of wildlife. Some residents had expressed a desire for a permanent conservation easement on this property, but while that is a possibility in the future, it would take considerable time and require careful planning and consideration – the creation of a conservation and recreation easement for 578 acres of the Heartwood Forest, for example, followed the rezoning of that property for Conservation/Recreation and years of discussions and planning. This rezoning in no way prevents a future conservation/recreation easement, and it is a simple step that is in line with our current Master Plan and which we can take right now to protect this land for future generations of City residents.

Create DDA Citizens Council: YES (Passed 7-0)

Map of DDA expansions over time. The proposed Third Street TIF District would be in the green area.

This was a vote to create a Downtown Development Area Citizens Council to discuss and plan for the potential creation of a new DDA Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district for the Third Street Corridor. Although Third Street is officially part of the DDA district, when the DDA expanded there in 2011, it did not extend its existing downtown TIF district to cover Third Street. The DDA, which relies mostly on local TIF revenue to support its budget, currently provides many services to Third Street. However, this essentially amounts to a subsidization of the Third Street Corridor by businesses in the rest of downtown which already pay taxes to support the DDA – all marginal increases in local property tax revenue in the existing DDA TIF district have gone to the DDA since 1992, with City general fund tax revenue from this downtown district essentially frozen at 1992 levels. This is not true of the Third Street Corridor, which pays property taxes to the City general fund at the same rate as any other part of town, and does not pay to support the DDA. This is obviously a problem for the DDA, which needs to complete several major capital projects and continue to provide numerous services to downtown Marquette in the coming years. However, the creation of a DDA TIF district on Third Street, while having little fiscal impact at first, could potentially deprive the City of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax revenue within a decade by essentially freezing the amount of local property tax revenue from Third Street going to the City general fund – any marginal increase in tax revenue would instead go to the DDA. That being said, the DDA Citizens Council will merely be a group of residents of the downtown district who will be tasked with studying the idea of a Third Street DDA TIF district and planning for how such an idea would work. Because this doesn’t commit the City to anything and public input is always valuable, I voted Yes to create this Citizens Council. However, I am very reluctant to limit future City tax revenue at a time when our Third Street Corridor is growing and the City is facing a major budget deficit – moving forward, I will eagerly await more detailed proposals from the DDA and the Citizens Council, and make the best financial decision for the City as a whole.

January 31, 2022 Vote Explanations

Approve Fire Truck Maintenance Agreement with Powell Twp: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a common-sense Yes vote to approve an agreement with Powell Township to use City personnel and equipment to help maintain their fire response vehicles. This actually makes the City money, and because our DPW has specialized equipment and skills that many small local governments lack, we already have virtually identical agreements in place with Marquette and Chocolay Townships.

Purchase New Municipal Tractor: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote to purchase a new specialized tractor for the City DPW. Some other City Commissioners and I were initially skeptical of this purchase due to its high price tag of $170,000, given that the City has already implemented significant cuts in the current FY 2022 budget and is still looking at a nearly $2 million structural deficit for FY 2023. However, City staff explained that this was the lowest bid that the City had received which met our specifications (which included various technical capabilities and the ability to operate in all weather conditions), and that it made sense to purchase this particular tractor for two additional reasons: 1) The old tractor that it would be replacing was no longer being serviced by its manufacturer, and it had become impossible to find replacement parts for this older model, and 2) the City already owned an identical tractor (the DPW maintains two municipal tractors in its motor pool), making maintenance much easier and more cost-effective because both tractors would now have interchangeable parts. It still pained me to spend this much on a tractor, but upon further review I learned that it had come in $30,000 under budget, and I found the arguments of our DPW staff to be convincing enough that I was willing to vote Yes.

Schedule Public Hearing for Ore Dock Brewing Co. Brownfield Plan: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was simply a routine vote to schedule a public hearing for the February 14, 2022 City Commission meeting on the Brownfield Plan discussed above.

