Mental Health and Public Safety Millage is a Political Hotbutton in Ann Arbor

In November 2017, Washtenaw County voters were asked to vote on a proposal for a tax increase. The title of the proposal was "Washtenaw County Community Mental Health and Public Safety Preservation Millage". Voters overwhelmingly approved this proposal, with 63.89% of Washtenaw County voters voting Yes. In Ann Arbor, the number was even higher, with 72.58% of voters voting Yes. And yet, in Ann Arbor, this issue remains a political hotbutton, with several candidates campaigning on the issue in the Democratic primary in August of 2018. It was even a campaign issue in the general election in November 2018, a full year after the proposal was so thoroughly approved, with successful first ward candidate Jeff Hayner mentioning it in a campaign mailing, and noting that his opponent (me) had not made a public statement on the issue.

With the vote taken and passed, why is this still an issue? Why is this not considered a settled quesion?

It has to do with an unusual provision in the proposal, in which some of the money raised by the new tax would be returned to certain municipalities - including Ann Arbor - with no restrictions on how it should be spent. This means that these municipalities must decide for themselves how to spend this portion of the money. Ann Arbor's city council is divided on the issue, and the latest election has shifted the balance of opinion.

The reason that this rebate exists at all is that a portion of this tax increase will go to fund the county sheriff's department. However, some municipalities within the county maintain their own police departments, and do not make use of the sheriff's department. Ann Arbor is one such municipality. Rather than make the municipalities pay for services they are not receiving, this proposal specified that the county would take a portion of the money received, and return it to these self-policing municipalities.

Let's consider what's at stake. According to the ballot language, the tax will last for eight years. Each year, 24% of the money it raises will go back to municipalities, who will take a share based on their 2016 population. This means that Ann Arbor will get 57.74% of 24% of whatever the county brings in.

According to the ballot language, the millage is estimated to bring in $15,433,608.00 in the first year (and presumably, similar amounts in subsequent years). So, the amount of money that the city stands to take in from this millage in the first year is $15,433,608.00 × 24% × 57.74% = $2,138,770.20. If the millage brought in the same amount of money for all of its eight years, the total amount available over the eight years would be $17,110,161.60.

What should the city do with this windfall?

The question was considered by the city council at its meeting on July 3, 2017 -- that is, four months before the millage itself was voted on. At that time, the city council passed a resolution to use the money in this way:

  • 20% to improve Pedestrian Safety (e.g., Enforcement Augmentation, Crosswalk Improvements, RRFBs, Streetlights) (operating & capital)
  • 40% to effect the goals of the Affordable Housing Needs Assessment (a/k/a Washtenaw County Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis) and to increase Workforce Housing (operating & capital) with guidance by the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board
  • 40% to effect the goals of Ann Arbor's Climate Action Plan (operating & capital)

After the county voted to pass the millage, the city council considered the matter again on June 18, 2018, and passed a resolution reaffirming the same spending priorities.

The votes on this resolution were thus:
Voting yes: Warpehoski, Taylor, Grand, Krapohl, Westphal, Ackerman, Smith, Frenzel
Voting no: Lumm, Kailasapathy, Eaton.

So, that settles the issue, right?

Wrong. As Mayor Christopher Taylor stated the first time the resolution was being considered, "This resolution does not commit the city to anything. It is an expression of intent." These resolutions have not actually caused the city to allocate any money for these purposes.

On October 15, 2018, the city council considered a budget amendment that would actually commit the city to spend some of the millage's money on climate action. This was the first time that the city council has made an attempt to allocate any of that money. Since this was a budget amendment, the city charter required that it be passed with eight votes. During debate, it became clear that the amendment would not get the eight votes necessary, and so councilmember Chip Smith (D-Ward 2) moved that the amendment be postponed. The council agreed to this.

This budget amendment will be considered again on Monday, November 19, 2018.

This might be a good time to consider why some of the councilmembers oppose this spending, so that we the constituents might be able to let our representatives know what we think about the matter.

Councilmember Jane Lumm (I-Ward 2) put it thus: "The millage was a mental health and public safety millage and yet in Ann Arbor, the plan is to spend a significant amount - over two million dollars a year - on climate action programs, affordable housing, and pedestrian safety. There was no mention of any of those uses in the ballot language." She said this during debate on a resolution to spend $20,000 to take a scientifically-valid survey to determine how voters think the money should be spent.

Lumm's sentiments echo those expressed by Jack Eaton (D-Ward 4) on his campaign website when he ran for mayor in August 2018, where he stated that he wanted to "focus the Mental Health Millage funds on mental health services".

Ali Ramlawi (D-Ward 5) put it this way: "Many residents, including myself, do not agree with City Council members who voted to commit the rebated tax dollars from this millage to fund affordable housing, pedestrian safety and climate action."

In his campaign postcard, Jeff Hayner (D-Ward 1) stated that he "favors spending mental health millage money on mental health services to combat the local opioid crisis, as well as domestic violence and teen suicide."

So, on the one hand, the proposal is to use the money for climate change, affordable housing, and pedestrian safety. On the other hand, the proposal is to use the money for mental health. Are these ideas even at odds?