Statement on 01-24-22 City Commission Work Session on Structural Budget Deficit & Finding New Revenue

Note: This statement was originally shared by Mayor Pro Tem Cody Mayer on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Jan. 26. I was planning on writing my own post about the fiscal challenges faced by the City of Marquette and the recent discussions about raising new revenue, but Mayor Pro Tem Mayer’s post precisely reflects my own thoughts on this issue. I am sharing his statement on this website as my own, while giving him full credit. I would only reiterate that the current budget (FY 2022) that the City Commission approved last fall included significant spending cuts, stopping just short of reductions in the level of City services, and then only with a significant transfer from our dwindling reserve fund. We are looking at a deficit of ~$1.5-2 million for FY 2023. The choice we now face is between: 1) raising taxes in some form until new revenue starts coming in from the various Brownfield developments around town in the next decade or so, or 2) major cuts to City services (road maintenance, public safety, parks and recreation facilities, etc.) that will also hit residents hard. Nobody wants a tax increase, but I do not believe that most City residents would prefer the draconian cuts that are the only alternative.

To the residents of Marquette,

The Marquette City Commission recently held a public work session on our challenging financial situation, and it focused heavily on the revenue side of the equation. The honest truth is that we have already cut all the “fat” we could from the current City budget, but we are still projecting a deficit this year, and the severity of this deficit is projected to increase over the next several years. So, we had to have a brutally hard conversation. The City of Marquette hasn’t increased our property tax millage rate in over a decade, but the cost of doing “business as usual” has increased substantially in that time. We spent most of this work session discussing other possible options, and there just aren’t any good ones. With the cost of virtually everything increasing, revenue going down due to the Presque Isle Power Plant closure, Michigan Tax Tribunal appeals (“dark store” tax loophole), and other factors, and state laws preventing many other solutions like local lodging or sales taxes, our options are very limited.

I want to provide some numbers as well in the interest of being as transparent as possible. A City Operating Millage increase of 1.0 mil would cost the average homeowner an additional $85 yearly/ $7.08 monthly, and the max increase of roughly 2.67 mils would translate into $226 yearly/ $18.83 monthly for the average homeowner. The max increase of $18.83 monthly may not “seem like a lot” to some, but it certainly is a lot when you factor in utility rates increasing, the cost of living going up, and the fact that many Marquette homeowners have limited incomes. Some alternatives, such as a City income tax, are also on the table, and we are still considering all of our limited options.

I don’t want to blame previous City Commissions for kicking the can down the road either – it’s unproductive and doesn’t solve the current problem before us. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate facing this issue 14 months after being elected, but this is just the reality that my colleagues and I must accept. The roots of the City’s financial problems may lie in the past, but the current City Commission bears full responsibility for solving those problems.

I know that some of you may want us to cut spending instead of raising taxes, but ask yourself this: What department’s budget would you slash? What City services and infrastructure do you think we could live without? Our parks? Our roads? Police and fire? Snow removal? At the end of the day, cutting City services isn’t a viable answer.

This was just a work session – we will have further public discussions and public forums on this topic, whether that be virtually or in-person (hard to know these days), and all City residents will have an opportunity to be heard. All I ask is for everyone to stay engaged, stay informed, and give us time to make the best decision possible. I will do my best to keep everyone informed.

12-20-2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Hemlock Park Housing Development Agreement: NO (Passed 4-3)

Site map of the Hemlock Park housing development which the City Commission voted to subsidize with $2 million in infrastructure funding on Monday night.

This was a vote on a Development Agreement between Hemlock LLC (a subsidiary of Veridea Group) and the City of Marquette, in which Hemlock LLC agreed to invest at least $5 million in a housing development on Parcel 12 of the Heartwood Property in south Marquette (a 29-acre parcel which they purchased from the City in 2018), and the City agreed to fund $2 million in infrastructure for the development, including streets, sidewalks, water and sewer pipes, and electrical service. Hemlock LLC plans to invest a total of $19 million and build 60-70 single-family, owner-occupied homes (a mix of detached houses, duplexes, and townhomes) by 2023.

I am not opposed to this development. This property has been designated for future sale and development since the City purchased the Heartwood Property in 2005, we need to grow our local tax base given the City’s budgetary issues, and I’m sure there is a market in Marquette for nice homes in the $280-$400,000 price range. I like the plans for the site – it seems like it will be a nice, walkable, family-friendly neighborhood with a playground and sledding hill, located near the NTN South Trails and the ski hill. And extending utilities to this property would also potentially make City utilities available to the NTN South Trailhead and the ski hill in the future.

However, on Monday night the City Commission was not really voting on whether this site was going to be developed. We were voting on whether the City should borrow up to $2 million to pay for the infrastructure necessary for it to be developed, a cost which developers generally pay. That is a very different question.

When the Commission was first informed of this development by email on Dec. 9, we were told that, based on “initial discussions with the developer … the houses [in this development] could be sold at the middle-income price point,” although we didn’t have official figures at that time. In fact, this language about “middle income housing” was still included in the description of this development in our agenda on Monday night. So it was a bit disappointing to learn at the work session on Dec. 13 that these houses would start at $279,000, and that only 6 of the 60-70 homes would be sold at that price point, with the rest going for $300-400,000.

I still remained open-minded and cautiously optimistic, but a week later, none of the requests that several my colleagues and I made regarding commitments on price points, deed restrictions limiting resale price and requiring principal residence occupancy, or expanding the number of sub-$300k units were included in the final Development Agreement. It also became clear that the playground and sledding hill will probably only be open to residents of the Hemlock Park development – residents of Granite Pointe, Shiras Hills, or the mobile home parks nearby probably won’t be allowed to bring their kids to the playground or go sledding there in the winter. In return, we were asked to set the cap on the City infrastructure contribution at $2 million, rather than the $1.8-1.9 million we had discussed previously.

I think it’s important for us to remember the context of the community that everyone on the City Commission was elected to serve. The City of Marquette’s poverty rate is 25%. Now, it’s unrealistic to expect that people in poverty would be able to buy a house, but even Marquette’s median household income is just $44,000 according to the 2020 U.S. Census. A home that would be affordable for a family earning 80-120% of that median income (the “workforce housing” income range) would cost about $200,000, give or take. And based on some calculations I did recently using several reputable online mortgage calculators, a family would need to earn about $100,000 per year to afford to buy any of the homes in this proposed development, which would put them in the top 15% of household incomes in the City of Marquette.

Of course, the City Commission represents all City residents, and higher-income families need homes that they can live in, too. But this infrastructure funding is essentially an indirect subsidy for this development, the cost of which is borne by ALL City taxpayers, not just Veridea/Hemlock LLC or the homeowners in this development. I just don’t feel comfortable voting to borrow $2 million to subsidize a market-rate development in which none of the units are going to be affordable for 85% of the people I was elected to represent, and in which at least 90% of the units are going to be sold for over $300,000, especially when we do not have any firm commitments on price points in the Development Agreement or any deed restrictions preventing someone from buying one of these homes and selling it for a large profit a year or two later. After all, those profits would essentially be paid for by City taxpayers. I was contacted by a couple dozen constituents about this project, all of them opposed to it, and one of them told me that, “It seems like this project is basically subsidized unaffordable housing.” I didn’t know what to say at the time, other than to admit that they had a point.

Now, I agree that market-rate housing could still help with the housing crisis that Marquette is facing, if we had units available at the bottom of the market in that $200,000, “workforce housing” price range. But we don’t – there are currently only 6 houses for sale right now in Marquette for less than $250,000. As a result, I worry that when people sell their current homes to move into these units, that could just end up being a recipe for further housing price inflation, especially with investors willing to pay in cash for well over asking price as soon as houses are hitting the market.

And while this $2 million investment would pay for itself within 10 years from new tax and utility revenue, I feel that the way that some people chose to frame this development was fundamentally wrong. Not only is not truly “middle-income housing,” but the idea that we either need to accept bad deals like this to grow our tax base OR cut City services due to our budget shortfall is the very definition of a false choice. There is an alternative – we could have chosen NOT to take on $2 million in additional debt, reserving that bonding capacity for a future project that would produce some affordable housing or yield other public benefits. Had we done that, this property would have certainly been developed anyway – the developer publicly stated as much in the meeting on Monday night – and the City tax base would have grown significantly without the need for any City subsidies. That’s not to mention the fact that growing our tax base doesn’t help very much with our current budgetary shortfall when that new tax revenue won’t offset the $2 million infrastructure investment until a decade from now, and when a large portion of our limited budget is already devoted to debt service.

For all these reasons, I voted No, along with Mayor Pro Tem Mayer and Commissioner Hanley. The rest of my colleagues voted Yes, and the Development Agreement passed 4-3.

Climate Action Resolution: YES (Passed 7-0)

Severe damage to the old Lakeshore Blvd. from “50-year” winter storms in 2017 and 2019.

This was a vote on a resolution which commits the City of Marquette to eliminating the City’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and creating a Climate Action Work Plan to achieve this goal. This goal is in line with the State of Michigan’s goal of achieving statewide carbon neutrality by 2050, and the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (which will require the world to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050).