Under the plan laid out in the resolutions passed by past councils, 40% of the rebate money (approximately $855,508.08 per year, or $6,844,064.64 over eight years) would be spent on affordable housing.

Aubrey Patiño, executive director of Avalon Housing discussed spending the money on affordable housing, saying "there's no diverting from the original intent of the millage here." She explained this in an email to me:

Supportive housing offered by Avalon provides a range of services that fall directly into the category of promoting mental health and public safety. These include, but are not limited to, case management, care coordination, linkage and referral to behavioral health services, medication management, mutual aid groups, Peer supports offered by Certified Recovery Coaches, 24/7 on call crisis response, close partnerships with [Washtenaw County's Community Mental Health program]/[Ann Arbor Police Department], and in home primary care offered by Packard Health, who then link people to their mental health services. Therefore, the model of supportive housing we offer is in line with the millage recommendations. The millage rebate would directly fund these services. It's a win/win.

So, if the city is not going to spend the money on climate action, affordable housing, and pedestrian safety, what will it spend the money on?

Over the last couple of days, I reached out to several councilmembers who had expressed the opinion that this money should be spent on mental health. None were able to talk with me at length, so I haven't gotten a very detailed plan from them. Jeff Hayner texted me "The mental Health is looking like a return to county or other related public safety issues re opioid crisis."

Obviously, more conversation is necessary. Most of these decisions will be made at the time that the next city budget is passed, which will likely be in May.

However, the battle lines are already drawn, and one piece of this question will be considered on Monday, November 19, 2018. On the agenda are two competing climate action proposals. The reconsidered proposal is the one that was postponed from Council meeting on October 15, 2018. This is the proposal to use the millage rebate money for climate action. Also on the agenda is an alternative proposal sponsored by councilmembers Jack Eaton (D-Ward 4) and Anne Bannister (D-Ward 1). The alternative proposal would fund most, but not all, of the work plan laid out in the original proposal, but would do so out of the general fund, rather than the mental health and public safety millage. Let's compare them side-by-side.

Reconsidered proposal New Eaton/Bannister Proposal
Net Zero Affordable Housing - $200,000 to cover the cost of solar, equipment electrification, and any unplanned energy upgrades on affordable housing in which the Ann Arbor Housing Commission has an interest. Net Zero Affordable Housing - The $200,000.00 will cover the cost of solar, equipment electrification, and any unplanned energy upgrades on the Commission’s affordable housing units at Broadway. These units are slated for retrofitting this fiscal year. The Commission is assembling an RFP for a sewer replacement and upgrades (e.g., installing insulation). This already-planned and -approved work presents a perfect opportunity for immediate, additional investments to approach net zero energy
Professional Development - $14,000 to ensure that all staff in the Office have the proper training and supplemental skills required to deliver high-quality programs and services as outlined in the work plan.
Educational and Community Outreach/ Engagement Materials - $10,000 to develop, design, and disseminate sustainability and climate-related messaging, education, and engagement materials.
Resilience Hubs - $10,000 seed funding to start the first Ann Arbor resilience hub which will help foster community social cohesion while also providing resources for the community in advance of, during, and post disaster. We are also actively seeking funding to support full-scale implementation of this program.
Municipal Clean and Renewable Strategy Implementation - $25,000 to support feasibility studies, legal analyses, and any other pre-work necessary before implementing large-scale solar installations on city properties (see the draft strategy for 100% Clean & Renewable Municipal Operations, attached, for more information).
EV Charging Stations - $15,000 to purchase 3 EV charging stations for municipal and public use (note: we have already budgeted the resources to purchase 3 electric vehicles for the City’s fleet). Electric Vehicle (“EV”) Charging Stations - The $15,000.00 will allow the purchase of 3 EV charging stations for municipal and public use. As background, City Council approved a resolution to fund the City’s first 3 EVs at the October 15th meeting. There is not, however, funding available to install the charging infrastructure. This budget adjustment would remedy that omissions and ensure the City’s first 3 EVs may operate upon delivery.
Staffing - $39,000 to support the incremental staffing costs required to implement the aforementioned programs
Total: $313,000 Total: $215,000
Funded by the mental health and public safety millage. Funded by the General Fund Reserve Balance.

None of the councilmembers I reached out to had time to explain why the alternative proposal omitted the line items that it did.

But what does seem clear is that certain councilmembers do not agree that the mental health millage rebate money should be spent on this climate action proposal. Among them are Eaton, Bannister, Hayner, and Ramlawi. Elizabeth Nelson (D-Ward 4) told me she was conflicted on the issue. Furthermore, Lumm has expressed the opinion that the voters should be asked. Indeed, at this same meeting on Monday, November 19, 2018, the council will reconsider councilmember Lumm's resolution to spend $20,000 on a scientifically valid survey to settle the question of how the voters want this money spent.

But whatever happens on Monday, this conversation is far from over. How do you think the city should spend the approximately two million dollars per year that it will get from the mental health and public safety millage rebate? You can contact your city council representative to let them know what you think.

Updated 2018-11-19 9:51am to include a citation for Ann Arbor's share of the rebate to municipalities.