This was a campaign promise that I made when I was running for City Commission in 2019, and I was incredibly proud to see this resolution pass unanimously on Monday night. I was also humbled and inspired to see a surge of grassroots support for City action on climate change from City residents, with dozens of City residents of all ages and backgrounds showing up at multiple City Commission meetings to make their voices heard, and dozens more calling and emailing the Commission urging us to approve this resolution.

It’s also important to note that there are several years of history behind this resolution, and that climate change has real costs to the City of Marquette, and by extension, to all Marquette residents and taxpayers. In 2017, 584 City residents signed a petition urging the City Commission to pass a resolution like this one. The Commission declined to do so, although some Commissioners supported the idea. Since then, Lakeshore Blvd. and Shiras Park have both been destroyed by “50-year storms” which are no longer 50-year storms – if we do nothing, the “gales of November” will come earlier and earlier and be more powerful each year. Extreme winter weather, from heavy lake effect snow to the “polar vortex,” will also become more common. That means millions of additional taxpayer dollars spent on infrastructure repairs and snow removal. It means we may no longer be able to enjoy our lakeshore the way we do now. We have already had to spend millions of state and local tax dollars on relocating Lakeshore Blvd. to protect vital City infrastructure and reduce erosion of our public lakeshore. Millions more will surely have to be spent by the City in the future if we do not reduce emissions quickly enough to avoid the worst potential effects of climate change.

Major coastal flooding in Marquette due to historically high lake levels and a severe winter storm.

To me, that is an unacceptable outcome, and we must do our part to avoid it. To be fair, the City has already made a lot of progress on climate change adaptation (preparing for climate change) and mitigation (reducing emissions to limit climate change), but we don’t have the luxury of sitting on our laurels – we can and should be doing much more to reduce emissions and prepare for a changing climate.

Join National Opioids Settlement: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a motion to join a national legal settlement in which 4 major Big Pharma companies are being required to pay $26 billion in damages to individuals and state and local governments for their role in the national opioid epidemic. Clearly the opioid crisis has severely impacted our community and our country. In 2016, there were 42,000 opioid overdose deaths nationwide – in 2021 there were over 75,000. Opioid overdoses have exceeded car accidents as a cause of death in the United States for the past 3 years. The reality is that this is largely a manufactured epidemic. These four companies are certainly not the only entities that are responsible for the opioid epidemic that is afflicting our country, the U.P., and Marquette, but they are responsible and need to be held accountable. $26 billion is certainly a large sum, but no amount of money can ever compensate for the damage that opioid drugs have done, and will continue to do, to our society. I felt that it was critically important that we join this settlement in the interest of justice and helping to repair some of the damage that opioids have done to Marquette and the people who call it home, and I voted Yes as a result.

12-13-2021 City Commission Work Session Summary & Vote Explanations

A site map of the Hemlock Park housing development proposed at Parcel 12 of the Heartwood Property by Veridea Group and their subsidiary, Hemlock LLC.

12-13-21 Work Session Notes

Below you can find my explanations of the two votes I took at Monday night’s City Commission meeting, but first I want to provide my notes on the public work session that preceded the meeting, during which we discussed a proposed housing development in south Marquette. This development, proposed by Hemlock LLC (a subsidiary of Veridea Group), would take place on former Parcel 12 of the Heartwood Property – this 29-acre parcel was designated for sale when the City first acquired the 2,200-acre Heartwood Property in 2005, and prior to my election in 2019, the City Commission sold it to Veridea Group for $209,000 (100% of its assessed value) in 2018. In early conversations with the City, the developers stated that they intended to build about 60 modular, owner-occupied single-family homes which would be affordable for middle-income families. To achieve this, they were asking that the City finance the infrastructure for the site, which would amount to an indirect subsidy of about $40,000 per unit (all of which they guaranteed would be passed on to homebuyers). This would also make City utilities available to the NTN South Trailhead and the campground and ski hill further south.

Here is some of the new information that we learned about this proposed development at the public work session on Monday. First I’ll list what I see as some of the positive aspects of this proposed development, followed by the negatives.

Positives

  1. The project would produce 60-70 owner-occupied homes (a range of single-family homes, duplexes, and townhomes) at a time when Marquette desperately needs more available housing of all types and at a wide range of price points. We certainly need more low-income and workforce housing, but there are also currently only four 3-bedroom homes for sale in Marquette at any price, and only seven homes for sale in Marquette for less than $300,000.
  2. This development would produce new tax and utility revenue for the City at a time when we are facing significant structural deficits. In fact, City staff project that the proposed $1.8 million City infrastructure investment for this project would pay for itself in less than 10 years.
  3. This development would not involve Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF), meaning the taxes from the development would go straight to the City budget, rather than being captured for 15-20 years to pay off a Brownfield Plan.
  4. The site plan intentionally sets aside 10 acres (most of the eastern half of the property) for permanent conservation, including the old-growth hemlock stand from which the development takes its name, “Hemlock Park.”
  5. The NTN is fully supportive of the project, and the NTN “Mossy Connector” trail that runs through the property would be partially re-routed but would be preserved. Again, the NTN could also potentially get plumbing and running water at their South Trailhead as a result of this project.
  6. The developers plan to include a lot of human infrastructure in the proposed development – a playground, a sledding hill, trails through the woods, sidewalks, etc. They want it to be a walkable, family-friendly neighborhood.
  7. There would be a condo association for this development which would severely restrict and potentially prohibit short-term rentals in this new neighborhood.
  8. Even if most of these homes would not be affordable for the average Marquette resident, most homebuyers would probably be locals who currently own a “starter” home in Marquette, or empty-nesters looking to downsize. When they sell their current homes, that would theoretically open up those more affordable homes for sale, allowing families with more modest incomes to become homeowners. There is significant (if disputed) empirical evidence for this “musical chairs effect” in other housing markets, although this evidence is mostly limited to large metro areas.
  9. This project would not have any impact on utility rates for current ratepayers in the rest of the City – in fact, it would improve system-wide reliability and sustainability, paying for itself in 10 years and for its long-term maintenance and replacement costs in about another 10 years.
  10. This project would use high-quality modular construction, which allows housing to be built more quickly and less expensively at the same level of quality as a traditional stick-built home. This would be a great proof of concept for modular housing in Marquette, and modular construction has the potential to produce workforce housing that is genuinely affordable for working-class families earning 80-120% of the Area Median Income (AMI).

Negatives

  1. Shortly before the meeting, we learned that the “middle-income” affordability component of this project was essentially being eliminated due to financial constraints. The units in this project would all be in the $275-$400,000 range – certainly less expensive than a lot of the new construction on Lakeshore Blvd., but not truly affordable for most middle-income families.
  2. The homes in this development would start at $279,000. To be honest, I would still be quite excited about this project if all 60-70 units would be available at $279,000 – we desperately need housing, and as previously mentioned, there are only 7 houses for sale for less than $300,000 in Marquette right now. However, only about 6 of the 60-70 units will likely be sold at that lower price – the rest would most likely be over $300,000.
  3. In the draft Development Agreement for this project, there are currently no provisions guaranteeing that these homes will actually be sold at the price points listed above. There is also no mention of deed restrictions to limit resale value or to require primary residence occupancy for these homes, both of which are fairly standard practices for new developments in hot housing markets like Marquette’s. The developer stated that they would consider deed restrictions and making some kind of commitment about price points in the final Development Agreement, but they were very candid about their reluctance and reservations about doing so. Without these commitments, even after the City invests $1.8 million into infrastructure for this project, there would still be no guarantee that the homes would actually be sold at these price points, and nothing preventing the buyers from using them as investment properties or reselling them a year or two after purchase at a much higher price. This raises serious concerns for me about the long-term affordability of these homes (most of which will not be affordable for the vast majority of Marquette residents to begin with).
  4. Based on some calculations I did using https://www.mortgagecalculator.org/, these homes would be affordable for families earning about $100-$140,000 per year, and only about 6 of these homes (those priced at $279,000) could conceivably be affordable for families earning less than $100,000 per year. Now, these families certainly need homes, too, and I was elected to represent everyone in Marquette, regardless of their income. But am I comfortable essentially applying a $1.8 million, $40,000-per-unit subsidy to this project (using City taxpayer dollars) so households earning six-figure incomes can buy homes for slightly lower prices? I don’t know yet – it certainly makes me feel very uneasy.
The property in question is Parcel 12, top-center in the map of the Heartwood Forest Property above.

To be honest, when I first heard about this project and was told that some portion of these homes were going to be affordable for “middle-income” households, I was very excited. 60-70 genuinely affordable homes within the 80-120% AMI workforce housing price range (i.e., anywhere from about $170-$210,000), or even slightly above that price range – say, $250,000 – would genuinely make a huge difference in Marquette. This is achievable with the right developer and combination of public supports and policies – it has been done in many other communities, in Michigan and across the country, that are facing similar housing crises. However, after the work session on Monday night, I was frankly disappointed.

Now, there is a strong “lesser of two evils” argument to be made here. We do genuinely need more housing in Marquette just to maintain our current population and retain the young families we already have. And without City financing for the infrastructure for this project, Veridea could just build the same development, but likely with fewer community benefits and charging at least $40,000 more per unit, so that even those handful of $279,000 homes would instead go for over $300,000. After all, Veridea already owns the property, and they can do anything with the property that is compliant with its Mixed-Use zoning. The City’s leverage here is limited – we can’t dictate what happens with this property like we could if we still owned it and were putting out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to prospective housing developers. And although these homes would not truly be affordable for most middle-income families in Marquette, they would free up dozens of less expensive homes for purchase – that “musical chairs effect” I mentioned earlier.

That being said, without a solid inventory of at least a few dozen genuinely affordable workforce housing units for sale at the bottom end of the owner-occupied housing market, I worry that this process of “musical chairs” will not actually help very much, as current homeowners looking to “move up” into a nicer, more expensive house will still want to take full advantage of the hot housing market and sell their houses for as much as possible (i.e., a lot more than most Marquette residents can afford). It’s also unclear how many of these vacated homes will be bought by locals and actual families moving to the area, and how many will be snapped up as soon as they hit the market by wealthy out-of-town investors willing to pay well over asking price and in cash. I agree that new market-rate housing development can have a real positive impact on housing availability and affordability, but only in combination with new affordable workforce housing development.

I still don’t know how I’m going to vote on this proposal – it will likely be brought back to the City Commission for a vote next Monday, Dec. 20 – but I hope you found this summary to be informative. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts – you can reach me at (906) 236-0247, ebonsall@marquettemi.gov, or on Facebook.

12-13-21 Vote Explanations

Resolution to Protect Democracy & Promote Ballot Access: YES (Passed 7-0)

This resolution was brought to the City Commission by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, and was similar to resolutions that were recently passed by the elected councils in Munising, Ishpeming, and Negaunee Twp. This nonpartisan resolution affirms the City Commission’s support for the voting rights reforms approved by 67% of Michigan voters (and 76% of City of Marquette voters) through Proposition 3 in 2018, and for state-level efforts to expand access to absentee voting, early voting, and in-person voting on Election Day. It also expresses the City Commission’s strong opposition to legislation which is being considered by the State Legislature in Lansing which would restrict ballot access and voting rights in Michigan. I happily voted Yes. Here is a link to the video of the statement I made on this resolution at Monday’s meeting: https://youtu.be/ejbjEqStv0Y?t=3452

Public Works & Utilities Labor Agreement: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote on a new 3-year contract for the City’s DPW and utilities employees – there are 54 unionized City employees in this bargaining unit, AFSCME Local #1852. The contract includes a 2% raise in the first year, with wage reopeners in the second and third years, and some other minor adjustments to compensation. The total net cost of approving this contract was $68,000, which the City Commission had already budgeted for in the FY2022 City budget. Our hardworking DPW employees are certainly worth more – they do a thankless and difficult job extremely well – but overall I felt that this was a fair and fiscally responsible contract given the City’s current budgetary constraints, and I voted Yes.

11-29-2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Hi folks – here are my vote explanations from the November 29, 2021 Marquette City Commission meeting. You can watch the meeting video at https://youtu.be/-UDB2SIFZn8 and please don’t hesitate to reach out to share any of your questions or concerns with me at (906) 236-0247 or ebonsall@marquettemi.gov.

Approve Intent to Sell Resolution for Mixed-Income Affordable Housing Development on McClellan Ave: No Action Taken

Withdraw McClellan Ave. Development from Consideration, & Seek Affordable Housing Development at Other Sites in the City of Marquette: YES (Passed 7-0)

A site plan for the proposed mixed-income affordable housing development on N McClellan Ave., which was not approved by the City Commission on Monday night.

My apologies in advance for this lengthy vote explanation. This was one of the most difficult votes I have taken in my 2 years on the City Commission, as I felt that I was being pulled in two conflicting directions and forced to choose between “the lesser of two evils.” In February 2021, Renovare Development independently approached the City of Marquette with an offer to buy 8.1 acres of City-owned property on N McClellan Avenue, between West Avenue and Elder Drive, to develop it into affordable, mixed-income housing. This proposal was still being fleshed out at the time, and was not brought forward for City Commission consideration until the Ad Hoc Housing Committee had released our Final Report (in June 2021) and the City Commission had formally endorsed the Housing Committee’s Final Report and policy recommendations (which did not occur until last week at our special meeting on Nov. 22). The City Commission did not have any more details about this proposal than the general public did until a few days before Monday’s meeting.

Contrary to some baseless and completely false rumors and conspiracy theories being tossed around on social media and during public comment at last night’s meeting, there was never any “behind-closed-doors” deal between Renovare and the City, no preexisting relationship between Renovare and the City Manager or any City Commissioners, no intent to “pull one over” on the public or “ram this through” without public input, and zero recommendations in the Ad Hoc Housing Committee’s Final Report regarding this specific development proposal. Renovare was just one of dozens of housing experts who gave a brief presentation to the Ad Hoc Housing Committee more than a year ago, and their presence in Marquette predates the Housing Committee and this development proposal by at least 6 years, as they were a key player in the redevelopment of the old orphanage into the Grandview Marquette low-income housing complex.

In any case, the development proposal that we were presented with last night would have included 69 total owner-occupied housing units, including a mix of small single-family homes, duplexes, fourplexes, and rowhouses. At least 50% (35) of these units would have been affordable for households earning 60-120% of Marquette’s Area Median Income (AMI), with Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) used to provide gap financing to get prices down to affordable levels, and deed restrictions imposing long-term affordability and potentially principal residence requirements for the affordable units. The proposed Brownfield Plan would have been paid off within 8-12 years, and would have been used to obtain affordable price points, not merely line the developer’s pockets.

On the surface, this seems like exactly the kind of affordable housing development that our community so desperately needs – and in virtually any other location in Marquette, it would have been. Truly, I wish we could “copy and paste” this development into 4 or 5 different vacant or undeveloped properties that exist throughout Marquette. However, the crucial complication with this development was that it would have resulted in the destruction of 8 acres of pristine woodlands that have long been a de facto park for local residents – this understandably generated intense public opposition, with over 100 people attending the City Commission meeting to express their concerns, many of which were completely valid. In hindsight, the City was also not as transparent as we should have been, and the proposed public engagement process between the developer and the community should have taken place before any proposal was brought before the Commission, not after. Finally, the deciding factor for me was that we learned at the meeting that 10-12 years ago, when the City Commission voted to extend McClellan Avenue through this property from Fair Avenue to Wright Street, then-Mayor John Kivela and most of the other City Commissioners promised the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods that the remaining woodlands and wetlands on either side of the road would remain undeveloped and would continue to be zoned for Conservation/Recreation. At some point, the zoning of the property changed to Municipal because it was City-owned, but I still felt that the Commission needed to honor those promises that were made to the neighborhood residents in the fairly recent past. To do otherwise would have severely undermined public trust in the Commission and the City as a whole. That is why, after careful consideration, I voted for Commissioner Stonehouse’s motion to withdraw this proposed development from consideration for this particular site, and to continue City efforts to work with developers and build public-private partnerships to develop affordable housing on other vacant, blighted, or undeveloped sites within the City of Marquette.

That being said, while I stand by this vote as the best decision available to the Commission last night, I am far from happy about it. In fact, I am deeply frustrated, and I remain determined to continue working with my fellow Commissioners, City staff, and community partners to promote affordable housing development in Marquette – not 5 or 10 years from now, not even 2 years from now, but right NOW. There is a very real and very urgent housing affordability crisis that is threatening the livability and the future social and economic wellbeing of this community. This Commission has had many City residents share their stories about struggling to find decent, affordable housing with us, including at our meeting just last week. We have also been presented with a mountain of overwhelming data that further proves that we are experiencing a housing crisis. In the coming months and years, the City Commission needs to implement the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Housing Committee and actively pursue other near-term opportunities for affordable housing development, and I will do everything in my power as a City Commissioner to make that happen.

To be completely honest, this issue is very personal for me. I grew up in a little blue house on Woodland Avenue (which is now worth about 3x what my parents paid for it 30 years ago), and when I was a kid I played in these woods and the many other little pockets of nature scattered throughout the neighborhood – on this property between West Avenue and McClellan, in the woods between Woodland and the Redeemer church parking lot, and I frequently gave my parents a heart attack sledding down the ravine west of Woodland. There were a lot of other working-class families with kids in the neighborhood, and you always got a lot of good candy on Halloween.

I say all that because I wish my family could’ve stayed there. When we fell on hard times like a lot of families did during the Recession, and my parents got divorced, we wanted to stay in our home, but we couldn’t afford to. So over the next 6 years, we moved 4 or 5 times to try and find housing that we could afford anywhere in Marquette, and it was often a struggle. If something like this proposed development had existed at that time, maybe we could’ve stayed in that neighborhood that we loved so much.

Then, after I graduated from college and got a job in Marquette in 2019, it took me 6 months and a lot of luck to find an affordable one-bedroom apartment in Marquette. Ironically, although I’m an elected City Commissioner, I worry every day that someday soon my wife and I will get priced out of our hometown that we both grew up in and want to stay in. Right now, Marquette’s biggest export is our young people, followed closely by families with children and retirees on limited incomes, and the lack of affordable housing is largely to blame for that. Everyone says we don’t want to become Traverse City – well, working-class people of all ages are the bedrock of our community, they are the key to our community’s future, and if we don’t get some significant affordable housing development in Marquette very soon, we will lose those people and we won’t get them back, and Marquette will become a hollowed-out shell of what it once was, a community for tourists and the wealthy. If you don’t believe that, just go ask the folks in Traverse City.

Where are our children and grandchildren going to live in Marquette? Or our retired parents and grandparents on fixed incomes? Or the thousands of low- and middle-income employees who work at local businesses and provide vital services to our community? What about the NMU students and employees who also form part of the bedrock of Marquette? And while we need to think about homeowners, every single City Commissioner was also elected to represent the majority of City residents who (like myself and most of my family members in Marquette) are renters and still pay taxes indirectly through their rent. What about the need for affordable rental housing for them, which was not part of the proposed development on McClellan?

There will be no easy answers to these questions, but 3 things are clear:

1) There is an affordable housing crisis in Marquette that requires urgent action by the City;

2) Thanks to the Ad Hoc Housing Committee, we now know of many specific actions that we can take to address that crisis; and

3) None of those actions will be universally popular, and all of them will require compromise and realism from both City residents and their elected officials.

To those who are disappointed by this vote, I completely understand and I am truly sorry, but please know that this is certainly not the end of City efforts to promote housing affordability – rather, it is just the end of the beginning.

Brownfield Reimbursement Agreement for Vault Marquette Project: NO (Passed 6-1)

This was a vote on a Reimbursement Agreement essentially laying out some additional details regarding the Brownfield TIF reimbursement schedule for the Vault Marquette luxury hotel, residential, and parking garage development on Lakeshore Boulevard. You may recall that the Brownfield Plan for this development was considered at a previous City Commission meeting in July 2021, and passed 5-2 – there was strong public opposition to the project, and I was one of the two Commissioners who voted No at that time. As a result, although this Reimbursement Agreement was arguably a procedural step in the process of allowing the Vault Marquette project to move forward, it was part and parcel with the Brownfield Plan that I voted against just a few months ago, and as a result I did not feel that I could support it in good conscience. That is why I was the sole No vote on this item last night. The City Commission will be presented with a Development Agreement and an Operational Agreement for this project (the final steps in the approval process) sometime in January or February 2022, and I am curious to see what is included in those final agreements.

Approve Police Labor Agreement: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote for a new contract with the union representing the Marquette Police Dept. This contract was very similar to other contracts that the Commission has recently approved for other City bargaining units: 2 years in length, with a 2% raise in Year 1 and a wage reopener in Year 2, and some minor compensation and personnel adjustments. The modest increase in personnel expenses ($58,800) resulting from this contract is within the City’s current fiscal constraints and has already been incorporated into the FY22 City budget. I grew up in a law enforcement family, and my mother worked as a secretary for MPD for 30+ years and also served as a union vice president, so I have seen firsthand the invaluable contributions and sacrifices that our MPD personnel and their families make to keep this community safe. Frankly, our MPD officers and support staff are worth a lot more, but given the tight City budget this year, I thought this was a fair contract and a common-sense Yes vote.